It’s easy for undifferentiated life to blur together—even when it’s the hectic life of an adventurer. (Maybe even especially when it’s the busy life of an adventurer; the first orc is a terrifying foe, but after seven levels, how do you tell them apart?) Both players and GMs benefit from characters and campaigns with defined times and a grasp of events corresponding to their character’s development.
The story of your character’s life—especially as the character tells it—can be marked in many ways. Some of it will be competency based, like the year you didn’t have to ask your Dad’s advice on the farm, when you got your Class A license (or your license to kill), or the day that physics suddenly “clicked” and made sense. More eras will be marked by events—moving to a new town, the day your youngest child succumbed to ague, slaying your first Ogre, or assuming command of your first ship.
Level systems can provide sharp break points; your character changes dramatically when she acquires Great Cleave or tosses her first fireball. Many of the level to level transitions stand out less—there’s a reason getting fireball is famous—but they can focus the attention of the player. In a game involving on screen training, meeting your new mentor can complement acquiring your new skills to make the transition even more noteworthy.
Non-level based systems sometimes provide similar exciting breakpoints; while developing Potence 3 probably won’t stick in your mind, your first Vanish from the Mind’s Eye or use of Majesty is a memorable moment.
Generally, though, events tend to define characters’ blocks of history… which leads us to the GM’s side.
Session and Plot Blur
The GM is often the person establishing arcs and eras by default. If the first and second adventures focus on the Caves of Chaos, and the third involves guarding a caravan to Ides Sendres, then “caves” and “caravan” is likely to become most players’ definition of the time blocks for themselves and their characters.
Sometimes, though, a complex plot gets murky. Several game sessions can pass while enmeshed the same plot—whether it’s aimless monster of the week killing, an intrigue that requires traveling the land and conversing with various nobles over game weeks or months, or navigating an intrigue between the city’s Prince and frequently visiting Justicars. This can be fine if the plot is of reasonable length, but sometimes when your primary plot sustains itself across several smaller plots, many players will fail to differentiate the events and it’ll be marked and remembered as drawn out.
If, in the moment, you make an effort to spice up the sub-plots, you’ll avoid an undifferentiated, plot soup, feel. Be careful—when you’re relying on sub-plots to keep people’s experiences aligned, be sure that the spotlight is rotating through your group. If a player is trapped in both an interminable main plot and is backup to the other players’ subplots, the experience can be lost or greatly compressed in memory—and annoyance or restlessness can develop at your table.
Arcs and Eras
There’s an upper bound to just how much detail people are going to remember long term. If your game lasts only a few sessions, someone recapping the game immediately might list off everything that happened. Wait a few months, though, and even their character name might be hard to dredge up.
In a long running game you need to think about compression and build in resting points. I’ve played in many games where there’s an overall clock, forcing the PCs to race from event to event… so that when you look back, it feels like one long string—and you realize that the characters somehow grew from untested youths to powerful archmagi in four weeks.
Building in breakpoints, like recovering from wounds, time elapsed traveling, study, or training, and differentiating the characters’ experiences, like varying the foes and quest styles, or changing the nature of the game by getting the group off planet, all help to keep the game’s events discrete.
There’s an upper bound to clarity and memory; no matter how unique and well defined each session is, after years of play they have to get compressed. If you build in thematic changes or vary your story arcs, that compression will be more uniform across your group—so they’ll be talking about “the Green Dragon Quest” instead of “Oh, it was soon after I got fireball”.
Time Breaks and You
Do you group your games into arcs, planning on the story being retold later? If you run a sandbox world, how do you encourage your players to agree to similar time blocks? Does it just evolve organically at your table? Please share your experiences with time’s wandering arrow in comments.