Sometimes even the most regular gaming groups experience it. Steven got severely injured. Nancy had to go to China for her internship. Louis and Jem were traveling with their new business obligations. Players come and go. Sometimes we just hit the pause button. Stopping mid-game is rarely an issue but re-starting after weeks, months or even (yes) years away from a story can be challenging during the best of times.
When planning (and even considering) resuming a campaign in progress after a long break it pays to keep in mind a few things:
1) How engaged is the group in the campaign? – Sometimes the factors and timing leading into a break from a particular campaign can be symptomatic of a group or part of the group lacking the interest to commit to a specific story arc’s completion. As much as your dream of a wererat thieves guild being a great story maybe Louis’ fear of rats and Jason’s distaste for the idea of sewers as a heroic setting are contributing to a lack of commitment to a particular story and thus making it harder for those players to make time for it.
2) How likely is a break to happen again? – As a relatively “serious” gamer, it can be frustrating to know that some of your other friends may only be able to game intermittently. That doesn’t have to be the end of gaming with them if you are aware of this limitation. Many successful groups play in binge “Con-style” games (it works for Netflix, why not you?) only a few times a year. Planning for that might be a better way to go if you realize that, yes, these breaks are going to keep coming.
3) How much work will you have to put in to make it happen? – Believe it or not, running an established campaign after an extreme break can be A LOT more work than starting a new one. While the established casts and locations can be an immense boon in preparation, restructuring these things after poor or absent note taking or loss of a critical physical resource (crashed hard-drives or single physical copies come to mind) can require as much work as starting over.
If after a rundown through these questions you are ready to dive back into the Delves of Dark Warden or some other grand adventure, a quick review of your campaign worldseeds, villains motivation and newbie zone/intro themes is important to reconnect with the essence of your slightly dusty story.
From our “Newbie Zone” we probably did the following and it important to reset your game in similar ways when returning:
1) Support the Party – During the break did you lose a character significant to the function of the party? How is its metabalance? Make certain that you are aware of mechanical changes that can impact the group. A party of crusaders might find life a lot harder after their weapon-blessing priest moves away to go to Harvard right in the middle of the demonic invasion. Don’t be overly cautious about mechanical changes that the party or a player may need to re-engage.
2) Re-Introduce Conflict – Returning to your campaign re-establishing the stakes and tension of your story might be the most important thing you do. Remind players of the key players and villains that they need to be aware of. Make them angry or afraid for their characters and the details will start coming back to them. Nothing is quite like a player suddenly darkening with re-kindled emnity as they say “Oh yeah, him.” And of course a good combat never hurts.
3) Touch on Your Themes & Style – Make sure to call attention to key elements of your story and world. Take the time work through your descriptions and emphasize elements that re-enforce the core emotions of the setting you had at campaign creation. Remember why you were interested in the story enough to start it and let that inform your choices.
4) Reprise – A solid game start probably means you had some key supporting elements. Bring organizations and important events back to the fore. Friendly NPCs and supernatural elements of significance might need a little higher “effects budget” for a few sessions until people remember them. Make sure you mention and remind players of any setting specific House Rules as soon as possible.
Returning to the campaign from a solid world building setup is relatively easy, but what about those times where you have some character sheets, a well-intentioned campaign journal with a first page that says “Session 1 – Dragons” and is blank for several “promising” pages afterward? What to do when few or no players can remember what specifics are or were happening?
ReBoot Toolbox “X-treme” – Below is a list of powerful tools for when your long term hiatus has gone critical, over reliance on these techniques can become a bit gimmicky but they can be life-saving and get the dice rolling in record time if used well:
1) “Dogs in the Cornfield” – Take the player characters and have them wake up somewhere else in the campaign setting. The players disconnect suddenly mirrored in the characters new mysterious situation. The newest plot twist becomes the characters finding their way back to familiarity, civilization and with any luck a strong re-connection to the plot.
2) “Who are You?” – A mental version of the Cornfield, the characters find they have been robbed of their memories of recent events. Endeavoring to reconstruct their lost time and history allows in-game energy to focus on re-establishing the campaign and introduces new conflict in investigating the cause of the memory loss.
3) “If you thought that was bad…” – Introducing a new threat can be shocking and exciting in a way that yields entirely independent levels of connection to your campaign and allows the break to infuse elements that may not have been present or even existed (ACG anyone?) at the time you last ran the game. Discovering the whats and whys of these new threats and elements and their connection (if any) to the old story
4) “Do You Remember When?” – The adventure is over. That’s right whatever was going on at the last session was resolved. The heroes won! Kingdom saved. Prince rescued. The days (years?) have passed and they group is gathered to celebrate and reminisce. But wait what was that noise? In this approach the energy of the gaming groups return to the table translates to a mirrored reunion in game. A return of the threat of yesterday allows the players to ease back into the setting and story while beginning from a strong point of unity.
5)”Light the Fireworks” – In this approach the GM gathers all the info he or she has and drops everything into the re-launch session in someway. Everything. Dialed to 11. Why? Aside from the giant apocalyptic explosion the key here is NOT to have an epic mega-confrontation but rather to listen to player reaction and gather info. A big crazy explosion of past threats and events will spark memory from even the most low-engagement players and if a GM pays attention a chance to restructure these memories into re-solidified campaign architecture becomes increasingly likely. And who are we kidding, explosions can be pretty cool.
6) “Secret Wars” – If you have nothing more than character sheets and not even the complete party, take a page from Marvel and consider abducting the characters into a new story arc entirely. Once abducted, the characters are enmeshed in a new conflict and a (likely) need to return home. While this is almost the same as starting a new game the inclusion of a the abduction mechanic allows these characters to return to the old story at some point and from there follow in a manner similar to the Cornfield above.
Many ways exist to get back to the heroes old (or at least last year) and their legends only await your call to return. Share your ideas for campaign re-launches in the comments below…