It’s as unfortunate as it is inevitable – at some point, you group is going to need to take a break in the middle of the campaign, and it’ll be more than a single missed week. For many groups, a break of more than 1-2 weeks can spell the end of the campaign, as people get distracted by other things to do and lose the rhythm that kept the game thumping along. Others manage to weather disruptions and come back together for years on end. While some of this can be chalked up to the differences in the players, some of it can be designed around.
First and foremost, if you know the break is coming, make sure everyone knows as soon as possible so that people can get used to the idea before it happens. If you’re the GM, try to arrange things so that the game ends with a major plot event or cliffhanger at the end of the last session before the hiatus ends; given that we’re a storytelling species, we crave closure, so the game will be there, unfinished and on something big, in the background for everyone until the hiatus ends.
If the hiatus isn’t planned, however – a major illness or a sudden rush of life events, as examples – it can be trickier. This is one of the times where having a campaign log helps more than anything; having the log there to refer to prevents the kind of guttered-out campaigns where a break means everyone forgets the details of what’s been happening. Yes, it can and does happen, no matter how much everyone is enjoying the game; the simple nature of human memory ensures it, just like it ensures that players will forget huge plot-foreshadowing tidbits the GM hands them.
Have as much of the group as possible get together on those regular meeting nights, if possible, to keep everyone in the habit of meeting to game. Pick a different game – preferably not a RPG, because you don’t want New Shiny syndrome to kick in and distract people from the game. If you can’t meet in person, pick a MMOG or multiplayer game that can host multiplayer and play that. The idea is to keep gaming at the usual intervals and keep the enjoyment flowing without getting distracted from the goal of eventually resuming the original game.
If at all possible, task the most enthusiastic player with coming up with a “The Story So Far” for when the game resumes. Their enthusiasm coupled with access to the campaign log can help refresh everyone’s memory of the situation to date and re-energize the group once the game resumes. If not possible, the GM should be ready to take this job on along with the rest of making sure the game continues. This can, on occasion, be useful for a GM looking for an excuse to drop in some foreshadowing that the players may have previously missed.
The ultimate goal is to tide the group over until things settle out and the campaign can resume. Some groups will never make it this far, and this must be acknowledged – the enthusiasm for the story might just not be there, people may decide they prefer to spend their time some other way, a New Shiny may bite, or any number of other things. If so, the group should at least have a wrap-up session where the GM lays out the rest of what was plotted, and any surprises they had in store for the PCs so that the players can at least have the satisfaction of knowing how things might have played out.
Returning from a hiatus has, thus far, not been a problem for my group, largely because of the steps detailed above; twice this year things have disrupted the game, the first time for over two months due to a massive and unexpected illness, and we have successfully recovered the game from the paused state. Previous games weren’t so lucky, and at least part of it stems from a failure to keep the group together during the hiatus. That alone can save or destroy your game during the interlude.
Next time, I’ll talk about how to deal with players leaving the group.