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Campaigns: Starting Up Again After a Hiatus

Tomorrow night, my group is picking up our D&D campaign after a couple months on hiatus (due to time commitments, travel and the like). Our GM, Sam, knows his stuff — this isn’t a roundabout way to tell him what to do tomorrow, I just thought it would be an interesting topic to consider.

Whenever you take an extended break from an ongoing game, that first session back should look slightly different than a normal session.

1. Start off with a meatier opening recap [1] than usual. Chances are, at least some of your players have completely forgotten what was going on in your campaign. Don’t take offense — they just need a reminder, and in this case that reminder should be longer and more detailed than normal. (And whatever you do, don’t ask your players to do the recap after a long break.)

2. Account for rustiness. After a lengthy break, your players might be rusty on two things: the rules, and roleplaying their characters. Personally, it usually takes me a little while to get back into my character, and at least one encounter to remember all the stuff my PC can do.

As a general rule, I wouldn’t recommend opening with a critical scene that demands a lot from your players — give them a few minutes to ease into it.

3. Then, get right down to it. After the warm-up period, kick things into high gear: Come out swinging with whatever best represents your campaign — a fast-paced action scene, stumbling into a mystery, a horrific encounter, an NPC ally in danger, etc.

Just ask yourself, “What is this campaign all about?” — and then answer that question in the second scene (the first major scene overall, after the warm-up one).

4. Carry on as normal. After you’ve taken those first three steps, the rest of your session should just be a normal night of gaming. Your players will be back in the saddle, warmed up and pumped about the game.

What techniques do you use when starting up a campaign after an extended break?

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#1 Comment By Vanir On August 31, 2007 @ 8:24 am

Every December (Christmas) and every March (a gatling gun filled with D&D-destroying birthday parties), we usually go on hiatus for a month or so. And every time we come back, nobody remembers what the hell happened anymore. The wind is so far out of our sails that it’s dubious that we even have sails anymore. MAN I hate that!!!

This time around, hopefully we’ll try some of your suggestions. I think another important thing to consider might be ending the last session before a hiatus in a good place. Or at the very least, an exciting place people will remember more easily.

(Also, you accidentally touched on something I find difficult since I started writing for stupidranger — how to talk about your gaming group without sounding like you think you own the place! You’re the best, Martin. 🙂 )

#2 Comment By brcarl On August 31, 2007 @ 8:31 am

Oddly enough, the campaign I play in will be meeting tomorrow night for the first time in two months. The DM is currently running a side-adventure from a published work, so he probably won’t be able to selectively perform the “get right down to it” maneuver. And as the bard PC (and unofficial note-taker), he’ll lean on me to provide the “meatier opening recap”.

As for “carry on as normal”, even that will be tricky, as the last session saw everyone in the party lose at least one level to energy drain. (grrr…) I don’t think everyone kept old copies of their PC sheets, so it should be interesting to see how we deal with our de-leveled stats.

#3 Comment By Telas On August 31, 2007 @ 8:41 am

Great post.

I usually try to time it so the break in real-time coincides with a break in game-time. (I’m not always successful.) This helps, as you can provide an opportunity for “what I did in the downtime” speechifying on the restart, including one for the GM.

I also try to email the group and recap events if we’ve had a break of more than a couple of weeks.


#4 Comment By John Arcadian On August 31, 2007 @ 8:51 am

brcarl: “Oddly enough, the campaign I play in will be meeting tomorrow night for the first time in two months.”

Martin has this great way of seeming to coincide his posts with what is going on in my gaming group at the time. My buddy Alec and I constantly wonder if he has our apartments and gaming stores bugged, or if he is just some kind of supreme mental overlord who can read all of TT readers thoughts . . .

Usually when I come back into a game from a hiatus I try to do a Fast Forward in game time. Make a break in the story and recap up to that point. I then ask “So, what do your characters do in those 2 months . . .” and let them kind of reseat the group into the game world and let it all settle out from there. Also keeping things in view for the players is a good idea. Like keeping NPC names on a white board or posted behind the GM on a sheet of paper, or some kind of synopsis that they can look at for a quick reminder.

#5 Comment By Walt C On August 31, 2007 @ 9:03 am

The best example I have with this was in my first Witchcraft campaign. By way of background, the game was only three adventures and one session old (my adventures tended to run 2-3 four hour sessions). After the first session of adventure four, we took a month-long Christmas break. This turned into a two-month break when a member of the group was burned in a fire (he’s okay now).

The first session had floundered. It was mystery-heavy, with the PCs collecting a lot of information but not really putting clues together.

For the first section back, I prepared a one page “cheat sheet” that listed all of the pertinent clues and NPCs that the players had met. When we regrouped, I set the PCs in a safe, casual setting and handed out the cheat sheet. The players quickly got up to speed, put the clues together, and charged into the climactic action scenes within the span of the session. A fun time was had by all, and that adventure is still held out as one of the best in that 50-adventure campaign.

Afterwards, one of the players told me that I might have made the cheat sheet too useful, as clue connections that weren’t so obvious leapt off the page when set down in black and white (although he agreed that it made the final session far more focused and fun). From that point onward, my players regularly wrote down clues.

Walt C

#6 Comment By robustyoungsoul On August 31, 2007 @ 9:45 am

This has definitely happened to me in the past where I would just get a case of GM burnout.

However, we actually just took a month hiatus for some of the reasons you mentioned above (vacations, weddings, etc.). The timing turned out to be really good in our Burning Empires game simply because of the way a campaign is broken up into “phases”. We had just finished a phase before we went on the month break so when we got back together earlier this week we were able to start with a fresh phase.

Amazingly though, in this game everybody seemed to remember what was going on. Perhaps this was because of the Beliefs system in BE, but we definitely didn’t have to do too much refresher and were able to jump right into it.

These are great suggestions though and would definitely have come in handy in some of the games where I just would get burned out right around 7-8 months of running a game.

#7 Comment By Micah On August 31, 2007 @ 11:54 am

If you’re blogging your campaign, it’s a good idea to send an e-mail to your players a couple days before the game and ask them to re-read the last few posts. This does not take the place of the opening recap, because you can assume that at best, only 1/2 of them actually did it 😉

#8 Comment By ScottM On August 31, 2007 @ 8:55 pm

Those sound like good suggestions; stuff I’ve half done in the past without thinking about it. Your rules should be a slick way to make it easier.

#9 Comment By Bobcat On September 1, 2007 @ 3:39 am

One good thing to point out: if you have a *planned* hiatus coming up – Christmas break for example – then you should plan for it as well. Make it so the last session before the break is fairly epic, and ties up most of the loose ends, storyline-wise. Further, it’s also a good idea to take notes of the events previous, as game masters have a tendency to forget details too.

#10 Comment By Martin On September 6, 2007 @ 9:11 am

Planning breaks and ending on a high note is a great point.

Our two GMs did a good job of that with both games: Our D&D campaign finished up a story arc, and our Stargate game ended altogether — then we took our lengthy break.

(John Arcadian) Martin has this great way of seeming to coincide his posts with what is going on in my gaming group at the time. My buddy Alec and I constantly wonder if he has our apartments and gaming stores bugged, or if he is just some kind of supreme mental overlord who can read all of TT readers thoughts . . .

There’s no truth to this at all. None whatsoever.

Incidentally, John, if you see a black sedan parked outside your apartment, I don’t recommend trying to run…