As with so many other things, the answers to this question will be as numerous, and as diverse, as the people who run, and play RPGs. I can't speak for them all, but I can tell you what it means to me.
For yours truly, a truly successful campaign, and you can quote me (heck, I'll quote me) fits this description:
"Any campaign in which all of the participating players, including the Gamemaster, are enjoying themselves much more often than not, for the entire duration that said campaign lasts."
As long as you are doing that my friends, you've made the grade. That is it. That's the brass ring right there. Sounds simple, right? Is it? That depends...
If it fits all the above criteria, but only lasted four or five sessions, was it successful? What if it started out awesome, stayed amazing for the first three years, and royally sucked in the last two. By my definition, no, not a complete success.
Am I being hard on myself? My campaigns? Am I holding the hobby up to an impossible standard?
Don't rightly know. Don't care. This is my standard. This is what determines for me whether my games have worked (or are working), or not.
A favorite Sci-Fi painting of mine, and very Traveller like, IMHO.
The Outposter, by Peter Elson
This weekend we had the 27th session of our Traveller campaign.
Twenty-seven sessions. That's no where near the most I've had for a given campaign, but it's definitely the most I've had for a campaign in the last few years, and surely the most with my current group.
Marcus has not yet returned to Traveller (if he's returning - but more on that another time), Andy is perpetually not aware of when the game is scheduled (regardless of how often we contact him ahead of time, in how many formats), but we've added a new player (Steve from our Champions game).
We started with Ed, Jeff, Marcus, Ray, and Will.
Ed and Jeff couldn't make the scheduling, but Andy, Dave, and Hans were added.
Dave couldn't make it for a while. Now he is back, but it's a little irregular. As is Andy.
Marcus was kicked out. :(
Now it's Hans, Ray, Steve, and Will, with Dave, and Andy as irregular regulars.
What makes it work so well? Let's dissect the anatomy of a successful campaign, shall we?
Control Station - Illustration by Ken Kyujo
Great Expectations - Not Preconceived Notions
I'll freely admit, my campaigns often require a pretty big buy-in. For some of my higher concept games to work (and even my normal concept games), the players need to be familiar with the tropes of the genre I'm running. The more focused the concept, the more specific the tropes, and (as I'm experiencing these days) the fewer people there are who are as familiar with those tropes as the guy running the game (namely me).
With this particular Traveller game, I kept the concept simple, the details general, and basically waited to see what the players came up with character-wise.
It wasn't a question of, "Please make a PC that fits this setting." Instead, I modified the Traveller canon setting to fit the PCs the players created. I do that regardless of the game honestly, but usually I have a more distinct idea of what I'm looking for going in. Here I just told them to surprise me.
Because they weren't trying to make characters that were Star Trek-like, or Star Wars-like, or Space: 1999-like, they ended up making characters that they liked.
After a little communication with each of them, they were characters that I liked too.
Diverse Characters - Singular Goal
With a wide range of player types, with notably different gaming styles, ages, gaming experiences, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc., the game wouldn't work if they didn't all end up wanting the same thing.
They can have wildly different motivations, approaches, and abilities, but if the player characters' end game goals don't line up, it's going to be a very difficult campaign to play through. The goals of the various character do not need to be identical, but they definitely need to be compatible.
I've talked about this idea before on the blog, but I have no qualms doing so again as it is integral to a great campaign in my experience. Depending on the type of campaign you're running this can become downright essential.
When this campaign began, I had no idea what the players would want to do, what would interest them, and that sort of thing. Looking at their background stories, I saw several places where the stories could easily connect.
As I was connecting them in the 'background', the group followed the goals of one particular PC, who offered to pay the others for helping her. One thing lead to another, and soon everyone was involved in that particular PCs story, not realizing how it intertwined with their own.
It actually took quite a bit of time for them to discover the connections between them. The group, consisting of a few players unfamiliar with my long term storybox approach, spent so much time worried about themselves, their NPCs, their stories, that they didn't even consider they all had the same big bad pulling the strings, and threatening the entire sector with war. Once they did, Oh Man, Oh Man! Wow. The looks on their faces when the light bulbs went on over their heads was priceless.
The primary reason Marcus needed to go was because he was not only acting like a jerk (that I can deal with), but he was constantly, actively acting against the best interests of the party.
He refused to divulge information his PC knew that could help the group's efforts. He continually undertook actions without informing the group, but always needed the group's help to make his plans work, or to get him out when the plans went South. He used PCs, and NPCs, but rarely interacted with them in a mutually beneficial way, then was surprised that they didn't trust him, or want to help him.
He expected a lot, offered nothing, and did what he wanted even if it was counter to agreed upon goals. He wanted very much to be the star of his part of the story, and win his own victories, but he only knew one way to do that - diminish the actions, and victories of the team, and impede the overall plot.
Now in his defense (yes, defense), I don't think that is exactly how it played out in his (the player's) head. I don't think he decided, "I'm going to be a total putz today!" I think there was some miscommunication early in the campaign that made Marcus feel his contributions wouldn't be taken into consideration. He himself felt like a henchmen, not a member of the group. This was one of the points he made before rejoining the gaming group and participating in our Champions campaign. I thought about it, and I totally get why he thought that. We agreed that if something like that occurred again for any reason, he would bring it up right away. He also agreed to try to have better inter-player communication in general, and so did the rest of the gang.
Do What Works - Not What Doesn't
This is vital.
In twenty-seven sessions, each lasting roughly 8 hours (Sessions in the first year were about 6 hours long, after that they've generally run 8-10 hours), there have been 9-10 combat encounters. Ten fights in twenty-seven games.
Why? Because Will and Ray avoid physical conflict at all costs, and Hans and Andy only fight when there's no other option. Marcus was in nearly all the battles we had. Why? Because while the rest of us were playing the Sims, he was playing Call of Duty.
Unfortunately, there was one computer, and one screen. The Sims was loaded, and no matter how often we pointed that out, he kept trying to use his keyboard to change weapons.
Yeah. It was like that.
The majority of the group plays Traveller like a cross between a Cyberpunk/Shadowrun game, and a 'Life-In-The-Future' simulator.
The campaign consists mainly of business deals, espionage missions, deducing mysteries, learning about alien cultures, interpersonal relationships, corporate and political maneuvering, designing and constructing new weapons and technologies, and working behind the scenes to insure a facist, militant, species-ist megalomaniac doesn't get into a position of considerable political power, and secretly complete, and launch his private army of cyborg piloted battle robots.
Physical conflicts are going to come up, but that is not the game element these players (for the most part) most enjoy.
Do I personally wish there was a little more action? Sometimes. Yet I haven't seen this level of character, and story depth in a long, long time. I wouldn't give that up for anything.
I could go on, and on, with this, since I like this campaign so very much. It may not be everyone's idea of a good time, and I'm sure the average ol' school player might not get into it, but my group and I are having a blast.
People keep coming back, one travels from another state to be here when he can, and another misses it, and wants back in.