Tabletop Highlight: Breaks, Hiatuses, and How to Fill the Time Between

Like any Dungeons and Dragons group, or any tabletop gaming group for that matter, mine occasionally has a few weeks where we aren’t able to get enough people together for a gaming session. It happens more frequently with my group than with most given that my group is only three players so even one missing player breaks my “more than two-thirds of the players must be present to run a session” rule. At the same time, when I’m incredibly stressed like I have been for the past few weeks, I am not up to running the game even though I usually still want to. I learned not to push it on those days long ago, because they’re inevitably the days when the players get some idea stuck in their head and I’ve gotta re-do half the plot and story I had planned on the spot, even if we’re well past the point when I thought I’d have to change anything like that around. They always find a way.

It’s always a struggle to figure out how to handle gaps like this. If you’re at a plot-critical moment, it gets really difficult to keep the tension and anticipation going when you don’t meet for a month. If you’re between big moments or the players are at a point where they must decide what to do next, then it is relatively simple to skip time since all they’ll need is a refresher. If it is at all possible to time your gaps so they fall at moments like those, I recommend doing it. That being said, most gaps aren’t planned ones but one-week skips that wind up incidentally getting longer, so here are some ways to help fill time between sessions.

The easiest way is to find a way to have smaller one-off sessions so each of the players gets a chance to do something integral to the story that’s unfolding. This won’t work if they’re in the middle of a dungeon or if you didn’t end the session at a point where the various characters can temporarily go their separate ways. This is a great time for rogues to do stealth missions or for the diplomatically inclined to take the time to get to know the local gentry. Even the more mercenary characters can make connections, even if they’re just with the various mercantile forces in the area. If you’ve got a role-play heavy campaign, there’s no such thing as too many connections. If your players tend to be more interested in being murder-hobos than role-players, you can easily make up a small encounter or two that will give them a chance to cut loose while waiting for the plot to resume.

Another thing you can do is more or less assign them homework. Maybe they have some connections they should contact that will help them in this situation. Have them write out a dialogue that represents this interaction and make sure to give them something for it, maybe a bonus on a future skill check, a minor item that will come in handy, or just a smidgen of role-playing XP. This is especially useful if you’re doing a role-play heavy campaign because it lets the players get more into their character and also provides you with more information about their characters that you can then figure out how to work into the game later on.

If you’re looking for something that’s less work for the dungeon master, I suggest assigning them a text-based interaction. There’s probably a decision or two they need to role-play and they can do it via text instead of taking up time at the next session. If it’s a big decision or something that’s going to spark a lot of debate, then it’s even better to get it out of the way before the session so you all can get down to figuring out what happens next. This is useful to you because you don’t need to monitor the text conversation and can just check in on it from time-to-time or read it all whenever you feel up to it. Alternatively, and you should never reveal this to your players (so stop reading this London, David, and Daniel, and just start at the top of the next paragraph), you give them a text discussion to role-play and then you never read it. If it isn’t a super important discussion, you can just skim it for any important bits or let your players bring up the highlights in conversation. That last bit is particularly easy if you live with one or more of your players and they love talking about the game (I told you to stop reading this, David).

Another thing you can do if you’re willing to surrender a little control and need something that takes the burden off of you is have one of the players propose a little side-mission or adventure they can run. It keeps things in your world and will likely be at least tangential to the plot you’re running, but you should definitely work through what that player wants to run if you’re going to let them do it in your game world since you want to make sure they aren’t going to cut off something you’ve been saving. I don’t really recommend this option much because I’ve seen it go wrong more often than right, but it’s definitely an option. If you’re co-running a game with someone or if one of your players is a good DM, then it gets much less risky, but you definitely still need to sit down and talk to them about it before you give them the go-ahead.

As I said, it’s always better if you don’t need to find a way to fill a bunch of time without game sessions, but I guarantee that there will come a time when you will need to get through a gap at an inconvenient time. If you do something else to bridge gaps like this one, I’d love to hear what that is. Please share it in the comments or shoot me an email!

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