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Discussion involving role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder.

Dungeon Ideas: The Ghost Ship

The cloth sails hang in tatters, yet other sails, spectral things of blue light, propel the ship forward. On deck, it’s crew, seemingly unconcerned about the hideous wounds that mar their translucent bodies, work diligently, combating a storm that has long since broken, preparing for a battle that came and went years past. For them, it is not over. For them, it will never be over.

Who doesn’t love a good ghost ship? The Flying Dutchman. The Black Pearl. The… unnamed ship carrying Death in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? I thought it had a name, but google is telling me I was wrong… Come on, Coleridge, we need details!

Oh well. Whatever the name of them, exploring a ghost ship is our next stop in dungeon ideas. (For the last idea for a dungeon-outside-of-a-dungeon, go here.)

The Ghost Ship

Large sailing vessels can start anywhere around 150 feet long and get up to twice that. At dozens of feet wide, and with multiple decks, that leaves you thousands of square feet of exploration space. The nature of the ship allows for these spaces to be used in unique ways, too. Do players climb the ropes in the rigging? Has the bilge flooded, necessitating swimming to find the lost treasure in it? How does the ship pitching and rolling affect the combat on the main deck?

Speaking of combat, the enemies inhabiting a ghost ship are as varied as the undead that fill most gaming systems. In Pathfinder, there’s even a fair number of specifically aquatic undead, such as Draugr and Brykolakas. Make them the crew, throw in a ghost captain, and you’ve got yourself some baddies. Of course, maybe you want to go further. Maybe “ghost ship” doesn’t mean a ship with ghosts on it, but rather a ship possessed by the spirits of the dead. With that mindset, the ship itself can be an enemy. Rigging ropes lash out to try to snare players. Deck boards become like water, players dropping into them, before solidifying again, trapping them in the wood. The bell that calls sailors to arms rings and rings and won’t stop it’s infernal ringing, and each time it does it drives the players one step closer to madness. Ok, so you might have to play with the rules a little bit to get some of those effects, but it could be well worth it.

A ghost ship as a dungeon really shines when it comes to the plot of your adventure. Unlike ancient tombs or deep caverns, your players aren’t likely to just randomly explore their way onto a ghost ship, so why are they there? Do they have to find a way to escape? Perhaps a cursed compass teleported them here, and they have to find it’s pair on the ship to get off. Has this ship been sinking merchant vessels? The ghost captain has to be destroyed to save innocent lives. Or maybe they have to find a way to break the curse that has kept the ship sailing? Deliver it’s last load of cargo, expose the traitorous first mate who sold them out to an ambush, return the stolen cursed treasure to the forbidden land from which it came. The nature of ghosts and undeath mean that simply destroying the ship and its crew may not be enough… They will just return the next full moon, or the next time an albatross is slain, or when a poor soul accidentally sails over the sunken wreck, or whatnot. “Winning” the dungeon could require problem solving outside stabbing the boss bad guy until it’s dead, then.

What do you think? How would you work a ghost ship into a campaign? Mechanically, what would make a ghost ship different from any other boat? Let me know in the comments.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Deadly Decisions: Should a GM Kill Off Player Characters?

No.

Ok, so I was once told that, when writing (specifically for school, but we’ll count it here), if your thesis asks a question that can be answered with only a yes or no, you shouldn’t bother writing it. So, with that in mind, I’m going to go into a bit more nuances than a straight no. But should, generally speaking, a GM kill of a player’s character?

No. Just… No.

I can hear the cry of RPG purists now. “The rules!” they yell. “If the dice say they die, then they should die!” I’ll remind those people of two things: (1) It’s a game; it’s supposed to be fun, and the rules of most modern editions of D&D and the like point that out; and (2) My blog has a running theme of fudging rules in order to make a game more enjoyable; if that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to much like anything that comes next.

Yes, in the rules of most RPGs (my experience is mainly in D&D and Pathfinder, so that’s what I’m going to refer to most), characters can die if things go badly for them. A bad decision, an unlucky roll of the dice, a particularly poorly-planned encounter… These things could kill you. And, yes, if you’re playing by the rules, characters will probably die, eventually.

But it’s a game, folks. It’s supposed to be fun. And do you know what’s not fun? Watching your roll to stop yourself from falling into a bottomless pit come up a one. Or, conversely, watching the GM roll a critical hit on you for the third time in a row. These things happen, it’s just probability. And probability can be a boring, vindictive, jerk sometimes. So there are times when it’s important to tell probability to go have a long walk in a dark, monster-infested woods, while wearing bright colors and beef-jerky flavored body spray.

In other words, lie. It’s sort of why those GM screens exist. That third critical? Aw shucks, it was actually only a 3. That bottomless pit? An illusion, tied to a reverse gravity trap that suspends your character helplessly in the air (real bottomless pits are expensive, after all). We’re all good. You don’t want to let your players get off completely free; you want it to feel like the game has risk, has consequences. But you can walk a line between making the game feel dangerous and actually making it deadly.

And again, the purists rail, “that’s not the point of the game!” Ok, if that’s how you like your game, fine. I have a friend who likes a quote that he heard… somewhere (neither of us know where; if you do, feel free to comment): In games like D&D, you treat a character like a car in Grand Theft Auto; ride it hard and, when you get bored, crash it into a wall. I disagree, not with the idea that you can play a character that way, but that you should. There’s no right way to play, really. If you want to play your character recklessly and to heck with the consequences, go for it. If your group wants to play hard ball with the rules and kill people, go for it.

But don’t force it on anyone.

If your players are attached to the characters (lots of people are) or otherwise don’t like them dying, don’t kill them. Even if you have to cheat, fudge dice, make nonsense up, don’t kill them. Threaten them. Hurt them. Make them think you’re going to kill them… But don’t kill them. And for the love of peanut-butter, as a player, don’t kill off your own character as a player by playing so recklessly you endanger everyone else. Your character diving headfirst into an unwinnable battle or making dumb choices can impact the rest of the party and, if they’re not ok with that style of reckless play and having to make new characters, there’s going to be resentment.

You want to drive your car into a brick wall? Don’t do it with the rest of your party in the back seat.

Again, I’m not saying you have to listen to me. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for player decisions or that you shouldn’t be somewhat beholden to what the dice say. But, if your players don’t like the idea of their characters dying, why put them through something that they don’t think is fun? It kind of ruins the whole “game” part of “role-playing games,” don’t you think?

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Dungeon Ideas: The Great Tree

A RPG adventure can take place just about anywhere you can think of. They can be social affairs, spanning the streets and back alleys of a metropolis. They can be sea-fairing escapades, rooted on the deck of a pirate’s ship. They can even cross the planes of existence, taking place in the depths of the abyss or in the realm of dreams. But the most common path adventurers take is probably though dungeons. Catacombs or caverns or underground labyrinths, dungeons are a frequent sight in RPGs. They didn’t name the game “Socializing and Dragons,” after all.

There a times when the standard dungeons, stone and gates and so on, just doesn’t cut it. It grows dull. Repetitive. Dare I say it, cliche? So every so often, you may want an adventure location to go beyond the dank and dingy underground.

Let’s look at some options for unusual dungeons, starting with…

The Great Tree

This massive landmark, centuries old, is more than 30 feet across at it’s base and stands some two- or three-hundred feet tall. It’s canopy spreads wide and thick enough that, standing beneath it, it seems as dark as night. Some say it was the world’s first tree. Some say it marked the spot where an ancient god, long forgotten, died. Still other’s say it was born of a rift between the very elemental planes, connecting this world to another.

The Great Tree has an ecology as unique as it is. Itself a living thing, it’s roots crawling through the land for acres, the Tree supports life around and within it. Burrowing insects leave tunnels through it’s core big enough for a man to walk through. Fey, and other spirits of nature, inhabit its wood. Its crown supports the nest of giant owls, who hunt anything, animal or man, fool enough to walk beneath the tree’s shadow at night.

Adventuring through a tree creates some unique areas for player exploration. Maybe the tunnels left by the bugs work as a series of caves (just hope the creatures that made them aren’t hungry). Maybe the branches are thick and tangled enough to create platforms players can walk across (but watch your step – it’s a long way down). How can players climb the tree to reach their goal at the top? Or maybe their problem is the opposite; stranded in the nest of a great bird of prey, how can they descend the tree before the bird’s chicks wake hungry?

Even if things like bug tunnels and animal bolt-holes end up being treated the same as underground tunnels and caverns, exploring a giant tree can allow for unique flavour and experiences. Consider the risk of weather-worn branches, or the amount of sticky sap a tree that size might produce. What happens when leaves or acorns begin falling? What sort of problems or opportunities does being entirely surrounded by wood and living matter create for players used to impassible walls of stone?

I’d be amiss not to point out that, if you’d rather, you don’t need to make a tree particularly large to achieve this kind of “dungeon.” You could always make your players very small. Small enough, perhaps, that the mice that live among the roots of the tree, the wasps that have a nest in its branches, become far more dangerous than the usual pests.

***

And that’s The Great Tree as dungeon idea. What do you guys think? If you like the idea of me posting the occasional notion for unusual dungeons, let me know.  Of course, if you’d like me to focus more on either the story of these dungeons or more mechanical ideas and aspects, let me know that, too, and I’ll focus more in that direction in the future. The comments are always open for any thoughts you might like to share.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Remember That Guy?: Making Memorable NPCs

Some time ago, I ran a campaign that introduced early trains to a Pathfinder world. Though they ran more or less on steam, the villain of the piece found a rare, magical material that worked even better than coal for his engines, and would stop at nothing to harvest and refine it, in order to take over the country’s economy thanks to his rail lines.

The villain’s name was Chauncy.

About thirty seconds after meeting this railway mogul – before the extent of his villainy was even revealed – one member of the party took to calling him “Choo-choo Chauncy.” It stuck. And, a couple years later, it’s one of the only villain’s my player’s remember the name of.

That got me to thinking: I like making non-player characters (allies, enemies, randoms, whoever) that my players remember. If nothing else, it makes using them again later in the campaign that much easier and more interesting. But how can you make sure your players remember NPCs?

I’m glad you asked.

10 Quick Ways to Make a Memorable NPC

  1. Give them an interesting name (or a name players can make interesting, a la Choo-choo Chauncy.)
  2. Make them an interesting species (I once had a sentient cat work as a wise ally.)
  3. Give them a distinct physical feature (hook hand, prosthetic nose, multiple chins, etc.)
  4. Give them a distinct personality (afraid of one member of the party, paranoid of being overheard by spies, fascinated by a player’s injuries, etc.)
  5. Give them a distinct quirk (stutter, pick their nose, sneeze constantly, etc.)
  6. Make them hard to pin down (give them powers or abilities that don’t quite line up with a class the players know, make it hard to figure out what race they are, make their age impossible to guess, etc.)
  7. Make them important (player’s relative, mentor, best friend, etc.)
  8. Make them extra likable (everyone loves a cute kid that tries to imitate the cool players.)
  9. Make them extra dislikable (players will remember the first villain who kicks a kitten in front of them forever.)
  10. Make them active (NPCs can talk, not just respond with straight answers when spoken to; they can have personalities, desires for – or from – the party, and needs of their own; they can exist for more than just the time it takes the players to talk to them.)

Those are 10 quick, simple ways to make NPCs a bit more memorable. Of course, there are some caveats to all of this, too…

Remember: A lot of these suggestions are meant to make the NPC more unique and, as such, memorable. So they don’t work if you do it for everyone the party meets. Similarly, you don’t need to do every one of these things for a single NPC; there is most definitely such a thing as too much. And, of course, you don’t want to do so much that you overshadow your player’s. The game is supposed to be starring them, after all.

Finally, remember that these things don’t help if they exist only in your head. If your NPC has a unique look, mention it. If they have a unique quirk, employ it. A unique flaw, expose it. At least once in a while, that is. Again, a little can go a long way.

So what do you think… Can you add to my list? See any problems with it? Have any examples of NPC/PC interactions or relationships that went really well for you (or really poorly)? Let us know in the comments.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Puzzle This Out v.2: Large Scale Puzzles in RPGs

In a previous post, I mentioned liking puzzles in my role-playing game. Sometimes, though, throwing a quick puzzle into combat- or social-based dungeon isn’t satisfying enough… Or worse, comes off as forced or cliched. So sometimes, instead of putting puzzles in a dungeon, I like puzzles that are the dungeon.

Rather than plopping a puzzle in the middle of a dungeon crawl, consider making the dungeon itself run as a puzzle. In each room or area, you can have your combat encounters or social encounters or what not, but the overall dungeon can be a puzzle, too. This can be done with how players travel through the dungeon, reoccurring challenges throughout the adventure, or making the whole adventure take place in a location or setting outside what players take for typical.

The advantage of this kind of large scale puzzle is simple: it’s different. It’s a change from the riddle-doors and puzzle-chests that could otherwise become common sights in dungeon. They make for a memorable dungeon, filled with unique puzzle challenges.

Of course, this kind of idea can backfire, too. If your players don’t enjoy the puzzle that you design your dungeon around, then they have a long, long time to slog through it. Worse still, if they can’t figure it out, the entire dungeon becomes nothing but one frustrating stumbling block after another. So, perhaps more so than with stand-alone puzzles, you need to ensure large scale puzzles aren’t too hard or abstract, or you need to give the players an out if they get stuck.

That’s all well and good for the idea of a large-scale puzzle, but what about the details? What do I mean, really? Well, here’s some examples of large scale puzzles in dungeons and adventures.

The Sliding Dungeon: This dungeons is composed of a number of square rooms, each identical in size. In certain rooms, there are controls that give a bird’s eye view of the dungeon layout. The dungeon controls work like those 3×3 (or bigger, if you want more of a challenge) sliding puzzles, where pieces are moved into blank spaces without any being lifted or turned. Doors only open when lined up with other doors, rooms that are inaccessible can become accessible by moving them, etc. If the players want to explore every room (or get to a specific one), they need to figure out how to arrange the puzzle to make a path.

The Spinning Dungeon: This is similar to the sliding dungeon, only rather than square rooms, the dungeon is built on concentric rings. Again, by accessing controls, the players can rearrange the dungeon, this time by spinning the rings to line up passages or change the layout of rooms.

The Living Dungeon: Remember the time you had to go into Jabu-Jabu’s belly in Legend of Zelda? (And if you don’t know Ocarina of Time, I’m sorry you had such a sad childhood.) Anyways, this is like that. Whether it’s in the belly of some massive beast, or in a building with living walls of eldritch horror, having the dungeon be a living entity (whether good, evil, or benign) can open up some unique hurdles players have to overcome, and perhaps even more interesting (or unexpected) solutions. What happens if you attack living walls? Or make the creature sneeze or swallow when you’re stuck at an impassable sphincter? (Any circular muscle is a sphincter, get your mind out of the gutter.) Once the players figure out some of their options that living dungeons allow, they can tackle obstacles in ways that they never could in a standard one.

Two-Worlds: Imagine a dungeon that exists in two (or more) states: this could be past and future, for instance, or different planes of existences. If the players have a way of traversing these two states, then obstacles can be encountered that can only be overcome in one of the multiple states. Impassable door in the past? Jump to the future, where it has rusted and rotted to the point of falling down. Ancient dragon guarding the treasure in the future? Hop to the past, where it’s a mere baby. I once ran a dungeon that jumped between the real world and the world of dreams; the goals were in the real world, but players could do things in the world of dreams that they couldn’t awake. Bottomless chasm that you have to get across? You can fly in dreams. Tiny doorway? Dream that you’re shrinking. All it takes is some consideration of how you want the mechanics of traveling back and forth between the multiple versions of the dungeon to work.

Portable Doors: What happens if you put a portable hole on a wall? Or the ceiling? Ok, so if you are following the rules, probably nothing interesting. But that’s boring, so make up your own portable hole. Think of all the fun that could be had with a door frame that creates a passage wherever it’s placed, or a hole that can be used to climb between floors and then moved. This kind of trick needs a bit more planning, I think (so the players don’t just carve themselves a path straight through whatever they’re going through), but with a few mechanical limitations to the tool, it could make for a unique type of exploration.

Those are just 5 examples of large scale puzzles or reoccurring challenges that you can shape a dungeon around. Can you think of more? Share some of your own ideas in the comments, or let me know what you think about using large scale puzzles to change up your adventures.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Puzzle This Out: Using Puzzles in RPGs

Fair warning: I love puzzles. I like solving them. I like making them. I especially like watching players working to solve a puzzle, the way they laugh in pride and relief when they figure it out.

Now, not everyone likes puzzles in their games. If your players find them more frustrating than fun, then the puzzles are never going to be a fun time. But if you make a quick google search for puzzle ideas, almost every result you get is going to include people saying that puzzles never work, that they don’t have a place in games, that a puzzle killed their father and they will not rest until every riddle in the world is destroyed.

To a point, I understand their complaints. Puzzles, thrown in without thought or reason, can detract from the enjoyment of them. On the other hand, done right and with willing players, they can add something special, a new type of challenge to change up from the usual death and destruction.

When Puzzle Don’t Work

There are certainly some times you’ll find puzzle won’t work. First, and perhaps most importantly, if your players aren’t interested in puzzles, don’t try to force it. Some people game for the hack-and-slash, or for more social aspects of role-playing, and they just don’t want to deal with riddles. If they don’t like them, for goodness sake don’t try to make them.

Appropriate logic can also be a stumbling block for making puzzles enjoyable, especially for players who want that sort of logic in their game. No one would ever really lock their valuables up behind a riddle in a world where locks and magic exists. The key to a world-destroying abyssal portal, forged by the gods of old, should not be a matter of a patterned series of colors recognizable by the first eighth-grade art student to come across it. It simply doesn’t make sense that things that are meant to prevent people from finding/unlocking/powering up something that they shouldn’t can be overcome by a good brainstorming session.

Finally, puzzles hit a stumbling block when frustration sets in. You plan the puzzles, you know the answers. Players don’t. What you think is simple or obvious, they might find obscure or impossible. If the puzzle is a roadblock that prevents progression through the story, then a difficult puzzle can lead to players getting annoyed. And being annoyed while a GM smiles smugly at how obvious the answer will totally be once you get it is not a recipe for fun.

Making Puzzles That Do Work

So let’s talk about how you can make sure your puzzles are avoiding those types of stumbling blocks. First, if you want to know if your players like puzzles you could ask. Crazy idea, I know. Ask them if they’re interested in puzzles and riddles and you know what you need to know. Don’t be bound by asking once and sticking with that one answer, though. Be open to feedback, both direct and indirect. Direct feedback is when your players straight up tell you what they like and don’t. It works well, when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen. Indirect feedback is what you’ll see more often; if they look frustrated, if they give up trying to solve your riddles, if they complain when puzzles come up… Well, if you miss those sort of signals, maybe you need to pay a bit more attention. Or get glasses. Whichever on.

What about making puzzles that have logical purposes within your game? Like I said, valuable things are not, in real life, locked away by a riddle instead of, oh, I don’t know… a lock? Here are some reasons that someone might make puzzles:

  • Craziness: Who doesn’t love the motif of the mad wizard? You’d have to be crazy to use a puzzle to lock your vault, so make the person who did it crazy, and it all works out.
  • Tests: Puzzles are terrible locks if you don’t want someone to open something; on the other hand, if you just want someone to struggle to open something but eventually get it, then a puzzle is perfect. Puzzles are good as a “prove your wisdom” style challenge.
  • Accidental Obstacles: What if the challenge or puzzle wasn’t meant to be a serious obstacle, but through neglect, accidents, or other mistakes, winds up being one? Consider the magical gatekeeper that was meant to be a simple bit of fun, but has gone out of control, demanding answers from anyone? Or maybe an ancient, ruined tower has magical puzzles seeping through its very walls, like semi-conscious spirits? One time, I had an accident in a laboratory researching elemental planes lead to a puzzle; the only way to put out the elemental fire, for instance, was to find which source of water was from the elemental plane of water, it’s opposite.
  • Non-Puzzle Puzzles: Sometimes puzzles aren’t really puzzles. For instance, if two people are writing in code to one another, and you have a partially-complete cipher, the figuring out the rest is a puzzle. It makes sense that two people might write secrets in code (and they wouldn’t intend other people to be able to solve it… Lucky for you, you found a half-burned codebook on that last corpse), and having only part of the code makes it more of a challenge that just following a full cipher. This sort of challenge has all the elements of a puzzle for the players, while still making sense as an attempt to stop the players from finding something.

Those are just some ways to make puzzles make sense in your game. Of course, there’s always one more reason that works… “Because I planned it that way.” Players have to be able to have some willing suspension of disbelief for the game to work, so why not willingly disbelieve the whole “puzzles make dumb locks” thing?

As for the frustration aspect of puzzles, a lot of it can be avoided with proper planning on your part. First: make puzzles easy. That sounds like terrible advice, doesn’t it? Well this is my blog, so you’re stuck with it. If you create the puzzle, you know the answer, so of course it seems easy to you. For players, though, it’s going to be harder than you think. So make the puzzles slightly easier than you think necessary, and they’ll still be harder than you realize for players.

The other way to avoid frustration is by not making the puzzles a roadblock for the stories, if at all possible. If the players can’t figure the puzzle out, there should be a way around it. Puzzles could lead to bonuses, for instance, which are helpful but not necessary. Or a door that players need past can be brute-forced open, if the riddle password can’t be guessed. There should always be an option for getting by the puzzle without solving it, just in case it proves harder than you expect.

It’s also advantageous to consider having more than one solution to your puzzles and challenges. And you don’t even need to think of them! I mean, do think of them, if you can… But if the players offer you a solution that is logical, smart, and completely different from the answer you have written down, take it anyways. They never need to know you hadn’t thought of it first.

Final Thoughts

Puzzles aren’t for everyone. I love them, some people don’t. I think they add a unique challenge to a game when sprinkled in among combat and social encounters. If you want to include them, just remember: Make sure it’s fun, logical, and desired. If any one of those three elements are missing, your cleverly-crafted puzzle challenge may fall flat. If more than one of those elements are missing, then why are you even bothering putting it in?

What do you think? If you like puzzles or hate them, let me know in the comments. If you have some clever set up for a puzzle, or a challenge that you think is worth sharing, share it!

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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Game-Breaking Breaks: How to Deal with Hiatuses

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.

The Recap

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.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Role-Playing Games

 

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