As a long-time game master, I have pondered the reasons why some campaigns work over the long-term (and why some campaigns never get off the ground). There are the usual subjects — good game content, adequate prep, interesting players, and so on — but none of these really address how a game master can sustain an ongoing campaign that maintains the interest and involvement of the players.
On this, I speak from experience. For the past five years, I have been conducting a weekly game using the same characters (and players) in a campaign. The setting is a home brew world using D&D 3.5 rules. Even with the occasional night off, I have game mastered over 250 sessions for this campaign, each session lasting a minimum of five hours. And we have no signs of stopping. This has been a tremendous commitment for myself as well as the players (who have grown from the original five to eight regular attendees).
So, how is this done?
I rely on two key factors: agency and immersion.
Agency is the ability of the player characters to make the substantive decisions that affect their lives and actions. In a “high agency” campaign, the player characters decide what adventures to take on or what challenges to avoid. Even if the GM has prepared an elaborate dungeon, a high agency campaign would allow the player characters to decide whether to explore it or not.
The GM has tremendous tools at their disposal to coerce the player characters to do what ever the GM wants. In a “low agency” game, the GM guides the players through whatever tasks or challenges that may occur. More often than not, this style of gaming relies on set scenes and pre-determined outcomes for every encounter. This style is like running a railroad, ensuring that everyone arrives at the same destination at the same time but with little choice along the way.
The main advantage of a high agency game is that the players (and player characters) become more invested in their roles. Since they are the main decision-makers in the campaign, they feel a strong sense of ownership. This encourages them to explore the possibilities of an open-ended world and build a sense of purpose.
A high agency game also provides consequences (good or bad) for the decisions that the player characters make. Just because the player characters have agency does not mean that they get what they want. They have the opportunity to make real choices that affect their future. The GM still runs the show
The other key factor is immersion.
Deciding what constitutes immersion can be problematic. For some, a high immersion game requires costumes, distinct character voices, custom miniatures and so on. But this is not the case.
In the theatre, actors rely on the suspension of disbelief among audience members to work their magic. The same goes for the GM who seeks to run a high immersion game.
For the players to shed their daily lives and become player characters, the GM must rely on their individual and collective imaginations. The GM needs to spark the creative process and provide an atmosphere where the players believe they are part of a larger world, one where they have a place and a history.
Player character backgrounds become more important. The goal of the player is to develop their character. How can you know where you are going if you do not know where you are coming from?
To do this, I ask my players to decide their family situation and their reason for embarking on the adventuring life. Often, the two are interlinked. A dull family situation, the (un)likelihood of inheritance, parental expectations and sibling rivalries (or alliances) can round out the starting character. Likewise, the reason for their career choice might provide an ongoing character motivation, such as revenge, glory-seeking, or the need to survive.
Once the background is set, I ask the players to decide the appearance of their characters. Differences in character attributes or ability scores need to be taken into consideration, of course, but the goal is to have the players visualize their characters. A written description or picture is helpful in this regard.
A high immersion world puts a significant burden on the GM. Maps, whether it is a local area or the known world, are very helpful. Likewise, creating ephemera to support your campaign, such as handbills, pamphlets or notices, is another way of creating a high immersion setting.
The most important tool I use in creating a high immersion campaign is the campaign gazetteer. This is like the encyclopedia of the campaign, organized by entry. I include a synopsis of the player character’s career to date, key non-player characters, geography, and a short history of the world (as it is known). As the campaign progresses, the gazetteer grows in detail and scope.
As a reference document for the players, the gazetteer should only include the information that is popularly known or is known to the characters. While I do hide some clues that reward the careful reader, you can also include common gossip or speculations to give your entries flavor.
A high immersion game is one where the player characters become immersed in both the action and the story arc. A low immersion game, like chess, can still be enjoyable and intense. However, there is no continuing story or personal identification with the chess pieces.
If you can achieve both high agency and high immersion, you will have built a campaign for the long run. Both factors are key to achieving high player satisfaction, which is the only thing that can sustain player interest.
You will find that giving the players real choices will stimulate their thinking about what possibilities may lie ahead. Likewise, a world where they can fully role-play their characters will encourage them to explore the lesser known parts and places.
What is your campaign like? Is it more of a low-agency game where the player characters are largely standers-by or do your characters make real choices? Do you put effort into setting the scene and building real relationships with non-player characters? Or is it really just a series of dungeon crawls?
Tell me what ideas you might have to engage the players in a high-agency, high immersion campaign.