Running a successful, long term gaming campaign is a lot of work, and there is no guarantee that it is going to be worth it in the end. I’ve seen many games that lasted less time than a goblin in padded armor. So, what can you do to make your game fun and lasting? Well, there are a near infinite amount of ways to approach gaming but I can’t talk about all of them here. One that I would like to comment on is the amount of preparation that goes into a single session and into the ongoing campaign. Contrary to popular opinion it is possible to plan too much for a game, sometimes to the detriment of all involved.
If you are (un)fortunate enough to be the GM, DM, Keeper or whatever for your group there is no need to burden yourself with additional planning and long term masterminding that may never come to pass, or even worse, be forced upon the group of players. In my experience one of the worst things that a game master can do is to plan too far in advance, have the whole arc of the campaign scripted out before the first dice are rolled. It’s important to realize that the Game Master is just one half of the equation, with the players comprising the more volatile, explosive part of the game and the GM providing the framework that it can all exist inside of. It has to be a collaborative effort or it’s going to fall short. A couple of years back I was running a D&D campaign and when I was putting together my initial thoughts on the story I had in mind a plot involving the poisoning of the land by a clan of evil blighter type druids. Ultimately I assumed that the players would battle the druids and find their way to a mystical isle of legend where they could find the cure for the blighting that would be tearing through the land. I had some plot hooks that would interest all of the PC’s, but the PC druid was going to sort of be the driving force as to why they were getting involved in all of this. Well, guess what? The druid totally sucked as a character (she was fun and everyone liked her, but grossly ineffective) and wound up getting killed halfway through the campaign. But even before that I was able to adjust where the game was going by letting the players steer the course and in the end we had what may have been the best long term game that the group had experienced. It was a ton of fun. However, if I had spent a month writing up NPC’s, drawing maps and creating monsters I think that I would have been much more hesitant to scrap it. And this allowed me to adjust to what they did want to do, rather than just going along with what I had planned.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is that sourcebooks are there to help you. Honestly I’ve never been a big fan of the D&D books for specific locales (Greyhawk being the major exception) but the Shadowrun ones are great, as are a lot of other games. Use them, make it easy on yourself. Especially if you are new to running a game, piggyback on what others have done before you and play around and see what you and your group are most into. No need to reinvent the wheel.
It’s also very useful to have some key plot points or NPC’s that can be used in any location, that is to say that they are not tied to a certain inn or an event that will only happen if the party decides on a certain course. For example, the party is looking for a piece of information while investigating the disappearance of a college professor. You know that the info that they need is inside the head of a colleague of the professor’s. Now maybe that guy is usually hanging out at a certain watering hole, but he doesn’t have to be. Guess where he is going to pop up? That’s right, wherever the PC’s wind up. That seems simple, but look at it from the player’s standpoint. You have not railroaded them anywhere, they have been free to check out a whole bunch of places and ask around for this guy, which is good. Players don’t want to be told where to go. But in the end they find what they have been looking for and also get explore the location a bit. And you’ve really just created one NPC (of course, you are going to need to be able to adlib your way through some social encounters. If you can’t do this, you may be in the wrong line of work.)
In the end nothing is more important than understanding the group that you play with, and it takes time to breed that familiarity. But I know that I like to game every week and I don’t always have 10+ hours to set aside for preparation so I’ve learned to get by on less and less prep time. And some of the best sessions we’ve every had came as a result of having virtually nothing planned (don’t tell the players that) because it becomes a real group effort with everyone contributing to the action.