Sunday, September 29, 2019

Campaigns Are Overrated

Postulate 1: there are many obstacles (mostly social and logistical) to playing D&D, contributing to the infamous “looking for group” dilemma.

Postulate 2: there are more people interested in playing D&D than people who actually play it.

Postulate 3: there are more people who have played D&D than people who are currently in the regular habit of playing it.

Postulate 4: people who aren’t currently in the regular habit of playing D&D are generally considered to be inactive gamers. At least, many of them think of themselves that way.

Anyway, I think all of that is bullshit and we force ourselves into those shitty circumstances. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve talked to who, when they hear about me playing D&D, respond with something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, I got to play for a couple sessions a year back but we couldn’t keep it going. I just wish I could get a regular group but it’s hard, you know?” I have been in all-too-many frustrating conversations (with bad conversationalists) where they will keep revisiting this anguish throughout the discussion and bring it up after everything I say. Maybe they’re desperately trying to imply that they’d like to join my group or something. I’m sure I make it sound like a great time.

Campaigns are overrated. I know way too many people that have this idea in their head that playing isn’t worth it or, in some sense, legitimate, unless they maintained a campaign for years and years with the same group and went from levels 1-20. That’s an unreasonable and unfair expectation, and I’d argue that even if you achieve it, it isn’t even objectively superior to other ways of playing. It’s like television versus a movie. You have to invest hundreds of hours into a long-running tv show, but with a movie you’re done in 2 hours. Despite that, there are 2-hour movies that offer an equal or even greater amount of literary depth, creative density, and speculative possibility than some tv shows that ran for 6+ seasons. It’s all about pacing and quality. There’s nothing wrong with playing one epic 10-hour standalone session of D&D once a year and walking away with amazing stories from it. I run weekly games, oftentimes out of some published adventure that lends itself well to the frequent character add-drop needs of an irregular group, but I really enjoy having secondary adventures in the works for months at a time that I can use on their own when they’re ready, having spent so much time and effort tweaking them.

I’ve spent the last few years playing D&D at college and over the summers when I return home. Each semester or summer break, I usually DM 4-6 sessions and that’s it. Within 4-6 sessions I try to make a “full” adventure happen, almost like a tv miniseries. Characters can return from a previous semester, but by and large the beginning, middle, and end of the story all happen in a much smaller span of time and with only 1 or 2 chances to level up.

“Inactive gamer” is a faulty premise. I could consider myself to be “currently in the regular habit of playing,” but as I write this I’m actually in between sessions, and for all I know there could be unforeseen upcoming life circumstances that will keep that next session from ever coming. For all I know, the session I ran last Friday might be the last one I’ll ever run with this group. But that wouldn’t make me an inactive gamer. Because even if the next chance I get to play is a big 10-hour standalone one-shot two years from today, then I’ll still be a D&D player.

Enjoy your one-shot sessions more. There doesn’t need to be “next time we play.”



  1. I will admit that I sigh jealously about those with the huge, epic, long-running campaigns, but I definitely agree: you can do amazing things with a 4-8 session arc. And you can have a blast with a one-shot, and then have another blast again later. At any rate, DIY RPG-ing (like wargaming) seems to be one of those hobbies that permits, encourages, maybe requires? time spent thinking about it even when you aren't in the middle of a game.

    Always encouraging to remember that perfect is the enemy of good for most of us, even when it comes to scheduling game time.

  2. I have to agree. I can't escape the fantasy: I want to know what it feels like to have a 20-level campaign. But at the end of the day, I do my best work when I'm experimenting and pioneering, and then means exploring the unlocked potential of aiming for short-form storytelling instead and seeing what we can get out of it.

  3. Use what is useful, discard what is not. I'm an author so planning them as novels comes naturally to me, but it's more about the Pcs than it is me. Good article.

  4. Megadungeons work well for this mindset. Especially if you have players who cant show up to every session. Instead of being a campaign with twists and turns, you have a location in which incidental drama can occur. Every session is a contained arc driven by dice rolls.

    Also instead of developing or reading adventures one by one, you get one location to focus your efforts on learning or developing. If players stick around, they get the joy of character growth, but if they only sit in for a single session, they at least get the story of how they survived or perished in a horrible place.