What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.
Caught twixt and tween
The mop-up session, the bookkeeping session, the just “finish-the-damn-dungeon-so-we-can-get-on-to-something-else” session.
The transition session.
I really don’t enjoy DMing those sessions as much as I should, I suppose. Admittedly, they are challenging to run, and the do present some great gaming opportunities. It’s tough to hold some players’ attention and interest during “tweener” sessions, though.
Yet, in every campaign of any length I’ve ever done, though, we hit the bump in the road that is one of the above.
Hard-wired into the game?
Is it inevitable? Is it unavoidable? Is it hard-wired into our gaming history? Go back to Maure Castle’s early days and the famed “unopenable doors.” Getting past them required a session devoted to the PCs researching a solution. Before those pioneering players could get into the dungeon, they had to pass this particular hurdle.
I don’t think transition sessions are specific to dungeon crawls and published adventures only, but they do seem to surface more with them. I recall an “Age of Worms” transition that required some unfinished business in the seedy town of Diamond Lake. Basically, before the adventure could move on, the PCs decided to clear up all outstanding debts and grudges. That took an entire session, mainly going door-to-door like the UPS delivery person and making good on things left undone.
Now transition sessions are great roleplaying opportunities. Put on your acting hat and roll those diplomacy checks. There is usually a boatload of NPC interaction possible in a transition session.
And there can be combat, such as in the “finish the dungeon” scenarios. But making those last few combats work is tough, because, you want combat to have meaning. Is it meaningful, though, if the PCs are simply acting as the cleanup crew?
“Here’s your mop, bucket and longsword. Let’s tidy up the dungeon and collect more XP before we go out and save the world.”
Here are some things DMs can do, though, to keep things from bogging down.
1. Limit mop-up/bookkeeping to one session.
You might have to lay down your objective at the outset: “Players, we need to resolve these issues this time, because next time we meet, the PCs will be placed at the door of the next dungeon.” While you may be willing to devote one playing session to bookkeeping, you don’t want it to spill over into two sessions. A new adventure awaits!
2. Salt your NPC interactions with story hooks.
This is more an opportunity to pick up the pace than anything. But maybe you can entice the PCs to snag an adventure hook this way.
3. Make sure there is at least one good combat somewhere along the line.
If you’re going to go to the trouble of cleaning up after yourself, at least make that round of initiative rolls mean something. This is the one time I think it’s OK to have the monster parachute into the adventure from somewhere above. Damn the ecology or story and full speed ahead!
4. The map.
Let the players find “the map,” which, of course, leads to the next adventure. It’s a little heavy-handed, I know. But if the players won’t budge off their cleanup crew routine there’s nothing like putting an adventure hook into their lap.
You can at least make the map interesting in itself, though. Maps don’t always have to be quadra-folded and given away for free at state-run highway rest-stops. The map can be drawn on a vase, hidden in a rhyme, painted as part of a portrait or etched onto the back of a piece of jewelry.
5. Evaluate your players’ reactions to all of this.
It may be that your group actually prefers a play style where NPC interactions rule and adventuring/monster encounters are a less important part of your roleplay.
I think most games encourage more combat encounters, but your experience may differ. It might be your players prefer investigation/interaction leading to one good combat over a more traditional dungeon crawl. Transition sessions can be good tools to evaluating the play style your group prefers. There is always more than one way to play a game. Find out what suits you and your players best. So use a transition session as a chance to mix playing styles and check their reactions.
A final word
Some groups utilize e-communication as a means to resolve downtime issues and other “combat-free” roleplaying that can take place away from the table. I think that this is an excellent way to expand the gaming experience, so long as it suits your group.
My experience, though, is different. I’ve found that there are usually a few members of a group who don’t want their gaming “plugged in” that way. My advice is to keep transition sessions at your table — minimize them in length if you can — but avoid exchanges that may exclude gaming members simply because they don’t want to continue play-by-post or through instant messaging.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a session like this, and I had to read the entry a few times before I really locked on this: “dungeon crawls and published adventures only, but they do seem to surface more with them.” So I suppose it’s the fact that I don’t play games of that style that leads me to avoid the slogging transitions sessions.
I recently read about a technique called “say yes or face the dungeon” that might be of interest to people who are having a tough time with this kind of play.
Transition sessions are tough, particularly with my D&D group. There are a few people in my group who enjoy the “between adventure stuff”– selling loot and picking out new gear, playing out training in a new feat, researching the villain’s weakness– but several others who drift out if they go too long without combat and who are quickly impatient with planning.
Depending on the in game situation, this type of session can be minimized– but doing so can throw off the game’s expectations. If you don’t let people convert “junk” to useful items, they’ll probably be fighting below expectation until they have a chance to right the situation.
Your comment about resistance to taking between session events to email is also right on. I have a two players who would happily deal with selling, etc., between sessions. But at least three other players don’t read/respond during the week, so you can’t actually skip the session…
I’m having the same issue as deadlytoque: I’m not understanding what your definition of a “transition session” is, or rather why it deserves special consideration. What you describe sounds like 1/3 or 1/4 of all sessions, namely the segue from one story arc to next. Why not just treat it as any other session? Play it out as one would any other scenario in the game.
Am I missing a key part of what makes this kind of situation in-game different from any other?
@Rafe – Planning things and buying/selling things is often much less appealing for a lot of players than encountering things and being involved in the actual adventure path itself.
When the downtime between dungeons or “plot points” (the trip into town) stagnates into a long Wal*Mart visit, Salvation Army drop, and conversation at the tavern, it becomes more of a transition session than an adventure session.
Not that these things can’t be done or even played out in roleplay mode, but when an entire evening is taken up by mundane minutia, it can be quite boring and tedious for a lot of folks wanting to get back to the excitement.
@BryanB – Ah, that’s what I was looking for. I didn’t quite get the distinction, but I think I’m clued in now. I suppose part of the problem is that I haven’t encountered this very often, if ever. Usually, if it comes to buying/selling, it just happens. It takes perhaps 30 seconds for everyone at the table to sort that out.
In terms of planning, I’ve always found that to be quite fun. I remember a cyberpunk game where we all planned for 5 hours how to orchestrate a break-in, with the actual play of that taking only 1.5 hours. We had a blast planning. Like Troy said, it depends on the players’ preferences and what, exactly, the planning is for. Sometimes it’s unrelenting table chatter/debate, but sometimes it’s in-character planning (or at least quite interesting table chatter).
The one thing I’m still a bit confused about is how a transition session would take an actual session in terms of seeing it through. Do they not take significantly less time, usually? Again, I’ve never (or very rarely) had a transition type of situation in D&D and, with Burning Wheel, never.
Some of Troy’s points, like 4. The map, point to some causes for these transition delays. Sometimes you finish an adventure and the next adventure isn’t clear– time to hit the tavern and listen to rumors. Or time to research dragon lairs, or time to ask the city guard if they’ve had any usual disturbances, or time to check in with your NPC friends and make sure they haven’t been kidnapped while you were away on your last mission, or…
For freeform/sandbox games, any of the above might be a good way to pick your next adventure. Often, though, the GM has one or two ways to get you into the next adventure… and you may stumble around roleplaying lots of conversations until you finally hit on the right one. If the party splits up, so you have to wait a half hour for your five minute time-slice, and it turns out to be a bad guess [hmm… no useful rumors in the tavern after all], it can take quite a while.
Combine that with everyone competing to do stuff focused on their PC [interacting with their NPC friends, disposing of personal loot and ordering new supplies, finding leads to the person who has the item they want to buy, etc.], and a lot of time can pass.
Clear sign posting can avoid some of this, but not everything. Similarly, if you “clean out the dungeon” after you’ve fought the head villain, few of the encounters will be challenging or exciting– but if you break out the battlemat, it can take hours to go through the combats. If the GM has hinted that you’d better be the next level before going on the next adventure, and XP comes from combat… you get the cleaning crew.
Another thing about planning, and I learned this by playing Shadowrun for several years, is that plans should be kept short, simple, and flexible. Plans rarely survive contact with the opposition. Deatailed blow by blow isn’t going to make much difference in the long run, except for wasting precious gaming time.
Planning for four hours and executing the plan for an hour is a lot less satisfying than planning for 30 minutes and executing the plan for an hour and a half. The extra 30 minutes being for the screaming adjustments on the fly part of it. 😀
@BryanB – Like I said, our group had a helluva lot more fun planning than executing. I agree the general rule is the opposite, but it isn’t a constant. It depends heavily on the situation and the players’ own preferences. Our plan actually more than survived first contact… it allowed us to succeed.
Scott: Great list! Those all make sense in a D&D context.
As I said above, my head is currently in Burning Wheel and all of those are rife for full-on play. For example, one of my players’ characters was looking for a rumour of organized crime in a large town he was new to. He wound up with someone he thought was the main player, but who had discovered someone nosing about and sent goons to bring him in. He had a duel of wits to save his skin and wound up convincing the high-ranking enforcer to host him and make use of his skills, earning him an enemy in the form of the goon who wanted him tied to a rock and tossed into the river. 🙂
I think Scott is reading my mind. He’s got the gist of what I’m trying to say exactly right.
You can also split the difference between hand-waving and dice-rolling.
GM: “Okay guys, you’ve killed the Grand Pooh-Bah, what’s the plan for clearing the rest of this dungeon?”
Party: “We take it room by room, announcing our presence and what we’ve done, checking for traps at all the obvious places, and fighting everything that resists.”
GM: “Cool. Everyone make your best attack roll, and whoever will do the announcing, make me a Bluff or Intimidate roll. And whoever has the best Perception, make me a check. Results?”
Party: “One crit, one fumble, and these numbers… The bluff was moderate, but we are carrying the Pooh-Bah’s head on a pike; that should count for something. Natural 19 on the spot check.”
GM: “Gruesome, but effective. As you make your way through the dungeon, some of the critters flee, some fight, and some want to talk about it. Ms. Crit gets away with no damage, and even manages to find this map. Mr. Fumble manages to bend his sword and lose 80% of his hit points. And Eagle Eyes here finds a secret door.” (Hands out damage or treasure, depending on die rolls, and roleplays out the encounter behind the secret door.)
Hand-waving, of course is an option for some groups. But what kind of XP are you suggesting handing out for this cleanup approach?
My inclination would be to make the XP reward match the approach. Maybe 1/x (with x being the total number of party members) of what they would receive normally?
@Troy E. Taylor – I wouldn’t discount XP too much or it might encourage the party to drag it out. But little risk should mean little reward, so I’d start with 50% and adjust based on how much failure is penalized, how much success is rewarded, and the relative positions of the celestial bodies. In other words, I’d guess. 🙂
I hate book keeping. A lot. So my GMing style reflects that.
I give a flat xp award at the end of each session. Good play and other bonus stuff I reward with extra fate points.
Shopping is between missions, either in on your Yahoo group site or in the first 10 minutes of the next mission. If you want more time than that learn to use our Yahoo Group site.
I never do cleanup . “In the rest of the area you get a bunch of junk that covers your expenses of your pirate crew / henchmen / taxes / bribes / donations to the church / drinks / …” Plus clues to the next adventure. If they past some big toy they’ll need in the next adventure, they can find it on the way there.
I do use traveling time transition encounters and events to highlight some cool bit of the world or shine the spotlight on a player character. And as I said before, if they need the Flashlight of Wazzo in the next adventure and missed it in the previous one, they find it one the way there, often being used to blinding effect by some opponent.
Your session sounds more like mine. “Traditional Adventuring” is still part of the game, but at over 1/2 of our play time is devoted to using the knowledge, prestige, wealth, and anything else that is dug up in a traditional adventure (not to mention how to dispose of those old argussian coins that are obviously out of circulation now).
In other words, we live squarely in Troy’s #5. Totally. My PC’s use ‘Basic Social’, ‘Basic Etiquitte’, and such as much as Hit Points.
Transition Sessions are often a few sessions long, by the examples given above.
I remember these. Once I switched from DND to Savage Worlds, Transition Sessions became a memory.
Bookkeeping disappeared. Creating encounters and villains couldn’t be easier. Since I don’t spend my time on those things I can keep the story going and have plenty of time to be creative.