Targeting Longer Campaign Length in a PbtA Hack

I’m new on The Gauntlet, but have spent some time catching up on older discussions. I’m really interested in campaign length right now, specifically in terms game designs that encourage/support a particular length. There are some great threads about campaign length already, but they focus more on “What length do you prefer?” and “Do shorter games influence design?” I’m more interested in designing a PbtA hack for a longer campaign, specifically a “brave teen heroes gain extraordinary magical girl/super sentai-esque powers and try to free their planet from oppression while also attending space high school” game that focuses on young people discovering themselves, coming together, and growing into their powers to face down big threats. Look, I’ve been watching a lot of the Voltron and She-Ra reboots on Netflix during the pandemic, okay? :joy:


Long story short, after a LOT of time spent on running and playing very satisfying, continuously cycling short 6-session campaigns in a variety of systems and playing in a couple of long-running, less-engaging 5E games, I’ve got my eyes on spinning up my own longer-term home game again. I already run a ton of Fate, and, back in the day, 4E/PF, so I want a new challenge. Having recently played several short-term PbtA games, I like the system structure a lot and think it fits my narrative goals well (see: Masks, Glitter Hearts, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, etc.).

I’m worried that a longer campaign may be at odds with PbtA-based games. Many incarnations feel geared toward relatively shorter runs – a few focused on one-shots, many with 4-6-session sweet spots, some with 10-20-session sweet spots. I think this often stems from “wide-not-deep” advancement options, to ensure roll bonuses don’t scale out of control. Some games – say, Masks or Thirsty Sword Lesbians (two that are in the narrative ballpark I’m aiming for) – also include some kind of character arc mechanics in playbooks, driving PCs toward some kind of closure over (usually) a relatively short span.

Now, in fairness, I’m not looking to run much longer than the high end above – 25-30 sessions max. It’s an IRL crew of folks I already game a lot with; I’m not sweating player commitment. But I am wondering about how to sculpt mechanics to support greater story length – both in broader, more philosophical strokes and in very specific, numbers-focused ways, and that’s what I need your thoughts on!


Offhand, I need to think about pace-of-advancement and quantity-of-Advancements. It’s a lot of fun to constantly be accruing XPs off failures, as a cost paid to improve outcomes, and/or by engaging with tone+mechanics for end-of-session Moves. Constantly snagging new Moves, ability increases, gear, and allies is fun, and rapidfire character growth/personal arcs are incredibly engaging. But I don’t want characters to top out and outgrow the (increasingly broad) story boundaries, or for players to get overwhelmed by a plethora of minuscule Advancements, just because we play “too many sessions.”

Speaking of broadening scope, I aim to hit similar beats to those in YA fiction properties like Steven Universe, Avatar, and the aforementioned She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Voltron: Legendary Defender: moving from “nearly crushed by the forces of tyranny,” to “actively fighting back,” to “revealing and overcoming the hidden real threats*.” These shows run characters often through several personal arcs, or at least a series of identifiable changes. It’s not just about accepting yourself, or learning to trust others, or finding your place in the larger world, but oftentimes a slow passage through all three.

So, mechanically, I need to tweak XP pacing and Advancement variety/balance/quantity to ride the line between exciting/punchy and sustainable/interesting longterm. Narratively, I need to help characters explore several stages of personal growth and change that reflect the broadening scale of fictional action. Finally, I need a set of Principles/Agendas/Moves/Fronts/Threats that supports both – keeping them engaged/challenged whie making sure the game is dynamic without outrunning its own pacing.


* I should say upfront that my existing “plot” prep is just A) “You’re on a planet that’s being conquered by Some Bad People,” B) “You’re in cool scifi high school,” C) “You have awesome powers,” and D) “The Bad People are bigger/scarier than you can see right now.” I don’t wanna railroad people through the carefully cultivated garden of my worst She-Ra fanfic impulses, but on the other hand, my players love those story formulations and enjoy playing games with these themes, so I’m safe with the rough arc :slight_smile:

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I think one way to get around the limitations of standard PbtA advances (new moves, of which only a certain number is practical, or better stats, which top out quickly as well) is to build in some kind of advancement system which deals with fictional circumstances.

Freebooting Venus, for example - a game that was never finished - had a long list of random tables, which gave you different options for where you live, what kinds of resources you have access to, and so on. So a big party of the ‘journey’ of the game is “unlocking” better life circumstances for your characters.

Various “unlockable” sets of moves or playbooks, which differentiate the characters into some specific orientation towards the world, would be interesting, as well. Is there a playbook for becoming a “Counter-Imperial Spy”, for example, which you can only “unlock” by meeting a certain organization, winning them over, learning secrets, etc? All these things can create room for exploration over the long term.

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I’ve run a year long (irl) campaign, and played in a year and a half long campaign, both using Masks as-is. I think your goal of 25-30 sessions is actually pretty much the sweet spot for Masks. Long enough to complete an archetype arc or switch archetype. I didn’t feel the pace of advancement was a problem in these campaigns at all.

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@Paul_T, love all those ideas a lot, especially the “unlockable” secondary Playbook/Moves for achieving fictional permissions; reminds me a bit of unlocking Jobs in some JRPGs, which my brain is very fond of, conceptually.

And thanks for the actual experience with a Masks campaign there, @eladhen. That makes me feel much better about probably ripping off vast portions of that particular game for this campaign. Our flavor is different enough that I want to pull in some not-insubstantial changes, but the way Masks infuses a teen-hero self-actualization character arc into Playbook advancement is just. . . chef’s kiss.

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There are bunch of artificial ways to cap growth, of course: maybe they can only get 3 xp max per session, stuff like that. However, I wouldn’t think of “finishing” advancement in PbtA as the end of the character—often, in fact, one of the last advancement a player may choose is changing to a new playbook and “starting over” (but not really because that character still has all of the narrative history).
I would also take into consideration the drama engine of PbtA. Most advancements are just new triggers, more options for existing moves or, in some cases, flat fictional positioning/permission; you don’t really want the characters to be mechanically proficient because then you would rarely be rolling in the 7-9 range (much less, of course, 6-).
I say all that to ask: does advancement matter? It’s fun, but then it can become more special if it’s rarer (maybe just give them 1 xp per session). And you’ve already shifted the personal growth/change to the narrative, which is outside of the playbooks entirely. Do you anticipate your players will become narratively disinterested if they don’t have mechanical incentives for play?

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Yeah, one of the levers I’m considering is “how many things grant XP as compared to other neat resources.” I think that moves that interact with resources are super cool, so I wouldn’t be upset with that technique, tbh, so long as it didn’t accidentally muck with the pacing of the engine’s, uh, “fun loop.” Or, essentially, not having run a PbtA campaign before, I don’t wanna start twisting dials that I don’t have a full appreciation for the function of, necessarily.

Yeah, finding that balance is one of my, hmm, sticking points? Not the best wording but it’s early, so I’ll go with it. I like the fiction-adjusting moves that grant neat permissions and expand the range of action we’re effectively prompting from characters. But I also don’t want to overwhelm someone with a final playbook that’s like 8 basic moves and 12 character moves, either, necessarily. And yeah, I don’t just want a bunch of “+1 ability cuz Super Numbers Go Up is best game design,” either. Honestly, the crew I’m angling for out of the usual Ur-Group of Local Friends are, in general, much less mechanics-focused and mostly just wanna talk about their feelings :slight_smile:

Few thoughts here, which are disconnected, but at a certain point, quote-specificity can get absurd :joy:

As per above, they’re not gonna be super invested in advancement if it’s the group of 4 or so I’m thinking is going to jump on this first. But I do want to make sure there’s enough going on that there’s still a feeling of novelty going on 9 months in, too. Shooting for about a year total of roughly every-other-week play, and want things to feel fresh throughout.

The personal-growth/change-to-narrative shift is actually one I’m wondering if I can mechanize. I was listening to an episode of Stop, Hack, and Roll from Brandon Leon-Gambetta and James Malloy about things like Fictional Trope Playbooks, Location/Hub Playbooks, etc., and I almost think something like “Narrative Arc” playbooks could be cool, if perhaps goofily over-designed. “The Leading the Rebellion Arc Playbook is now available: go ahead and choose a couple of Plot Moves and define the some of the new NPC relationships we’ll tie to this phase, y’all!”

TBH the latter in particular is probably a bigger lift than I should take on, but if I go anything like that route, it’ll probably be cribbing heavily from Urban Shadows’ Hubs.

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Ohh yeah, that’s interesting. Narrative arc playbooks…could work with jumping systems, too, depending on how broadly you want to interpret a game.

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@Paul_T had an idea about using xd10 instead of 2d6+x. As in BitD, highest roll: 10 ~ 10+, 8-9 ~ 7-9, 1-7 ~ 6-. The distribution is very similar to 2d6+x, but it causes a longer and more gradual improvement in stats.

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Ever seen the tv series Arrow? the first few seasons have flashbacks to earlier in the heroes life when he was learning his skills.

You could do something similar where every session each player narrates a scene (guided by MC) from earlier in their life that in some way lead up to the current situation. This will slow down over all plot progression while adding depth to the story.

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The main tool for character development in PbtA games is the playbook change. That’s the one to focus on!

The d10 technique, above, could be used to design a new PbtA game with a longer “tail” for advancement, though, indeed!

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I ran a game of Masks that lasted more than a year and around 30 sessions. Everyone changed playbooks, and the characters all felt like they had multi-season arcs. I think the game works great as-is for a run like that.

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In my (perhaps pretty specific) experience, the greatest threats to a long-running campaing are not the lack of a reward mechanism and whatnot, but the ever so delicate real life issues that eventually lead to a game being abandoned:

  • Player/DM burnout (usually the latter)
  • The reescheduling and cancelling of sessions which eventually leads to diminishing engagement

I think PbtA handles the first category pretty well with its relatively minimal bookkeeping and prep. What remains, perhaps, would be a mechanism to structure the sessions/campaign in such a way that preserves sessions in case a single player can’t make it, but also does not punish said player by easily allowing them to earn XP and contribute to the story in their absence.

My best and most long-running campaign was a “West Marches” game that happened every two weeks no matter what, while each player would show up to perhaps 4 out of 5 sessions. I think this made the game look like less of an obligation competing with our other plans, as well as reduced the feeling of guilt for ruining a session for 5 other people because you couldn’t show up, both of which were very important to keep the game running for so long.

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Maybe PbtA games could import the subclass/paragon path concept of getting an advanced or elite playbook after the basic one.

It could also go into the WHFRP zone where its not just 1+1 playbook, but a series of it. In this case, I would propose to call these play pages or play cards, bound together into a real playbook!

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So, in truth, the goal isn’t really to slow plot progression – if anything, I want that to move along at as good a clip as possible so I don’t run out of mechanics to support it before it feels like it’s finished. Part of the problem I’m running into there is I’m shooting for a category of fiction that winds up scaling very wide by the stories’ natural ends, so it’s tough to have a really tight focus, d’oh. I’m ballparking 25-30 sessions, which seems like the high end of what people talk about as feasible with a lot of PbtA systems, but admittedly, that might just be me recalling figures that made me worried and forgetting those that sounded comforting as I was researching games to run this with :slight_smile:

That said, I’m generally a fan of flashback-type stuff. I’m still trying to decide whether or not we kick off with “acquiring powers” or “the day after we acquired powers,” but in either case, who they were pre-powers will be vital components of the stories we hope to tell with their characters.

I suspect, here, my own vague, ill-sourced biases are interfering with acknowledging that as a very valid and broadly beloved solution to the problem. Even if 75% of my GMIng for the last 5 years has been in Fate, I’m still a little mechanics-attached on some level, and that idea of moving a character whose primary means of world-interaction is cool powers from one powers archetype to another really wigs my brain out. I know a lot of systems just say “They keep doing the stuff they did before,” or just “take 1-3 moves with you,” but it’s hard for me to fully believe it just works. Despite literally watching APs where it has :joy:

I do need to think more on exactly what the Playbooks will feature as moves vs. “things the fiction assumes these characters can do.” My general idea is to hit the rough mixture of “personality archetypes” with “combat team archetypes” that a lot of these shows angle for. The nerdy, introverted one also gets powers based on Science or Cleverness. The big softie gets powers to defend and protect. The brash hothead gets powers to rush out in front of their allies and die horriblyconfront the enemies, etc.

In short, your sense of self is reflected in how the magic manifests in you, and part of the “powering up” process in these shows almost always involves your journey toward self-actualization, shoring up the weaknesses in your self-perception and coming to appreciate the strengths you truly possess. How important is it to hang onto all of those new reflections of your confidence/belief in yourself if you start tackling a new inner demon?

There’s also just an element of personal labor. Coming up with 4-5 really cool, pretty cohesive playbooks for my players is tough, but feasible. Potentially having another 4-5 waiting in the wings for them to transition to takes this a lot further along the “brewing up a complicated home game > creating an entire full-scale new PbtA product line” continuum than I’d like to go, lol.

This is handy anecdata! Thank you very much :slight_smile:

Mercifully, these are all folks I’ve been gaming with in various interrelated campaigns for several years running now. Which isn’t to say that situations won’t change – life always loves to throw complications at you – but I feel relatively secure in looking for a ~1 year commitment from all of them on a biweekly basis. I do agree that West Marches-styled games are an excellent tool, though. One of my white whale campaigns was always a highly randomized hexcrawl style thing. And then that new PbtA hexcrawl zine just dropped this week. . . someday :smiley:

Yes! This has been one angle I’ve been thinking about, if I think I could stretch an internal arc over the full span, to nonetheless provide opportunities to shake things up. You’re no longer the Warrior of Light, you’ve become the Glimmering Knight of Honor, etc., etc. I am a total sucker for that kinda thing.


Thanks again to all for some fascinating thoughts to noodle on!

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I also wanted to add that I had only one thought when I saw “brave teen heroes gain extraordinary…" and longer campaign. I would take a look at this one…

Stonetop

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Stonetop is a great suggestion, and is has a lot of the elements we’re talking about here, as well as just a really long/detailed selection of moves to choose from.

You know, this might actually be an important point:

If your playbooks are collections of “cool powers”, then transitioning from playbook to playbook doesn’t really entirely make sense. What’s the point? And PbtA games are notoriously bad at actually telling you HOW to do that (it’s usually kind of just left up to your best judgement).

Where playbook switches become worthwhile and interesting is when each playbook says something significant about the character: their role in society, their drives, their underlying themes or issues.

Switch between playbooks that are meaningful in this way, and it really tells a story.

For example, consider, in Apocalypse World, a Driver (floating, opportunistic, no attachments) who turns into a Hardholder (takes and grabs power, might makes right, ruling with an iron fist) and then into an Angel (risking themselves to heal and fix others, with a psychic/mystical angle).

That is a whole story, right there. And put the same playbooks in a different order, and you get a really different story: the Angel who became a Hardholder, and finally a Driver… an entirely different character!

A Driver who becomes a Hardholder is probably someone who begins to become attached to a place, feels responsibility to the people there, and - maybe - is corrupted by power. A Driver who becomes an Angel is also driven by attachment to a place and its people, but gives up their autonomy in order to heal and serve others, perhaps finding spiritual purpose. A Hardholder who becomes a Driver, on the other hand, becomes disillusioned with power and probably loses faith in humanity as well as in themselves… setting themselves free, giving up on rebuilding society altogether.

Those are very interesting, as far as character development, and each completely different.

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Check out Brindlewood Bay and the up-coming The Between, both by @jasoncordova.

The way the games are designed to reveal a short (couple of sessions) mystery while having a much longer arc about the ‘big mystery’, is sublime. I’ve never got that far but my guess is that unless you really run through the mysteries it’s going to take 12+ sessions to get to the big one.

They also include mechanics to reveal more about the characters’ backstory on the way.

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Dungeon World has Compendium Classes, which are additional sets of moves that become available in certain circumstances. So for example there might be a Lord of the Manor compendium class you get if your character gets made a Lord and given a manor to run. Or a Werewolf CC for when you get infected with lycanthropy.

On alternate dice systems, one I’ve considered is rolling on 2D10, with a strong hit on 16+, a weak hit on 10-15 and a miss on 9-. The odds work out pretty close to what we’re used to, but gives scope for expanding the stat range and/or modifiers by about a point each. 2D6 maxes out at +3 or +4, while this maxes out at +5 or +6.

I’ve got some ideas about mechanics that might make use of the extra scope for modifiers, or just give a longer runway for advancing stats.

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