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My DnD group only plays perhaps once a month and occasionally one of them won't be able to make it. I (DM) home-brewed our last campaign and, whilst fun, the big story arcs and multiple NPCs did not suit the infrequent meet ups of the players. Too much to remember from last time - they just wanted to have a bit of fun on that evening and then forget about it for a few weeks.

I have decided that each of our sessions will now be one-shot, meaning they will still play their existing characters but the story will be over by the end of the session. That way there is little to remember after each session and it won't matter if a player is missing that week. They just 'weren't around' in that particular story.

However, my players have invested in their characters and would still like some sort of continuation or through line. One player in particular was keen we explored his character's backstory. I still plan to home brew all the adventures so won't be relying on published stuff.

How to I run one-shot adventures but maintain a larger story arc to loosely connect them? Anyone do a similar thing?

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Making my own story lines. Published stuff was very helpful when I was learning DnD but I prefer making up my own stuff now. – McMechanism Feb 10 at 12:25
Have you looked into the Acquisitions Incorporated youtube video serie? For example: – Sent_ Feb 10 at 12:43
@Marius please do not answer in comments, answer in answers. – mxyzplk Feb 10 at 13:02
@McMechanism that's a good clarification, please edit it into your question. – mxyzplk Feb 10 at 13:03
This is probably related,… – Sh4d0wsPlyr Feb 10 at 16:43

10 Answers 10

The easiest way to do this is to give the PCs a base. Whether it be a fortress or house they own or a village or town they are invested in. From this you can start building up a map around them. The quests could then range from setting up trade from a nearby city so the farmers can grow food more efficiently, to defending the village, to stopping a necromancer before he destroys the area, to a portal opening up and depositing the village in a plane of demons.

You can incorporate character backstories into missions the party are playing, the one thing a player will remember is when their own character's backstory is advanced. Again having a set location can aid in this as you can simply have a passerby be a link or have them find some trinket that's relevant while adventuring, maybe making them want to investigate a certain area nearby.

The main advantage is everyone can glean what happened in a missed or forgotten session by glancing at the map to see what new information is revealed. Eg. "Where did that Bandit Camp come from?" "Oh, last session when we rescued the farmer's daughter she told us the bandits were part of a larger camp over here, remember?"

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+1 Particularly for a game-oriented answer that unlike most others so far, does not frame the game events in the context of TV, movies, or a pre-determined story the GM is orchestrating. – Dronz Feb 10 at 18:33

One thing you can do to help your players feel like they are involved in a bigger plot is to intertwine the overarching story with the session-adventures. In each adventure, leave clues to something bigger going on. Eventually, even if you meet infrequently, your players will start to realize there is something more. Don't make these clues subtle, either; make them glaringly obvious. Players tend to miss what the DM thinks is obvious so sometimes it feels like you're putting up a billboard, but sometimes that's what the players need.

Another good thing you can do to really help tie everything together and to the characters is to allow the characters to make decisions that effect the world in a major way. Maybe the players discover an old keep in a one-off adventure; you might want to let them move in and renovate the place. Let them do stuff during the downtime between adventures. Let time pass -- maybe a few weeks, a month, a year, even multiple years. At the next session, NPCs have started moving in or visiting the keep, referring to the PCs as their new lords.

Maybe the PCs discover an ancient artifact which has a major impact on the world; a sudden drought or seemingly permanent blizzard which affects future sessions by impacting the once-familiar environment in drastic ways without requiring the players to remember NPC names or towns or that one thing they did that one session three months ago that is suddenly now important.

These are just a few examples of ways you can change the world, but the point is that in order to make the players feel like their characters are part of the world is to let them shape the world.

Sometimes it is tempting as DM to write up some homebrew world you think is really cool and write adventures and create NPCs and get really attached to those things, and the players end up feeling background characters in a static setting. To get away from this you really need to immerse the PCs in the world, let them affect change in great ways. Let them liberate a country and destroy a tyrant (or enslave a country, become tyrants...), discover the ancient hidden burial site of the avatar of the god of Light and found a new church, whatever it is, let the players feel like they have changed the world in an impactful way. If the actions of the players don't change the world they won't feel like they are part of the world, so make sure their actions affect things in noticeable ways.

I see a campaign with many one-off adventures as being very fruitful and possibly much easier to manage with far fewer details to remember from session to session. I hope this answer has helped. Good luck!

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One way is to try to structure it as an episodic drama. Basically "a TV series, with one-episode plots and maybe 1-5 season story arcs".

That is, you limit the size of each session to be an episode, complete within itself, with a start and a resolution achievable within the time needed. Once you've found a suitable pacing, you can then start weaving consecutive episodes together into one or more longer-running arcs.

Keys would be "recurring NPCs" and to some extent "recurring locations". You can also start hinting at high-level opponents not directly acting against the party, but sending opposition their way, building up to a possible high-level encounter in a couple of years' time, once the patry is sufficiently powerful.

Back way when, the group I played with used a city module for Drakar & Demoner (a game with a strong BRP heritage) for most single-day playing sessions. We would maybe solve a crime, help out with something, make a short out-of-town trip for a bit of dungeon diving, ... Things that were short enough that we could complete the whole scenario in maybe 3-5 hours. But with the same characters and recurring NPCs, it would feel like a complex, intervowen and maybe even planned longer-term story. We also tended to rotate the GM role around the party, with the current GM's character simply relaxing around town.

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My suggestion would be to keep your through line simple.

Consider the Marvel movies. Each has its own plot, villain, focus, and supporting cast. But the primary through line is the infinity stones---the handful of MacGuffins---leading up to the inevitable confrontation with the big bad. These movies are years apart, but we can follow along without having seen every movie because it's pretty simple.

Regarding your concern for having multiple NPCs, I think you can have a few NPCs, but be careful on how important you make them to the plot. A complex political drama might not be the best style of story for this format. Subtle relationships and character histories might be difficult to keep fresh in your player's minds. Again, I would suggest going the Marvel route, and maybe just introduce a couple new NPC characters each session and slowly build.

Just keep the plot simple. Let the complexities come from the players.

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  1. All sessions start in the village.
  2. At any time when not in peril and the party knows the way back the party can declare that they return to the village - this ends the session.
  3. If the session time expires before they return, roll on the "What really bad thing happens to my PC while returning to the village" table.

Shamelessly nicked from and somewhere else I can't remember - follow the links and you'll get there.

Note the dungeon does not have to be a literal dungeon; it can be the Valley of Doom or Forest of Instadeath or whatever.

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I do a similar thing for FFG's Star Wars, I started off running a campaign but it became difficult to keep it going due to scheduling conflicts, etc so I changed to running a series of loosely-interconnected games called Adventures on the Outer Rim.

I have found the easiest way to keep the different games connected is to use elements that are shared between the games, this could be an NPC who shows up in different sessions or even a location.

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For me the big challenge was management of real time. Especially since people who can only play infrequently are often people who can only spend a fixed amount of time for a session. Since each adventure absolutely must end by the end of the session, you need to have some in-game resolution for things like running out of time in the middle of a large important combat. To a lesser extent you must deal with "finished that in half the expected time, now what?" problem.

Perhaps someone better than me can manage the situation, without much railroading, to naturally resolve at the scheduled time by hurrying people along, skipping or adding color or optional encounters, etc. I found it too hard.

I had to resort to some sort of time pressure being part of the plot, and let the real world clock running out represent the characters running out of time in game. It's going to be clear that this is fairly contrived, but at least everyone understands why. Depending on the campaign there can be some consistent reason why the time pressure exists (characters' job is to be repeatedly magically projected somewhere, each time the magic can be maintained only so long) or it can just be part of the genre (like why super-villains consistently like death traps, even though they consistently fail to work).

I usually had running out of time be something kind of bad in-game, but not disastrous. It seemed too harsh otherwise, since the characters could be doing pretty well but still run out of time, most often because I just didn't estimate very well.

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This sounds incredibly similar to something I'm playing with a bunch of friends in which the system utilizes GURPS for a revolving DM called Infinite Worlds.

The great thing about this style is that not only does everyone get a chance to DM, but they also have the ability to pick up and play just about whenever is necessary. You may be able to adopt a similar philosophy in D&D5e as well based on the flexibility of both systems.

Sidenote: The book actually has a way to generate a random world as well, in order to c

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Dungeon World has a few chapters that describe good plot management. I'll not reproduce their work here, but they have system for keeping track of antagonists' plans and when BAD THINGS (tm) happen if those plans go on too long without intervention. Note: Dungeon World's sister games--other "Powered by the Apocalypse" games--do this as well. Dungeon World does it the most clearly and most applicably to episodic play. – River Williamson Feb 11 at 18:54

I usually direct my campaigns as a Doctor Who season. One-shot adventures with a satisfactory beginning and end and a more-or-less important "season/campaing" overarching plot and character growth/development.

It isn't very important if some characters aren't there in every "episode". It actually makes it more interesting if you know which ones are gonna be there in advance, so you can focus that episode on those characters' development or background personal stories. And the rest just ask what happened and get narrated versions of the story, so they are not really sure what happened or if they are being manipulated (very cool for some settings like Game of thrones). Extra points if you make it so their characters wheren't there either.

And every N "episodes" y try to get everyone together for a "season finale" (sometimes a two-part episode) where the overarching plot makes a huge leap and serious stuff happens. They get really excited about those! ;D

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RyanReads has the best one-sentence advice.

Just keep the plot simple. Let the complexities come from the players.

As an extension of that, delegate. If you have a player that's always there promote them to the game's scribe. A scribe jots down information that's discussed at the table and gets the other players up-to-speed when another session starts. The scribe adds an important point of replication of game details. I recommend having the scribe do their review while you set up your GM notes, screen, etc.
It's amazing how effective a scribe's review is at bringing the players back up to speed. It brings you back up as well. Face it, you're not going to remember everything that happened at the table, nor what of your information you've shared with the players. Even if your notes are close to perfect, the scribe's notes are a reminder of what's important to the players.
I had a game that ran infrequently over the course of four years, including a 6-month hiatus while two of our players were wrapped up with their new baby. I can safely say that without the scribe, the game wouldn't have been nearly as good and it probably would have fizzled out after the baby was born.

Don't neglect the players while you're away from the table either. Send them emails (or facebook posts or whatnot) of in-game correspondences a couple of days before an upcoming session. It'll give them enough time to think about the upcoming session, but it won't be so long that they'll forget again.

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