Ask The GM: Forever or Not

By John Serpico on


Matt asks – I’m planning a campaign, and it’ll be the third one I’ve run. The first two were very long – the first lasted three years and the second is still going on after two years. I don’t want this game to last as long… but I’m not sure what the best way to put a natural cap on the campaign (aside from running pre-made modules). What is the best approach?


You’ve had success with long campaigns and it is likely that you could have success again. But a short (or shorter, at least) campaign lets you do things as a GM that you might not have been able to do before in terms of narrative and pacing. So let’s talk about how to to downsize your game.

As you mentioned, running a module is one option, but I think developing something yourself – with a world and a plot and an end point – is both more rewarding and more fun. The first step is to determine how many sessions you’d want this campaign to run. If you’re thinking about running a fifteen or twenty five session game, that’s enough time for the characters to gain some levels, do plenty of wandering and engage in a lot of personal discovery. If you want half a dozen sessions, the main thrust of the campaign will probably just be limited to “get hurt by the bad guy, find the bad guy’s weaknesses, go after the bad guy.” Once you have that overall length of time, everything else starts to fall into place.

For shorter campaigns, the second step is team-building. The shorter the campaign, the most tightly aligned the goals of the characters should be. If you’re playing in a campaign that lasts years, odds are the dwarven cleric on a quest for salvation, the foreign-born princess with the hidden identity, the gnomish artificer that is on a revenge mission and the irrationally angry warlock looking for his lost master are all going to get enough stage time. Four, or five, or six completely divergent character arcs can either tie together or at least be resolved individually, given enough sessions. But if you only plan on playing weekly for three months, a lot of threads will be left untied if the group has really, really disparate aims.

Much of that required team-building can be taken care of during character creation. Your best tool for lining up character wants is to narrow the focus for your players before they commit to anything. Let them know that the plot is going to focus on a group of knights traveling north to claim a holy relic, or the loyal retainers of a noblewoman who is trying to unite local towns, or a group of bounty hunters that seek fortune and glory. The players can still build whatever characters they want, but they know that there is a single purpose that they need to accomplish.

Another option that works well for incredibly short campaigns (five sessions or less), is to have a stack of pre-made characters that players could choose from and make slight alterations to. For a group of, say, five, draft eight characters that would all work within the setting and plot, leave one or two things to customize on each sheet and let them pick what they want. Then run it.

The third step in running a short campaign is to focus your attention on the main plot. Unexpected diversions to solve a town’s goblin problem or midnight trysts that lead to barfights are going to happen without you as GM forcing them to. Just assume that, if you have six full sessions of adventure in your mind, it’ll take ten to execute. So don’t overplan and leave enough flexibility for players to be players.

Developing and then running a short campaign is a tremendously fun time and I think that if you give it a shot, it won’t be the only one you decide to do. You never have to be trapped in running campaigns without end!

Happy GMing!

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