[EDITOR’S NOTE: I’d like to apologize to our Rat Hole readers. Despite being in different cities, it seems everyone here has hit some nasty health issues the past couple weeks. Work is starting to get back to normal, and both our regularly scheduled reviews and Renaissance Gamer columns should be rolling again shortly. Next week should hopefully continue our series on accessibility in gaming. But for today we give you a great piece on getting your game back on track. -dc]
It happens to every Game Master. You’re mid-campaign, and in an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere. But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up. You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it’s only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either. And when the players lose focus…
It’s okay. Take a deep breath. I’m here for you, my struggling GM. Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:
1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore. Why are backstories so rich in plot? Because your players are highlighting the things, people, and events important to their characters. That significance allows you to build encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally. Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn* Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring an age of darkness? Now you have your player’s attention.
So dig into those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out. Now, look at your plot-threads. Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory. Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters. Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again. Take a tip from television; make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another. The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.
- What’s that? Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign? Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking! Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:
- What is your character’s most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
- Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
What one thing does your character covet above all else? What one thing does your character fear above all else?
Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.
2) Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game. The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet. Then you do it again with another NPC, and another. Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.
So don’t. Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie. Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a. But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty. Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think. Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together. Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.
3) Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play. No problem. See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into your plot? Perfect! Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it! The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?). After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world? Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.
Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things. One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important. Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes. Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out. Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well. You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots. And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.
So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and try these suggestions. You can get untangled.