I've been continuing the research into what game for the group this year. Remarkably my players are not really too invested in the issue. One of them, like me wants to do a SciFi game. The other two of the current game group are of course more interested in Fantasy gaming. Essentially 3rd Ed D&D is their sweet spot. Me as you can tell I'm more OSR and SciFi (more X-plores then SWN although I love SWN too).
I'm not alone in having this dilemma. Many a G/DM faces this issue. The root of the problem comes from G/DM's being human too. You see, its quite a big commitment, fronting up and running a game every week (or other time period - [I personally find weekly less work on me and more collaborative]). First, there is what style of game works for the group? Gamist, Narrativist and Simulationist. The whole GNS theory stuff.
For many of us this is not even a conscious or obvious step. We all sort of know what our friends like - I'm assuming your playing with people you regard as your friends, mates or people you like and take the time to appreciate. So let them know up front what you can commit to and what you can offer, when and where and in what system and setting.
Essentially you will have to make these calls on your own, unless you have a very engaged group who want to collaborate on this aspect too. A benevolent gaming dictatorship is the best!!! A good friend and gamer in my current group said "It would be a mistake to conclude that a lack of apparent enthusiasm, equals disinterest" so its worth remembering forge ahead until people clearly say otherwise.
Once you have the crunch down - you know your system, the one your going to use - then you have to get the fluff - the setting - right. Its got to the point these days that people are using the same system and then bolting on the setting they like. This holds true for everything from, Action! System Core Rules, BRP to GURPS to Savage Worlds to ZeFR's (I couldnt think of a generic RPG system starting with A so had to look it up). I don't think this is actually that workable and anyone who ascribes to GNS is probably going to want a system/setting sympathy i.e. system supports gaming in the setting. Fluff seems easier although its really is not any easier then system - which is admittedly hard. Its often very small things which can make a game system palatable or not to the participants and a good tool for the GM.
Some of this will lead you inevitably to the commitment angle. There seems to be two broad schools of thought when it comes to running a game - which nearly always means there is in reality three or more options. Lets explore those board schools, as I see them.
- There is the short form rpg or pick up session rpg, which is designed for 2-6 hours of play, on average and really is only, for this type of play. The Mountain Witch, Fiasco and Ocean fit into this school. I'd add the short sharp shock type of convention scenario to this list too. Interestingly these games actually do have quite a bit of replay ability so they are an rpg experience quite similar to the family board game. This form of game works well for the group who agree on a monthly gaming group commitment or a more sporadic schedule. The focus is put on what happens in that session. Sometimes a small amount of hand waving is done, to structure the ongoing effort into a semblance of a long term campaign, if the same setting (even if not the same rules) is used. I've suggested before that these roleplaying games - often newer indie rpg's are more "complete" then some of the OSR games which only provided guidelines for a play session.
- The Adventure, is to my way of thinking, the typical "published" scenario/module. More concretely it is a mission/event/area targeted at roughly 2-3 weeks of play. Or around 5-20 odd hours of play. I say "published", however it can as easily be, a personal piece of work covering the same breadth. Its often very similar to the short form rpg but has more scope and tasks than can really fit into just one play sitting or smaller rule set. This works for the ad-hock and also the monthly gaming group too. Clearly a series of these can be strung together with the same characters from month to month with some attention (often just-enough) paid to the glue between episodes, to structure a type of campaign play. Alternately you can jump from one setting and system to the next - this is for some reason (not sure why) a practice [switching game system and setting] that is generally frowned upon by card caring role-players - be warned. Most players expect and want adventure play to (eventually) mimic the Campaign model (see below).
- The Min-Campaign - there is no hard and fast definition that makes a game a mini campaign vs a campaign. I don't think its objective and really I think its come about from the idea of there being essentially less then a year [2000 hours] worth of game in the mind of the GM/writer who puts the game/module/series etc, together. I'm going to conveniently put it at about a half year of play. Many published mini-campaigns, seem to aim for play time which hangs at around the 6-8 "week" mark. That would make the target, in reality, anywhere from 6-40 odd hours of projected game play as written - and would seem to exclude the GM taking the players "off-script" for side tasks and non statistical character growth (narrative type story exploration). This could also be an explicit but limited exploration of a portion of a wilderness (aka Sandbox) campaign something like the Island of Dread. There is an argument that you could fit ~two of these into a year and that a years worth of gaming in the same setting (system?) represents a full "campaign. Some games aim at this type of contracted play. Apocalypse World and its hacks are a good example. So are a number of modules and supplements which set up a short term situation with a definite end point. Five Coins for a Kingdom is a great example of this, although I'd suggest you could even get a multi-year campaign out of just that one module. Truly its an amazing work. I'll lump The Cleansing War Of Garik Blackhand in here too as there is so much here its moe then just an adventure. This form is good for the fortnightly/bimonthly/and some times even the monthly crowd.
- Campaigns and the mega-campaigns. This is really everything else. Its the games that remain fun and compelling, for all involved (or at least a central core of players) for years and years of play. A grand saga telling a heroic tale or parables of misfortune, horror and woe. These are the games we all want, envy and look fondly back on, if we have been lucky enough to participate in one. Its hard to come up with examples of these as often they are beyond the scope of a published single item and other represent the efforts of not only the G/DM but the whole gaming group. However projects like, The Traveler Adventure, Ptolus, Rapan Athuk, and the estimable Lesserton and Mor are all firmly in this school. To pull these off you need to be committed to the game system, setting and your gaming group. I'd suggest gaming weekly for this type of endeavour and attract players who can meet this schedule or don't enter into this contract. (see organic genesis below)
This is the rub as the DM. You have to maintain your interest, passion and commitment for the projected period of time (unlike anyone else in the game you cant really just drop out - not without potentially ending the game for the whole group - that can be quite the pressure on you right there. AVOID this thinking. Its not factual. If the group is made up of real role players and gamers, stuff will happen. If in the wost case it doesn't ...well that was not just your fault. Remember its really is just as easy for someone else to offer up a rpg-game or to bust out the C/LCG's and board games until someone does).
However its still important to pick a school you can be in sync with if your really want to start on the right foot. For many a working professional, that means the last category - the mega-campaign - is truly a monumental undertaking. Less so, if you have a more flexible lifestyle (yes Uni students I'm talking to you!). I use the "weekly play" commitment as a barometer for gauging if a mega campaign could be launched from the ground up.
Despite best laid plans, my most successful campaigns have been more or less accidents of interest. We played a game, in the pick-up or adventure format, loved the experience so much, we all became committed to a spontaneously evolving campaign what I call the organic genesis game.
There is a lesson here for when your just asked to play in a game - don't automatically rule out a friends game based on your initial gut reaction. Have some faith, a little trust and "give it a go" you maybe moments away from entering the campaign of your gaming lifetime.