One of the nifty things about social media is it allows you to live vicariously through other like-minded people engaged in fun activities like playing Dungeons & Dragons. While it can be enjoyable to see tweets with descriptions and pictures from the gaming sessions of others, a constant response in my brain is, “Where do they find the time to play this often?” Quite frankly, it has been a challenge to maintain a tabletop campaign in recent years for a number of reasons. There seems to be a dwindling window of time available for hobbies as we get older and more responsibilities are tossed our way.
So this article offers a few helpful tips to keep a campaign moving. How can you go from playing once every few months to gaming more consistently? And how can you keep the players interested in plot points that were introduced many weeks (or maybe even months – or years) ago?
Adventuring in the Middle Ages
Has anyone ever ran a campaign where characters in the game world had to juggle their personal call to adventure with the realities of raising a family or holding down gainful employment? Probably not, because it would lead to the following conversation:
King Yavin IV: Our kingdom is plagued by the undead. The source of this foul curse seems to be coming from the east. I sent my most-talented warriors and sages to solve the problem, and they have not returned. No word from them in weeks…. I fear the worst! Would you follow their path, and end our suffering? I will see to it that you are all handsomely rewarded.
So’lana Arquist (Bard): Most honorable King Yavin IV, your need is great, and we can certainly take on this most-important quest. Tough, perhaps we could delay the start of this quest as I’m booked to perform each night at The Dove’s Inn until the new moon arrives.
Farcha Oxblood (Fighter): Yes, nothing is as satisfying as ridding undead vermin from this world! However, my partner is away on business and our children need someone to stay home with them. You have my swords, of course, when she returns.
Rinzin (Rogue): Yes, yes…. Later would work better for me as well, your majesty. I’m scheduled to see a surgeon for a medical procedure. Since our last run-in with a group of mages and a flame imp – long story, I won’t trouble you with details – my back has been killing me and it needs some work. I should be in tip-top shape in a few weeks!
Sister Maven (Cleric): I’m ready to cleanse your land of these abominations, though I would need the assistance of the others here today. I will remain focused until the time comes when So’lana, Farcha, and Rinzin are ready to venture east!
King Yavin IV: Oh dear….
Coordinating the schedules for four or more adults is a challenge, and it seems to get increasingly complex as we age. Ideally, everyone in a gaming group would have the same level of commitment to the game and make attendance a priority.
Life happens though. Children need attention, work requirements escalate, emergencies come up, illness strikes, and hobbies such as playing a tabletop roleplaying game for a few hours must be pushed aside for other pressing demands.
In recent months, I’ve found that three strategies are most effective in dealing with the realities of running a game composed of people in theirs 30s and 40s who are invariably juggling multiple real-world responsibilities.
First, accept that each player is not going to attend every gaming session. The struggle to find a time that works for everyone can limit how often the game is played, and that delay can sap the enthusiasm of every player involved. When all the players involved understand that sessions will take place without one or more players at times, the group can collectively move forward more efficiently with scheduling.
Second, attempt to find a consistent time that works for the majority of players. I recently tried to schedule a game that would run on the same night of the same week each month. For example, “Let’s all agree to meet from 6-9PM on the second Tuesday of each month.” That type of scheduling makes the game predictable for everyone, and can be added to calendars and digital planners as a recurring appointment. The problem with this is it may not work for everyone in the group, which leads us to the final option.
Third, agree on a general time frame for how often the game will be played and schedule sessions immediately at the conclusion of each session. A strategy that has worked extremely well for the two campaigns I’m involved in at the moment is for the group to take a few minutes at the end of the session to consult calendars and schedule the next game before everyone leaves. Trying to schedule the next session through a combination of texts and emails is typically a mess, so do it while everyone is still in the same room (or virtually around a table). By allowing players to hash out scheduling for the next game, it gives everyone some ownership for the time and place of the next session while building in some accountability for everyone in the group to attend.
The Functional Recap
A final strategy I want to highlight is the session recap. I’ve mentioned in the past that it can be helpful if you have an eager player take on the role of a campaign recorder to compose the recaps as it reduces the burden on the DM; however, I’ve enjoyed writing the session recaps most recently as it helps me stay organized. I want to emphasize two important elements of a functional and purposeful recap.
First, I encourage DMs to write the recap of the session immediately after the session concludes. If you are hosting the game at your place, take a few moments after the players leave to summarize the session. The longer the span of time between the session and the writing of the recap, the more details will be lost in the process. Jot down humorous or otherwise outstanding moments from the session on a notepad or sheet of paper while the game is taking place. These quick scribbles could turn into gibberish with the passage of time, though they will still make sense a few minutes or hours after the session concludes.
Summarizing the session immediately after the game concludes and sending it out to players through email is a great way to keep building momentum for the entire party. It also gives each player to opportunity to add something to the recap they thought was funny or vital that you may have overlooked. By recapping the session quickly, it keeps the game details fresh and vivid in the written summary, which is amazingly helpful if the next session does not take place for several weeks – or in one case in my group recently, almost a year!
Second, use the recap to emphasize plot points and characters that the players should be aware of to keep the adventure moving along smoothly. This can be done by selecting the topics from the gaming session that are most relevant, and also by the style of the recap. I bold the names of noteworthy NPCs and places, which signals to the players reading that those elements are potential anchors for future storylines. It’s similar to the format I’ve enjoyed in videogames like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto. Here’s an example from our most recent session, which I wrote shortly after the players left my house:
June 20, 2018 — Session #3
Salma Salar, Female Wood Elf Ranger
Yyg, Female Human Paladin
Leau, Female Human Bard
Garif, Male Dwarf Fighter
The party cautiously approached the barracks and lured four dwarven zombies down the hall. Yyg and Salma attacked with bows until the zombies advanced into melee range. Leau burst out into a stirring song, and Garif charged into battle. Two zombies survived the barrage and grievously wounded Yyg, which forced her to, “Lay hands on myself.” The party eventually cleaned up the remaining zombie and found another zombie crushed from the waist down in the rubble. Salma removed the hands of all zombies, and Yyg crushed the skull of the zombie trapped in the rubble.
A necklace of Tyr fell from the smashed zombie’s head, and was retrieved by Salma. She explored a strong stone door while wearing the necklace and felt a magical aura coming from beyond stone. The necklace served as a key to the vault, and the party explored the treasures inside. While Salma destroyed one potion by accident testing for traps, the party recovered two potions of healing, a magical haversack, and a Sentinel Shield along with gold and other art objects.
After a long rest, the party felt more powerful after this adventure (now Level 2), and returned to the Yawning Portal. Phindras and members of the Shining Spear were sitting in the tavern, and he openly scoffed at Salma’s claims that the delve into the ruins was worthwhile. He confronted her and Cortez while boasting of a lucrative new adventure that he was planning. Cortez offered some rumors coming out of Oakhurst for a fee. He referenced the Sunless Citadel and how it is rumored to be somewhere near Oakhurst; he added that legends claim it served as a retreat for an ancient dragon cult.
Leau returned to performing for the crowd, and met with some new fans after her show. A human, Ronald, seemed charmed by her and offered up many details about Oakhurst. He told her of the human mayor, Vurnor Leng, and other landmarks and prominent people in town. He highlighted the female gnome priestess of Pelor, “Corkie,” and Garon, the human barkeep of the Ol’ Boar Inn. Ronald seemed to imply that he was not welcome at the Ol’ Boar Inn, though he did not elaborate. Other stories that came to the party are that goblins have been coming to Oakhurst to sell magical fruits that have either healing or deadly properties, and that cattle around Oakhurst have been killed in the middle of the night bearing dozens of needle-like wounds.
The party rested and traveled to Oakhurst; they camped on the outskirts of town and Garif and Yyg noticed three bushes come to life and advance on the campsite. The twig blights attacked and were quickly managed by the party, but not before Yyg suffered a deep, piercing wound from the claws of a blight.
In the morning, the party made their way into town and stopped by the Ol’ Boar Inn for brunch. Leau started to plan her performance for later while Garif introduced himself to Garon. Garon confirmed that a large group of dwarves came through town a few weeks ago, and suggested Garif speak with Rurik, a male dwarf, at the village smithy down the road for more information.
Leau continued to set up and was talking loudly about her new friend, Ronald, which eventually caught Garon’s ear….
You can see at the top of the recap that our last game was played back in mid-June. I had to cancel our game in July because of illness, and August was busy with summer vacations. The recap will allow the players and myself to pick right back up (hopefully in September) from where we left off. Had I waited to recap until the next session was about to take place, the details of the previous session would be hazy.
The next segment of the recap highlights the characters that were involved in the session. It’s a good reminder for everyone, especially if the group has shifting attendance from session to session. The bulk of the recap follows in paragraph form; other options are to post bullet points from the session. Experiment with different styles to find the one that is most enjoyable to create! Try to highlight an epic or funny moment for each character that was involved in the game. Above, I referenced the group’s Paladin, Yyg, saying, “I lay hands – on myself,” which is always hilarious. Salma really dislikes the undead, Leau earned some groupies and generally floats through the world a bit too unaware of her surroundings, and Garif continues to seek out his dwarven brethren. Give each player’s character some time to shine in the recap!
Throughout the recap, I bolded NPCs, locations, and places that are noteworthy for future adventures and storylines. The players could choose to ignore these plot hooks and go in another direction; a potential seed I planted in our first session (back in 2017) about a bandit group was not pursued. I could reintroduce that plot point some time in the future, and inform the party that the bandits have “grown in strength” since they have been unchecked. Or I could let it fade into oblivion as the players focus on other quests. At the very least, the bolded areas of the recap give everyone potential markers for where to go, what to do, and who to speak with during the next session.
Let Me Sum Up
- Attempt to reach consensus for when gaming sessions will be played, ideally on the same day and time each week or month – “Let’s play the 1st and 3rd Thursday or each month at 7PM.”
- If a consistent time is not feasible for the group, then devote time at the end of each session to schedule the next game before everyone leaves – “Alight, fun game tonight! Let’s take a look at our calendars to find a time that works next month.”
- Devote time immediately after a gaming session concludes to write a recap of what just happened, and send this to the players.
- Highlight something memorable about each player’s character during the last game in the recap.
- Emphasize prominent NPCs, locations, items, and foes in the recap, which the players can use as guideposts for future sessions.