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Free associating GM prep work via player input

I’m running a DungeonWorld one-shot/miniseries for some friends in a week or two, and I’m doing my damnedest to follow the suggestions from the book to keep planning at a minimum for session number one. I don’t want to be completely empty-handed and rudderless for our first adventure, though, so what to do?

A week’s delay for our first session gave me a chance to try something out: a free-association exercise for the GM, created via player questionnaire. The email I sent to my four players had simple instructions to pick one word from each group of three, and send the reply just to me. The list was as follows:

1. desert | forest | island

2. cavern | ruin | tomb

3. castle | village | wilds

4. trade | war | magic

5. cultists | sorcerers | mercenaries

6. stars | stones | sigils

I didn’t give any clues as to what each group meant, though there are some obvious categories at play: setting for #1, baddies for #5, etc. I had ideas in mind of what elements I was addressing with each set of three words, but depending on the results I get back, I’m letting myself stay open to whatever inspirations strike me from the final combination. I’ve received a few already, and each is different, and conjures up a different suggested world and setting with just a simple six words.

(Hopefully, with three choices and four voters, we’ll avoid any ties—who gets the tie-breaker vote should there be any 2/2 splits, I haven’t decided yet.)

I think this method could work nicely for any DungeonWorld game and a lot of traditional D&D games besides. Here’s the six categories I had in mind when creating my list, each of which is relevant to play:

1. Environment/climate

2. Adventure sites

3. Steading/home base

4. Notable local specialty

5. Crafty adversaries

6. Sources of wonder & omens

I think this is a good way to put the GM principles of DungeonWorld to use in a slightly different context. You’ve got the questionnaire for players (ask questions and use the answers) and a free-association for the GM (addressing the draw maps, leave blanks and play to find out what happens precepts). Sending the replies just to me lets me have player input and maintain a sense of mystery, too! Fingers crossed that this makes for a fun set of sessions.

Postscript: I should also add that this is a socially-polite way to be a little selfish, too. This is good! Choosing what words to put on offer is a kind of limit-setting without forcing things, and can guide the direction of your players’ ideas without having to shoot anything down. Tailoring the list of options to your own tastes (in a broad-minded way), before offering choices to your players, can set you up for better GM buy-in from the start.

Inspiration at the brink of empire: Northern Wilds

My newest campaign, tentatively titled “Northern Wilds” in my head, didn’t start out as a 13th Age game. Instead, it was the idea that came to me while I was reviewing the monsters on offer in the Bestiary of the latest D&D Next playtest PDFs. Right now, that playtest only extends to 5th level, so the list has a narrowness that reflects how early along D&D Next is in its design process. With the “Caves of Chaos” adventure as a touchstone for this playtest process, it’s no surprise that the enemies are certainly familiar.

With my options limited, I wanted to maximize the content I’d been given — which looked like it was all the usual suspects for low-level PCs. Goblin, kobolds, orcs, dire animals of various stripes, and a smattering of gnolls & other familiar monstrous races filled the bulk of the rogues gallery. What to do with such a prosaic assortment of baddies? Try a variation on a back-to-basics approach! Something with bit of sword & sorcery, old-school D&D flavor.

The best & longest-lasting D&D campaign I’ve run so far was a very cobbled-together affair. (On the plus side, I made it a sweet logo.) From the outset, I had next to no idea what the story arc of the game would be. Fourth Edition was brand spanking new, and I’d been out of the RPG swing for a while. I ran whatever pre-made adventures I could find and filled in the gaps wherever I could, just so it hung together well enough to keep playing. When the players got fixated on a particular villainous NPC (almost obsessively so) that got away, the story started taking its own turns. After a little while, I took a few DM flourishes the players enjoyed and pretty much made them the crux of the whole affair: an insane-but-not-crazy lich and his evil plan to save the world. Insert some of these: (?) after about every word in that sentence, too.

I think what made that campaign & setting work is that it was the right size for every moment of the story. When the players were low level, all that they & I knew alike was the modest town of Fallcrest. Likewise, when the players started to get their footing, they looked to the horizons and made out for the dwarven city of Hammerfast, ancient and sprawling. Not long after they made their first jaunt to another plane, exploring the towering fortress on the Shadowfell known as Grin-That-Hides-The-Dagger, as they neared the “paragon” tier. At each point, the world was growing along with the characters, and I was shaping it to fit the players themselves. I love creating settings and fluff, but it’s easy to get carried away. And when that happens, the less-engaged players are likely going to get overwhelmed and have a lot less campaign buy-in as a consequence.

So my goal for this new campaign from the outset was to start small. When I was still planning on using D&D Next for the game, I read up on the classic “Keep on the Borderlands” adventure & its suggested setting, and was immediately drawn to the archetype in the title: an outpost at the edge between civilization and wilderness. That’s a great place to start a story. Already we know a large civilization exists, but is far away. This puts the PCs on better ground to be movers & shakers. We also know the wilderness is quite close — just a across a river, through the woods, or over the mountains. Lots of opportunities for exploration and trouble!

I wanted a framework for this little burg, though, and one with a more original idea than just re-hashing a classic D&D module. Settling on 13th Age as a rules system only reinforced that idea. I wanted a source that could feed me ideas, but that dressed up in D&D fantasy tropes would seem almost wholly new. Thankfully, I had the perfect inspiration sitting on my DVD shelf: HBO’s excellent TV series, Deadwood.

Deadwood is superlative TV. It has great dialogue and a cast of characters that all keep your interest, even when — especially when — they’re black-hearted bastards. The real-life town of Deadwood was filled with grey characters, as opposed to the usual black-and-white morality of the Old West. A perfect fit for my style of play! And the city’s history offers a ton of hooks that could find D&D counterparts:

  • The town was only semi-legal, having been built by prospectors & miners on land promised to Sioux Indians by US treaty
  • For understandable reasons, the Sioux staged frequent raids on travelers to and from the town, with the US Cavalry also operating in the area
  • Given its shaky legal standing as a town, shady enterprises and characters of all kinds made an easy home there
  • Massive mineral wealth was close at hand and being pulled up ‘round the clock, making poor men into rich ones overnight
  • A large need for physical laborers brought in immigrants of all kinds, as well as established citizens hoping to start anew or strike it big
  • The US government refused to either recognize or condemn the town, instead undertaking a long process that would eventually see it annexed into an existing US territory.

From where I sit, that’s a rich combination of factors to put through a D&D filter. Our town will be a shady semi-legal outpost, sitting on rich mines at the brink of an empire, with a thorny local history. Right away, I have an image in mind: a second-rate mountain pass overtaken by ne’er-do-wells, with an official imperial crossing within a week’s hard march. Because I can’t resist, I also started drawing up a map in Hexographer:

My next step was to think about the themes & conflicts of Deadwood in light of the icons in 13th Age. Right away, I decided that the Emperor and his Dragon Empire should fill the role the US government did, which was to be the far-off bastion of strength with a mixed view of the illegal town at their border. Since this town will be our starting area, the players have a solid role-playing choice to make right off the bat: Are you an imperial loyalist, or individualist local?

The next step would be to decide what “native” group will be the Dragon Empire’s opposition in the region, drawing on the situation faced by American Indians in the Black Hills area. The first & easiest opposition force/icon would be orcs & the Orc Lord, but I’ve never been too fond of orcs. Plus, one of the major problems the Sioux had with Deadwood & similar mining towns was their placement in the Black Hills that the Sioux held sacred. Gruumsh aside, the tropes around orcs don’t strike me as making them the choice to use for a culture up-in-arms about spiritual offense.

Instead, I’m going to indulge a personal D&D favorite and make hobgoblins be the regional natives. Goblinoids of all kinds, actually, but as the hobgoblins are the get-things-done sort, they can take the credit. Hobgoblins in D&D have always had a strong theme of order and military strength, so they seem the sort to have had an empire of their own that could pose a legitimate threat to the Dragon Empire. Plus, they’ve always struck me as a good fit to follow a martial code of honor, akin to the philosophy of Klingons on Star Trek (particularly Deep Space Nine). Just to lay my own D&D tropes out in the open: the orcs that I dreamt up* for this game are pretty different than anything Tolkien imagined, so I figure you can negotiate and pose a treaty with a hobgoblin a lot more readily than an orc. (This probably owes a lot to the version of hobgoblins in Eberron.) In any case, my soft spot for hobgoblins will help me keep them as compelling adversaries with relatable motivations, instead of the one-note “savage native” motif that orcs are habitually used as.

So right off, I’m also changing the Orc Lord icon into a Goblin King. I’m also using one of the suggestions for an alternate Orc Lord in the 13th Age core book: my Goblin King icon once fought under the banner of the Emperor, helping to put down the legions of the Lich King’s undead army and stop them from laying waste to the Dragon Empire. (The complex web of alliances between colonial powers and native tribes in the French and Indian War is a good real-world history inspiration on this point.) For their honorable efforts, they were granted the lands they had traditionally inhabited as an official territory of their own control by the Emperor himself.

In more recent decades, though, the Dragon Empire is expanding once more. The lands ceded in treaty were re-annexed and the hobgoblins pushed out of the territory, up into the northern wilds — just beyond the range of mountains in which our second-rate pass sits. It’s in this new vacuum of law & order that the pass gets settled by the people of our village, who themselves kick out a hobgoblin tribe living there. To the villagers, that’s ancient history by now. The mines and the meddling Empire are their day-to-day concerns. But that doesn’t mean the Goblin King or his people are resting so easy, in the pine-forested wilderness not so far away…

And there you have it! By taking a rich example from another medium and passing it through the D&D lens, coming up with a compelling setting is much less daunting of a task. Like I hoped for, it’s a setting that starts small, but has suggestions of places to travel and conflicts to arise later on. And if the PCs fall in love with the town, it’ll be replete with plots and schemes all its own, tied to NPCs that can draw from Deadwood’s deep ensemble of compelling characters.

Pulling from TV for inspirations is favorite trick of mine. Unlike a lot fantasy books that might seem like a closer genre fit, a TV series typically has a wider cast of characters kept in the mix and must limit its storytelling time into smaller chunks. Both of those elements make TV shows a good analog for RPG campaigns. And in the times when I have used books or movies for inspiration, it’s usually just as a jumping-off point: use the movie to help forge an element of the setting’s background, but create the story moving forward out of whole cloth. Aiming for an episodic feel that mirrors the longform narrative of a quality cable series like The Wire or Breaking Bad suits most games much better than simply aping epic fantasy in the vein of Tolkien, et. al… Then again, my love of using television pacing for RPGs is probably deserving of a blog post all its own.

[*Regarding orcs: in brief, in this campaign orcs can only be found in places where great atrocities were committed years ago, as the magical nature of the world is such that the psychic stain eventually manifests into a corporeal form. A ruined tower where once dozens of soldiers were betrayed & slayed in the dead of night: a decade later, orcs may rise from the earth there. Still very much “other”, as orcs typically are, but with enough distance from real-world groups to make them more palatable to see in play.]

Easy hacks: re-flavoring chromatic dragons with the MTG color pie

Dragons are pretty great. I mean, who doesn’t like dragons? Tattoos, RPGs, bitching murals air-brushed on vans; it’s a flavor that goes pretty well with everything awesome. So why does the D&D take on dragons bum me out a little?

Simply put: they’re all too damn similar. Of the kinds most likely to end up in a monster manual, the metallic dragons are the worst offenders (explain the differences to me between a brass, copper, and bronze dragon; I dare you to keep me awake). The chromatics, while better, still leave some room for improvement. For my just-started 13th Age campaign, a few players chose The Three as a setting icon to include on their character sheet. The default 13th Age setting includes a Dragon Empire, which I’m keeping around both in name and function, and its Emperor is another of the icons that popped up on my players’ character sheets. Dragons are definitely going to be A Thing in this game!

The Three, as detailed in 13th Age, are the remainder of an original five archetypal dragons. The White was killed by another icon (the Lich King, back when he was just the Wizard King), and the Green is missing — possibly ransomed, possibly dead as well. The Red, Blue, and Black are still up and about, plotting their schemes and generally causing trouble. Of that trio, there’s some good separation. Perhaps wisely, authors Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet killed off the two chromatics that have been given short shrift in D&D.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lesser white and green dragons in the world. It simply means that those two iconic archetypes are now lost. And for the whole gang to fit together, there needs to be a cleaner philosophy explaining what makes a green dragon, or a white dragon, who it is. Plus, chromatic dragons as more-or-less irredeemable villains is boring. Yes, the metallics could be brought in, but as I said before, they’re in an even sorrier state. Working out my problem, I realized a possible answer lay in that other hobby that eats up all my time & money — Magic: the Gathering.

One of the many things Magic has done exceptionally well in its almost 20-year history is define what separates its colors of mana. It’s smart game design and good business sense, too. There are mechanical, philosophical, and lore separations that make each of the five unique, so that each color has a recognizable style. And rather conveniently, its five colors are the same five colors of the most common chromatic dragons in D&D — I want that! So, let’s see how importing that system into the lore of chromatic dragons works out.

For starters, in MTG, dragons as an actual creature type are tied pretty tightly to red; we won’t be including that, of course. Even so, we can use some artistic license to expand the category of “dragon” into something more broad and give each color dragon its own spin. Who says they only come in “St. George versus the Dragon” flavor? Broadening our idea of what a dragon can be can create some interest and unique setting elements to play around with in a campaign.

Magic includes one twist on the dragon concept right off the bat: the terrifyingly huge creatures for green mana aren’t traditional dragons, but “wurms” — burrowing monsters much like the sandworms from Dune. “Wurm” or “wyrm” has been a stand-in for dragons since medieval times, and the green type speak to some key dragon qualities: hunger, brute strength, titanic size. Green mana has associations of growth and nature, so let green dragons be heralded as bringers of these as well. And for the mechanical inner-workings, just borrow mechanics from D&D’s classic purple worm, stick some of them on a dragon, and now you have a working, land-bound dragon! Trying to satisfy expectations without being trapped by them opens up other dragons to shine, too. In this case, the other four colors shine a little brighter by virtue of their being able to fly, whereas the green can’t.

The other dearly departed dragon in 13th Age is the White. White mana, in Magic, is close to your typical good-guy archetype of the paladin variety: order, law, and selflessness. Mechanically, white cards in Magic often include life gain, bind other cards from acting, and support many smaller creatures working together. This “nice streak” sets our white dragon apart from his selfish, avaricious brethren in my eyes, so I want the eyes of player characters to see the difference too. I still want to keep traditional dragons on the scene, so we’ll leave The Three alone as far as looks. So what of the White?

A perfect opportunity to introduce a more Asiatic influence on dragonkind, I’d say. I love the look of the character Haku from the film Spirited Away, when he reveals his dragon form. Where are the wings, you ask? Is this kind flightless too? Not at all! When Haku flies, it just looks like this. There’s a poetry to that, and it just feels right for a white dragon. How would it work from a flavor perspective? Glad you asked!

Time to pull in some ideas from another favorite universe of mine to polish a few rough edges — Avatar: The Last Airbender. (I hope I don’t have to defend loving a kid’s show, because it’s one of the best animated shows around!) What I have a mind to steal is the idea that manipulating the element of “air” can allow someone to fly. I can see this working wonderfully for dragons. Call it something else in the setting, but if dragons can “bend” their given element, we also have a nice fit for our green dragons being land-bound — they’re tied to the earth element, of course.

Extending that idea, blue dragons get water and reds gets fire. Simple, and somewhat in line with the original Magic color wheel idea, too. Both can still fly, and look much as the 3.5 D&D Monster Manual depicts. As suggested by the setting details of 13th Age, the Blue dragon icon is a sorceress and her brood are masters of magic. The Red, I think, should be the one to stick closest to the medieval/Tolkien-esque dragon archetype: lusting for treasures, quick to anger, and woefully terrible in strength.

Where does this leave black? I have a couple ideas, and this is the one I’m running with in my home game: there’s a fifth element, as is often the case with “classic elements” outside of Greece. You see it in JRPGs all the time: “void”, “soul”, “spirit”; something like that. I think it can work great for black dragons with the right lore context. Combining the concepts of void and soul sounds a lot like the death bailiwick that black mana and black dragons are often connected to. Recast them as the bleak, baleful gate-keepers of the underworld, secluding themselves in places that fit their sullen temperament (like the swamps mentioned D&D’s monster manuals, and forgotten graveyards, too). Now they, too, have a place in the world that isn’t pure evil.

If you’ve gotten this far, but you’re not familiar with the MTG color wheel, here are some key concepts in each color:

  • White: Order, civilization, law, light, healing, stubbornness
  • Blue: Knowledge, intellect, time, ice, water, illusion, wizardry
  • Black: Selfishness, death, decay, isolation, darkness, stealth
  • Red: Passion, chaos, fire, quickness, recklessness, greed
  • Green: Nature, growth, slowness, brute force, earth, life

Put that list to good use! This is just the sketch of an idea, understand. There are things I haven’t worked out yet (what is a black dragon’s breath weapon like? Was killing the White iconic dragon, with its healing association, a key to unlocking lichdom for the Wizard King? How does 13th Age’s metallic-seeming Great Gold Wyrm icon fit into all this?), but rather  than me puzzle those things out and present this concept fully-realized, grab your own inspiration! From Magic: the Gathering or elsewhere, fill in those gaps in a way that makes sense. One facet of 13th Age that I really like it that it presents the bones of a setting, and invites player groups to flesh them out (this is one area where I think I sense the influence Eberron-creator Keith Baker, who’s thanked in the credits). As I continue to refine my world, I’ll share more places where I’ve molded outside inspiration into something that’s my own.

One last side note: my MTG concept has also led me to realize the remaining dragons in The Three make up a Grixis-shard trio… Just the thought of what that could mean for my players fills my heart with sadistic glee.

In pursuit of the ideal D&D experience

I first started the ball rolling on this particular blog in 2008. The four years between that year and this one have seen an awful lot of edition-warring and soul-searching about the nature of D&D. What defines it? What makes it tick? Some of discussion has been pedantic and rage-filled, but plenty too has been insightful and thought-provoking.

I know these debates aren’t new, even to the internet, but I wasn’t much of a BBS or list-serv person when the 2nd edition AD&D transition into 3.0/3.5 D&D happened, so I can’t speak to it. I’ve heard tales it was every bit polemic as the flame-wars during the lifespan of 4th edition. But with social media making the broadcast of opinions (and yes, rage) easier for the layperson to follow, I think the community has felt the impact of the debate more keenly this time around. Few probably took the whole ordeal more to heart than the D&D team at Wizards of the Coast.

When my own dissatisfaction with D&D 4th Edition set in, our gaming group was starting to get antsy in general. We swore off d20 systems for a time, and enjoyed long-running campaigns with Shadowrun and the Dresden Files RPG. If d20 came up as an option, it was usually for old-school D&D with the 80’s-style Rules Cyclopedia, or for a night’s one-shot in the Tomb of Horrors, or a special session for those who’d never actually touched 3.5, being late to the hobby (halflings, you have my continued sympathy for your truly cruel jump penalty). So while we weren’t doing much D&D, we were still exploring that space a bit. And oddly, we never got back into a regular game with “medieval fantasy” as the genre until this year’s foray with Burning Wheel.

Partly, I think that’s because I’m the guy with the biggest love for the typical D&D milieu, at least as RPGs go. And I had run enough 4th Edition to know it wasn’t my top choice, nor were any of the other variants of 3.0/3.5 D&D & Paizo’s Pathfinder. The editions older than those had too many arcane & counter-intuitive systems to sit right with me. So I kept casting about, trying to find my ideal system and define what the D&D touchstones are, in my mind. I never sat down & wrote up a list, but I did have things rattling around in my head that still won’t leave…

D&D is class-based. The iconic D&D classes are key, so classless systems are a dealbreaker (much as I love them). If I weren’t so attached to classes, FATE/DFRPG would probably be able to pull off being a top-notch D&D impersonator.

D&D has fun fights with cool monsters. Every group is going to swing the pendulum on the social/combat continuum where they like, but fights are always going to be a big deal. The fights should be fast-moving, tense, and cinematic. Meaningful fights should be the norm, but there should be room for surprise a la wandering monsters, without obvious appeals to XP-grinding.

D&D has simple & versatile core rules. I understand well the allure of having subsystems that better represent actions like driving vehicles, fighting in the sky, grappling, and so on, but until mastery is achieved I find these kinds of detailed rules a real bother. Solid rules that apply to many situations and smartly allow for innovation and improvisation are where the action is.

D&D heroes are badasses. This hasn’t always been true in D&D’s history, but it’s true to me. Lots of games exist that drive home how precarious battle really is for all involved — instant death is a terrifying possibility. In D&D, this is true for the common folk, but much less so for adventurers.

D&D promotes fun & complex social encounters. And this is where so many systems fall apart! The games with social/exploratory rules that are as well-designed as combat rules are few & far between. The problem is only compounded when multiple linked skill rolls are standing in for meaningful complexity. Does this contradict my “simple & versatile” note above? A little. But that’s pointed at the core of a system: I expect some situational complexity on top of that core. Class features & combat get this kind of attention; skill & social systems often don’t.

D&D has interesting failures. The “skill roll with binary outcome” doesn’t go far enough for me by a long shot. Failure shouldn’t be the boring result that “nothing happens”. Dwelling on repeated failures that do little beyond expend player resources (hit points, abilities/spells, turns attempting skill checks) is mostly wasted time. Success shouldn’t be guaranteed, but if failure lacks a real consequence, a roll is probably unnecessary. The best handling of failures is to introduce new complications for the players into the situation, whether they be immediate or delayed.

That’s six rough points that cover a lot of what I want; wanting to have them all in one game has meant trying a lot of RPGs and never finding the one that seems quite right. As quests go it may be a little quixotic — especially since there are ineffable qualities about my ideal D&D that are hard to pin down, but easily noticed in their absence. And there’s a few qualities that are on the fence… I think a list of “is not” qualities is far less useful than trying to figure out what something is. These are the things, though, that I’ve found I don’t need.

D&D does not require d20. I love and hate the d20. It’s fun to roll one; the thrill of the natural 20 is unparalleled; it has remained a constant throughout D&D’s history. But at the same time, it’s probably a bigger die than it needs to be, and it’s hard to ignore that one die with so much variance decreases the impact of a character’s skill & ability scores. (I’ll probably write more in the future about how well the FATE system avoids this with its Fudge dice rules.) A D&D system that can use the d20 well & address its shortcomings is tough to do, and very welcome at the table.

D&D should not demand minis or a grid. Minis are another thing I love, as a person with strong visual/kinesthetic tendencies and an interest in crafts. But, they can do more to restrict the imagination than open it up, and bog the action down with more petty realism and “how would this work in real life” tangents than I’d like. There’s also the logistics impact. Being able to play just fine without opens up a lot more real world spaces for play.

D&D shouldn’t be driven by strict realism. This is another “personal preference” area, and one where I distinctly come down in favor of “rule of cool” decision-making. Suspension of disbelief is important for everyone involved, and I certainly don’t want the mood at the table to be cartoonish in a typical D&D game. But I do want the adventurers to feel exceptional, and for encounters to have lots of stylistic highlights. Putting mechanical limits on this one is hard. I like the at-wills and dailies of 4th Edition overall, but find that encounter powers mostly rub me the wrong way. The associated/dissociated mechanic divide plays a role, too. Mostly, I just want my games to play out like episodes of great TV, no matter what system we’re using.

So what games fit these lists? Not many! More on which ones come close (and which ones fall far short) in a future post. 

Designing an RPG campaign around itinerant players

In my circle of friends, tabletop RPGs are a fairly regular portion of our weekly social activities — falling as often as twice a week, and sometimes more during the summer. Most of those who play are content to be players, are frequently busy with other concerns, or new to the hobby in general; such that of the eight or so of us known to roll the d20, only two of us run games for the most part.

As a dungeon master, or DM, perhaps the chief task is simply getting the right bodies at the table — once that goal is achieved, the rest often falls into place. Much as many DMs (myself included) enjoy preparing a suite of challenges for players to face, often the most predictive factor for fun in a night’s session is the percentage of players in attendance.

What to do then in summer, when the selection of players likely undergoes a semi-permanent change? At this stage in my life, and that of a large swath of RPG players, school of some sort is often still a part of the equation. In summer, some players are bound to have returned from abroad for a few months, or be returning to a hometown elsewhere until the fall semester. They might taking on accelerated summer courses that demand more full-time attention, or just working more hours at their job to prepare for the next round of tuition.

The games I run tend to be longer campaigns; one-shots just aren’t in my blood. A rotating player base, however, can throw a wrench into this process. So this summer, to accommodate this change (and the three-month stay of a former mainstay of our D&D group), I devised a game meant to specifically operate in the summer months only, then go on hiatus for the other eight or nine months of the year.

Making it happen was surprisingly easy, though the skeleton of the campaign was built to accommodate just this schedule in particular (the aforementioned player is attending an out-of-state grad school, and will be returning for the next two summers as well). In brief, the players were recruits for a covert military arm of the government, tasked with the retrieval of a specific individual.

I made that goal the only concrete part of my planned narrative; depending on the actions of players, that goal might be reached within a handful of play sessions, or only at the very end. With that goal achieved, the organization that recruited them might have further need of them, but only in situations that required “special attention.” Essentially, a hiatus was built into framework of the game’s story — call it “the sequel structure.”

To prepare for next summer’s edition of the same campaign, I planted a few plot seeds throughout this year’s sessions — elements that were tangential to the main plot, yet designed to pique the players’ curiosity. In addition, much of the last session of the summer before the player dissolved was given over to more story- and player-focused interludes. The next time we play, several years will have passed for the player characters, each of which will have been pursuing their own individual goals up until that time; addressing this specifically in the last session helps provide a launching point for the characters’ off-screen adventures.

Plotting a game this way is not unlike writing a screenplay that anticipates its own sequel several years down the line. Rather than pick up precisely where the last story left off, in the gap between films the characters of some series age and change, in minor if not major ways. And inevitably, events conspire to reunite and push them once more into the realm of action.

As examples, consider the sequels to Ocean’s Eleven, The Mummy, or the host of Star Trek films: All share a mostly-static array of characters and themes, yet aren’t devoted to the telling of a single tale. A campaign that uses the sequel structure should work similarly. Doing so will also lend itself to the real-life considerations of a summer RPG campaign — some players will be apart from others for months, and almost a year will pass between the end of one batch of sessions and the next. What might otherwise be a logistical problem is instead actively used to enhance the verisimilitude of the game being played.

Using the sequel structure is also a prime opportunity for a DM to make significant changes within the game world, without the pace of events seeing unrealistic. Players can design their characters with more complete social spheres, even families of their own. Their characters are only “on-duty” for a few weeks or months every couple of years in game-time, letting them break free of the usual adventuring life in the meantime. It’s almost as if the characters are in the RPG equivalent of the National Guard!

As gamers age, being able to meet around a table ready to play increasingly takes a backseat to other life concerns. But in thinking ahead, a clever DM can anticipate for these interruptions and plan for them, or as in cases like this, even harness and build on them. Part of the draw of RPGs is their endless flexibility, and rarely to DMs design a session that feels like duplicate of the one before it. Just as the story of a game adapts in response to the actions a player’s character takes, the style and format of a campaign is free to adapt in response to the changes in players’ real lives.

This obviously works both ways — one day, the game that was sequel-structured could become a more regular affair. Let it be as major a change in the lives of your characters as it is in the lives of your players!