A lifetime of roleplaying, or roleplaying a lifetime: generation-spanning RPG campaigns

Many people keep a list of things they want to accomplish before they slough off this mortal coil. That’s a bit too serious a topic to address in a game blog like this, but I suspect that I am not the only gamer who has a list of game activities I want to experience before I hang up my gamemaster hat for good. One of the things I want to do is run or play in a generational RPG campaign.

By “generational campaign,” I am referring to an RPG campaign that spans a much longer span of time than do most adventures and campaigns. I’m talking about a campaign that covers events all throughout the life and career of a PC–and maybe even the adventures of the PC’s children, grandchildren, and beyond.

Most RPG campaigns cover a relatively short span of time in a character’s life. The longest adventures–and here I’m thinking of some of the truly epic D&D campaigns of yesteryear–might take your character months or even a year or two of his fictional life to fully complete. And a game group that plays regularly for a few years might see their characters age a few years, maybe even a decade. And that sort of campaign can be mighty satisfying.

But in all of those cases, the PC doesn’t really have time to evolve and develop like a real human would; most campaigns take place during the PC’s “peak adventuring age” and end not when the character grows out of adventuring age and into the next phase of life, but when the gaming group gets bored or decides to do something else for a change.

In a lifetime-spanning campaign, however, you’d play out the most important or interesting adventures and experiences spread throughout the character’s life. Assuming your character isn’t killed by 3rd-level goblins during his first adventure at age 18, you’d see him pursue long-term goals; you’d see the consequences of choices made in youth cropping up later in his career; you’d see his goals finally achieved or forfeited in old age. You’d see relationships come and go, enemies rise and fall, and values stand firm or crumble in the face of a lifetime of challenges.

I’m aware of only a few published generational campaigns like this. One is the Sengoku campaign Shiki, which spans an 18-year period in feudal Japan during which the characters safeguard an important heir from infancy until he is old enough to assume his birthright. Another is The Great Pendragon Campaign for the Pendragon RPG; it spans 80 years and allows the characters to personally witness and take part in the Arthur legend from beginning to end.

Going even further are campaigns that span not just a character’s life, but several generations of characters. In these campaigns, characters might be connected through the years by blood, loyalty, or chance; but whatever the connection, their lives all fit together to tell a grand story. As far as I know, outside of Pendragon, only White Wolf has published much of anything along these lines. The four-part Transylvania Chronicles for Vampire: the Dark Ages spans hundreds of years of history, beginning in the medieval world and continuing all the way to the modern day. And the newer Vampire Chronicler’s Guide contains guidelines for creating and playing entire vampire family trees–the sins of the father visited upon the children to the fourth generation, and all the drama and horror that implies. I’m not a Vampire player, but I’d jump at the opportunity to participate in one of these uber-epic campaigns.

So why haven’t I tried to run a generational–or multi-generational–RPG campaign yet? Mainly because I have enough trouble getting a gaming group together for more than two consecutive game sessions; the idea of committing a year or two of real life to play through the entire lifespan of our characters is logistically daunting. There’s also the matter of such campaigns requiring quite a bit more preparation than most short-term games, both for the players and gamemaster. But one day I will run a game like this, or at least take a decent stab at doing so. And if I don’t, perhaps my children, and my children’s children after them, will…

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