I talk a lot about the differences between long-term campaigns and one-shots games because there’s often such a different approach required for the two styles that it’s difficult to assume anything that works in one will work in the other without some serious finessing on the part of the GM.
But that’s ignoring a third, much rarer model that too many groups still overlook: the episodic campaign.
Breaking your game into episodes essentially means running a series of related one-shots in a semi-consistent world with at least some of the same players involved, so it’s easy to assume that episodic gaming is just a hybrid of the two more common styles, but it actually opens up entirely new types of stories you can build your game around.
Let’s compare. In a long-term campaign, you typically run on a regular schedule (maybe once or twice a week), carry a set of characters across a single massive story (involving a whole lot of little ones along the way) till they reach the end and either get what they want or die brilliantly in a memorable blaze of glory (or both, depending on your players).
In an episodic campaign, you run a single session, with its own characters and story. Then, sometime later, if folks are still interested, you run another one-shot: same world, same characters, new mission. No set schedule, no promises, and only a glimmer of a long-term plan. That’s an episodic game.
Outside of being a lot less stress than a true long-term campaign (while also giving more of a reason to invest in the characters than your average one-shot), an episodic game also gives you the power to use the natural gaps between episodes as a story element in and of themselves. Game systems (and there are still too many of them) that rely on use swaths of downtime for people to upgrade their skills, spells, make things and live their lives actually fit at face value into the gaps of an episodic campaign.
Much more rewarding than that, you can use the gaps to skip time forward in ways that would be disruptive in a more regular campaign. If your episodes are months apart, you can come back to a party of characters who’ve had time to break apart and develop on their own with the reputation and new motives from the last episode. Now something calls them together again, and it gives them a chance to catch each other up on the private stories (and new troubles) they’ve gotten into since they were last traveling together.
And they’re not the only ones. The whole world can change on that game, leaping forward several years or more. Long enough for the country whose evil priest-lord they slew to fall into disrepair and lawlessness in the absence of a true government. The tiny ripples and aftershocks of their past actions can now swell into major changes across the face of the game world without the players having to sit through years of backroom politics and clandestine orchestrations and societal decay to bring them about.
If your players are the sort to want it, you could cover whole generational changes, dealing with descendants or just new characters living in the shadow of the old legends, who just happened to have been played by the same people.
Because the episodes are each complete stories, you can also more easily swap characters in and out, or even bring in entirely new players. They may not get all the in-jokes from the previous episodes, but you can get them up the speed on what they need to know for the current arc just like you would the background for any new campaign or one-shot.
Groups that like variety can also runs several episodic campaigns concurrently without killing their GMs or filling up their schedules in the process. When they get tired of fighting dragons with swords and magic, they can request a one-shot episode in the space-age sci-fi game instead, without having to wait months or years for the first game to run its course (or peter out from lack of interest).
And of course, because you can stop an episodic campaign any time, and pick it up again any time, it works extremely well with the busy lives of your players so that you can always find time to game, even if you’re not always able to game at the same time.
All told, starting an episodic campaign is a wonderful low-stress way to do tabletop, regardless of your group. It can add flexibility and variety that few campaigns can afford without sacrificing the investment that comes with knowing this isn’t the only session you’ll be playing this character in. I highly recommend it for any group, especially those struggling to make a long-term campaign work.