Unlike many other gamers I know I love to collect RPGs and I can (and do) read them like novels. Cover to cover, front to back. The upside is that I have at least a passing familiarity with literally dozens of different RPGS, the downside is that I have more games than I can conceivably run.
At least following a “conventional” campaign that runs weekly or biweekly for years at a time. While I do run or play in a lot of games (9 games as of this writing I believe and there’s probably an article there somewhere) there is only so much time in the week. Every game that takes up a weekly spot for two to three (or more) years is another game sitting neglected and unplayed. That’s what has led me to adopting a limited series approach to some of the games I run. Rather than an ongoing and often meandering multi-year campaign, we focus in on a specific story arc and play that. It’s what D&D does with their hardcover campaign books, Torg Eternity does with their seven act adventures for each cosm and many other games. So why not do the same with my own games?
The Limited Series has several elements that are key to making it work that can be quite different from traditional campaigns and it’s important to consider them before putting one together.
Okay yes, in a perfect world all RPGs are narrative driven. A Limited Series needs to double down on that though. I think you absolutely need a strong foundation for this style to work well. I use either a three of four act structure as a basis and then further break down how many sessions each element may take.
It’s also important to consider that the Limited Series isn’t about the characters but it is about the characters in a specific situation. My Star Trek game (the first time I deliberately set out to do this sort of game) wasn’t about the crew of the Defiant. It was about the crew of the Defiant dealing with a specific issue (a Final Countdown inspired time travel plot).
Limited means Limited
When you set out to run a limited series you need to be very, very clear to the players what you mean. Is it until a concrete goal is realized? Is it for a certain number of sessions? Is it until the characters reach a certain level? You can certainly combine these – “we’re going to play until the characters are level 5 in eight sessions”. However you decide on what the “Limited” part means be firm on that. It’s part of the appeal.
It depends on what you think player agency means. Some people think it means that the players are free to do whatever they want. Who cares if there’s a dragon attacking the city, we’re going to visit out friend in that other province? If that sort of thing is what you consider to be player agency then this likely isn’t going to work for you. I prefer to think that player agency means that rather than complete freedom the players need to know that the choices they make matter and that they are presented with meaningful choices to make. If the characters/players have an investment in that city their choice matters. If they have family and loved ones there, then that choice matters. If the narrative for your limited series is about destroying that dragon now the PCs have a motive.
I’ve run a few Limited Series games now and am planning more. There are several distinct advantages to them that I find very enticing.
This is, honestly, the main thing that drew me to this style of campaign. There are literally hundreds of really good games out there in a wide variety of genres but when the group keeps going back to the same well every time it can feel stale.
Additionally it can be hard to get players to commit to a game they’ve never heard of for an ongoing campaign. Getting them to say “Sure, we’ll play Hollow Earth Expedition for six sessions to try it out” is usually easier.
Many GMs can be driven to excess when presented with a broad canvas on which to present a story it can meander. A lot. Knowing that you’re only writing/plotting/planning/prepping for a small number of sessions means you can zero in on what story you’re telling. For the players, knowing that you are playing in a Limited Series means you need to focus on the larger story (and not sidequests) but also that you need to really bring forth your character traits. There’s not going to be twenty sessions of hinting before you reveal that you’re secretly the heir to the empire. If you don’t get that out in six sessions, then it’s never coming out.
Lack of Character Safety
Let’s face it, many players and GMs play it safe with characters. You’re hopefully going to be playing this character for years. Both the GM and the player do have some interest in keeping them alive and (relatively) intact. When you know that you’re only playing for six to ten sessions things can be bigger, more intense and, more importantly, the players can make decisions that they would rarely if ever make in an ongoing game. Betraying the group in the finale is on the table, heroic self-sacrifice is an option, using that potent but single use item, even a TPK in the epic finale. A wide variety of options for dramatic story telling are available because no one is worried about playing the character a year down the road.
Freedom to Experiment
Not only does a Limited Series give you an opportunity to play a new game, it also gives you a chance to try new approaches to both sides of the GM screen. A Vampire The Masquerade game that explores the first week of a newly embraced coterie? A game where the PCs are all cursed and dying and have only a few days to get revenge? A campaign where the different games take place months or even years apart? A reality ending threat that only absolute top tier characters (level 20 in D&D) can thwart? In my Shadow of the Demon Lord game we’ve completely eliminated shopping and upkeep as the game focuses on the adventure, not the minutiae. Be creative and then run with it and see what works.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows when you’re putting together a Limited Series campaign. There are some stumbling blocks that you’ll either need to overcome or plan for. I don’t think any of them are unsurmountable but you do need to be aware of them.
Limited Character Growth
Depending on the game system and the length of the Limited Series there may be somewhat limited opportunity for character growth in both mechanical and narrative terms. This can be mitigated to some degree by considering the pace of advancement (mechanical) and by making sure the players all make characters that fit the narrative. Be very clear on both fronts. If a character wants to be on the run from the Thieves Guild but the guild doesn’t play into the plot then the player needs to know that. Better though, find a way to work the guild into one session of the arc.
Character Attachment (or lack thereof)
Some players feel like they don’t really know their character until several session in. As a result in this style of campaign that may not feel that connection to a character that makes for the best games. It’s definitely worth talking to the players to see where the balance is between what they need to feel the character vs. the length of the campaign. Definitely look at a session zero where people can simply discuss their characters and talk with the players about what elements they want to bring in to play and then give them the opportunity to do so.
Pacing and Plotting
In a Limited Series your sense of pacing and your plotting needs to be on point. If you sell your group on a six session game then you need to tell your story in six sessions. Not five, not seven. This does not mean railroading your game. It does mean being very adaptable and knowing how to guide the story back to where it needs to be to ensure a satisfying conclusions. In the aforementioned Star Trek game I have an encounter with NPCs I had planned to use in session 2 that included a fair bit of necessary information. The characters went in a different direction. So that encounter’s information got moved to other NPCs who could logically show up and the planned encounter got shelved until about session 5. You need to be keenly aware of when to trim the fat and when to add padding. It is a skill that can be developed and working within the constraints of a finite schedule is great exercise.
GMs often scratch their heads at player actions. We don’t know why they didn’t put two and two together to figure out that the Baron can’t be trusted. Players do not have the same big picture overview we do. They don’t necessarily connect the clues in the same order. They don’t know that the Baron has made secret backroom deals with the evil knightly order. Unless you explicitly and directly give them that information. The entire story is rarely going to be about discovering the Baron’s treachery. It’s far more likely to be about what they do with that information. You need to very, very clearly lay out the trail for the character to follow. If possible have someone else look at it if it seems too complex. If you wrote it, then your brain will fill in missing information that may not actually be in the narrative you lay out. In a limited series especially you don’t want to waste time with the characters floundering or chasing wild geese.
I’ve run three limited series games so far – Star Trek Adventures, Alien and Sentinel Comics RPG and am currently running Shadow of the Demon Lord in the same fashion, and they’ve all worked really well. They let me tell very focused stories, akin to a big budget movie trilogy as opposed to an ongoing TV series. In Star Trek the dramatic stakes were higher as the players made dramatic choices as opposed to safe ones to ensure they could keep playing months down the road. In SCRPG I had a potentially world ending threat (as befits a super hero game) and I didn’t need to worry about to do if the players failed.
There’s a certain degree of freedom as a GM and a player in knowing that you don’t need to think about the long game but be focused on the now. It’s definitely something I’ll be continuing to do going forward with some games (there is still very much a place for a more traditional campaigns) and if you find a hole in your schedule I’d definitely recommend trying it.