Top 5 Lessons I Learned from Running Level 1-to-20 D&D5E Campaigns

Back before Christmas, I wrapped up a D&D campaign that I’d run for the same core of players for the last 32 months – slightly over 2.5 years. We’d played almost every week, exploring the distant corners of a tiny island world. We’d crawled dungeons and held conferences, conversed with monarchs and assassins, and at the end, my players met their gods and learned the unsettling truths of their world.

In total, I think my players spent nearly 600 hours at the table.

This is not my first time taking a party to level 20, nor even my second. Since 5e released, actually, I’ve been running long-form campaigns almost nonstop, and this is the third group to reach the end of their arc. I run shorter campaigns and one-shots of course, but there’s something different in the fabric of a game that lasts for years – something different about how the players learn each other, and how they learn about our world.

 

By the end, they know the fantastical world nearly as well as I do, with insights into cultures, cities, and peoples that we have communally hallucinated into being. It brings me great joy to watch a player make a reasoned and grounded argument, based entirely on imaginary facts that we all understand. The process of developing this familiarity cannot be rushed – it must be organic if it is to be powerful.

 

I’ve been synthesizing my thoughts, in the aftermath of this 3rd 1-to-20 campaign, and I wanted to put them down on paper. So here we go – my top 5 recommendations for a long-form campaign. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to playing D&D, of course, but I hold these suggestions to be true in the majority of cases.


 

1. Nothing is more important than character.

Time and again, the things that players remember most about my campaigns are the characters. Obviously, this could be a commentary on my style, or my players, but I think not – I think that across all stories, character is the primary driving force. The natural empathy and herd-instincts of humans make it effortless for us to care about others.

No matter how amazing the sight or engaging the plot, a good world must be populated by people. My process to create good characters is giving everyone a motivation. If there is some goal driving a character’s behavior, either obviously or behind the scenes, then it lends a clarity and consistency to their actions.

For important characters, I also try to define aspects of their past. Where they’ve spent time, what they were doing, and what galvanizing events happened to them. I’ve never felt like I needed a multi-page backstory for a single character, just enough notes to identify and guide my roleplay when I’m performing this character. 2

 

2. Ground the reality of your world with a timeline.

My games are about my players – the story goes where they guide it, and we visit locations they’re interested in – but my worlds don’t care about the players. Great events happen off-screen, NPCs die, or move, or retire, other people fix the problems my players have been ignoring – and consistently, players love it.

Putting a timeline into the world put a reliable verisimilitude into the game’s arc. The players, in my ideal world, are just one gear in the machine, and they can feel their relative insignificance. At lower levels especially, the story that my players weave only really matters to them – the world at large doesn’t know they exist.

Higher-level parties may start to shape the world in overt ways. They fight the world-scale threats, and meet with worldly people. But for low- and mid-level play, I make sure to let the world move and breathe when my players aren’t looking. There are other forces at work, and the reality of those forces actually make my players’ actions seem more significant, not less.  

 

3. The world building happens in the mundane.

Eventually, your party is going to get access to fast travel. They’re going to become teleporting, flying, well-connected demigods that hop between plot points without wading into the weeds between. But not at first – not for a long time, actually – and you have to use the mundanity of their low-level existence to establish the texture of their world.

I play through travel, describing locals and locales for every day that the party is on the road. Wagon wheels break, bandits attack, townsfolk offer bushels of apples, and generally the world is packed full of mundane occurrences. I focus on grounding every moment in the world, with a consistent tone and intention behind those moments.

My players know what a village looks like in each country they’ve visited. They know the condition of the roads, and the fertility of the fields. They know the changing of the seasons and the local lord’s tax policy. They’ve tasted orcish moonshine and seen elvish water dancers. And none of this “matters” – there are no plot points or significant recurring narratives here. But this backdrop paints the canvas of their world, and without it, the world is just a series of soulless set pieces.

 

4. Let your NPCs change.

This one ties into all the previous suggestions. As your players are at work in the world, NPCs are also living full lives, with just as much depth and intrigue as anything the players do. The NPCs aren’t scripted actors in a video game – they’re the closest approximation of real people that we can create. And real people change.

NPCs can make changes influenced by your party, and this is usually quite satisfying for the players. If the players raise concerns about the monarch with a soldier, then later meet that soldier after they’ve turned in their tabard, the players can feel the importance and relevance of their own actions within the narrative. Players can guide heathens to faith – they can doom a rebel to the headman’s axe.

NPCs can also make changed totally outside the players control. If an NPC decides to retire to a life of hermitage, the party may find their door locked when they make a return visit. NPCs can (and should) fall in love, break up, change professions, have children, find new hobbies, and a million other small changes that make up a life – and these changes can occur over the weeks or months between the players visits. This texture lets the world breath. NPCs should not cease to exist, act, and change, just because they’re currently “off screen.”

 

5. Let them waste time.

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, but with a long campaign, you have to let players luxuriate. Pacing is critically important to me, both in writing I do and in things I read/watch/play, so I sometimes find myself focusing on the pace of a session to the detriment of other factors. If we’re floundering, I might try to accelerate the action, and if the game has been constantly high-energy and tension for a while, I might artificially introduce a pause.

Over time, however, I found myself doing less of this. My players aren’t morons – they know that if they keep talking to the NPC, they’re going to take that much longer to get to the looming fight. Which is, it turns out, totally fine. The pacing of my long campaigns is scattered, with some sessions of long lethargy and some of frantic action. Some sessions covered a week of “real time”, while others didn’t even cover an hour.

At the end of the day, wasting time is… authentic? It makes the campaign more about the journey than any possible destination, which is a beautiful goal in my mind. I love my set pieces as much as the next GM, but they’re only as impactful as they are because my players feel like they chose to see them. Every lull in the action is a recharging period that helps my players get ready for the next foray into danger – these recharging periods can carry over between sessions. Essentially, I focused more on pacing the campaign, and less on pacing individual sessions.

 

—–

 

This campaign was near and dear to me, and even though I’d do some things differently in retrospect, I’m thrilled with how it ended and the joy of running it. Long campaigns let me flex some storytelling muscles that I can’t in shorter forms, and I really enjoy the huge base of communal knowledge that I build in conjunction with the players.

For 32 months, we shared a world. We fought the same battles, saw the same sights, and laughed at the same jokes.

And now it is over.

 

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