Mini-series campaigns let you try new ideas, like a steampunk beholder, without changing the canon of your world.  I just recently got back into a game of D&D 3.5, a short game run by a friend before we start a new campaign. My friend (fairly  new to running a game) setup a fairly complex horror themed plot. There was some necessary railroading, which he mentioned beforehand and got our buy-in for, and it worked out fine. Due to circumstances beyond his control the game (which was intended for 2 sessions) became a one-shot with a short formed ending. It was a great story that had too many twists to fit a one-shot. Talking about it afterwards, we all agreed that it would have worked better as a Mini-Series campaign, 6 or 7 games with a definite ending. Not a one-shot, but enough room to get a good detailed story in. There are a lot of things recommending the mini-series campaign:

  • One-shots don’t provide a lot of room for character development and don’t get a lot of character investment from the players. Making a new character for a one-shot lets you try out new power combinations or character concepts, but you never get to level them up past where you made them. Since a one-shot character isn’t planned to be in play long, seeing them die is really no big deal. Knowing they will have a character for 6 or 7 sessions lets a player invest in the character and even plan a little development if they level up.
  • Mini-series campaigns have a definite ending. Running a 6 or 7 session game gives you enough time to detail a story without feeling the need to stretch it out too long. Some stories are made for the long epic quest with multiple dungeons, attacks on mega-corps, travels through the stars saving ships and planets, etc., but some feel too thin if stretched out over the course of a year or more. When you build your story to fit 6 or 7 sessions you can keep key themes and NPCs in the forefront.
  • Mini-series campaigns can be played directly in the sweet spot of whatever game system you are using. Playing a mini-series campaign lets you more accurately judge where characters are going  to be at the end, power wise, of  your story. Common scenario: The GM creates a BBEG at the start of a campaign. The players go through the campaign and find nifty exploits that grant them lots of unforeseen power boosts as they level up. By the time the BBEG is met, he no longer matches up to the characters’ power levels and needs to be redone, or drops like a ton of bricks. The opposite could happen as well. The challenges you built for your characters as they leveled up might end up being far too powerful for them and you unwittingly commit a TPK before they ever reach the BBEG. Having a shorter amount of sessions gives you less space to try to plan for. You can build challenges without trying to think too far ahead of your players, and thus give them a more balanced play experience.
  • Mini-series campaigns let you try out new games and ideas. You can run that interesting steampunk D&D game idea  (steampunk beholder, how awesome would that be in your game?)  for two months, then jump into that GURPs Antarctic horror game you’ve been thinking about, let Sarah run that Savage Worlds Deadland’s game she wanted to do at some point, come back to running an all rogue fantasy  D&D game, take some time off over the holidays, and then let Roger run that Traveler space game he was thinking about. You can get a lot of diversity and new gaming in when you keep the length of the campaigns shorter.
  • Mini-series campaigns can give the group’s main Game Master the chance to play and other people the chance to run. This lets people share the work and fun of GMing, prevents a lot of burnout, and helps facilitate new ideas and game styles. Even if you play the same game system and setting for each game, new people GMing means new styles and stories to explore. Plus, knowing that they don’t have to plan anything too massive puts less pressure on new Game Masters.

A good structure for a mini-series campaign is 6 to 8 games. I personally prefer the 6 game setup for a short campaign and the 8 game scenario for a campaign with one or two sub-adventures or sidequests thrown in. This lets the campaign be broken up into 3 or 4 sections with a definite beginning, middle, and end.

1 – 2 sessions in – Backgrounds and character entrenchment, initial encounters that are "easy" wins, or situations that setup the main story. These are the games where the group establishes their new characters and gets most into the game’s story.
3 – 4 sessions in – The discovery and the juicy bits. This is where you make the plot matter and the PCs get to effect it. While the plot will be introduced in the first two sessions this is where the PCs really get to interact with it.
5th session – The beginning of the end, the climax and anything that precludes the main fight/end scene. This is where the players know they are getting to the end and gear up for it. Their hardest, most meaningful fight is ahead and this is the penultimate session where they take their first steps towards the end, for good or bad.
6th session – The end scene. Everything happens here. The PCs face the BBEG, they save or let down the town, the dragon is fought, etc. This is also the session for resolution. The personal plots that are important to the PCs should be wrapped up in this session.

So what do you think about the mini-series campaign? It certainly isn’t a new idea, but it is one I think a lot of Game Masters overlook when planning a new game, even when running from a published adventure. Do you run your games like this or does it feel too short or too long to accommodate your campaign ideas?

12 replies
  1. Gamerprinter
    Gamerprinter says:

    With my very first published product, I’m using a 3 module mini-campaign format as an introduction to the setting, that works out to about 6 sessions. The setting is a cross between feudal Japan and Asian Horror, called Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story setting. So far the only module published is the first one, called Kaidan: the Gift – Part 1 (which was published in Oct 2009), the second module is currently scheduled for release in May 2010.

    I chose the mini-campaign format to introduce a party of western “gaijin” to visit Kaidan and get a feel of the setting to see if it is worthwhile to participate in a larger campaign without having to commit to a long campaign being produced by an unknown publisher.

    It tells a story, has some meat to it, and gives new players to the setting a good overview on what its all about.

    I think the mini-campaign is a great tool for introducing a new setting.


  2. theEmrys
    theEmrys says:

    There’s an idea I’ve wanted to try for a while related to this that I just haven’t had a chance to do yet. The idea is run a mini-series campaign like this, but maybe have the first episode or two introduce the villain but everyone is entry level (1st). Then the next episode or two take place a year or two later, and characters have been boosted to mid-level and re-encounter the villain (or their influence) maybe defeating a key lieutenant.. but realizing there is more. Then 6 months or a few years later the game continues, higher level again, and some key clue to the true evil is found and the “final quest” happens.

    It can be fun for the GM to change the setting and let the players see the effects of their decisions on the world depending on how they conclude the early adventures and then feel that they are fighting a real world-shaking threat towards the end. Given that the campaign is just set with an ending, the widespread effects aren’t game killers, but sure can make it interesting.

    Something I’ve always wanted to try… 🙂

  3. Throst
    Throst says:

    I feel like I’ve seen that mechanical beholder image somewhere before — is that a product, or just a custom-made bit of awesomeness?

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Throst – I like that idea. It lets you give character advancement between sessions. I’ve done time-jumps like that once or twice in a game, but never built a game around the idea. I’d love to hear about it.

    @theEmrys – I found it on flickr here ( I was looking for a good image to go with this article and couldn’t find one, but once I saw that image, I had to include some link to it in order to use it.

  5. Lee Hanna
    Lee Hanna says:

    My favorite thing about a mini-series campaign is based on my real-life situation. My groups can only meet once a month, so six sessions is half a year. Keeping it that short can prevent GM burnout, players wandering away, or any number of things happening to keep the campaign from finishing.

    This calendar year, my goal is to run a Savage Worlds/Space:1889 game until Origins, and revive an old D&D 3.5 game from then until early December. I can alternate between prepping one and planning another, in order to soothe my gamer ADD.

  6. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    I love this method. My primary group has a four to ten-session goal for each game series. This means we get to play two to three systems per year. We can also revisit blasts from the past by having sequels. Everyone gets a chance to pitch their game when one series is winding down and then we vote for what we want next. It has been going strong for over two and a half years now.

  7. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I’m also a huge fan, and agree that something between 4-10 sessions is ideal. Not surprising given that Bryan and I share a group…

    It’s the length that fits me best these days. Endless campaigns are cool, and often are the ideal… but I think endless is more an unconsidered default than the best length much of the time.

  8. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    I’ve actually been running mini-series games for some time. I just call them mini-campaigns. My first was a Conan-style Burning Wheel mini-campaign (was a first attempt, and it didn’t work so well… great game, but it wasn’t so mini!). My latest has been a Star Wars (using Burning Wheel again) mini-campaign. We’ve had 4 sessions (what we were planning for) with room for one more. (A few failed rolls allowed the villain to flee in an escape pod… with the clone trooper genetic coding secrets…) We’ll do the last session, since we’re all pretty into it.

    I find they work really well for game system introductions, or playing a system that has oodles of character creation options (like BW) in which the players can really dabble around and try tonnes of different sorts of characters in various scenarios.

    On the other hand, I find D&D mini-campaigns a lot of fun to prep, because you can see the whole picture. That’s a rare thing, and is really fulfilling, I find.

  9. Bercilac
    Bercilac says:

    I like theEmrys’ idea. One way to run it would be with flashbacks: players create a 1st, 5th, and 10th level version. Play the 10th level characters first, then flash back to the 1st and 5th at other points. If they pick up fancy equipment that their tenth level characters don’t have, they should explain why they don’t have it anymore. Perhaps they gave it to an NPC, and might later be able to get it back…

    Regarding the general post, it sounds quite attractive. My group has trouble sustaining long-term commitment, and as a GM I find I get bored of my own settings after a few adventures. Usually by the third adventure I’m already writing a new world, somewhere in my notes, with completely different themes. I might try pitching a mini-campaign to my group (when I have the time!).

  10. Animus
    Animus says:

    I’ve thought about planning this way but never actually tried a mini-campaign. This would fit my group better, for sure. Once again, great article!

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