Going for Broke

There’s a crisis brewing in our group right now between longer campaigns and shorter game series. I’ve been favoring the shorter runs lately for reasons that fall into a few categories.

  • There’s a lot of cool games out there. I want to try them all…or at least a lot of them. I can’t do that if each one takes several months to a year. Even in a great game with lots of open material, I find I start getting anxious, wanting to switch things up for awhile.
  • I’m old now. If I am running, I usually have material for 2-3 adventures on tap, but once that gets used or skipped I need to take some time off to recharge. That absolutely kills the momentum of a long campaign, but it makes for really interesting sets of short games.
  • The rest of us are all old now too. In High School and College nobody had anything else better to do. But now people have other priorities, and drop in/drop out is pretty common.

I’ve actually been highly satisfied with the short games recently. It feels like the characters are crisper and the plots are leaner but more open. More like a season of British TV where they get more done in 6 episodes than a lot of American shows can in 22. I cringe now when friends or published material create a useless diversion for no other reason than to buy time to plan. I get it if it’s necessary to fill in important information or even establish a mood, but otherwise why waste time? You can’t afford to when you set your intent up front to run your game in a month or less and then step aside for the next thing.

But that does lead to some dissatisfaction. Some of the players miss the longer campaigns and I’ve been thinking about why.

  • Tension and build up. An epic conclusion that you’ve been working towards for a year has more weight than one you’ve been working towards for 3 weeks, even when the stakes are otherwise the same. Now, you can still fail to build up to anything epic in a long campaign, so this one isn’t automatic.
  • Experience and camaraderie. You can form character bonds over long term play that are very hard to force otherwise. I think a lot of interesting games are using mechanics to simulate this, like the bonds in the Apocalypse World family of games and the phase trio in Fate. But as good as those mechanics are, they don’t fill quite the same niche as actually doing it during play.
  • Really getting a feel for your own character. This one could be debated I suppose. I usually have a strong feel for my own character when I start, and if the character is going to surprise me and go in a different direction that still happens within the short game scope. But that isn’t always true, and some people really need more time for that character to incubate and grow.

So how to get as much of that long campaign goodness as possible into the short game format? Go for broke. Hold nothing back. If you see a long term arc for your character, don’t try to stretch it out over a year. You may not finish within the short game scope, but you’ll get far enough to get some satisfying hooks in. And if you do finish you get to the really fun part, figuring out what’s next. It’s not quite the long campaign experience, but it could fill some of that void when you’re stuck in short game mode, and should add a lot of value to the short games themselves.

I also think an important take-away is not trying to rush a short game. I like to avoid plot diversions created solely to but myself time. However if a plot diversion is driven by the players that’s not a waste of time anymore. Even in a short game the characters need to have space to breathe.