Episodic campaigns are important because people have lives. At some point, it becomes difficult to meet as regularly and consistently as we would like: jobs, kids, other responsibilities take priority. So maybe we need to go back to the way we used to play when we were younger, in sort of an episodic fashion.
By “episodic”, I mean that each session may have some loose connection to the adventures just before and after, but not in any strong narrative sense. You play for a few hours and stuff happens in your session. Then, when you play again, more stuff happens – but it may not necessarily build on what happened before. In fact, if you recount the sessions at some point, the order may not even really matter. You just run a dungeon or save a village or defeat some bad guy and then come back again later. Perhaps individual characters have arcs that the “campaign” addresses from time to time, but not always. The group likely doesn’t even consist of the same people from session to session. All this is on a spectrum, of course: you might string together a larger metaplot that advances slowly across episodes.
This might mean less continuity in our games, but we still get to play and have fun.
Let’s talk about some types of episodic campaigns. This list isn’t exhaustive, others may quibble with how I categorize things, and no two campaigns will ever be exactly alike, but some common ones include:
Sandbox: In this sort of campaign, the players determine what they want to do each session (hopefully at the conclusion of a session or fairly soon thereafter). Maybe they want to go back and follow up on those rumors of ghost sightings under the temple, or visit a patron who might help one of them learn a new rune, or travel to a faraway island rumored to hold lost riches. The campaign has no set narrative beyond whatever emerges from their own goals. Not all sandbox campaigns have an episodic structure, but many do. A popular example is a West Marches game (named for a campaign that documented this style in a way that garnered lots of attention), but that’s just a particularly well-evolved type of sandbox campaign.
Megadungeon: This campaign focuses on exactly you might think, one really huge dungeon that is big enough to contain more fodder for exploration and loot and encounters than players could reasonably explore in even a handful of sessions. (Megadungeons can be run in a sandbox style for sure!) Think of something like Moria from Lord of the Rings or perhaps even the Death Star itself. Actually, this playstyle literally goes back to the very origins of D&D and Castle Greyhawk.
Monster Hunters (or Relic Hunters): Each session, brave adventurers set out together to find and defeat a particular monster, or maybe a small clan of them. This could just as well involve trying to track down and recover some specific relic or artifact or other MacGuffin. (This could just as well be called a “monster of the week” campaign, if you actually get to run it every week.) In my mind, the computer game Darkest Dungeon (itself a bit of a love letter to D&D) emulates this exceedingly well.
Organized play: As I write about frequently here, Adventurers League explicitly lends itself to an episodic structure. (Pathfinders Society might as well, but I don’t know enough to say one way or another.) You can show up to a store or convention or just an online session and enjoy. No requirement exists to continue with some specific group of players, and so your character can then go off and adventure with other people and other DMs without having to start over because everyone plays with the same ruleset, in the same shared universe, and with that same expectation.
All of these have their advantages in campaigns that do not always have the same players from week-to-week or even meet every week. In fact, these are not even mutually exclusive. Groups can and do combine them all in interesting ways depending on taste.
Lots of other more knowledgeable folks have written tons about each of the above. If some of those ideas grab your attention, go find out more. Or just start running a game and let folks know it’s okay if they aren’t there every week. (You might not even be able to commit to running it every single week without fail!) That’s okay: if expectations are set in advance and you keep it simple, then you can find what will work for your group. It’ll evolve and you’ll have missteps, but every campaign ever run has always had to find its way forward.
But you and your group will be having fun the whole time!