Monday, December 24, 2012

Filler Sessions

Last week I talked about plot arcs and the correct times for the GM to trot out the sessions that advance the campaign season’s main plot, called beats. So what do you do in all the sessions that don’t advance the main plot? Those are the joy that is filler sessions!

In a seasonal/arc beat campaign these are best known as Monster of the Week (MotW) episodes. The name comes from the aforementioned Buffy and X-Files TV shows in which any episode where they weren’t advancing either the seasonal or arc plot had them dealing with the mystery/threat of some random monster. In X-Files the MotW episodes had no connection to the campaign arc – no cigarette smoking man, no hints to the big conspiracy, nothing – and therefore were completely episodic. In Buffy there were often cut scenes to what the bad guys were up to so that each episode felt connected to the seasonal arc even if it didn’t meaningfully advance it. Just something to keep in mind when you’re putting the game together, as the former gives a more claustrophobic feel as the players/viewers have no more information than the PCs/heroes.

MotW’s are a nice break because they can have a feel or tone that is very different from the rest of the plot. As a campaign builder they can introduce places or things that clever players may draw upon later or they could be totally irrelevant moments. And by virtue of those of those things they can serve to highlight unexpected character aspects or give some characters some much needed spotlight time by focusing the session on their area of expertise. If your players are the sort who chafe at being pulled away from the ‘main plot’ you can soften the MotW anger either by making the threat something they just cannot avoid for moral (a string of bizarre killings need to be stopped) or personal reasons (one of their dependent NPCs is involved) or you can let them know that the character is furiously pursuing key plot threads in their spare time, it’s just happening off screen. (That can defuse some of the “But I’m just playing in character by avoiding your plot to work on my preferred one” arguments.)

In general the threat level of the MotWs should be a little lower – given that they serve other functions in terms of world and character illumination the players should be able to approach them with a higher degree of confidence that they’ll not be seriously injured.

If you’re running an interwoven campaign then the filler sessions aren’t so much sessions and they’re not set to last a week since interwoven plotting doesn’t work that way. These are better understood as “on the road to the adventure” (OtRttA)plots. These are the things that happen to the PCs either before the big plot starts or during lull, research or travel times in the big plot. The PCs may be in the adventure but stuff will come up in the way that serves many of the same functions as a MotW but they can be longer or shorter as the needs drive.

In an interwoven campaign it’s a good idea to have a handful of adventure seeds running to the very short (will take half a session) to the moderately long (three sessions at most) that you can drop in when needed – either the players got further than you thought they would and have run through your prepared plot (in which case crack open a half session OtRttA), you need a break from the current theme or tone or you want to slow the players down and give the villains time to advance things. The OtRttA can, like a MotW , be unavoidable for ethical or personal reasons it can also be unavoidable for travel reasons (you are on the road, after all) and can also give the players access to necessary tools or information (commonly called “Plot Coupons” ) which the players will want to go out of their way to get. If they don’t think they can defeat the dark lord without the special incantation they’ll go out of their way to get it.

The other use for OtRtta’s is to pump the PCs up before they encounter the main plot: the road starts well before the adventure so the PCs have time to bond and level up before the real issues begin. I counsel you against doing this too much, especially in a game with a 6-12 session run time. If you’re not constraining your run times the way I plan to on this blog… it’s still a bad idea. I was in a Spelljammer campaign where the campaign’s titular event occurred four years (!) after the campaign started, and my that point the player whose character was most tied to that plot had dropped out because nothing ever happened to his character – it couldn’t because that would have given up the game too soon.

Lest you think I’m just dissing another GM, I freely cop to a campaign based around the political machinations and practical problems of opening a new, dangerous overland pass to break a dwarvish trade route monopoly. Rather than having players build characters who would fit that I had them build PCs who were young caravan guards on the other side of the country. The PCs would have to travel across the country, protect the caravan from unconnected threats to impress the caravan leader and hence be in a position to earn a client status with a powerful patron who would send them on a mission to prove their worth from which they would be sent to act as agents in the patron’s attempt to claim ownership of property that would be made valuable if the new pass was opened and from there would almost be in a position to enter the plot. Needless to say the campaign didn’t make it past the caravan guarding.

The main reason that happens, and why OtRttA’s should be reined in, is because players have a pretty good sense of the GM’s engagement level: if this session is just something the PCs have to do to get to the real story they will sense it, the energy won’t be there and the game will founder. (Plus, the players have a lot higher chance to see the railroad tracks the longer the campaign goes on.)

Once you’re actually in the real adventure – and you’re using the OtRtta as a bridge between key moments – they can add  a lot to the campaign. The fact that an Interwoven campaign means they OtRtta’s can last two or three sessions give you a chance to a make them complex or give the characters time to breath, to explore their skills and interact with each other. MotW’s do the same thing, of course, but as with all episodic vs. interwoven structures can feel more contrived.

In the time constrained games that I’ll be designing here filler episodes will make up between none and one half of the sessions described.

Next Week: Campaign #1 – A Distant Inheritence