Seasons, one-shots, and epic levels: campaign length for beginners

How long should a campaign be? Tl;dr answer: as long as you want, of course. But it’s an interesting question. Ultimately, it comes down to five things:

  • How often do you play?
  • How long are your sessions?
  • Do you use XP or milestones?
  • What level do you start at?
  • What level do you want to reach?

Think of these as your ‘dials’ for determining campaign length. Let’s look at each in turn and come up with some options.

Session length and frequency

According to a Facebook polls by Sly Flourish last year, most people game for around two to four hours when they play. However, in terms of how often they play, there’s a much broader range: most people manage once or twice a fortnight, but about a third of respondents fell outside that range. There’s a considerable difference between a two-hour session once a month and a four-hour session every week.

When we’re thinking about how long a campaign might run for, session length and frequency is probably the dial we have the least control over. We play when we can play. Groups who play longer sessions more often are going to advance through a campaign more quickly and are more likely to reach the higher levels of D&D.    

XP versus milestones

I wrote a post about this back in October. Traditional XP is generally thought to be a slower form of levelling up, which might be why its popularity is waning. If you want to get to higher levels quickly, milestone or session-based experience is another ‘dial’ you have control over. There’s nothing to stop you levelling up every session if that’s what you feel like, although if you’re playing every week, you’re going to get through two campaigns a year. But is there anything wrong with that?

Starting level

1st level is the deadliest level of D&D, and some DMs suggest starting at 2nd or 3rd level instead. Some of the hardback Wizards of the Coast adventures take this approach: Curse of Strahd kicks off at 3rd (and Wild Beyond the Witchlight recommends doing so for the players less interested in combat), and Dungeon of the Mad Mage starts at 5th, as does Storm King’s Thunder (if you ignore the weak opening adventure, and you totally should). Starting at higher level means players get access to some of their most important special abilties much faster – most classes don’t choose a subclass until 3rd – but you potentially miss some of the low-level shenanigans that many players love.

How high?

Having DMed a campaign from 1st to 20th level (thanks, lockdown), I have to say: Tier 4 play isn’t my favourite. Game balance becomes very difficult, and characters become very complicated. It’s striking that Wizards of the Coast has produced very few adventures that extend into the highest levels of play: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the only one I can think of (and it’s one of my favourites).

As I said in my previous post, Tier 4 is something of a ‘victory lap’ in 5th edition. You can save the world in Tier 3 or even Tier 2; Tier 4 is where you save the multiverse. That kind of high-powered fantasy isn’t to everyone’s tastes. And of course, after 20th level, you have epic boons to keep things going even further! If it’s your first campaign and you’re not sure how long you want to play for, try aiming for 10th level and see how you go. You might decide that players want to roll up new characters at that point, and that’s totally OK.

Putting it all together

With all this in mind, how long should a campaign last? Here are some models you might try.

One-shot. A single-night session is not really a campaign of course, but such games have their place! They are a great way of introducing new players to the game, and they can also be a fun ‘week off’ for special occasions like Halloween and Christmas (Die, Bard anyone?) Whenever I try a new system (eg, the Cypher System), I usually run it as a one-shot.

Two-shot. Does what it says on the tin! This is essentially a short adventure. Players might level up in between sessions, but that’s it. I have run Death House and The Sunless Citadel (in Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal respectively) many times, and both are essentially two-shots unless you are running very long sessions.   

Season. This is an idea I borrowed from Blades in the Dark, and I’m a big fan. If you think of your campaign as a TV series then a ‘season’ is around ten to twelve sessions – enough to gain at least a couple of levels, maybe three. Playing in seasons is a nice way of preventing DM burnout and allows you and your players a bit more flexibility with scheduling.

Mini-campaign. Many of the hardback D&D adventures fit this category, such as Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Hoard of the Dragon Queen. They will take months to complete, but you can wrap up the storyline within a calendar year if you play weekly. Expect players to gain at least five or six levels and maybe more.

Campaign. I am arbitrarily defining this as a game that touches on three of the four tiers of play. Again, a few of the official adventures can be stretched out to a full campaign, such as Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and Dungeon of the Mad Mage. A weekly game might fit into a year or just over.

Epic campaign. This is as big as it gets: a game that starts all the way back at 1st level and goes all the way to 20th (and maybe beyond). This will take at least 50 sessions and probably more like 60 or 70; that’s a year of weekly sessions or two or three years playing every fortnight. Campaign 1 of Critical Role was 115 episodes. There’s no denying that there’s something immensely satisfying about going through all 20 levels of play, and you can create a much deeper, more complex story than any of the other formats make possible. But it requires careful pacing; don’t be too harsh on yourself if it runs out of steam. We can’t all be Matt Mercer.

What’s the longest campaign you’ve ever run? Tell us your story in the comments below.

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