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How Long is a Campaign?

By Shamus
on Wednesday Feb 25, 2009
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


This is a variant on the “how long is a piece of string?” question, I suppose.

The games I’ve run last a few months. Ten to twenty sessions seems ideal. The last one I ran was fifteen sessions. I know some people have settings and characters that they play for years and years, their tale spooling ever onward as their rulebooks get dog-eared and their character sheets fade with age. As someone who loves inventing new settings and populating them with characters, I don’t want to be stuck in any one place for too long.

Changing systems usually means changing the setting, but a change in setting doesn’t always mean a new set of rulebooks. Anecdotes suggest that some groups are system-hoppers. They leap from one system to another, trying a little bit of everything like kids at a candy buffet. Other groups pick a rulebook and a setting, and then hunker down for a long stretch without possibility of parole. And if you can’t tell which approach I prefer from those descriptions then communication between us is simply not possible.

But as a connoisseur of anecdotal input on roleplaying games (and really, what other kind of data is there on stuff like this?) I’m curious how other people do their thing. How often do you jump systems? How often do you wipe the board clean and start a new setting? And how often do you end a campaign arc and begin a new one?

Bonus question: Assuming your campaigns end, what is the survival rate of characters going from the first session to the final one?

Comments (72)

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  1. BlackJaw says:

    The last game I ran started at level 1 in D&D 3.0. We ran it for years, playing for 4-6 hours once a week at first, but later more like every 2 weeks. Most of the original characters (aside from a friend that moved away a year in) played for nearly the whole length. Nearly all of them died at least once. On character died a lot more often. Two characters were retired towards the last 6 months to a year and replaced with new ones. We converted to 3.5 D&D part way through. That setting was custom one of my design with the early few adventurers being ever increasingly modified published adventurers, and the later few years of play being stuff I designed whole cloth.

    After I moved to Seattle I started playing in a 3.5 D&D game. It lasted a year or so I guess. We started at level 6 or 7 and finished around level 12. We played most of the way through the Red Hand of Doom. The DM I played with apparently knows the author of the module (Seattle area is where Wizards is based) and apparently I’ve been banned from playing in official games after the crazy (but legal and logical) stuff I pulled in that game. At one point I threated to trample an aspect of Tiamat. The mortality rate in that game was fairly low.

    More recently we have started playing 4ed D&D with that same DM, but most of other players are new to me. The game has a much sillier aspect to it. We’ve been playing for about a year now (since just before the official PHB was released) using the published adventurers. We have had an incredibly lethal game. Most players have had 1 or more of their characters killed, but this is somewhat due to the players being more silly then serious. Roleplaying is one thing, powergaming is another, but wackyness doesn’t always help the story or the combat go well. Also, some of these published adventures are a bit lethal. If you play through Keep on the Shadowfell, make sure you get the errata for the first cave encounter. It was 1 character short of a TPK for us.

  2. Flying Dutchman says:

    How Long is a Chinaman. Heh.

    Our campaign has takes 20 sessions (8-10 hours each) and is nearly at an end. It is about the second serious campaign to take so long. The previous campaign took 2 years to complete, this one over 3 years. Never switched systems… But we experiment. Never any original survivors save one in the previous campaign (resurrections spells were altered to involve long rituals, pilgrimidge, and essentially a pardon from the main god because he likes you, which takes a lot of effort). Players commonly advance from level 1 to level 15. Both campaigns have been in the same setting but on different “material planes” in one cosmology, which essentially means the pantheon was unchanged between campaigns and there was a little background lore intertwining between campaigns.

  3. Tofu says:

    My group starts a new campaign every few months or so. My friend that GMs the most usually has at least 3 campaigns on the go, and more being planned. I have two currently, and since there are about 8 or 9 of us, the groups and games vary quite a bit. We mainly play D&D 3.X, BESM D20 and various White Wolf games. One shot games are pretty common.

    We’ve only actually finished one campaign (D&D, with characters around level 13 or so), but man do we start a lot. Sadly we’re all a lot busier than we were a few years ago, so we only get to play occasionally.

  4. Cybermancer says:

    How Long is a Campaign?

    I generally measure campaigns in years. Two years is pretty average although some have gone on for over a decade. The longer, the better, I think. It gives more time for character development and advancement.

    How often do you jump systems?

    It really depends. Some groups that I’ve been involved with (usually briefly) jump systems every week. Sometimes on a rotational basis and sometimes because they have the attention spans of hamsters. Most groups I’ve been with and these are the ones I stay with, stay with one system (or maybe rotate every other week between two). When I GM, I make sure to have no more than two different games going at once (every other week rotation). I prefer having only one game. Currently I’m running a 3.5 game.

    How often do you wipe the board clean and start a new setting?

    Usually with the start of a new campaign although not always. Sometimes new campaigns happen in old worlds where old PC’s are now NPC’s.

    And how often do you end a campaign arc and begin a new one?

    I guess that depends on how you define campaign arc. Some games I’ve been involved in had no one single plot but had many ongoing subplots. Some games have one major plot line and the campaign ends when it does.

  5. felblood says:

    That’s a hard thing for me to gauge, as I’ve had campaigns get picked back up after a literal year of disuse.

    I’ve run some mini-campaigns that only lasted a few sessions, and I’ve played some one shot adventures that turned into three month, three time a week games.

    However, my primary MO is to run the same game until internal issues, or external scheduling problems, cause the group to drop it in favor of a different system or another GMs campaign. (We typically have two campaigns running, with different GMs, so the preparations don’t completely devour their meager allotment of free time.)

    If the campaign is really good, or the players are just deeply invested in their own characters, a few months to a year later, there will be a movement to revive one of the old campaigns, instead of launching a new one.

    Due the the plot holes and imbalances that inevitable collect over time, in a sufficiently chaotic campaign, we usually have to do a bit of rebooting and smoothing. So, we jump a couple of generations forward in time, and start with a new party, that can survey the lasting effects that their old characters had on the world.

    The trick to making these history building type campaigns fun and memorable is to build a world on the brink of cataclysmic, but semi-shapable change, and then letting the PCs loose in the middle of the chaos. They’ll find something important to break, you just have to keep them engaged while they gallivant around the world, disrupting the balance of power.

    Strangely, they don’t seem to mind if the new campaign is set in a violent, radioactive hell-world, full of demons, if they were personally, but unwittingly, responsible for it.

    I’m probably one of the few DMs who actually gets any good use out of Weapons of Legacy. Your old character might be a long dead hero of the realm, but his sword is back and better than ever.

    Bonus answer: I’ve only actually killed one player character (A monk with poor base stat, who got some CON poison in the middle of a fight, that was going poorly). Though I did fudge a damage roll to save a ranger once.

    They always seem to be more powerful than I expected (Note: Stealth is worthless in BESM, because at least one PC is typically psychic), and much more powerful than the CR system expects, though that might have more to do with my love of fates worse than death.

    Where ‘s the fun in killing them. It’s less paperwork to knock the character unconcious and have him wake up someplace hilariously bad, but mostly non-lethal.

  6. Jeysie says:

    Our campaigns tend to last around 30 weekly 4-hour sessions on average, with some being around 20 sessions, and one epic one lasting 50 sessions.

    All of our campaigns end up being one storyline in a new area of the DM’s devising, although half of them ostensibly take place somewhere in our own weird collective conscious homebrew setting loosely based on the default D&D setting (that’s more of a deconstruction/stealth parody/affectionate parody of RP tropes than anything).

    We’ve only used the d20 system so far, with some in D&D and others in d20 Modern or a homebrew d20 ruleset.

    So far we’ve never had a character die on accident during a campaign (we have had some that died by DM fiat due to players leaving, or voluntary character changes on the part of a player).

  7. Scottbert says:

    I’m not counting most of the countless one session wodners I’ve participated in.
    Online gaming group one:
    Played D&D 3.0 for several months (one character had to change, game did not finish), then Exalted for several months (all characters survived), than a variant exalted for several months (ditto), each with a different GM. No game finished.

    Online gaming group two:
    I have been running a weekly game since about last october (I forget just when we started now), occasionally letting someone else GM a few sessions, and we’re probably approaching a dozen skipped weeks at this point. (Two players have stayed, only one of which is still playing the same character (they got tired of playing the old one)

    Gaming group one: Played RIFTS (modified) for about a dozen sessions, completed the plot. (All players/characters stayed)

    Gaming group two:
    Played a D&D 3.0 or 3.5 D&D game for over a year? Before I joined.
    I joined in the middle of their second D&D 3.5 game. Was a weekly game but we advanced slowly for some reason — they started at level 1, I joined at level 10, and we took about a year and a half to finish at level 16 (We missed a whole summer, and the holidays of course) (Lost two players near the beginning when I joined)
    Had a false start with Unearthed Arcana that ended after 3 sessions, but the DM liked D20 Modern…
    …and did a D20 Modern/D&D 3.5 hybrid where the previous game’s world had advanced to an Age of Exploration/Rennaisance period (about a hundred years later) — This ran weekly, with a handful of missed sessions (and two holiday breaks), and lasted for about a year and a third during which we advanced from level 3 to about level 16. (Gained one player then lost her and a starting player, one other player changed characters) Currently on break, the next game will be D&D 3.5 (this group refuses to try other systems), with a different GM and possibly a different setting.

    Gaming Group 3:
    A D&D 3.5 retelling of Final Fantasy 1’s story — got about 3/5 of the way through the plot in about two dozen sessions, then lost players and was unable to continue. (Before that, gained two players then lost one of them. All characters survived.)

  8. Roninsoul7 says:

    A campaign is as long as people who are having fun with it. I know it sounds weird, but some campaigns can literally take years to finish because even the GM is laughing themself silly along with the players and having a good time. As a player, I have one character that has hopped from dnd game to dnd game since I was a preteen, and I have run campaigns for others as a GM that lasted for well over the same amount of time. Things only need to change when something major happens to spoil the fun. On the other hand, I do tend to talk with my players and create totally throwaway campaigns from time to time, and keep the PC’s to add to my list of NPC’s.

    As for my survival rate, that is literally up to the player. One of my players could possibly have one character that lives forever in terms of the campaign, while another could end up rerolling every game, the difference is not determined by dice either (I never let them see my rolls, so I just announce horrible ones if the players should have lived) but by what they decide to do with their characters. For instance Player A and Player B decide to make a rogue each. P-A spends his time being stealthy and careful, takes time to garner contacts everywhere and when out in a dungeon drops the party down to a walking speed so that he can find traps before people step on them, he will tend to survive the whole campaign. P-B is only stealthy enough to get a sneak attack on people, spends most of his time yelling “Sneak attack!” as he robs yet another member of the local rogues guild, and while in the field, runs through hallways with wild abandon, he tends to die in a single game session. One player described it as the “giving the players a ton of rope and watching what they do with it” method, and found amusement in the fact that I would let them hang themselves if they so wished.

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