It’s almost officially winter and that time of year when many games get suspended for the holiday season or winter weather wreaks havoc on gaming schedules. If you, like me, meet less than once a week then even one missed game could mean a month between sessions. Given these disruptions it can be difficult to maintain the momentum of a campaign.
So what do you do when you have one session coming up and a long break until the next? Here are a few ideas I’ve used in the past to preserve a campaign through a long break after the next session.
Massage a natural ending. Is there a natural benchmark to your players’ current situation that you could likely hit within a couple of sessions? If so, then consider tightening things up so the players can finish in the current section. I’ve found that trimming the fat a bit for a satisfactory ending is often better than trying to get everyone to remember details and play catch-up at the start of the next.
What can you tighten? An obvious place to cut are any subplots or red herrings. In some cases you can narrate through them or put them off-camera until later. Sometimes you may want to have an NPC intervene or otherwise provide a crucial clue to get the PCs to the climax without burning up a lot of time.
End on a Cliffhanger. A cliffhanger can be anything from putting the PCs into a difficult situation or introducing a new plot element that seems to come out of left field. Discovering that a trusted ally is working for the major villain or having the PCs stuck aboard a damaged spacecraft hurtling towards an asteroid field are good ways to keep your players enthused about the next session. Their enthusiasm is likely to help them remember key points.
Run a One-Shot. Did your last session end on a natural break? Now is probably not a good time to start something new. Consider running a ‘filler’ episode that can be easily run in a single evening so that you can launch the next adventure after the break.
Run an Extended Prologue. Sometimes you can let the PCs get their feet wet before launching into the adventure proper. If the next adventure takes place on a space station, then maybe you can have them arrive a bit early. They now have time to explore the station and meet some NPCs before the next adventure starts, giving them some early leads. Perhaps your fantasy PCs can spend a session with a friendly noble who aids them in some way, making it personal when he’s assassinated as part of the next adventure.
In any case, the point here is that you give your players some familiarity with the next adventure without having to rely on them remembering anything that could hinder its flow. “You do remember that noble you met in the tavern last session?” is a lot easier than “You do remember the three clues you uncovered at the assassination scene and the information you got after tracking down the first two leads?”
Run a One-Shot Holiday Special. Bend the rules a bit and bring some holiday cheer into your campaign. This could be played straight, such as having the various PCs overcoming obstacles to be sure to get to the holiday party on time, or you can go full-bore fantasy. Maybe the superhero group needs to help Santa Claus on Christmas Eve or an angel needs investigative PCs to look into a special case that involves getting an estranged parent and child back together. In most cases, the Holiday Special stands alone, not to be referred to in subsequent adventures.
This is also a great excuse to use the old It’s a Wonderful Life plot if your campaign can feasibly work in alternate universes. In keeping with the “breaking the rules” holiday theme, you could also use parallel universes such as “what if Taniyah decided to play that half-orc wizard she’d thought about before settling on the elven swashbuckler?” or “what if our fantasy campaign was “Victorian steampunk” instead?
Run Something Completely Different. If your campaign had a natural ending, why not try out another RPG instead of a filler one-shot? Call of Cthulhu is practically made for this, and most RPGs offer introductory adventures. A word of caution: you probably want to clear this with your players before they arrive.
Take the Night Off. Sometimes it’s better not to force a session in a bad schedule. Just hang out with your friends, watch a movie, play a board game, or simply cancel the session.
Those are some of my techniques, how about you? What do you do when faced with a dangling session in a disrupted schedule? Do you prefer any particular technique? Have you discarded any techniques?
Something we have done during down times that has been very effective is a short PBEM game. My players love it when we do this and we’ve launched several new story arcs through email, the last one introducing a major villain that dogged them for about 15 levels of gameplay.
This has also proven to be an interesting way to start a new campaign. By not revealing who is playing each character we start the first in-person game with alliances formed via email that would almost certainly never have formed at the gaming table.
I have that exact problem this year for the Christmas Interlude that I was hoping to run for the wider circle of Gamers that I know. So far, of the nine slots open for the DramaSystem game, only two are taken, and those are my regular Players.
Even the lure of free dice and some old books to give away does not seem to be drawing in extra Players. What more can I do?
At this rate, the interlude will be cancelled and I will just run another step in the character generation process for the next Cycle of my on-going campaign.