This weekend, we moved into the endgame on a D&D campaign that I’ve been running since March of 2001. We’ve got about three more sessions, then this seven-year campaign is done.
It’s an interesting experience; I had envisioned the campaign running about three years, but the vagaries of scheduling and the way the story rolled out stretched it much beyond the planned time period. Over that time, I’ve lost three players, and had one rejoin. Everyone started at first level, and now the survivors are twenty-second and twenty-third level. The characters have grown into legends in the world, responsible for massive positive changes. And they’ve all suffered real losses over that time.
See, here’s my philosophy of roleplaying games: the characters should be able to do great things, if they’re willing to pay the price.
Yeah, there are combat challenges, and puzzles, and secrets to unravel, and treasure to find. But the real story is the choices the characters make, and how they deal with the consequences.
Want an example? Okay.
While dealing with wererats infesting a town, the party managed to capture one and interrogate him. At the end of the interrogation, they offered to cure the wererat of his lycanthropy. In this world, all werecreatures are cursed by an evil god; there are no good ones. So, this wererat refuses the cure, because he has pledged his soul for this power. And one of the characters, who are all soldiers in a sort of UN Peacekeeper force, executes the bound and confined prisoner.
Now, this caused a number of problems, because the PCs technically had no authority in the town, which was part of a very protective kingdom. So the extranational army they worked for offered them a choice: they could be turned over to the local authorities, they could request a court martial, or they could accept administrative discipline. The guilty character immediately came forward and accepted the administrative discipline (25 lashes) as long as his comrades were not punished. The others stepped forward and claimed responsibility for not having stopped the execution, and accepted administrative discipline as well, though they were only given 15 lashes each.
We had a whole play session for the punishment detail, with descriptions of the parade, the reading of the charges, the lashes, the recovery, the whole nine yards.
And I’ll tell you, it really turned the disparate characters into a tight-knit unit. They were about 5th level, and had been hesitant to work with or trust each other up to that point. Not afterwards. After their shared discipline, nothing could turn them against each other. They were family. They still bickered and argued, but they trusted each other implicitly.
One character is now a king. He got there as a political compromise. See, his powerful family were scheming to place him on the throne by overthrowing the current queen. They had already assassinated the crown prince. When the character, who had always been very proud of his family, found out about this he decided to turn them into the crown. As a test of loyalty, the queen sent him to arrest his own father, with the promise that the rest of the family would be free to leave the kingdom and live out their remaining lives in exile. The family accepted this, but the father decided that he didn’t want to be executed in the traditional manner for traitors (public exposure and starvation), so he challenged the character to a duel in order to die on his son’s blade rather than in a traitor’s cage.
He showed up again, in Hell, and sacrificed his soul to allow his son to harrow Hell and destroy an evil god.
Those are examples of some of the stories we’ve told together in this game. There are tons more. Seven years is a long time. Not the longest campaign I’ve been in, but the longest campaign with a single throughline of story.
So, now with the end coming, I start to reflect. What would I have done differently? What would I change if I were doing this again today?
- Start smaller. My original world document was two hundred pages, with everything fleshed out and developed. Most of the characters didn’t read it, and I wound up not needing large sections.
- Stick more to official sources. Pretty much every character had some special case or arrangement or benefit that I had stolen from different sources or created. The flavour it added to the game is not necessarily commensurate with the effort it required to keep track of the changes. I’m not a young man, anymore; I have job and family obligations that mean I can’t spend all the time I used to on gaming stuff. Sticking to official sources minimizes the difficulty.
- Stick to a regular game schedule. There were long periods when we were lucky to get in a single game in a month. By sticking to a regular schedule, people are better able to schedule around the game, rather than scheduling the game around everything else. Would have kept better pace and focus, and probably wrapped up a fair bit earlier.
- Group character creation. Get everyone together to create characters, and make the players decide how they know each other. The novel technique from Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files are brilliant for this, and I plan on implementing them in pretty much any game I run.
It’s been a long, wild run, but we’re coming down to the finish line. I’ve still got a couple of surprises up my sleeve, but all the questions (that I can think of) will be answered. I am excited and sad at the same time.
I hope they like the ending.