Campaigns v. Short Series v. One Shots

Don’t you wish your TTRPG group looked so prestigious?

One of the things I’ve noticed in my many years of gaming is that as we grow older, our available time shortens. Life happens. School, work, children, or in my current case, grandchildren. As one who typically runs games rather than plays in them, I’ve found that over time, I’ve had to take this into account, not just in my own life but in the lives of my players. I’ve also found that while my preference lies with one of these, my circumstances (or those of my players), may dictate that another one of these is more suitable to those circumstances at the current game time. So let’s discuss them all a bit and I’ll share my thoughts on each.

Campaigns are long-running games with the same characters or players. These can last from eight to ten sessions, for instance, to years of real-time gameplay. Some examples of that are things like Critical Role (run by Matt Mercer who probably needs no introduction at this point), The Hole In The World (run by Zach Norton of Mana Pot Studios), and Infinite Horizon (run by Lucas Santana of Rule of Lore). Now, you don’t have to be these wonderful GMs to do a long term campaign. These are just examples of long term campaigns.

So, what goes into a campaign? The first, and probably largest requirement, is time. I am not talking about just time for the game itself, but the GM needs time to prepare: plot hooks, gaming plans, NPCs, encounters, and anything else that needs to be “crafted”. Now you can be, or have a GM that excels at the “run with it improv” like me. Typically, that means that there is less time required for such preparation. Or, you can have the GM that needs that time to prepare and then a few moments to do a reboot of their brain when you go off the rails, like Josh. (I stole a ship, I stole a ship haha haha I stole a ship).

Second, most GMs need an overarching plot. Not just the bad guy, but think about every book, every movie and every TV show. There’s a theme behind it. The Main Character needs to accomplish tasks to defeat the Big Bad Evil Person. In a campaign, you need a BBEP for them to face at the climax, but you also need a path to get there, and most GMs like to have a sense of how they think the overall story will go prior to presenting the path of said story to the players. 

Third, and probably the most important requirement, you need dedication. People that show up on time, every time (or nearly so) for the game. Both Players and GMs need to be there, present and ready to play. This is far easier said than done. It’s gotten better with the advancements in technology and communication because playing online allows for a wider pool of players and reduces the impact of things like drive time, weather issues, and other things that might affect getting together for physical play. But at the same time, in the immortal words of Jeff Goldblum, “Life, uh… finds a way.”

Campaigns however are and can be awesome when you get them. The work is worth it, and often you’ll have stories to tell for years after it’s over. Josh and I, for instance, will never be able to go to Red Lobster without remembering fondly the great Shadowrun Cheesy Biscuit Job.

Short series are typically a group of three to six (or sometimes more) sessions that are with the same characters and a set goal. Not as long as campaigns, these seem to be most often used by people who want to playtest rules for a game or by those who can only get a commitment of this time slot for meetings between school and/or work for a short time because their schedule may/will change. They require less work for a GM than a campaign, because the they use smaller plots and the end is closer in a short series than in a campaign. This means there is typically less detail work in worldbuilding, background linkage, NPC generation and other details that one would need to make a larger world “come alive”. Think of short series as more like sub plot that is over in a single or small group of TV episodes like one of those “special two (or four) part episode”, rather than a plot lasting a season or an entire show.

One shots or Convention (Con) games. These are games that are done in a single sitting, usually three to four hours long, but sometimes (for the young and/or crazy) eight hours (a double time slot). The characters and players often change. Heist on Miracle IV is an example of such a one shot for Cypher System. Pathfinder 1E had a one-shot that was amusing to run called We Be Goblins!. One shots take the least amount of time to game, but can sometimes take a lot of time for preparation work. Usually the GM, well at least in my case, spends a lot of time figuring out how to make it quick and short. Josh and I both like big stories and sandbox style gaming, so tightening things to a single episode is hard for us sometimes. We have both done it though (for conventions, Josh more than I), and while we could both use more practice at it, we have been successful with them in the past.

Now, as much as I would personally advocate doing campaigns, mostly because I love the way the world comes to life for the players, I haven’t been able to do so recently. Thus, I personally tend to fall in the Short Series gaming style: three to eight sessions of a specific run through. Life often catches us all in a strange chaos of busy, so my advice is to do what’s best for you and your group. Personally, when I’m starting with a new group and I do a Session Zero, I tend to move to collective one shots in the world from there. Then gradually expand it into a broader terms. Why? Because I don’t want to bog myself down with this plot line or that plot line and then have people quit, or not be able to show up because of life, then I’m left with a dangling line that I can’t really do anything with. Perhaps I’m weird, but they feel like orphaned children that I can’t do anything for.

I hope this article helps you to think about what style of game might work best for you and your group, and I hope you are able to find fun in this vast hobby of ours, no matter what style you choose. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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