by Mike Shea on 7 May 2012
Back in 2008, Phil "The Chatty DM" Menard wrote the article Afterschool Tropes Special: The Campaign as a British TV Series that changed how I run D&D. A long campaign can fizzle out for many reasons. DM fatigue, bored players, or a change in scheduling can break up even the best campaign. Instead of waiting until a campaign fizzles out, why not rescope your campaign into one designed to fit into the limitations of our time and energy. Today we're going to talk about running 8 to 12 session mini-campaigns, campaigns small enough to fit into our gaming lives yet rich enough to provide a memorable story.
A limited campaign helps us focus our story much more than a large multi-year campaign. We know we have a limited space in which to build our story. Keeping the story as small and straight forward as possible will help build this mini-campaign into a nice tight story. To do this, we start with a nice simple campaign goal. Here are some example campaign goals:
A good campaign goal can often center around a particular villain. This way the villain's own plots move forward as the PCs head towards the goal.
As described in Building a Modular 4e Game, a good mini-campaign can be built around a specific campaign setting. Neverwinter, Dark Sun, Gloomwrought and Gardmore Abbey might all make for a nice, select environment that offers a great deal of flavor.
One main advantage of a mini-campaign is that you can build it around a heavily thematic world, like Dark Sun or Gloomwrought, without worrying about the burn-out that comes from adventuring in such dark lands. These places are nice to visit, but you don't have to live there.
Keep the campaign focused around a specific location rather than a whole world. Neverwinter, Gloomwrought, and Gardmore are all focused on specific locations. A Dark Sun campaign might work best focused around Tyr. An Eberron campaign might be best focused around Xen'drik. Like your campaign goal, stay small and focused in your location.
With a world and location chosen, add in some world-specific mechanical variants for flavor. The gloom deck in the Shadowfell boxed set and the Deck of Many Things in Gardmore Abbey are both great examples of a physical mechanical aid that reinforces the theme of the mini-campaign.
Selecting specific sets of classes, races, and themes that reinforce the feeling of the campaign world will reinforce that feeling in your players.
After finishing up a mini-campaign you might find your players hungry for more. Leave them hungry. Run a different mini-campaign out and then, when the time is right, run a small session of "return to" games. In these small adventures you rejoin the PCs at the end of the previous mini-campaign for a few sessions of an even smaller focused plot.
Alternating your mini-campaigns like this lets your mind chew on ideas in the background while you focus your energy on the campaign in front of you. When the time is right, you'll draw a nice rich story forward to run as your next mini-campaign even if its in a world you have already previously visited.
For this reason, consider an open-ended ending in your mini-campaign. While you want a clear conclusion to the mini-campaign, you might leave some open threads.
For example, after the PCs have dethroned Prince Rolan, they find out that the Tenebrous Cabal, a band of dark druids led by a vampire, has information they greatly desire. In Tyr, though the PCs have defeated the last templar of Kalak, they find they have been manipulated into moving forward the campaign of Nibenay who now seeks to take over Tyr. These loose strings give you plenty of potential ways to return to a previous mini-campaign when the time is right.
In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, start as close to the end as possible. A mini-campaign helps you focus on a single campaign goal with a rich set of flavor and mechanics to give your players the full experience of a campaign without fizzling out. Give it a try.