RPT#191 – 20 Tips On Managing Campaign Time
A Brief Word From Johnn
Anyone Played Game Of Thrones Boardgame Yet?
I saw a boardgame about my favourite novel series called Game of Thrones at my FLGS the other day. It looked quite interesting. Has anyone played it? What did you think?
Chris Crawford On Game Design
I have just finished a book called “Chris Crawford On Game Design”. It focuses on video games, but there’s some relevance in parts to pen & paper RPGs. One of his mantras struck me in particular in regards to designing interactivity:
What will the user do?
I’ve been dwelling on this a lot and it’s inspired a new thread in my upcoming Encounter Essentials book. When you’re designing and planning for your next game, think about Chris’ question:
What can the PCs do in the situations you’re planning?
What choices will your players have?
The example I’m using in my book to illustrate the power of these questions involves a seemingly well-crafted encounter with several poker-playing goblins. However, when the PCs enter, the plan is for the goblins to shout “Intruders!” and attack. What options do the PCs really have here? They’re pretty much pre-disposed to attack, defend, or flee.
No matter how cool the location design, number of important plot clues planted, pending reward, or customization of each goblin foe, there’s not much in the way of choice presented in that example, and therefore not much interactivity. The encounter’s effectiveness and entertainment value suffers because of this.
Something to ponder.
Have a great week!
In Issue #187 I posted a request for tips on stretching out campaign time. Following is my original request pasted in from #187 and then readers’ responses. Hope you find the tips useful!
With my style, I enjoy GMing the day-to-day lives of the PCs as they evolve into fine adventurers and heroes. However, when the game is continually run on a day by day, or even hour by hour basis, it starts to get unrealistic. How much can a character really improve in 24 hours? How can I let my game world change in the background when the time line advances so slowly? Wouldn’t the PCs get burnt out after packing so much adventure in such a condensed time frame?
However, switching to a longer time frame mid-game is often troublesome:
- Characters want to act immediately (“Ok, in the morning I want to chat with the innkeeper”)
- Plot threads might not tolerate longer time intervals (“Three weeks pass — oh wait, the goblin hoard was advancing, so I guess we have to rewind.”)
- Administration can bog the game down (“Three weeks pass? Ok, my character wants to study some things, re-equip, get some training, and start building a house.”)
So, my tips request for you this week is advice on switching from micro character management (i.e. “Ok, the monster is dead, what are you doing now?”) to longer time frames (i.e. “Ok, the monster is dead, the village celebrates, and three weeks pass.”) with grace and efficiency. Perhaps you have some planning advice to prevent this problem from happening in the first place, or some in-game storytelling techniques for this?
- Have The PCs Set Goals
From: Peter Heyman
I generally keep a list of the characters (PC & NPC) handy that shows both their individual short and long-term goals.
- Short-term – Chasing after the waitress in the tavern for a date
- Long-term – Designing that cool new battle-bow and studying magic with Laueth (another PC).
If I know that there is a period of time coming up where there will be little action, I will ask that the players make a list of 3-6 short-term and 1-3 long-term goals. With these there is focus for the PCs and quite often there are a few goals that will overflow into the next chapter of the story line.
I encourage the players to cross-match their long-term goals with one or more other PCs and NPCs so that there is more cohesion within the party. These people have been living side-by-side, working together, adventuring together, and in many cases, nearly dying together. Why would they suddenly go their separate ways to pursue personal goals that they had not even discussed among themselves?
- Why would the Dwarf work for a month to create a great axe, then go looking for someone to enchant it when his adventuring companion of the last 2 years is studying to become an Archmage?
- Why would the team’s technician hide out in a basement at home, working night and day on a new computer design, but not even consider asking the team’s brilliant computer programmer to assist him?
Whenever you are working non-stop, waiting for your vacation or the end of an important project, you always start making plans for what you’ll do when you have time for yourself.
- Read that huge novel (Jordan probably)
- Follow your hobbies (gardening, stamp collecting, armor & weapon building)
- Take a trip somewhere (the beach, the mountains, that weird temple in the jungle down south that no one has ever returned from!)
- Visit family (dead or alive)
- Recuperate from injuries (what most players overlook!)
- Study up for a promotion (or to prepare themselves for the next big ugly!)
Whatever it is, most likely the PCs have already planned on doing it. Therefore, the players can make their lists of PC Goals and have them ready for the GM. And, the GM can then work these sidelines into the matrix of the story line.
- Use Episodic Format
From: Sean Brasher
In my current campaign, I wanted to achieve a “TV show” feel where the various adventures the group experienced were broken out into distinct episodes with a period of “off- camera” time between each episode. However, the plot line inevitably would contain recurring villains to hassle, important NPCs to meet, items to build, skills to learn, etc. and the players might be motivated to try some things during their off-time that I would prefer were handled during episodes.
I also wanted the PCs to feel like real people who occasionally experience wild adventures instead of being “career adventurers” who are always on the go. (In other words, I wanted to allow a character to occasionally go visit his mother in the next town without having to do that in-game).
Finally, because certain skills such as Craft allow a character to produce items or wealth in their free time, I wanted a way to allow the PCs some free time while maintaining fairness.
So, we came up with the “Gap Between Episodes” table. At the end of an episode adventure we roll d100. The next episode begins in:
Result Gap Between Episodes 01 Less than 1 hour 02-05 Less than 1 day 06-15 1 day – 3 days 16-40 4 days – 10 days 41-75 11 days – 3 weeks 76-90 3 weeks – 6 weeks 91-95 6 weeks – 3 months 96-99 3 months – 5 months 00 5+ months
At the beginning of the next session, the players get a chance to say how they spent their off-time. But, there are rules on how that time can be spent:
- The PCs can not advance the plot during their off-time.
- If the PC focuses excessively on a single task, their social life suffers.
So, even if they found out where their mysterious informant lives during the last episode, they cannot use their off- time to follow him around. And, even if they know that one of the forty warehouses at the docks contains an evil monster, they cannot spend their three weeks off hanging out at the warehouses and searching every one of them. (The DM can provide in-game reasons why these things are not possible, if needed.)
Also, the PCs should be expected to have a social life. If a PC spends every moment of his free time for three months in his basement building a super-gun, his girlfriend will probably leave him and his friends will stop calling. He ought to feel that effect in-game when the next episode starts.
What is acceptable during off-time: learning a new skill, creating items, building a home or a business, obtaining basic equipment, travel, hobbies, interacting socially with NPCs, living a normal life, etc.
- Take An In-Game Planning Break
One of the best things I can suggest about a time management transition is to take a small break. Give players about 5 – 10 minutes to formulate any plans or things they want to take care of during the fast forward.
This goes something like, “Ok, I am about to fast forward through 3 weeks of game time. Now we’re going to take a break for a few minutes. I want you to write down what your character will be doing during those 3 weeks. Once you’ve given me your sheet, that’s it. No going back and adding or changing things.”
Read the submissions. First you want to approve/disapprove the intended actions. Next, determine which actions can be handled off stage. “Yes, Ragnar, you’re able to buy a new axe. Deduct the standard cost off your treasure.”
Then deal with things that must be done on stage. You can skip a lot of set-up here. “Ok, Malack, about a week has passed and it’s now the day you’ve decided to go see the head of your order. You’re entering the chapel now…”.
One thing about the on-stage items. If possible, look for elements that can be combined to involve the whole group. Say, for example, that the majority of the group wants to get more equipment. Then you might handle it like so: “You’ve spent the last few days relaxing after that last fight. Now you’re out in the market area trying to acquire supplies”.
I think the main thing to understand is although you are fast forwarding, you don’t have to do it all in one step. The key is give the players some time to think about the passage of time and deal with the intended actions as required using the thoughts above.
Of course, one thing to bear in mind is you can’t fast forward when external events preclude it. If you know you have an advancing goblin horde, then the fast forward won’t work.
As a different strategy, try to time the fast forwarding for between sessions. As you wrap up a session, announce your intention to fast forward. Get the players to think about their characters’ actions and write them down like mentioned before. This gives you more time to plan out how to deal with the on stage and off stage items. Much of the off stage items can be handled via phone or email. This also has the advantage of keeping up player interest between sessions.
- Explain Your Intentions To Your Players
From: Riina Stewart
Amaranth Roleplaying Resources
It is advisable when making any change to the way a campaign runs to talk it through with your players. Ask for their cooperation in deciding whether or not something is truly important enough to play through, and explain that your intention is to make things seem more realistic, while avoiding having to spend long on anything which they find boring.
- Allow Players To Interrupt If There Is Something They Particularly Want To Roleplay
From: Riina Stewart
Make it clear to your players that when you reach a point of downtime, and start describing what happens in brief, that they can interrupt and ask to play something out if they particularly want to. To start with, they will probably feel like they want to roleplay out things that they might not need to, so encourage them to justify such interruptions. For example, they may wish to roleplay sitting around the campfire that night because they were hoping to have an interesting conversation about their guide’s background – an intention you might not have been aware of. This may be worth playing through real time.
- Describe The Events That Take Place Briefly, Rather Than Running Through Them
From: Riina Stewart
Micro character management can be avoided by simply describing mundane events briefly rather than running through them specifically. For example, instead of running an entire shopping expedition, you could simply say “You spend a long, tiring day looking for the goods you want to buy. What were you looking for? OK, you find X and Y, but there is a shortage of Z and you are charged an exorbitant price by a black-market dealer.” While a shopping expedition might be an interesting roleplaying experience if you want it to be, it could also be quite mundane. If you aren’t planning anything interesting, you can move the game along by just briefly describing it. The trick is to create a sense of the passage of time, without spending long on it in game.
- Spotlight Events
From: Riina Stewart
While not all shopping events are interesting, some may well be. Learn to spotlight these interesting scenes, and skip past those that have less to offer. Only run scenes that add something to the game, remembering that this doesn’t just include scenes where something “happens”. Scenes can be used to create a mood, build tension, obscure important things (the red herring), add to characterization and so on. A game where only directly plot relevant scenes occurred would be rather odd. However, many scenes don’t add anything much at all, and can be easily deleted.
- Use Dice Rolls To Cover Unimportant Events
From: Riina Stewart
Skipping past things can be disempowering, so sometimes it is best to allow players to roll dice to cover their character’s performance during a downtime. For example, you and your players may not wish to roleplay through a lengthy session of choosing horses; however, if they make a bad choice, it could mean they are left horseless down the track, or they pay a bad price for what they get. In this case, you could let an appropriately skilled player roll on the relevant stat to determine how successful they are.
- Streamline Downtimes By Just Allowing Players To Do Reasonable Things
From: Riina Stewart
It can be tempting as a GM to make everything a challenge, but really it doesn’t hurt to just assume the characters succeed. If a given event is within the character’s abilities, and wouldn’t add anything if it was played out, just let the player describe what they are doing. This can avoid a lot of needless wasted time when it comes to downtimes. If your player wants their character to build a house, it is possible to just say, “OK, you’re working on it – how’s it going and what’s it like?”. When players give you a long list of downtime activities, you can probably just let most of them succeed, and only roleplay through a couple important ones.
- Ask Players What They Are Doing In General Terms Before Describing A Downtime
From: Riina Stewart
When you intend to go into a downtime, ask the players what their characters are doing for the duration, (in point form if the downtime is a long one or just verbally if it is short). That way you can describe the events that pass as planned, and run as scenes those which might be problematic. Let’s say your player gives you a list like this, for a two month down time:
- Spend time with daughter
- Practice Fencing
- Start writing a book on my travels
- Try to make an impression at court
In this case you might say yes to the first three, and then roleplay the character’s first day at court, and base the rest on a roll. Of course, any of these things could be plot hooks for something interesting, which is another benefit of such lists, downtime or no.
- Use One-On-Ones For Long Downtimes
From: Riina Stewart
If you have the time and inclination, it can be interesting to schedule one-on-one sessions with each of the players during particularly long downtimes of more than a few months, and especially if years will pass. This helps to give the player a sense of what has happened in that time, gives a sense of time passing, and allows for some more personal character development. Before this session, you would ask your player to prepare a list of what they would do during this time, and then decide which actions would make interesting scenes and which will just be described (with the amount of time you can dedicate to play in mind). Sometimes this is a good place to introduce plot hooks for the next story of your campaign.
- Schedule Downtimes In Appropriate Places
From: Riina Stewart
Obviously, it is a matter of personal judgement, but it is important to schedule downtimes when there is a break in the action. If events are happening close together, then it probably isn’t a good place. If, however, the characters must wait a few weeks or months before they get needed information, running that as downtime will help maintain the campaign’s momentum. Downtimes are also highly appropriate between stories when one has been concluded and another has yet to begin.
- Don’t Have Plot Important Events Occur In Downtimes
From: Riina Stewart
Finally, and importantly, avoid having highly plot relevant events occur in downtime mode. If your PCs are seriously disadvantaged by an event they didn’t have the chance to effect, they won’t trust downtime and will want to go back to a micro management approach. If an event is likely to impact strongly on the characters, it is usually best to play it out real time, to give the players a chance to have an impact. The only exception I’d give to this are events on such a scale that the PCs could obviously never have effected them – for example, national politics might effect them profoundly, but if they have nothing to do with national politics you could just mention that the King was killed in battle and has been replaced by his tyrannical son. Of course, such events can still make for very interesting scenes, if you are so inclined.
- Use A Time Paradox GMing & Campaign Style
From: Tommy H.H.
I ran a big campaign involving about 8 players divided into groups that would constantly alter their alliances. I had to keep track of every impact each team would have on the world, and if a group played a session and spent a year in that session they would be out of game until the other groups caught up to the same time line.
As a result, some players developed a style of “how many things can be done in one day if we really plan it”. They would play for days trying to make a game day last as long as possible so that they could play the game more than the other groups. Of course, the other teams complained…
In the end I traded time-realism with real time.
Each team could exist in their own time envelopes and meet if they searched each other out, regardless if it would lead to inconsistencies in time. Players could play together on a day or split up during the game into private sessions of one hour each. So, one team could be battling a war while the other team would be shopping.
The only restriction to this manipulation of time was that they had to deal with any encounters they met if they travel over a distance. So the team that is about to advance against the orcish war machines may stall their game time and allow the other group to roleplay the travel all the way to the battlefields and then both teams will eat the orcs for dinner…
On the other hand, if one group has failed to stop the orcish invasion, then when the next group plays there will be orcs everywhere.
I know this method may seem confusing to outsiders, but it makes the game run incredibly smoothly, and from time to time playing teams are amazed at what other teams have accomplished during a weekend. When personal time lines coexist, you can let a PC survive without using scrolls of youth, even though one player spends a thousand years hunting a treasure.
I have done one thing more with the time lines…
During each session I roll 5 times on a world event table during my spare time and make the alterations in the game. The world events are usually disasters and focused on an area, and if players enter the area during the session they will experience the event.
This allows prophets and gods to tell about the future because I can roll in advance and note down the event. The players can pay gold and be warned about a meteor strike before the event takes place and survive by avoiding the area for some sessions until they read about it in the world-news.
- Calculate Project Time For The Players
From: Andrew Perkins
One thing you can do to let some time pass is use a system of: “You get two weeks off. During that time your character will sleep X hours and you will have X hours leisure time. What do you work on?” This way, people are forced to think realistically about what their character could, and could not, do during that time period.
It also helps to have the time pass between two larger adventures. That way, if someone wants to go after his personal side-quests, that can be arranged outside of the rest of the group.
Hope that helps!
- The GM’s Questions Are Leading
From: Justin D
I think the main issue is giving players a reason to slow things down. After all, most games only reward characters for being constantly active. If players feel less pressure, they’ll be happier to wait around a little bit.
If the GM keeps saying “So, what do you do at 2:00? What are you doing at 2:30?” the players are going to pick up on that. They’ll learn that the GM wants them to act quickly and manage their time, even if that’s not what the GM wants. A GM who says “Are you going to do anything this week?” is more likely to have characters wait around. I once had a GM plan a two-month lull in the action, but he asked what we were doing each and every day. In the second week, we finally just said “Look, can we skip ahead to the action? You know our daily routine now.” He felt like he needed permission from us, but his questions made us feel like the action was imminent.
- Pass Time Without Making Assumptions
From: Justin D
Look at the difference between these two statements:
1) “The village has a celebration and you all sit around for three weeks. It’s going to cost you 200 gold for food and board. Now, roll initiative. You’re being ambushed.”
2) “OK, the village is going to celebrate tonight. Three weeks are going to pass quietly until the next exciting thing happens. It’ll cost you 200 gold for food and board, unless you want to do something else. No? OK. Well, there’s an ambush now – roll initiative.”
The second approach lets the players know that they’re not expected to do anything and not losing some competitive advantage during that time.
They’re also given a choice – no one likes being railroaded in any context. The GM can go even further. Perhaps the PCs have to wait a week for a future employer to arrive? Maybe the employer’s steward lends them the use of his pleasure boat while they’re waiting? This way the GM makes it clear that waiting is all right.
- Use Travel And Weather
From: Justin D
I’m always amazed at how many D&D GMs allow player groups to safely travel 20 miles a day through snow-covered mountain passes during the winter. In reality, ancient armies often postponed marches due to rain and mud, let alone snow and rough terrain. The Donner party didn’t even survive their early-winter trek.[Comment from Johnn: Here’s info about the Donner party:http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/donner/ ]
By slowing down travel, there’s less pressure to get things done soon and you have a good three to five months of winter weather where no one in their right mind travels anywhere.
Even in science fiction games, travel can be slowed. Planes fly more than 200 miles an hour, but how long will it take you to go 200 miles? Drive to the airport, check in, pass security, wait for delays, spend 15 minutes boarding and another 15 unloading, then wait for baggage, fight over cabs, and finally arrive at your hotel. I once spent 5 hours getting through a 20-minute connecting flight. Bad weather can ground flights and close roads, though futuristic technology makes these delays hours or days instead of weeks or months.
- Use PC Diversions
From: Justin D
It helps if players have something to do during their downtime. After all, adventurers only lose money if they’re sitting around swilling ale and renting apartments. If they have apprenticeships, romances, side businesses, political involvements or other non-adventuring interests, they might happily slow things down a little. In this case, the transition can be more player driven. “Are we done with the enemy? Good, I need to get back so I can campaign for the town council. And Joe has a wedding to plan.”
Plus, this just builds good role-playing. How many people actually work seven days a week? Characters should take time off, have vacations, and enjoy their money – it only makes sense. Furthermore, a good romance or town election can pull even the most die-hard hack ‘n’ slasher out of his shell.
Clever GMs may even award experience for this good non- adventure role-playing. I once gave out a certain amount of experience for just sitting around and was surprised by how much the characters slowed things down themselves (even though it was the equivalent of about one adventure’s experience per year of inactivity).
- Slow Down Advancement
From: Justin D
By this, I don’t mean award less experience but regulate how it gets spent. The exact rules would depend on the game. In D&D, you might allow a character to earn all the experience he can, but can only improve one level per year. A very busy season of adventuring might earn him four levels, encouraging the player to take some serious time off for study because he’ll need four years to apply all that experience. When players have this kind of motive, they’ll request the time off, facilitating the transition. And the GM can always reserve the right to have adventures interrupt the training if he wants to hurry things along a little.
- Combat Tip: Use A Thin 2nd Fig Base To Show Reach
From: Eric T. Holmes
I require the players to have painted figures while I use “unpainted” figures for monsters and minor NPCs. The figures are not truly unpainted, but have a wash of black paint, a color designator for multiples of the same figure, and a number either stuck or written on the base. Major NPCs are usually fully painted.
The players take care of recording battle damage during their epic fights with the minions of Mordor or Isengard, while I just have to keep track of the major NPC like the Mouth of Sauron or Ignash the Captain of the Uruk-hai. The players are given record sheets for their use and break up the masses between themselves, which helps in the record keeping.
If we have large or huge creatures, I’ll use some card stock to give the base size, put some “Blue Tack” on the card and away we go.
We also can show the reach a person’s weapon has by placing their figure similarly on a card base. This works well with spears, quarter staffs, and extra long blades.[Comment from Johnn: hey, this is a great tip–at least, for D&D 3.x players it is. Reach is often a confusing or forgotten issue during a complex combat. Sticking a thin base such as cardboard or a Post-It under a fig’s regular base would be a great way to display reach in addition to space/facing.]
We use an older battle-mat with 21 mm squares, so the squares work out with figures to a five foot scale.
On another topic, one of the players in our group suggested using acetate sheets and pre-drawing interiors of rooms. While I haven’t started doing this yet, I can see the usefulness with this technique because I won’t spend valuable time drawing and detailing rooms. I’ll just have to draw the corridors and “weird” rooms like caves. He even went so far as predicting the use of a color photo copier with some of the pdf files available on-line. Now why didn’t I think of that![Comment from Johnn: there’s a Supplemental Issue on just this topic. #12: Online Sources of Free Maps. To receive it by email, send a blank email to: [email protected] ]
Keep up the great work. Love the e-zine.
Roll double ‘aughts.
- Adventure Ideas
From: Kelvin Goh
I was watching Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim when I got this idea for a D&D adventure – it’s got all the elements: suspense, betrayal, and an idiotic prophecy nobody pays attention to until it’s far too late.
- Players receive a rumour of a powerful artifact of blah- and-blah
- They visit the Oracle who spouts gibberish while gazing into a crystal ball – “Only those who are pure of heart can wield it’s power!”
- Mid-prophecy, said Oracle gets interrupted rudely by marauding agents of the Enemy – “IT’S A WAAAAGH!!!”
- Players are getting seriously trounced when they get saved by a mysterious, beautiful stranger
- Said stranger wants artifact to “save her father who was imprisoned in a circle of fire”
- Players and stranger make long journey, facing many obstacles to reach the artifact
- Stranger turns out to be the Big Bad Boss
- CUE: Big Bad Boss fight
In the cartoon, the boss wins the fight and Jack loses the artifact, but I digress …
Now we have the plot line, we can embellish it a bit with subplots, romances, even more betrayals, and some red herrings… Insert below into appropriate places on top:
- 1a. There are 12 different Oracles – only 1 is real, the rest are quacks…
- 2a. The True Oracle speaks in a tongue that none of the PCs can speak, so they need a translator.
- 4a. Players are saved by *several* mysterious, beautiful strangers (but don’t overdo this), and maybe a romance or two develops…
- 4b. Some strangers are at odds with each other. Doesn’t even need be between different alignments – imagine 2 paladins, one who favours a “smite all evil” approach, and the other who favours the “give them the benefit of the doubt” lines
- 5a. Strangers laugh at each others’ needs for the artifact, each claiming they have the most right to the thingamajig
- 6a. Stranger(s) wants to do things along the way, e.g. raze a town, clean a toilet, beg for biscuits, etc. Maybe a good time to put in time constraints – “7 days do you have before the artifact morphs into Great Boo-hoo and drowns the world in a sea of crocodile tears!”
- 7a. Stranger(s) turn into respective Big Bad Boss(es) … oh dear… don’t overdo this one, either!
- 8a. Multiple boss fight! Ever play Serious Sam? You get the idea!
That’s awfully complicated, but the gist of this whole sorry story is that:
- If you run out of ideas, steal them from movies, cartoons, shows, etc.
- Put them all together in a coherent whole – this may take some work, but once you jot things down, you can just interlace them. Even if you do it crudely, they usually come up with a convoluted, complicated story line that still works just don’t put radically different things together.
- Create NPCs suitable for your plot.
- Throw your players into it and have fun!
That’s my 10 cents worth, Johnn. Hope this proves to some folks that when you’re dry on ideas, you can still have a funny campaign! Cheers!