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I have a situation where our group is a mix of people who are still at University and others have already graduated. Those of us who are finished all have jobs but live fairly close together and can meet frequently where The guys at Uni don't have the time or money to commit to a set of regular sessions. With that in mind I'm slowly assembling a campaign to be run over the summer holidays so everyone is around and can take part, however in the run-up to that I would still like to have a few games to try out some new ideas, get feedback, and help flesh out my main storylines.

My intention is to use these one-shot games (well, they might expand over couple of sessions, but generally very short arcs) to do various "setup" plots, explaining the situation during the main campaign and exploring issues potentially present. An example might be that a group previously set in motion some events which lead to a current-day crisis, and rather than just saying "oh yeah this stuff happened" I planned to use the one-shots to actually play through some of these significant events.

As these events could have happened a few years before I set the main campaign I was not intending on the characters used being the PCs for the campaign. Depending on their fate they might be referenced, found dead, or return as NPCs. I would be writing the main campaign based on these outcomes as opposed to having a precise script - if 3 people raiding a tomb get into trouble then I won't deliberately try to kill/help them and instead use the result as played to determine how it affects the main campaign. If one survives perhaps he knows something the campaign PCs want to find out, but if they all perished the PCs could be hunting for them and find them (and maybe what caused their untimely demise).

The PCs for the main campaign won't necessarily know what happened in these prologue stories, however OOC the players will already have played through the events themselves. Taking the example above the players would potentially know what happened to our previous tomb robbers and be able to skip a number of investigative steps, which would ruin the suspense. Granted I could have years to develop the situation, but if I mention a rumour of funny goings-on in the area around an old tomb I suspect the players will try to put 2 and 2 together. Maybe that could work in my favour, I'm not sure.

How can I make sure that I have enough ties to the main campaign in these games without giving my players too much information which would unduly influence the main campaign? Are there ways in which I can design my "prologue" to attempt to not give away too much?

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Don't mind that they find out the reference

Think of it as watching a movie where some random bypassers enter in a room, and get killed by a huge monster hidden in the shadows. Then come the heroes, and they are also eaten by the same monster because this is what would made sense, since they didn't knew about the monster. That would be a very boring movie.

The preludes you intend to run to form the past of your campaign world are the random people that are there to be eaten by the mysterious monster in the darkness. If your players recognize the ruins they are raiding as the castle where the monster ate them in the one-shot, play along with it. Throw some hints in the narrative to explain why their characters might recognize that something might be lurking in the dark.

The Angry DM made a post about traps, and in the middle of it, he tells how the players like patterns because they will feel smart for noticing them. A pattern that you might have left there on purpose, but they will feel smart about it all the same.

In your case, this will be called as soon as they notice they are rerunning content, because now they don't know which parts of the one-shots you will actually re-use. Which leads into my second point:

Make good use of the time skip

Just because they recognize the place this do not means the place is exactly like they left it last time. Take, for instance, how different some rooms of Portal 2 are, even thought you are running exactly the same place you ran in Portal (until Chapter 2, at least).

Maybe the old monsters left the place and they are now occupied by kobolds. Maybe after being defeated by the previous adventurers, the place got closed by the king, but got invaded by bandits in current time. Maybe that old fire trap ran out of oil. Maybe that spike trap got stuck, and now the mechanism will make the whole wall section fall.

There is good inspiration in re-written classics, like Return to the Tomb of Horrors, or Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Just keep in mind that the place might be familiar, but its not the same one from last time.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So, your advice on how to handle the IC/OOC knowledge split in this case is "Don't worry about it. In this particular case the whole point is to foreshadow the campaign, so you should let the players use any knowledge they gain even if their characters have no way of knowing it"? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Feb 15 '16 at 2:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Kinda. It's more akin to "this allow you to do cooler stuff than just keeping stuff secret, so focus on what you can do instead of what you can't (like erasing your player's memories)". \$\endgroup\$ – Nibelung Feb 15 '16 at 2:15
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Have the one-shot be a story told to the current PCs

This is a tool I've used in the past to great effect. The key is, you have to leave one character alive (whether it be a PC or a NPC) to tell others what happened (because what big bad doesn't love being feared by everyone who hears of his victories?). Then, in the future, the character (as an NPC) can tell the story to the current PCs. Given that a decent amount of time has passed, inconsistencies in what the players find in the future versus the past can be explained by the passage of time (the enemy warlord moved to a bigger, better hideout), story embellishment (the 1000 kobolds was really just 10), or a failing memory (the old man forgot about most of the dungeon, only telling about the final fight).

This technique gives you a solid link to the past adventure(s), a transition to the present, motivation for the players to go on the adventure (an old man begging them to avenge his friends), and a way to naturally explain away inconsistencies.

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My first tabletop roleplay expirience was intrigue game based on player's conflicting goals. Our GM always told us:

Player and character are not the same person. What is known to player, may be completly unknown to character.

While our game was heavily based on secrets, players often discussed with each other some plot twists and sometimes shared secrets(sometimes they even didn't know that was secret for other character). But that didn't influenced game expirience. We've learned how to separate ourselves from our characters and play the game with all secrets were unknown to our heroes. And your players should learn this too.

Think about it. You are doing this for some reason: to establish plot, to make players feel, that game world is influenced by heroes actions. By their actions. Why do you want to hide this now? Let them see, that something they've done during past sessions, with other characters, now happens to be cause for new adventure for new heroes. It's great idea and it would be fun for your players and for yourself when they(as players) will start understand what is going on.

Teach them that player knowledge that isn't shared with character, shouldn't affect the latter's actions and let them enjoy your great job on setting up the plot.

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