But This Weekend’s the Bad Religion Concert!

The duration of your campaign depends upon a lot of different factors, only one of which is your personal tastes.  Some people prefer a long, sweeping campaign arc while others prefer something more episodic, with each session telling its own story.  This is one of the few times I’m going to tell you that what you and your players want is not the most important factor in determining the type of game you play.  What you and your players need is far more important.

As much as we may wish, your regular gaming session is not the most important thing in your life.  There are many other activities which must take priority.  Work, school, and family are the most common enemies in war for your session, and sometimes they absolutely have to take priority in your or your players’ lives.  Making a long, epic story arc where each session’s adventure leads to the next can be amazing, especially as it builds to its epic conclusion.  But what do you do if someone can’t make it?  These days, gaming has become far more acceptable than it was in years past, and even the social butterflies amongst your friends who never seem to be at home aside from when it’s time to pass out each night may want to join in on your game once they hear about it.  More and more “older” gamers in their thirties and forties are around actively looking for a new way to spend time outside the clubs, opening up a new can of worms when it comes to the cost and challenge of finding a babysitter for every session.  Even hardcore gamers who have jobs with flexible hours or trust funds supporting them may overbook themselves and have overlap between their different gaming tables.

These sorts of problems can sink a long-arc campaign in a heartbeat as your players may not be able to show regularly.  If each adventure builds on the next, with the party travelling together from one place to another together or all down in the same mega-dungeon for weeks on end, then it won’t make a lot of logical sense for characters to keep popping in and out, causing a large break in the suspension of disbelief.  Many groups will be able to ignore these sorts of continuity errors, and others wouldn’t have problems handing over their characters for others to play in between sessions.  However, these sorts of logical disconnects should be avoided whenever possible because of the breaks in suspension of disbelief they cause.  Also, missing players themselves cause as many problems as missing characters as the player must be brought up to speed at the start of every session, and if you have small clues set to be revealed over many sessions, they can be lost if not everyone’s there.

Purely episodic adventures bring their own challenges.  Even as your player’s characters level up to the Epic Tier, your games won’t feel as epic solely because you never build toward anything.  You kick in the door, fight whatever’s there, then move on to the next.  Sometimes, that’s all you want from a game.  And sometimes, you can cram a good story into such a short arc, giving you a beginning, middle, and end to the story in a single game session with a satisfying story.  But if you’re craving that epic feel from your games, having a stand-alone story with each session just isn’t going to cut it.

So what’s a good DM to do?  Take a cue from Joss Whedon, J Michael Straczynski, and Chris Carter.  I honestly have no idea if any of these iconic sci-fi television showrunners was the first to pull the season-long story arc idea, but it’s become one of the more popular ways to do drama in television.  To explain, each episode of the series stands on its own and can be watched for the most part without having seen the episodes before it.  However, if you do watch the episodes in order, a story arc will emerge.  Perhaps it’s running in the background of each episode as a B-story (such as is done with Burn Notice), or maybe it’s done subtly in each episode (such as Battlestar Galactica).  Sometimes, the story arc only becomes important in specific tent-pole episodes (like with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

No matter which approach you take, this can be one of the easiest ways to tell your overreaching story from session to session with an irregular group, whether each dungeon has a different piece of the item to defeat the Big Bad, every few sessions the group runs across the plots of the bad guy, if only one small portion of each session tells the story, or some combination of all three.  All you have to do is make sure your players know which sessions can be passed on more easily and which are critical to the story, and you’re all set up to give your game that epic feel every campaign should have.

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