I’m not a fan of classic class/level games. They tend to burst my immersion asunder, and immersion is something I very much go for in my gaming. They do have something right though, a very strong sense of progression, meaningful choices and meaningful differences in a character’s power and skill. That little reward hit of brain chemicals you get for each level of achievement. System depth can be a big part of this, a more granular system can have more vectors to advance a character in than more simple or narrativist systems, making them inherently better suited to long campaigns than story games – which are better suited to one-shots.
Class/Level also tends to give you something coherent to aim for, some sort of end goal as well as shorter duration goals. It’s just a shame, mechanically, that I hate it. If you step outside of system, however, and look to the play of the game itself, similar kinds of rewards and goals can be on offer narratively, though these tend to be much more player driven and contingent on the story and adventures being offered. Perhaps your goal is to marry up into the nobility by seduction or political manoeuvring. Perhaps you long to reclaim your home planet from the filthy alien infestation across its surface. Perhaps you long to forge the perfect sword. It can be anything, but goals and sub-goals are what gives a game ‘staying power’.
One, particular, somewhat obscure RPG has had a huge influence on my design ethos, and that is Underground, a Superhero game from the 1990s which took its cues much more from Marshal Law than DC, Marvel, or even Wildstorm. While the game itself was satirical and dark, it contained within it a rather hopeful mechanic and a way of influencing and seeing improvement and change in the setting around you as a result of the character’s actions. This is a huge draw of RPGs to me – seeing your actions affecting the world around you – and their mechanics gave the game a natural structure of bettering the world around them.
The longest campaigns we’ve ever played had these kinds of long-term goals and the results of your actions seen in the world about you. Vampire (tabletop and LARP alike) felt like being part of a world, Cyberpunk 2020 let us really make a mark on Night City, SLA Industries had the Security Clearance Level as a goal, grinding missions to get greater access to information. So it goes today with our Iron Kingdoms and Eclipse Phase games, bringing order to Five Fingers and solving the near-extinction of humanity in turn.
Meaningful impact, character improvement and narrative arcs all lend themselves to long campaigns – but sometimes, you just want to kill orcs.
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