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?
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