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For years I have had a regular weekly evening group but as we've all aged, it has become more difficult to meet. I tend to get the same players but we do not play every week. Long gaps mean that it is difficult to run a complex plot and the players tend to lose momentum when we do play.

At the start of each session, we always recap the previous session (for reward) but it is still difficult for the players to know what to do. I have tried sending out emails or setting up forums but the players tend not to check them. I tried a little railroading to keep things going but they resisted that.

How else can I retain momentum? Should the players make more notes? Should I make clearer goals?

Edit - please note that it's not a problem with players dipping in and out, it tends to be that we're either all together or not playing at all.

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Just added a players tag, as you're talking about the players. Hope you don't mind. –  Dom Aug 24 '10 at 13:16
    
Good idea. Although, it's not really the players that are irregular, it's the whole game! –  Rob Lang Aug 24 '10 at 13:35
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My face to face group has exactly this problem. We only meet once every few months and "playing catchup" or getting invested in what the party is doing can be really tough. –  Badmike Sep 1 '10 at 16:17

14 Answers 14

up vote 19 down vote accepted

You're definitely doing all the right things; it's hard if your players don't cooperate. Let's see.

The first thing I'd try is starting sessions in media res. You can sort of force a bit of momentum if the night starts with the characters under fire in the middle of a combat, or pleading for their lives in front of a judge, or what have you. At the very least the players ought to be curious as to what happened. This may feel like railroading again, however.

Apocalypse World has a nice trick that's sort of like that. For each player, you come up with a list of complications, and then at the beginning of the session you have them roll 2d6. On a 2-6, they choose three complications; on a 7-9, they have to pick two; on a 10-12, they just pick one. E.g., if you were playing a superhero game:

  • Your nemesis just escaped from prison
  • Your sidekick is downtown; the police caught him robbing a convenience store
  • You just found a note claiming to be from your future self; he knows things about you; he tells you that you must throw your next fight with the Living Flame
  • You have a patch of scales on your back; nobody else knows yet

Putting the player's fate in the hands of dice reduces the railroading feel. The complications ought to be more tailored to the character, and perhaps more or less serious depending on the feel of your game. They should definitely reflect or be related to ongoing plot, because they need to bring the players' mind back into the game. If doing this for each player seems like too much -- and it might be, if you need to do something to remind them of what's going on each session -- do it with one player per session.

You could also end every session by asking the players to write down their goals for the next session. Save the index cards, and pass them out again when the next session happens, as reminders.

And in general, you probably want to be thinking about ways to make the players more invested in the plot. If they hate the villains, in the good way where they want to see more of them so they can defeat them, that's a good thing.

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So much goodness in here. +1 for "You could also end every session by asking the players to write down their goals for the next session" in particular because that won't change the way we play or the campaign. –  Rob Lang Aug 24 '10 at 13:27
    
Your Nemesis being on the loose and loosing your sidekick seem like more than complications to me :) –  Cow of Doom Aug 24 '10 at 17:47
    
In a superhero game, I figure those happen all the time. But yeah, those are sort of big deals; the scale might not be right. Tune advice to the game, as always. –  Bryant Aug 24 '10 at 17:52
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They key to rolling for the list of complications is that the player chooses. Whether they choose many or few is up to the dice, but once the player is staring at the die result it's then up to them to decide what sort of complicated turn their character's life is about to take. It's incredibly investing for something so quick to set up. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 4 '10 at 18:33

What the group I am playing in is doing is running a campaign with "episodic" games. Each occasion we meet, we play a short mission of some sort, that can be completed in a single game (sometimes, they stretch across two games, but this has some issues).

The structure of the current campaign lends it to players not needing to be present at every game (there's plenty of background reasons they'd be unable to partake in a specific mission, they may be sent off for training, they may be occupied with something else or lots of oter in-game reasons for a character to not appear).

However, each gaming session furthers the campaign world, in one way or another. It may end up with deeper background, it may end up with new items and so forth.

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Cliffhangers.

The players need to be as motivated as you are to get back into the game as quickly as possible. You are motivated because you are full of anticipation for the game you have perpared to run, but they have no awareness of that. End each session with a pending challenge. They are also more likely to get engaged in between-session discussions. Look at episodic pulp adventures, they have been doing this for generations, learn from the masters.

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The Episodic Campaign. Think ST:Voyager, Babylon 5, Buffy, Scrubs, or L&O:CI... each episode is one complete story, but is also part of a larger arc, and contributes some small chunk to an ongoing larger metaplot. Characters grow over time, and it shows (except in ST Voy).

Also, try for longer sessions if you can. An extra 2 hours can allow for more momentum; if you can swing an extra three or four, do two sessions separated by a meal.

Some memory ideas for the interrupted campaign: Props for the metaplot... if the continuing story involves clues of some kind, have handouts or props for them, and break thouse out to help trigger the memory of the clue.

Unusual but pleasant scent... some nice exotic candles, used only during session, will help people remember prior sessions by association.

Avoid use of intoxicants during session. Break out the beers AFTER session. Memory is state dependent; what you do drunk you remember best drunk, and what you do sober, you remember best sober.

Play the same music just before session start every time. That theme song helps trigger the memory, too.

Some individual session tricks:

  • Start in media res... have the mission start with them already at the first encounter... can be seen as railroady, unless the campaign is of a mission format.
  • mission orders as props. Take some prep time, and give them something tangible to remind them what the mission is; store them between sessions if need be.
  • Avoid Cliffhangers - a cliff hanger only works well to propel the next session if the next session is not too much further along
  • try some of the more narrative focused approaches...
    • goal writing (with reward) - have each player start session by writing a new session goal.
    • scene setting - Allow each player to set some number of scenes themselves.
    • avoid unneded combats - each combat should be a dramatic point, not a grind. (Doesn't work if the system is too focused upon the combat grind, like say, D&D...)
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I pretty much share your problem Rob, in recent years I have gone from running three games a week with various groups of players who mostly begged for more interaction, wrote character fiction and talked about their schemes and achievements on IM to a single group playing irregular games when we can schedule it.

While it is fun when we sit down and the "What were we doing" conversation erupts, I get kind of pissed off with how often the players say during play "Oh yeah, thats right we did so and so ... I forgot that". As we tend to play quite long games on a sunday now its not feasable to recap every single detail for the entire campaign, but we do spend the same sort of time catching up each session.

Anyway ... to answer the question, retaining momentum. The episodic approach works well because it basically removes the need to retain momentum. However its not always posisble to have the story reach its natural conclusion as the appointed hour approaches.

I recently tried using flashbacks when the story was mid action but the players were not. Instead of just sitting down and saying "Right last time you were half way through killing the dragon..." I left the action and ran a flashback to what they had done in the tavern the night before, a scene I had originally glossed over. A short attempt to pick up the bar wench in which she let slip that the Dragons keeper often fed it drunken customers he had robbed first.

By then the players were back in character and all the forgotten tid bits had worked their way from the buried memories to the conscious lobes. They decided the Dragon might have grown fond of beer flavoured victims and doused the dwarf in cheap booze as bait ...

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Start an online reference site (Blogspot is one that I use) and use it to recap adventures, list PCs and NPCs, interesting locales, unusual characters or monsters, and memorable events. After a long layoff, do a few write-ups of recent happenings in your world and post them online at the spot, and direct your players there. Not only will they have some new rumors, news, and adventure hooks to run with at the next session, but they will be able to catch up on past events from the campaign.

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Players don't really have time between sessions to do a lot of reading, sadly. –  Rob Lang Sep 1 '10 at 15:04
    
I would agree. I tend to keep the recaps short and to the point, more soundbites than anything, covering the most pertinent events of the past sessions. Plus, an instruction of "Hey, we are playing this weekend after a two month layoff, be sure and read the blog before gametime!" should give them the push necessary. Unless the chronicler is really hamming it up, reading a past entry shouldn't take more than five minutes....likewise with little status updates for your campaign (maybe a sentence or two long at most). –  Badmike Sep 1 '10 at 16:15

This may not be a great fit for your game, but try sandbox play rather than plot oriented play. And when you schedule your next session (however that happens right now) make the players tell you what they want to do next game.

That way you don't have to bring them up to speed on what happened last time and what's happening now. They'll make their decision based on what they remember (and they can ask you questions, too). If they can't remember what they were doing last time, have them take a look at the map of the sandbox and pick a destination. "Where were we? Whatever, let's go check out the Howling Tower."

The other thing you do is require them to end the session in a safe zone, or at least somewhere above ground. That way if not everyone shows up the next time, you can say their characters wandered off or are busy. And you're not stuck in a dungeon that nobody remembers anything about, you're somewhere on the map, on the way to the Howling Tower.

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Sandbox play is exactly what I do but it is even more difficult to keep momentum because there is so much going on. –  Rob Lang Sep 1 '10 at 15:03
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Hi Rob, sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your comment. What do you mean by "so much going on"? If you mean there are too many options for them to choose from and/or too many things to remember, I have some suggestions. –  cr0m Oct 6 '10 at 15:55

Most important: Never end a session in mid-stride. Do whatever it takes to arrive at a Conclusion before you adjourn.

Next session, describe what normal lifestyle events happened to the characters after the last game, creating all-new story bits of your own, furthering their lives and careers as appropriate. This will get everyone into the 'mood' and onto the same page. Then set the stage for 'today's adventure', and off you go!

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+1 for trying to finish a session off and leaving neat endings at the close of each session. –  Rob Lang Sep 1 '10 at 15:04

Synchronize the players' life with the characters' life. Adventurers live in a village or city and their adventures are within the city walls. Send your players "post-it sized postcards" by regular mail every now and then, possibly adorned to appear like ancient paper (such as putting the paper into tea or coffee and let it dry). Write a short, one or two lines note about what their character did in the last week. Don't use internet/mail/twitter. We receive too much information from these things. Small pieces of paper get more attention and feeling.

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+1 For sending snail mail. That might just work. –  Rob Lang Aug 25 '10 at 7:51
    
+1 I love this idea. But then I'm a big fan of physical tangible handouts. –  Iain M Norman Aug 25 '10 at 10:50

First of all, I think what's important is to integrate the players into this process of remembering thing. For this, I found maintaining a quest log very interesting. If you use Obsidian Portal, for instance, you can ask your players (one at at a time), to relate in their own words what happened last time. This way, they have to integrate what they learnt, have to find how to tell it clearly, and you can pretty much just ask them to reread this before the next session to remember where they were. You can add an incentive to do this via XP, if you want.

Additionnally, if you didn't interrupt mid-action, have the players tell you CLEARLY what their characters have done during the potential ellipse. The stories they will create, plus the interactions between players it will make, will make them much more interested.

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I was looking more for in-game techniques rather than between games. My players aren't really online much for the purpose of preparing to play. –  Rob Lang Aug 24 '10 at 14:50
    
Yeah, but that's something they don't really have to be online to do. That's more like homework, to be sure they don't forget it all between sessions. –  Valentin Rocher Aug 24 '10 at 14:54

You have a couple major options.

  1. Change game styles. Don't go for the "long in depth campaign" model with a complex plot - go episodic or for one-shots or some other game format that doesn't require homework. Trying for complex with uninvested, occasional characters is always going to be swimming upstream.

  2. Put the burden on them. Talk to them about this issue, and then don't pull punches in the game - if they forget that Duke Whatsit is a secret demon worshipper, then it's all the worse for them when he gets the drop on them. Then they'll get better at it. In the end it's not your responsibility to carry the game.

  3. Split the party. I had a very similar situation some years back - we had some lightly invested, occasional players, and some other players that could make more games and were more interested in complex plots and immersive play. So I split them into two sessions, and invited some people to a frequent game that had specific expectations of attendance and preparedness, and some people to an occasional pick-up, more simple kick-down-doors game. There was a little denial and stuff but in the end it was wildly successful - one group had a five year long extremely in depth campaign, and the other had fun and in fact is still meeting to play today, ten years later, even though I've moved out of town.

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What do you mean by Episodic gaming? One-shots won't keep the players interested. All the players are interested in the same thing and want to play in-depth complex games but keeping the momentum is difficult. #2 looks the easiest to implement. –  Rob Lang Aug 24 '10 at 14:48
    
Episodic as in structuring the plot to happen in bite sized chunks, like a TV show. There's TV shows with totally unrelated episodes, like the Simpsons, and then there's complexityfests like soap operas or Lost, and then there's ones with self contained plots but some threads to follow, like X-files or Warehouse 13. –  mxyzplk Aug 24 '10 at 22:05
    
Thanks, that is worth a go. I can make each episode simple and then have an over-arching series plot. –  Rob Lang Aug 25 '10 at 7:51

You may already be doing so but, with such a long gap between games make sure you allot a time before the game starts for all the people to chat and catch up a bit.

This should help maintain momentum during the game.

Momentum between games has been covered well by other answers.

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I would be straight up with the players about the problem and tell them how it going to be. It isn't about control or being king referee but rather adapting to life circumstances of everybody involved.

I run a monthly game myself and because of the irregular attendance I tell the players that there are going be odd discontinuities as I work one or more person into the current game. I try to make their introduction (or re-introduction) make some in-game sense even if the situation is somewhat contrived. Also I try to end the game on a natural stopping point.

For example the last monthly session started with the party looking down a flight of stairs into the dungeon. So it was easy to make the three people who didn't show up "disappear." they simply turned around and left. I will have a challenge the next session as the party is in the midst of a maze being hunted by a minotaur.

Finally I don't expect the players to interact between sessions. I do however try to put in some effort in writing up a entertaining blog post and for the majority of the group it seems to do the trick. You can read some examples in my Gold Star Anime series of pots.

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We tend to be either all there or not at all. It's not a partial group thing, it's an irregular play schedule problem. –  Rob Lang Aug 24 '10 at 14:49

I've been having a lot of luck with colored index cards that represent different "active" plots that have been introduced. At the start of the game, I lay them out, and it gives both the players and myself a quick refresher on the things we thought were important. I also use the colors to represent the urgency of dealing with the issue — something on a yellow card is just emerging; something on a light blue card is growing more complex; something on a pink card is at its most crucial or important; and something on a dark blue card is mostly resolved, one way or the other, and probably won't be seen again after this session.

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The manner that I run Icar in is that the players do not see the plots, they only see the events that the plots create. I might be able to modify this to get the players to write down what they think the plots are and keep track of those. –  Rob Lang Aug 24 '10 at 13:33
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As a player, I keep plots on index cards. I call them Plot Coupons. :) tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PlotCoupon –  Paul Marshall Jul 24 '12 at 21:46

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