Use a Variety of Session Styles
No one wants to come to game after game knowing that they’ll be doing the same thing they always do. Whether your bread and butter scenario involves a dungeon delve or a mystery of the week, it will grow stale if you don’t change things up from time to time. In games with a run time of months or years this is especially true, so change up your game’s focus occasionally. The following are a few proven frameworks to build your sessions around.
- Plot-Driven Scenarios: The PCs follow a clue or path that will take them to the next part of the plotline. The session is as much about learning new information that impacts future sessions as it is about overcoming specific obstacles. When running a campaign with large story arcs and lots of sub plots you’ll end up making this type of session often, as they are what drive your storylines forward.
- Character Growth Episodes: One or more PCs are confronted with an element from their backstory or a decision they made earlier in the campaign. The focus of the session is about how (or if) they resolve the issue. These sessions will focus on individual players a lot more than usual. Providing character growth opportunities to everyone over the course of the campaign significantly increases their investment in its outcome.
- Free-Form Explorations: When the heroes are between critical missions, it can be tempting to “thusly” through to the next piece of plot,* but that can also be an opportunity for less scripted play. When adventurers come to town for rest, they will often split up and do their own things: visiting the blacksmith for upkeep, providing services in the temple, or shopping for new magic items with their latest loot. This gives you a lot of interactions with minor NPCs to play with. If you have done a good job building a framework for your world, then it should be easy to create intriguing NPCs who have lasting relationships with the heroes. These interactions can also spawn numerous small adventures as simple as helping out a townsman with a skill check, to something that they would gather the full party to resolve.
- Dungeon Delving: Ah, the classic delve into dungeons or caverns, searching for monsters and treasure. The structured nature of exploring and fighting from room to room through a (usually) pre-planned labyrinth can help shift the scope of the campaign for a session. Instead of decisions that will be far-reaching, the PCs are focused on what is immediately in front of them: traps, puzzles, and the remains of those who came before them and failed. Too much delving can start to feel formulaic and lacking in roleplaying opportunities (unless you stuff dozens of NPCs in your dungeons), but sprinkling them throughout a larger campaign will provide a nice change in pacing.
- Set Piece Encounters: A set piece encounter is an encounter designed with multiple stages of play. Each stage has a mechanical element or enemy behavioral pattern that makes it distinct. They take more planning than a standard encounter and can be mechanics heavy. A set piece encounter can be overcome with a straightforward approach, but is also designed to be significantly easier if the players find clever ways to use the mechanics of the encounter against their enemies. This could involve utilizing knowledge or equipment from earlier sessions, or by observation of the environment during play. They are especially good for a boss fight or the climax of a storyline.
Add New Elements Gradually
When you’re designing a long running campaign, you should also follow good video game design. Introduce new elements slowly and build on them as players learn. If you are bringing in a new rules module or set of game props that will be important, phase them in gradually. This way you don’t kill the pacing by making everyone stop to learn or sort through them.
As a side benefit you also train your players to expect new things like small visual puzzles, physical letters from NPCs, and minor rules additions that add flavor to equipment or spells. By setting up this expectation, you can add an element that is meant to have a surprising twist later without raising suspicions when it’s introduced.
Flipping this around, if you continually add detail to a single element, you can build foreshadowing week after week that this will eventually be more significant to the plot. Start with a simple regional map. Each week, add more details about population centers and routes of trade. When they explore new areas, bring in new maps that show full continents marked with the banners of warring states. As you approach the climax, your world map is now a game prop that has everyone’s focus, as they help their king with his war plans.
Use Plot Nodes to Connect Adventures
Plot nodes are a concept that deserve an entire article for themselves, but a basic understanding can help you improve how connected your campaign feels. Essentially, every major plot point is a “node,” and your plotlines should provide clear guidance in how each node leads to the next. To keep the players from feeling stuck and unsure of where they are supposed to go, you will want to have multiple redundant connections. That way if they miss one clue they will still find another that leads them to the next node.
Be aware of the major plot nodes in your campaign as you plan out your sessions. You want every node to have, at minimum, one path leading to it that will be found or triggered no matter what actions the players take. In addition, you can map out many more connections that allow for side paths or hitting plot nodes in a different order. Of course, your plot is fractal, so you can also zoom in on a specific session and map smaller plot nodes within the adventure.
This can help with your campaign’s momentum, because you will always have something to tease for the next session. If you are ending on a cliffhanger or a particular adventure needs two to three sessions to complete, then you and your players will anticipate completing it next time. But if your session ends a particular plot node, you should conclude that session by highlighting the paths to the next node or nodes in the story. This way you can always have that anticipation for what will happen next time, without resorting to endless cliffhangers.
Listen to Your Players
Finally, pay attention to what your players want and how they are receiving your campaign. As a GM, feedback is very important. If your players are growing tired of a particular plotline, you can divert to another and come back later with a fresh outlook.
Ignoring the feedback of your players, be it direct complaints or something subtle like a lack of engagement, will cause you a lot of problems. If players don’t feel like they are getting what they wanted out of the campaign, they will disengage, act out, or stop showing up. That’s why you need to address their concerns.
Remember, since roleplaying is a collaborative story, you need the buy in of your players to make it successful. If you take steps to manage the pacing of your campaign and are receptive to the feedback your players are providing, you should be able to keep everyone interested in your campaign from start to finish.
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