The 8 Session Campaign
The 8-Session Campaign Model
I love an eight session campaign. For some people, this is hardly the start of a campaign, but for me it’s the perfect length to play really hard, address issues and get a great conclusion to a campaign before things begin to sprawl, slow down and become more intricate. It is the action film formula of gaming, compared to the long-running series of gaming.
(Now, don’t get me wrong here – I also love a nice long game. I’ve run quite a few multi-year campaigns and they are great, but that’s a level of commitment that not everyone can manage. Additionally, not everyone can stand playing one system for that long! Additionally, with modern gaming life, an 8-session campaign, played (in-theory) every other week, can easily last 6-8 months.)
So, below is the rough framework that I use when I am thinking about these. It might look really restrictive – even railroading – but it isn’t. Think of it more as a trellis to weave the roses of your PC’s stories into. Now, there’s a metaphor I’ve never used before!
Things that the 8-session campaign needs
Players: Ideally, I prefer 3-4 players, as I find that 5 or more leaves at least one person on the periphery of the story that emerges. The players also need to buy into one simple premise – your character has an issue and it will be tackled, for good or bad, in this campaign. No-one is there to be carried by the story or to be a gaming wallflower. Go big or go home.
System: I think this is the critical point – you need a system that everyone is familiar with, or can understand quickly. What a game like this cannot afford is to waste time on rules issues. My go-to system for this is Fate Accelerated, but you can easily use something that everyone gels with, even if it’s a more complex system. Familiarity is key.
Characters: This is key to the entire premise – the characters have to possess a dramatic vector. Something that is going to cause real problems for them if it is not addressed. The issue will, of course, be addressed during the campaign. It may not be resolved, but it will definitely be addressed. To this end, there should be a degree of collaboration between the group to find problems that will work together, or at least abut with each other.
Story Arc: The final thing you need is a story arc that will fit within the 8 sessions, using the framework I’m going to outline below. The story arc has to also have room to involve the problems of the characters too. This sometimes takes a little imagination, but you’re all about the imagination right? Go wild.
So that’s the structure?
Session One – The Big Kick Off
The first session is, unsurprisingly, really important. You need to establish the setting, the premise for the story arc, introduce the characters and their problems, establish your NPCs and get everyone onboard with the system. It sounds like a tall order, but its actually quite easy.
1. Start off in-medias res with something that allows you to showcase the system
2. As you’re doing that, introduce the characters, one by one. Give them a spotlight and make them look awesome.
3. A lull now, which is a great time to introduce some, if not all, of the problems. Doesn’t have to be a huge impact introduction, but something that sets the ball rolling.
4. Plunge the PCs into the story arc, and most importantly – end on a cliffhanger.
Session Two – Establish the Arc
The second session has two purposes – it has to bed in the main story arc threat, and it needs to expand on the problems that your characters have. By the end of the session, everyone should have a very clear idea of what the rest of the campaign is about, and they should also see where their own personal issues are going to interact with that storyline.
(Alternate Session Two – The NPC Fest)
Sometimes I will bring Session One to a close, and use Session Two as an excuse to immerse the characters into a load of NPCs to help tease out the session. It doesn’t matter how you do it – I’ve done high society balls, diplomatic negotiations, school parties – just throw a ton of NPCs in their faces and see who attracts whom. That will tell you what is important to the characters and run from there.
Session Three and Four – Painting the Picture
These sessions are the change of pace episodes. They allow you to explore the character interactions with each other, the NPCs and the world itself a little more. You can drop hints about the wider story arc, and the problems the characters have brewing. These sessions can be more traditional gaming sessions as well – think of them as the non-major story arc episodes in a longer TV series. The aim of the game is to establish and reinforce themes.
Session Five – The Explosive Pivot
This is the big kicker towards the end of the campaign, and really needs to up the ante on everything that has gone before. Make the threat in the major arc bigger and bolder. Take it somewhere unexpected and even more dangerous. Pull on every single problem and escalate them to the next level – make it something that forces the character into action, somehow.
There’s an art to this and sometimes, especially if things get complicated, you might turn this into another two-parter (and hence turning the campaign into a 9-session campaign or reducing the finale to one session rather than two) or have to do some radical re-writing of campaign premises that are apparently understood i.e. X has been lying all along, or Ally Y is actually Enemy Y or some such.
Session Six – the Calm Before the Storm
Also known as the gimmick session. This is a favourite of mine, but I like to establish one session that works in a different way, and the sole purpose of this session is remind us that the story is about the characters, not the story arc. I’ve done sessions in flashbacks, I’ve done Demon TV Talk Shows, I’ve done campfire storytelling with no character sheets. Whatever it takes, you use this session to underline the personalities of the characters – and what they have to lose if things go wrong.
Session Seven – The Finale Part One!
In the penultimate session, you explode everything you have set up and then some. The big Story Arc threat comes to an climax and is writ large on the campaign. Each personal trouble also comes to a crescendo, with the characters having to make big decisions about their future direction. You’re looking to definitely leave this session on a cliffhanger, or maybe at a point of departure into the story abyss – to confront the threat, knowing the stakes.
The most important thing here is to let the players come up with ways that they can handle the story arc problem and run with it. This is their show, and their solution. Make them awesome.
Session Eight – The Finale Part Two!
The final session should see two things. First, you want to see some resolution to the character problems that have been established. That doesn’t mean they are ended, but there is some change to the status quo for all characters involved. The second thing is that the major story arc is addressed to some degree of finality. This does NOT mean it has to be resolved – it can often mean that it simply changes, the Big Bad retreats or refocuses their efforts, or in some cases succeeds!
You can end this session, and the campaign, on a high note, or a cliffhanger, or with a pending ‘what happens next’ depending on your interest in following up the game.
What can go wrong?
You play too hard
Using the player problems as hooks is a great method to add depth to the game, but it relies upon the GM to really play hard against those problems. If you play too hard though, you might just go off piste a little with the player’s original intent. Sometimes, you can mask this with a sneaky twist reveal, but sometimes you just have to pull a little retcon to put everything back on track. One thing I have learned over the years is that people will forgive you far easier if you just admit a mistake and tell everyone how it should have happened, than if you ride roughshod over their character and their ideas. Don’t be afraid to back up if it’s not working for everyone.
Someone gets lost in the mix
The more people you have in the game, the more threads you have to weave and the more complicated it becomes and someone will get lost in the mix. Between you, neither of you can find a meaningful way of inserting their issue into the wider issue in a way that works. You don’t want them to play second fiddle but the original premise isn’t working. I have two solutions – the first is to radically edit the original problem and make that the new problem. The second is to accept defeat and do everything you can to make that person front-and-centre of the resolution of the finale.
You lose people at Session 3-4
Sometimes, people who are really into the bigger arc can get a little lost when the campaign swings into a more mundane mode. It can look like things are really slowing down. The trick here is to pepper these sessions with nods, mentions, cut scenes – anything that reminds people that there is something bigger going in, but it isn’t critical yet.
Does it work?
Well, it does for me. Especially for online play – it allows you to construct a story that is based around player drama in a relatively short time, punching hard and then getting out before fatigue sets in. If you want to see an example of this, my friend Ian has kept a running commentary of my recent Star Trek campaign using Fate Accelerated on his blog, Fandomlife.net. It doesn’t follow the structure exactly, but its as near as!