What better topic for a first post back following a long hiatus than long hiatuses? That’s some meta-topic stuff right there.
Pretend you have a group that you like gaming with. Maybe you have a long campaign, an in-depth story, events building on events, cliffhanger leading to cliffhanger, momentum reaching a mad crescendo of tension that crackles through the very air like electricity before a storm-
And then one player can’t make it next week, because they have to study. And another is out of town the week after that. And you have your parents visiting the week after that, so you can’t run the game. And all that carefully crafted tension and suspense and excitement that you’ve worked to build is all gone.
So how do you get it back? What can you do to ensure that you can get right back into the flow of things following a break?
Sink or Swim
“The volcano is erupting, the lead cultist’s body still warm, the blood still flowing from the wounds you inflicted. Before you even get the chance to breath, the room shakes. One wall breaks open, and a flow of molten rock begins to seep into the room.
You have no time to hesitate, no time to think. What do you do?”
One option when coming back off a break in gaming is to just jump right in. Don’t worry about making sure the players remember everything, so long as they know what’s going on right now. This works, perhaps, best if what’s going on right now is something dramatic and/or stressful and/or dangerous. “You roll out of bed. You can have muffins or toast for breakfast. There’s no time to hesitate, no time to think. What do you choose?” doesn’t have quite the same dramatic effect.
The advantage of this throw-them-in-and-pray mentality comes from the drama it creates. Think of it as a cheat to get back to the high-tension levels you had been building slowly towards. It’s not quite the same; less of a slow, building burn and more of an adrenaline and gasoline fueled bonfire, but – done in a suitably high-drama situation – can work wonders for getting players re-invested in the story real quick.
Of course, there are downsides, too. First and foremost, players might have no idea what the sweet heck is going on. And their fresh out of luck if the situation requires them to recall some specific detail of the story. Its success, I find, comes in a sort of opposite correlation to how long you’ve been building the story. It’s great for a second half of a two-part adventure that ended on a cliffhanger… Not so functional for getting back into a three-year long campaign that spans a dozen kingdoms and as many interwoven storylines.
Probably the most obvious and the most simple option to get your game back on the road is simply recapping the action. As a GM, you can simply provide a “previously on…” style review of what’s been going on, to make sure the players remember the important bits.
This idea has a few advantages. First, you know what bits are the most important, both for what happened and what is coming, so you can be sure to bring those elements up. After all, the dramatic reveal that John Everyman the local carpenter is part of a secret cult bent on world domination is a lot less impressive if the players don’t remember meeting him in the first place. If you’re a particularly performative GM, this type of recap can be used to try to build back up the suspense and tension of the story through how you tell it. There’s no harm in laying some of the difficulties the players have gone through and the risks their facing on heavy in your recap.
There’s some downsides, though. Mainly, it’s a really passive experience for the players. Role-play games are participatory by their very nature and if you spend the first hour of a session re-telling what the players have already done, it’s not a game… It’s a monologue. Aside from annoying the players, you run the risk of them not paying attention. A recap misses the point if the players don’t listen to it anyways.
The Recap, Part 2: Players Revenge
An idea I personally prefer is to have the players lead a recap for you. Ask prompting questions. “Who remembers where we were?” “What was it you guys were looking for?” “What happened once you found the MacGuffin of Doom?” With some guidance from you, the players can share what they all remember.
One of the biggest advantage of this style is what it tell you, as a GM. What you think was important or central might not be what the players took as the most important. Maybe you threw Joanne Everyman (John’s over-bearing mother) in as a joke… But if all the players remember her, why not bring her back? After all, John had to be put in contact with the evil cult somehow. It also tell you what your players did or didn’t like. If they grimace with every memory of the goblin’s riddle game they had to play, then maybe it’s worth remembering your players don’t like riddles. On the other hand, if they speak well of the chase-scene, maybe you should remember they like those kind of action sequences.
Of course, there are downsides to letting players lead the recap. Most problematically, they might not remember everything, or they might remember things incorrectly. I remember one particularly violent-minded character who’s player insisted they were on a mission to kill the person they were actually looking to save. You can imagine how, had she convinced the others that her recollection was correct, the story might have been in trouble…
That kind of problem is easily solved, of course. Simply correct (gently) where needed, or add in some information that they miss. But consider not tying yourself too tightly to what you think is the “right” things for them to remember. Besides letting you know what they think was important or fun, what a player “remembers” (whether true or not) might just give you some ideas you’ve never thought of before. Yeah, it makes more work for you, adapting things on the fly to what players say happened… But if you think you can handle that kind of improvisation (which some GMs can’t, and that’s ok) then try. It’s just another way to help players co-create the story with you which, as a GM, is a big part of your job.
A Final Thought: Avoiding the Problem
If you know that breaks from campaigning are likely, or that certain players may be available some sessions but not others, you might want to consider doing everything you can to avoid the problem of players needing to be reminded of what was going on in great detail. There’s a few ways you can probably do that.
Don’t have cliffhangers. They don’t work if players don’t remember them so, if you know there will be long breaks between games, you can just avoid them.
Have characters take a break between sessions. If you can, in story, explain that the players can rest for a few days (or more) between adventure sessions, then you don’t have to worry about players forgetting what spell slots they’ve used, how much they’ve been hurt, and so on. It will all be reset to the nice, simply, full numbers.
Have a home base, and have characters return to it. If, in the story, there’s a location that characters go to frequently (i.e. a favoured tavern, the mercenary’s guild, the mansion of their patron, the apartments they rent), try and get them back there by the end of a session. This is particularly useful when players come and go, as it gives a reason that their characters come and go as well. It’s a lot harder to explain away the disappearance of Volkar the Barbarian between sessions when they were all together in the middle of a jungle at the end of last session.
(Giving them a home base also has the added benefit of giving you something to use in story. Just as they’re getting comfortable, have the bad guys burn their favoured tavern to the ground, and see if that doesn’t get them more invested in hunting them down than countless external story hooks.)
And finally, if you don’t think it’s reasonably likely for the players to meet regularly, consider not having a long-term campaign. This may sound obvious, but if your not getting together to game every week, maybe you can’t carry a continuous story across the sessions. This doesn’t mean there can’t be some connecting elements. Imagine if, instead of being adventurers set on one path to save the world, your games involved a group of mercenary adventurers, and each session is just one of the most eventful jobs they’ve done in the last month/year/whatever. You can still have stories build on each other (i.e. the brother of the person they defeated three sessions ago has finally built the perfect death-maze to trap them in for revenge), but that only requires some basic information, not detailed recollection.
Campaigns are fun, and a well-built, over-arching story can be super rewarding for both you as GM and your players. If you are forced to take some time away from the game, though, remember that it’s always possible to get back into it. These are just some possible ways to do exactly that.
What about you? Do you have a trick for getting back into a game after a break? Do you think it’s worth the trouble of making over-arching stories, or are stand-alone adventures best? Let me know what you think in comments.