The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign

A map of the campaign setting I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons 4e game called “Urgo” for almost five years. All of my original five players have been replaced except one. It was always a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods, and it’s escalated from there. The player characters are level 16 of 30 and we’ve reached a point in the game where it takes some effort to maintain the tone and even more effort to properly prepare. For some background, here’s the current situation:

The party has just returned from the depths of the Abyss, where they sought the original sword of Tharizdun that created the realm of the demons. There they encountered avatars of Vecna and Erathis, who asked them to resolve a dispute over the proper method to stop the baleful stars descending from the Far Realm toward the world. They’ve got a potential task to hunt down demigods to maybe turn them into a weapon. They have an airship that can travel through teleportation portals, some to other planes. Meanwhile, Nihal the Serpent Star will arrive in a matter of weeks as a herald of dread Allabar, Opener of the Way.

This isn’t a problem of overescalation: this campaign was always meant to be large-scale and the players can handle it. It does, however, make preparation more complicated. The players have reliable ways to get to the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the Elemental Chaos. They can travel to anywhere in the known world in a matter of a few days. There are any number of characters they know and plot threads to pursue.

There is, in essence, an overchoice or analysis paralysis problem. I don’t know what to prepare because the players could do anything next. The players don’t know what to pick because they have differing priorities. The solution to this is clear to me, although I dislike it: railroading.

Railroading is a classic roleplaying term describing when you force the players onto a single course of action despite their desires to go elsewhere. It’s infuriating and goes against what’s cool about tabletop RPGs: infinite choice. However, railroading methods can be handy to guide players into a groove where you’ve prepared material and away from places you haven’t.

I’m going to use tools like quest-pushing NPCs, time-limited threats, and quick responses of “that won’t work” or “there’s not anything to find there right now” to limit the solution space to something manageable. I’ll restate the players’ options as a set of multiple choices instead of asking the open-ended “What do you do next?”

I have confidence in my players that if they strongly want to follow a course of action that they’ll do it despite my guidance, and if they do I’ll go there with them (perhaps with a short break for hurried preparation). But until that happens I intend to relieve them of some of the burden of choice.

Have you run into similar situations in your games? How did you resolve them?

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8 thoughts on “The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign

  1. I’ve found the best answer to be asking the players their future plans. There’s no reason not to take what they want to do next and just prepare that. To me, it becomes less of railroading and more of an agreed decision of direction. For example, I ran a “West Marches” styled game with the purpose of trying to develop my skills at certain simulation and map-making skills. While I planted seeds of direction for players to go, I always asked them where they were headed so I could prepared that area of the map with more intensity. Perhaps it won’t work for such a grand scaled game, but I always think it’s worth a try.

    1. I definitely take that approach when I can, but I’ve often run into the situation where we finished a session after a major accomplishment and there wasn’t time for the players to decide what to do next. I’ll try and focus harder on that, though; you’re right that communication and just asking the players is best when available.

      1. Definitely focus on that! Or, move the “where to go next” discussion to something like an e-mail exchange after the game.

  2. Less specifically…

    I’ve only played D&D4E a little, a couple low-level adventures, but our solution at the time was “partecipationist trailblazing”, as follows… “Obviously”, we decided, the meat of the game was in its tactical combat encounters, and that’s where the meaningful choices are: many small choices with small outcomes, which together measure our performance. Thus, we approached D&D4E like team sports: our goal as character-players was to score the most perfect victories against Team Monsters, while the GM, playing Team Monsters, was trying hard to give us a rough-up (within the confines set by the prep).
    In between encounters, we were OK with the GM just telling us: “you walk half-a-day deeper into the woods and come by some suspicious looking ruins”. And why not? “Engaging with prepped encounters” vs. “not playing at all” is not a meaningful choice within the game. We were perfectly content with exchanging in-character quips and banter before and after combat encounters, and focused on our performance.
    Sometimes the GM had prepped a fork in the road, so he’d be like: “It looks like you can approach the castle two ways, either by the front gate or from behind by taking the route around the hill.” We picked one, or maybe asked for a little extra information, confident that the choice was between two differently set up (but ultimately equivalent) strings of prepped encounters.

    While the above style didn’t stay enjoyable for long – compared to more exciting role-playing games we could be playing instead – that was one of the very few times in my adult life I played D&D and it felt… honest. Though my first learning experiences with (older strands of D&D) date to the early 1990s, the bulk of my D&D experience was running a couple 3E “campaigns” about 2001-2007: those were year-long, slow brewing trainwrecks specifically because of the intensely demanding prep (that my personal obsession with detail made even more demanding, and finally impossibly so).

    I know the OSR movement these days has developed (or, as they say, rediscovered) all manners of functional playstyles for D&D, starting over with pre-AD&D 2nd edition texts, old play accounts and elaborating on those. AFAIK, none of those include the long NPC statblocks and painstaking encounter prep of 3E and 4E. Still, D&D never “worked” for me, personally, as an open-ended, long-term game of high adventure (despite a wealth of earnest attempts) and these days, were I starting a game like the one you described, I’d look into rulesets of radically different design.

    1. I find 4e ideal for the sort of situation you describe, where you can have the exploration and social stuff be rather freeform and you want the combat encounters to be cool and rules-focused. One thing that has made combat more fun for us is halving monster hit points and multiplying their damage output by 1.5. It shortens the combats and makes each turn more important.

      5th edition, however, (which I’m involved in two other campaigns for) has really impressed me. Its encounter prep is easier than 4e, in part because it can be interesting to fight a bunch of the same kind of opponent several times. Its roleplaying features make story fit better into the rules. It’s definitely my favorite version of D&D by far.

      I hear you on other systems with different focuses, though. I really want to try Dungeon World sometime.

      1. I hear you about D&D5E. I’m aware shortening encounter prep was a design target, and I’m glad they achieved it. OTOH, the game’s pretty obviously trying to be everything to everyone, which inevitably pushes it low in my list of to-buys and to-reads — since I currently feel well-served by short, focused, tight games offering me specific experiences.

        I have mixed feelings about Dungeon World. Reading the book, I found some details interesting, but overall it felt like a watered-down Apocalypse World, stripped of its political punches. And I never got myself to actually play it. I strongly recommend Apocalypse World, BTW: both a damn fine game and, in my opinion, a damn finely written instructions text. If you’re set on trying DW, then I suggest at least reading AW beforehand to get a better feel of how conflicts are supposed to be resolved (and escalated, and rolled into new conflicts) via “snowballing” Moves.

        For “a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods”, my default go-to game would be Christian Griffen’s Anima Prime. Too bad the final text (in both the illustrated for-sale book and the free download PDF) is not as bold as some of the playtest drafts in explaining how to actually play the game. How to apportion authorities, specifically. It works very well with the GM having no more say than any other player in scenes, and all game content being improvised.

        1. Yeah, 5e is definitely part of the old school of games trying to simulate whatever instead of providing a specific experience. It was interesting that they basically nixed the grid entirely (except for optional rules).

          I haven’t encountered Anima Prime. It looks cool! My favorite game I’ve played that focuses on a single setting and style of play (although it’s not fantasy) is Freemarket. Strange game, strange rules, strange setting.

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