It’s lonely at the top, but more than that, it’s kind of boring.
Not every group gets there, but there can come a point with a long-running or high-level campaign where you feel like it’s all been done. If the system has no more worthwhile level progression or the PCs have attained all their players ever set out for them and more, continuing to play the same campaign can feel like a drag, even if they love the setting.
Sometimes, it’s good to reboot without losing the canon that came before. That’s where a ‘generations’ game comes in handy.
At its most basic, a generations campaign is a game featuring the literal offspring, pupils or wards of the prior campaign’s PCs as the new heroes facing a new danger and a new journey as they come into their own. The old PCs remain fixtures at the contented (and boring) positions they were left in at the end of the former campaign, enjoying the spoils of their heroic endeavors. They’re little more than cameos for a new cast of heroes treading a similar path.
A generations game can be a way to put to rest long-running characters without killing them off or closing the door on their futures. In general, the type of player willing to stick with the same campaign for the long (often multi-year) run is going to enjoy seeing (or at least hearing referenced) the legacy of the character they loved for that long, even if they’re completely tired of playing them.
Bringing in the new generation lets you reset only the part you want (a chance to try new classes, archetypes, opponents, even bring in new players) while leaving in the parts your players already love and come to game for.
But a generation game isn’t just a simple sequel campaign, picking up right where the last one left off. It’s crucial that a generation game wind the clock forward until the world has undergone a few noteworthy changes that differentiate it from the old.
Time for the rightful king the PCs restored to power to grow old and too weak in his influence. Time for the great empire to become corrupt again and forget the lessons of the past. Time for the old party members to grow apart to lead their own lives and forget old allegiances. Time for them to hang up their weapons and set their spellbooks on the shelves to pursue grander things and their own form of The Quiet Life.
Something to make it necessary for a new crop of heroes to rise.
Often the changes to the world can help explain the unwillingness of the (now super-powered) former PCs to engage and clean up the mess. Good characters may have become so disillusioned with the fact that the world they worked so hard to save is now in jeopardy again, despite their efforts. Making the very people they aided the first time around be responsible for the danger in the second game (either by action or inaction) can help ensure those PCs sit this one out and leave room for the new PC crew to take up the banner.
Naturally any evil or self-interested members of the old party might happily sit by and profit from the impending New World Order. In either case, work with the players individually on how their old characters would’ve reacted to the new setup. Just make sure to be forthright about the gaming needs of the situation: you need a reason for their old PCs to sit one out. They can work with you to figure out the most reasonable way to get to that point (even if it means the old PC’s death – a popular choice among paladins and champion types).
Another great way to keep the old PCs out of the action is to flip the mode, if your players are up for it: have the second generation be members of the former opposition.
In D&D, a band of orphaned orcs may seek to discover what subtle and devious force spurned their parents into raiding local villages that nearly led to their entire people being wiped out in retaliation. In Shadowrun, have players play Doc Wagon or a team of Knight Errant up-and-comers looking to make their big break on a case that involves a loose end from the first game. Most any setting has a classic ‘enemy’ group that nevertheless has sympathetic members – The Fire Nation, Klingons, House Slytherin, the Lannisters, etc.
The key is to respect the legacy of the old game and the PCs who became legends in it without having them overshadow the new game and its new PCs. The old PCs should, at most, be cameos or fixtures in the setting (“Icons” in the 13th Age sense), not active participants in the goings on but watchers or guides, on the periphery.
In addition to the classic ‘generation’ model of generation games, there’s also what I’m going to call the ‘Kirkwall‘ model of a generation game, which follows most of the same rules but involves the original PCs the whole time, at different stages of their lives.
Each campaign in a ‘Kirkwall’ game happens several years since the last one, with the PCs having continued to live off the rewards of their triumphs in the previous game, and with the setting around them having atrophied to the point where it’s in danger again and in need of their unique skills to save it.
A ‘Kirkwall’-style generation game means the PCs get to have longer, richer, arguably more realistic lives between the major happenings that are the campaigns. They can use the rewards from the first campaign to establish themselves in the local scene and pursue less violent ends than, say, dragon-slaying. After the second campaign, they’ve become known fixtures in the local lore. After the third, they’re true heroes. The fourth may even be a case of PCs ‘coming out of retirement’ to save the city/planet/galaxy one last time.
As with a classic generation game, the important thing is for the gap of time between campaigns to be long enough for the setting to have undergone more than superficial changes.
A generations campaign may seem like a massive time investment, and it can be, but because most of the gaps between campaigns are pure backstory for the new one, you can as easily do this with something as simple as a series of one-shots. Just because the characters go through a lifetime to see it through to the end doesn’t mean you and your players have to.
Done well, a generations campaign can lead to a feeling of a richer, more lasting world. It gives the whole setting (and the characters themselves) a feeling of growth beyond anything you can easily establish in a single campaign, and lets players explore aspects of their characters’ lives outside of the normal hack-and-slash of most games that they might otherwise never get the chance to do.