When the Cupboard’s Bare

It happens to every game master at one point or another. Game night is here, players are expecting a continuation of your Super Fun Time Awesome Campaign™ and you’ve got nothing. Maybe it’s been a particularly busy week at work, or you’ve been caught up in your studies. Heck, maybe it’s the “centipede’s dilemma”, and you just have so many directions you’re having a hard time picking what to do next in the campaign. It happens.

So here are three quick and easy solutions to get you through that session. Maybe even a few sessions if you have to stretch it out, though excessive use can lead to the stall tactic becoming the new campaign.

1) “I heard tell there’s treasure in Baron Puddlemarch’s crypt!” – Time for a quick and dirty dungeon crawl. Doesn’t need to be a huge affair, as a matter of fact it should be small enough to wrap up that session. Don’t sweat the details too much: choose a main monster of the right challenge level, give it appropriate treasure, figure out a trap to liven things up and boom, done! Oh, you want a map, too? Fine. Go through your published modules and find a four or five room chunk from a dungeon you like. Give it an entrance and there’s your map.

There are all sorts of resources to help you with this sort of quickie dungeon. If you’re playing Pathfinder, having both the GameMastery Guide and NPC Codex means you are only a few minutes of reading from an interesting encounter. And if you want more general quickie information at your fingertips, slide over to Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips and download his free PDF of 5 Room Dungeons. I have it, and not only has it saved my bacon when I’ve needed a dungeon on the fly but I’ve actually built small campaign arcs out of some of the ideas found there.

The point of this is to keep the evening fast and fun, without bogging you down in campaign details. If the players are likely to baulk at pursuing something not related to the main campaign, though, no problem. Maybe some campaign Maguffin is rumoured to be wherever it is you want them to go. Or an NPC nearest and dearest to the party asks for a favour. Or for some reason, Big Baddie’s minions are crawling all over that location and now the party needs to know why. Just find the trigger that fires your band of psychotic murder hobos in the right direction, and pull it.

2) “Look, fellows, we’ve been invited to a party!” – If you are comfortable with improvising (and I mean really comfortable), maybe tonight is going to be a heavy role-playing night. Like the dungeon in point one you just need a hook to get the players involved. A party they know Big Baddie or his Chief Minion is attending. A local tavern or inn minions of Big Baddie are known to frequent. Heck, it doesn’t even have to involve your main plot; maybe the local townsfolk throw a party in your adventurer’s honour, and they’ll spend the session chatting it up and playing friendly games of skill and chance.

The point is to use this time to role-play. The key to this is to largely let the players decide where they’re going, and then fill in the scene around them. Most important, don’t block. If a player gives you an idea for what they think is going on, go with it. They’re obviously interested in it or they wouldn’t have brought it up. So let them help you direct the conversation, and don’t get too hung up on what your NPC is actually saying. After all, not everything out of an NPC’s mouth is going to be the truth. Just like real people, they lie, they boast, they pretend to knowledge they don’t have. So if you slip up and “reveal” something you shouldn’t have, no worries. It can turn out that NPC was full of crap.

This is, of course, where it helps if you’ve at least minimally fleshed out some NPCs. You don’t need a Briggs-Meyer’s breakdown for everyone, but name, occupation and a few words that will give the players a first impression. For example: Jacovo, coffin maker, easily moved to tears; Yolinda, potter, prays a lot. Why those three things? A name because the players always ask and it’s better to have one to give them right away. Occupation, because it gives you some clues as to physical details and appearance (coffin makers might have fine sawdust on their clothes and smell slightly of pine or sandalwood; potters might have dusty clothes or a spot of dried clay on the cheek) as well as something the NPC will talk about. And the last detail to add a bit of interest and give you an idea of how or why they might speak to the players; Jacovo might burst into tears upon hearing the party’s latest plight, and Yolinda might importune the gods every time a player mentions a monster.

3) “Okay gang, I have to level with you…” – This is my least favourite plan, but sometimes you just have to admit you have nothing on tap for that evening. Be up front, explain why (helps if you have a reason beyond “just didn’t get to it”) and promise you’ll get your stuff together for next week. Then break out a boardgame, pop in a movie or even head out to grab dinner or catch a flick in the theater. Part of playing role-playing games is socializing, so if the game isn’t going to happen you can at least keep the night positive by focusing on that aspect. And sometimes it can be good to just hang out with your group; get to know them better if you’re a newish group or just hang out and relax if you’ve been together for a while. But you don’t want to pull this too often, so make sure when the next week comes around you have something for the party to do (even if you’re just using points one or two).

What do you do when you’ve got nothing in the tank for your players? Any good tips or tricks? Share them in comments!

3 thoughts on “When the Cupboard’s Bare

  1. I’ve always been fond of “You’ve been hired to deliver the thing!” Some person or organization with money and probably ulterior motives hires the party to deliver the X (person, object, or message) to a certain someone. The X is valuable in some way, so along the delivery route, the party can encounter enterprising adventurers, rival groups, and even law enforcement or government agents all looking to take the X for themselves.

    I like this one because it requires very little time to create an environment to trek through (“You have to go through a forest, across a river, and over to the outskirts of town two days away.”) and populate that route with 2-5 obstacles. Obstacles can be combat or role-play encounters, or they can be environmental hazards (“The bridge is out! How can we cross without taking a detour?”). Heck, maybe the obstacle is a sudden blizzard!

    Once the obstacles are overcome, the X can be safely delivered and the party gets its reward. the great thing about this kind of quest-let is that it can lead right to another adventure. Maybe the X wants to be delivered somewhere else, maybe the X is to be used for evil, maybe the X is a message that reads “Kill these adventurers for Z reason!” Bam! Instant adventure for the next session, possibly a recurring villain, and maybe a mystery to solve about the X.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Recap | Renaissance Gamer

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