RPG Talk: Seasonal Play

You're an adult GameMaster. You don't have a stable, weekly slot to game in. Or maybe you do, but it's unlikely that your four players do. Not year round. Oh, it might start off well enough, but then people get into these inevitable college/work/family crunches and there's an ever-widening gap between sessions. You lose the plot. The campaign peters out before it ever achieves any kind of satisfying resolution. It might not even be a scheduling problem, but rather one of motivation. Yours, a player's. Whatever it is that makes someone unable or unwilling to play next week, or the week after that.

The solution is to take a page from television and use the concept of a SEASON as a structure. What do we mean by that?

In the open-ended campaign, your group is expected to play at regular intervals with no defined end. I know people who have been in the same game for as much as two decades. The original characters are gone, but still part of their story's tapestry, and players have come and gone as well. As a teenager, I ran a weekly game for about four years. As an adult, I've progressively moved towards the Season or Mini-Series (the latter is simply a one-season game that doesn't support a sequel).

So a season is a shorter engagement, anything between 4 to 12 sessions, generally, with the sweet spot between 6 and 10 probably. That's a range that easily fits a summer, for example, or a college semester. Anything beyond that and you risk losing players to the pressures of real life, people moving away, etc.
Once you've committed to a season, you've got a structure to hang your characters' arcs onto. In open-ended play, groups will frequently play until a certain time is reached, stopping just before a climax, in the middle of a rest period, etc. In a season, you may be tempted to structure games as chapters that have definite beginnings, middles and resolutions. This is not a bad way to do things, as it will mean players will end their night's experience on the high of having accomplished something, or the tension of a cliffhanger. Either way, the GM should plan for a definite end to the night's play:
-A goal that will have been accomplished by the characters, or else that they will have failed to accomplish;
-Or a surprising cliffhanger to leave them breathless and worried until the next session.

In practical terms, it may mean you have to speed up events when you see the clock running out on the evening (so always ask WHEN players need to go home), though rarely the opposite. I've found that working with seasons has made for shorter group sessions and punchier adventures, closer to 2½ hours than 4+. Don't worry, you can use any extra time you have to work on characters' subplots. If you've already had your climax, the characters are likely in downtime, so the rest of the session can be used to interact with recurring NPCs, explore the town a little bit, even do a little book keeping.

The seasonal structure also gives you some useful tent poles. You know your first session has to introduce the setting/status quo. You know your last will resolve the "big bad/mystery" of the season. For what's in between, you'll want to take out all the toys you want to play with and assign them to certain chapters, making the best use of your particular game's features and story types. Diversity is key, and when you look at your loose structure, you'll be able to see if you've got too much of the same over the span of the season. A very EASY way to structure a season to simply alternate between types of stories. For example, in a space opera game, you would alternate planet-side scenarios with outer space scenarios. Then you might subdivide further, making sure you include a diplomatic mission, pure exploration, time travel shenanigans, and a military conflict (or anything that works well with your premise and pool of Player Characters). At intervals, you'll make sure to feed the larger arc, like revealing the true villain in whatever chapter is the mid-point, or leaving a clue in every chapter. Of course, some games will be much more serialized, where the season's arc is actually the A-plot from start to finish. Use a television show that's LIKE the type of game you're running for inspiration on the structure, whether that's Doctor Who's and The X-Files' "lots of stand-alone adventures, interrupted by Big Arc episodes" or Netflix Lost in Space's serial approach. Those big, thick adventure modules from the old days of AD&D could also serve as inspiration, books like Scourge of the Slavelords or Planescape's Dead Gods.
The end of a season should feel epic by the game's standards. Big climax, of course, big revelations, and maybe a change to the status quo serving as cliffhanger for a future season. You may want to entice players to return next year (or whenever you gear up to run a game again). Players that have already decided to move on (from a character, or from the group, sometimes by necessity) can make the ultimate sacrifice, or else should be allowed to play an epilogue that puts to rest the character. They get closure, but can also lay in an escape hatch should they ever want to return. The GameMaster should start asking about this a couple sessions from the end so they can at least offer opportunities to leave the game in grand fashion.

Sometimes, you'll want to end it there for good. Great resolution, great character arcs, everyone is satisfied, or else the world is "broken". You don't want to spoil it by taking another swing at it, especially if some key players are leaving. If the group legitimately thinks it will never be the same, then don't go back to that well. Keep it for a reunion, years hence, where the characters just get together for a big Christmas special for nostalgia's sake, or something.

Sometimes you DON'T want it to end there, but life conspires against you. Not a big problem. You'll always have the previous season(s), and each season has sufficient closure. Yes, there could have been more to say, characters could have reached greater heights or depths, but it was a complete enough story. It may be that life conspires against you earlier than the end of a season too. In those cases, just call for ONE LAST SESSION that essentially brings your last episode forward. You'll have to leave a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor, but at least you get to the end.

And if you do get picked up for another season, great! The break between seasons will allow you to plan out the next one, make changes to the status quo, recruit new players, and maybe even open the table up to a new GM as you rotate to player status for the next phase. It happens all the time on television, when showrunners move on. Even if you're staying on, do try to give each season its own feel or theme so that the only difference isn't character levels.

As you start to think in television terms, expect your games to become more dramatic and memorable, and to join must-see TV at the water cooler.

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