The Campaign Game: A Shift in Prep Style – or Not?

So, with 2020 nearly over, I can see that my gaming radically changed during this year. I’ve kept a tally of my games this year, and a quick analysis shows me that only 31% of my game sessions have been one-shots – which is a huge shift for me. The majority of my gaming in 2020 has not only been online, but in multi-session “campaigns.”

And, in 2021 and beyond, I can’t see that changing. The online groups I’m in are unlikely to fade away when face-to-face gaming returns, so you can expect this blog to better reflect that – while there will still be plenty of posts on one-shots and adapting games to convention settings, there will also be content about GMing ongoing games. I’ve got some posts drafted already, and you can expect more – including some extra ways to engage with the blog.

So, thinking about campaign games (and for me that’s a game that’s 4 or more sessions, with recurring characters, the same players, and development between them) – what one-shot advice still applies to these games?

The biggest carry-over for me is session structure. I find myself still coming back to a lot of tricks that I’ve used in one-shots.

Start Big

Start with a bang each session – this could be a fight, a dramatic situation, or a revelation. Throw your players in the deep end a bit – let them know that something is happening. This is particularly important in online gaming where everyone is logging on from their own homes – you want to bring them together and get them into the game straightaway.

Example: I started session 2 of my Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with a river flooding the castle they were staying at. As servants rushed this way and that, each PC had a chance to try and help – by calming the river Kami, hefting the arms and armour out of the basement, or simply barking orders at inefficient courtiers to get on with it. Each of these was just a single skill check, and the pattern of successes and failures fed into the tone of their next mission – and it make the players immediately get ‘into character’ and think how they would respond to the flood.

End Big

Similarly, I plan for rising action leading to a big climax at the end – again, could be a fight, could be a skill challenge (see here or here for examples of how to do this). Giving the session a sense of finality helps to make it feel more like a structured series.

The final session of my L5R season – skill challenge gridiron borrowed from Unknown Armies and the friendly forces led by player recruitment and preparation.

What to do if you won’t get to the climax, or if your plot is going to take 2 or more sessions? For this, you can always end on a cliffhanger – just before they raid the orc village, or as the dragon awakes. Your big climax can fold into being the big opener of the next session, and you can kill two birds with one stone.

Example: Running the One Ring scenario Crossing of Celduin (from Tales from the Wilderland) we spent the first session discovering (through a lengthy festival-revelation) of an approaching army, travelling to the bridge they were attacking at, and preparing. The session ended with the first horns of the advancing army being sounded – as they began to see the army mass across the river.

Flexible Middle

In between these two points, you have to be a bit flexible. There’s excellent advice from Sly Flourish about thinking in terms of secrets, locations, and NPCs instead of scenes, and from The Alexandrian about node-based design. You probably want to have a mixture of (to borrow from D&D’s pillars) Exploration, Role-Play, and Combat in the scenes – for Exploration think “investigation” in a more grounded modern game. Think about how these scenes could be flexible in delivering the plot points or revelations that your game needs, and how you could expand or collapse the number of scenes if you’re running short of time.

An approach I often use is to have a sketch of what might happen completely planned – but then be prepared to go off-piste if the players choose. I’ve used a big range of ‘plot structures’ for campaign play – and find it works best if I switch between them each sessions – but my big three are the Sly Flourish method linked above, the node-based design, or the five-room dungeon. Now, the five-room dungeon is about as on-rails as it could be, so I prep like that and then hold onto it very lightly as I play – skipping rooms, make NPCs have different revelations, and so on to lead to the big finish.

PC-to-PC Interaction

One big difference in structure is that, with ongoing PCs, you want them to grow and develop as it happens. Inter-party RP and discussion is great when it happens in character naturally, but I’ll try and encourage it as much as I can in my prep – either by thinking of provocative questions to spur discussion, or linking to PC backstory.

If you’ve done a session Zero, your players have probably given you a veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s friends, enemies, and contacts – these are your stock NPCs, to be used at least as often as your own creations. In a campaign you can allow a little more time for this than in a one-shot, but be prepared to interject with a bit of plot to get things moving if needed.

Give Sessions a Name

This sounds like it won’t make a difference, but it will. Thinking in terms of session names will shift your campaign prep to make each session like an episode of a season, and make you think in terms of big-picture structure as well. While we’re on it, thinking in terms of a “season” rather than a campaign can be helpful to prep – play 4-12 sessions of one game, then set it aside, and either pass on to another GM or swap out another game. Thinking of what the structure will be in this season like it was a macro level of a session can help as well.

Example: In my L5R game above, I knew what the scope of the season would be – the samurai were summoned to a rotten province on the edge of the Shadowlands, and tasked with sorting it out. They’d discover worse and worse corruption, until they would face a terrifying opposition – which turned out (I hadn’t really planned in advance) to be an advancing shadowlands army.

So, just like a one-shot?

Well, pretty much, yes. I think all the advice about pace, prep, and flexibility is just as important for campaign play as it is for a one-shot, and well worth the investment and planning for. There are certain tweaks and approaches for using published adventures and campaigns that I’ll blog more about later (see this post for examples of doing this with one-shots), but overall my prep isn’t hugely different for campaigns than it is for one-shot games.

The Smallest Available Group: 1-on-1 one-shot gaming

I blogged about online gaming here, and I’ve certainly had a lot of that going on this year, but I’ve also run and played some 1-on-1 games; one GM, one player. With social restrictions likely to continue well into 2021, it’s never been a better time to embrace the smallest possible gaming group.

This makes quite a big difference to the gaming experience – it’s a different way to play than a more tradition gaming group, with it’s own advantages and foibles. I’m going to talk about the three systems I’ve used for it this year, and the pros and cons of each, as well as some general thoughts/advice about how I think it works best.

Gumshoe One-2-One

Pelgrane Press currently have two published games for 1-on-1 play – Cthulhu Confidential, a spin off of Trail of Cthulhu where a solo investigator encounters Lovecraftian horrors, and Nights Black Agents: Solo Ops, where an amnesiac vampire conspiracy survivor (or another PC – you can generate your own) uncovers a conspiracy of bloodsucking undead. It has a simple, small dice pool-ish system for resolving conflict and each conflict is a different table of results, potentially making writing your own mysteries time-consuming – but that probably isn’t a concern, and they have quite a bit of stuff out for it anyway.

I’ve run Cthulhu Confidential, guiding hard-boiled P.I. Dex Raymond through a mystery, and played NBA: Solo Ops, where my vampire escapee just about managed to survive and get the hell out of Budapest.

Pros: As with every Gumshoe game, this is amazingly good for investigative / clue-based games. Other styles of play work less well – although NBA:SO is good for pulse-pounding action, and my game of it was definitely intense and threatening. There’s a level of genuine peril in the system – you can’t die or go insane during the game, but you might at the end if you still have injuries or madnesses hanging over you, and the card-based consequences work really well.

Cons: It is prep-heavy, even if you use their pre-written mysteries. They are heavily scaffolded to make it easy to run, but reading then and keeping the stuff in my head was tricky, and playing online you’ll want the cards as handouts which will take some setup.


Ironsworn is a PBTA-adjacent game of grimdark fantasy, and has a really good system for tracking quests and objectives – you Swear an Iron Vow when you get a quest, and then can attempt to resolve it when you’ve made some progress along its track. This track-based resolution works for every task in the game, and it’s a really clever system where the basics are simple, but your traits (available as cards) give you neat edges and advantages.

It’s full of oracle tables and random generators (it’s designed to also be playable solo, as well as with a group) and so it suits a more improvisational style of play. When I ran it, I had a loose idea of some raiders based in an ancient shipwreck, and the tables were enough to flesh that out with the usual PBTA player-input into conflicts. It has a supplement, Delve, that applies the same principles to location-based adventuring (fill the Delve’s track and try to resolve it) – I haven’t used this, but it looks excellent.

Pros: The setup and setting is explained well and quite intuitive if you follow the steps involved – the shared world-building really builds a unique dark fantasy setting. The system shines out as a genuinely original way of resolving stuff, and I’m planning on giving it a proper run-out as a group game soon.

Cons: The improv-heavy nature, while making setup easy, does sometimes feel like another thing to think about. I’m generally more comfortable with a ready-baked adventure for 1-on-1 play, despite being a bit more loosey-goosey in one-shots generally, so be aware you’ll have to think on your feet a bit and lean on the oracles.


Wait, what? Well, I discovered some excellent stuff from Sly Flourish, so I’ve run a couple of sessions of D&D 1-on-1. The post above has the guidance I used in it, but basically we played with a group of 2 PCs, one played by the GM during roleplaying scenes, but controlled by the player in combat or dice-based challenges. Fights take a bit of balancing, and I think being a few levels above what an adventure recommends and eyeballing using the rules in Xanathar’s Guide for CR helped to make the combats a sufficient challenge.

There’s loads of published stuff, obviously, for this, and it being a familiar system makes it feel easier than it is – despite D&D being quite crunchy compared to the previous posts. I’m guessing this system would work well for any ‘trad’ game – and the 2-PC 1-player thing seemed to be both manageable for the player and made it more fun for me as GM.

Pros: Loads of stuff available, easy to get into the swing of things because we all know what D&D is. D&D tropes feel familiar (to me at least) so this was the least stressful system to run.

Cons: There might be published stuff, but you do need to check the combat encounters and try to rebalance them, and maybe make some judgements on the fly. I found genuine peril a bit hard to get in these game – that’s D&D5e for you I guess – which may be more of an issue for you and your player.

General Tips

There are many other ways to run 1-on-1 games, and as I’ve said the D&D method above will work for any ‘trad’ system, but there are a few general tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Shorter sessions, or regular breaks, work best. 1-on-1 play is intense, and you won’t have time to catch you breath (as a player) in a regular game. Things move fast, so you might be able to get a 1H1S in, or at least have a pause each hour to check in and rest a little
  • Embrace side chatter. As above, with only two of you, the normal table chatter will be absent, so you can be a bit more relaxed about off-topic conversation and sidetracked roleplaying. This goes with the previous point, that you need some low intensity bits, and so be prepared to roleplay some shopkeepers or bystanders even if they aren’t plot-relevant
  • Consider published adventures. Normally I’m an advocate of either baking your own, or heavily adapting published material, but in 1-on-1 play it’s one less thing to worry about. Long campaigns can be tricky, but there’s so much stuff out there, you can do yourself a favour and pick something up and enjoy the ride as GM yourself.
  • Think about theatre of the mind. Again, with two of you have time to explore descriptions and share the action in your imagination – you’ll have less need of a combat map, too, with fewer PCs and fewer opponents. This can add to the immersion and intensity well.

So, I hope you get chance to try some 1-on-1 gaming over the holidays. There are plenty of other systems that support this explicitly, so please link them in the comments if they work well – along with what’s good (or bad) about them.