What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.
Caught twixt and tween
The mop-up session, the bookkeeping session, the just “finish-the-damn-dungeon-so-we-can-get-on-to-something-else” session.
The transition session.
I really don’t enjoy DMing those sessions as much as I should, I suppose. Admittedly, they are challenging to run, and the do present some great gaming opportunities. It’s tough to hold some players’ attention and interest during “tweener” sessions, though.
Yet, in every campaign of any length I’ve ever done, though, we hit the bump in the road that is one of the above.
Hard-wired into the game?
Is it inevitable? Is it unavoidable? Is it hard-wired into our gaming history? Go back to Maure Castle’s early days and the famed “unopenable doors.” Getting past them required a session devoted to the PCs researching a solution. Before those pioneering players could get into the dungeon, they had to pass this particular hurdle.
I don’t think transition sessions are specific to dungeon crawls and published adventures only, but they do seem to surface more with them. I recall an “Age of Worms” transition that required some unfinished business in the seedy town of Diamond Lake. Basically, before the adventure could move on, the PCs decided to clear up all outstanding debts and grudges. That took an entire session, mainly going door-to-door like the UPS delivery person and making good on things left undone.
Now transition sessions are great roleplaying opportunities. Put on your acting hat and roll those diplomacy checks. There is usually a boatload of NPC interaction possible in a transition session.
And there can be combat, such as in the “finish the dungeon” scenarios. But making those last few combats work is tough, because, you want combat to have meaning. Is it meaningful, though, if the PCs are simply acting as the cleanup crew?
“Here’s your mop, bucket and longsword. Let’s tidy up the dungeon and collect more XP before we go out and save the world.”
Here are some things DMs can do, though, to keep things from bogging down.
1. Limit mop-up/bookkeeping to one session.
You might have to lay down your objective at the outset: “Players, we need to resolve these issues this time, because next time we meet, the PCs will be placed at the door of the next dungeon.” While you may be willing to devote one playing session to bookkeeping, you don’t want it to spill over into two sessions. A new adventure awaits!
2. Salt your NPC interactions with story hooks.
This is more an opportunity to pick up the pace than anything. But maybe you can entice the PCs to snag an adventure hook this way.
3. Make sure there is at least one good combat somewhere along the line.
If you’re going to go to the trouble of cleaning up after yourself, at least make that round of initiative rolls mean something. This is the one time I think it’s OK to have the monster parachute into the adventure from somewhere above. Damn the ecology or story and full speed ahead!
4. The map.
Let the players find “the map,” which, of course, leads to the next adventure. It’s a little heavy-handed, I know. But if the players won’t budge off their cleanup crew routine there’s nothing like putting an adventure hook into their lap.
You can at least make the map interesting in itself, though. Maps don’t always have to be quadra-folded and given away for free at state-run highway rest-stops. The map can be drawn on a vase, hidden in a rhyme, painted as part of a portrait or etched onto the back of a piece of jewelry.
5. Evaluate your players’ reactions to all of this.
It may be that your group actually prefers a play style where NPC interactions rule and adventuring/monster encounters are a less important part of your roleplay.
I think most games encourage more combat encounters, but your experience may differ. It might be your players prefer investigation/interaction leading to one good combat over a more traditional dungeon crawl. Transition sessions can be good tools to evaluating the play style your group prefers. There is always more than one way to play a game. Find out what suits you and your players best. So use a transition session as a chance to mix playing styles and check their reactions.
A final word
Some groups utilize e-communication as a means to resolve downtime issues and other “combat-free” roleplaying that can take place away from the table. I think that this is an excellent way to expand the gaming experience, so long as it suits your group.
My experience, though, is different. I’ve found that there are usually a few members of a group who don’t want their gaming “plugged in” that way. My advice is to keep transition sessions at your table — minimize them in length if you can — but avoid exchanges that may exclude gaming members simply because they don’t want to continue play-by-post or through instant messaging.