Imagination + good rules + group buy-in. Those are the elements that fueled our longest running games, even if the campaigns the RPGs were powering jumped from ruleset to ruleset. Our Blackrazor Guild campaign, now in its second decade, has seen numerous prequels, sequels, and spin-offs. It’s been run using Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, 3.5 Edition, and was recently resurrected using 5th Edition. There might even have been a Pathfinder iteration at some point.
Our collective imagination — and the myriad of narratives it gave rise to — drove our campaigns across all those editions and without it none of the underlying RPGs would have worked. But the campaigns that clicked did so because the rules did what we wanted them to and did well. At the same time, the group bought in the RPGs, not just financially — though we certainly bought lots of books — but intellectually. The games fit where we were as a group, and as a result each of them had a good 3-4 year run before we moved onto a newer set of rules.
When we stopped playing a particular system, it was often because it no longer fit our group’s tastes. Many of us cut our teeth on Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, but grew tired of the sprawling, sometimes contradictory ruleset. 3rd Edition unified the rule base and gave us the nittygritty attention to detail we craved. 3.5 gave us more of the same, but started to introduce 3.x fatigue as grew frustrated trying to figure out what rules had changed and not changed in the “upgrade”.
D&D 4th Edition, on the other hand, only lasted a handful of game sessions (and those only had half of our regular players). We had the imagination, but the rules didn’t match the expectations of many in the group and we were never able to achieve buy in. Instead we ended up playing a compromise RPG: Star Wars: Saga Edition. Wizards of the Coast’s last take on a Star Wars RPG gave us the d20 ruleset we wanted and retained the flexibility we loved, but started streamlining the underlying game instead of adding more complexity. It gave rise to a 50+ chapter campaign … which ended when the group collectively felt that our Star Warsstories had run their course.
Achieving and maintaining buy-in with non-D&D or Pathfinder games has been difficult. We’ve experimented with different games including Mutants & Masterminds, Numenera, and myriad one shots of other RPGs (Dungeon World, Hollow Earth Expedition) but while we may occasionally return to those games, they haven’t ignited the same passion and achieved the same buy in as good ol’D&D. Star Wars was one exception to that, but it still leveraged the d20 rule base.
The one non-d20 exception is Savage Worlds, which powers our Weird Pulp campaign. That campaign’s currently on hiatus, but most of the folks in our group like Savage Worlds (a few, like me, love it) and Weird Pulp itself had a fun vibe that I’m sure will bring people back to the table.