The last weeks of this seemingly endless year are upon us. The longest night (for those of us in the northern hemisphere, at least) is just a couple days away as I type this. Coupled with recent personal events, these details have led me to think quite a bit about time, and… well…
One of the things I’ve seen come up in some RPG discussion venues recently is the question of how long a campaign should be. The almost mythic ideal is a game that runs for years, following the exploits of characters from abject rookies to titans striding the land, but the practical realities of daily life often prevent the truest expression of that notion. Earthdawn has many aspects that, played as written, are tailored to the expectation of a long-term campaign.
But that poses some problems, especially for those of us who aren’t blessed with an abundance of free time, the youthful stamina to play until the wee hours of the morning, or the patience to wait several months for the payoff promised by the long-term depth offered by the Earthdawn system. There’s also the hazard of GM burnout from planning and managing a long-term game. With that in mind, here are some suggestions related to this topic.
First, you don’t necessarily need to start at First Circle. I don’t recommend this if you have new players (the early Circles provide a great way to ease into the game), but if your group is experienced, give them a pile of Legend Points to advance their characters at the start. This can move you past the sometimes shaky ground of the first couple Circles and into territory where you can provide challenges more appropriate to your planned story.
(Incidentally, this is part of the reason why I often use Third or Fourth Circle pre-generated characters for my convention scenarios–it provides a good selection of talents and abilities without overwhelming less experienced players, and the Step Numbers are also in a good place.)
Another option is to be more focused. Instead of planning a Novice-to-Master epic (that may never pay off), develop a smaller, more self-contained arc. Plan for a beginning, middle, and end that covers a (relatively) fixed number of sessions.
This doesn’t work as well if you’re running more of a sandbox- or West Marches-style game, but it can certainly take some of the pressure off. There’s nothing that prevents you from doing a focused arc, taking a break for another mini-series or game system, and then coming back with a follow-up, sequel, or exploration of any loose ends.
You can look at the campaign supplement Empty Thrones for an example of this. Each chapter of the saga is self-contained and can be run on its own. The connections between the chapters allow you to explore any or all of the story arcs provided for a more expansive experience.
When it comes to thread items, you don’t have to have every thread item require a full adventure-arc exploration. One thing you can do is to connect multiple items to the same bit of history or backstory. Maybe the Swordmaster’s blade, the Weaponsmith’s shield, and the Wizard’s staff were used by members of the same adventuring group in the past. The Key Knowledge for those items could be similar, and so a single adventure could provide the necessary details for multiple items.
Combine this idea with a focused arc, and you can craft adventures that serve double duty–advancing the story and the characters’ understanding of their legendary items. Much like the First Edition adventure Blades, maybe the story arc can focus on the items themselves!
Another possibility when it comes to thread items is to hand-wave or simplify the acquisition of Key Knowledge for less significant items. That magic ring recovered from the abandoned Nethermancer’s tower might be worth weaving to, but maybe the information needed to increase the thread rank is easily obtained from the magician’s journals.
And there’s perhaps the most important suggestion of all: group discussion. Before you start play, have a “Session Zero” — a conversation about what the group wants to explore or pursue. Set common expectations and understand what the campaign’s goals are. Then, as the game goes on, continue that conversation. Even if you’re going with a focused arc, be ready to alter or adapt if something unexpected captures the group’s attention. While we often talk about “story” in a role-playing game, that story grows from the ongoing conversation of play between the members of the group.
I hope I’ve provided some degree of guidance or inspiration. I hope the holidays (whichever ones you recognize) and new year find you well. I’ll see you next year.