As I said in the first Short Sessions post, subplots can eat up a lot of time and hijack the entire session. As subplots tend to only involve one or two characters, this could also sideline a good chunk of the party while one or two players hog the spotlight. To much subplot time can also drag out an otherwise tight adventure.
However, as Troy pointed out in the previous comments, cutting out the subplots also cuts down on a lot of character interplay and development. Some players only make time for short sessions because they really enjoy delving into their characters; robbing them of this opportunity will only make the session less fun. Good subplots also add interesting dimensions to the campaign, and you don’t necessarily want to remove them.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned when incorporating subplots into a short session:
Begin with the subplots. Subplots can be great tools for providing hooks for the rest of the session. Need a PC downtown when the demon runs amok? She’s meeting the old college ex-boyfriend for lunch. The PC needs obscure information? His roomate, from whom he is trying to keep his magical abilities secret, has an uncle that owns a used bookstore in the university district that just happens to have a decent occult section. Starting with subplots allows the players to do a little subplot development from the outset and funnels them right into the meat of the session.
Thread subplots into the main plot. Subplots can be satisfying for players without distracting from the main adventure. They also make excellent complications. Does a police detective have an axe to grind with one or more PCs? Have him begrudgingly work with them to defeat a supernatural threat. Is a PC superhero trying to keep his identity as a U.S. Senator secret? Have him be part of a Senate delegation kidnapped by supervillains. Is time of the essence? Have a recurring adversary choose now to interrupt the PCs. Using subplots in this way allows you to advance a subplot without taking time away from the adventure.
When subplots do crop up, concentrate on the purpose of the scene and handwave the rest. In a short session, you don’t have much time for Decker Syndrome*. Unfortunately, advancing a subplot can be the most enjoyable part of a session for some players, and they will want to address it and milk it for all they can. In these cases, I use a method adapted from Primetime Adventures. I’ll ask the player what she hopes to accomplish in the scene and concentrate on that. Once the purpose is addressed (which I try to limit to a few minutes), I’ll handwave the rest of the scene.
Use subplots to give a distanced PC something to do. Sometimes, a situation will pop up that keeps some of the PCs from participating in a scene. In a Delta Green campaign, for example, maybe only the government agent PCs can attend the briefing or investigate the initial crime scene. Subplots give the other PCs something to do in the meantime.
Set aside the occasional session for subplot development. Since you’re running short sessions to begin with, taking two or three hours to focus on subplots gives the PCs a little room to breathe and adds character development. If there is a player that isn’t into subplots, you could always give her a quick solo mission while the other PCs advance subplots (I’ve found that many players enjoy being able to influence another player’s subplots).
How about you? How do you use subplots in short sessions?
*In classic cyberpunk settings, a computer hacker (“decker” in Shadowrun parlance) has the ability to jack into a virtual world and confront other programs to accomplish goals. The rules to accomplish this are usually complex, resulting in the computer hacker PC effectively going on a solo adventure for a big chunk of real time while the rest of the PCs wait around (mainly because its happening in microseconds of game time). In my gaming circles, I’ve coined “Decker Syndrome” to mean any part of a game session where one PC is catered to for a significant period of time while the other PCs have nothing to do.