Typically, said running takes the form of a single session each week that lasts for about two hours, with maybe an hour or so preparation time on top of that. Over the last three years, that adds up to a lot of person-hours dedicated to hallucinating vividly while sitting around a (virtual) table.
I don't regret it at all.
It has easily been one of the best experiences that I've ever had. Its helped me get to know my colleagues, learn how to improvise, be more confident speaking in front of of people and flex a creative muscle that I wasn't even sure I had. Its also been incredibly fun and has lead to the creation of some amazing stories, in-jokes and memes.
For most of those three years, I've been running pre-made campaigns in what I assume is the normal way. We would pick an adventure from the bucket available on D&D Beyond and then play through it week by week. Each session would end with me freezing time, so we could pick up exactly where we left off at a later date.
But sometimes life happens and one or more players are unable to attend the next session and resume their adventures.
What do you do then?
Welcome to the Party, Pal
Before we delve into that particular issue, lets go back a step and talk about D&D campaigns.
A typical campaign is a narrative adventure that players work their way through over time. It usually features some sort of overarching story and is made up of many separate encounters that drive towards that story in a mostly linear fashion.
In the time that I've been running D&D, I've run a few different campaigns, including Horde of the Dragon Queen, Out of the Abyss, Storm Kings Thunder and Rise of Tiamat. All excellent adventures and plenty of fun to both run and play.
Now that you have some idea as to what a campaign looks like, we can return to the issue at hand: sometimes life happens and one or more players are unable to attend the next session and resume their adventures.
And that's okay.
But if I've paused the campaign at a critical juncture (a climactic fight, a pivotal conversation or a crucial reveal) and the next session doesn't feature the same group of people then that throws a wrench in the works.
When I've got a situation involving missing players, I'm left with a few options, all of which are somewhat unpalatable:
- Push ahead anyway. This feels bad because the player who couldn't make it now misses out, and they might have been building up towards this big event for a while.
- Cancel the session entirely. This feels bad because the rest of the players miss out, and they might have gone out of their way to attend the session.
I've used both of those options at various points in the past, and I've never been happy with either of them. Someone always loses out in some way and that makes me feel bad, because I want my players to enjoy themselves.
But what if there was a third option?
We're Gonna Need Some More Characters, I Guess
Obviously there is. This would be a pretty crappy blog post if I just presented a problem and then shrugged and walked away.
The third option is to introduce another party of player characters who can go off and do other things while the main ones are frozen in time. A B-team to the titular A-team.
This isn't my idea. I'm pretty sure I unashamedly stole it from one of the other D&D groups at Console, who were experiencing the same sort of issues with their campaign.
Of course, the B-team is just as vulnerable to the underlying issue as the A-team, though it is somewhat less likely to happen to both teams at the same time. Not impossible though.
That's where you introduce a C-team! Characters for the character god, backstories for the backstory throne and all that.
I don't recommend introducing a C-team.
Most people have difficulty getting into the head of a single character. Two can be a stretch. Three? Three is probably pushing it too far.
Instead, I looked at the root problem again, which was the required presence of specific people in order to resume a paused encounter. What if you never paused an encounter? What if you took that to the extreme and always started and finished a session at the same place?
What would a campaign like that look like?
Thus was born the concept of a perpetual dungeon, where a session consists of a flexible group of characters getting together for a delve, with the understanding that they will always return to their starting location at the end of the session.
Not only does this resolve the root issue neatly, it also has other benefits, like:
- Players can try out new characters easily. This allows them to play around with new personas and character builds without a long term commitment
- Other parties can delve into the same dungeon. This enriches the setting for everyone else who is participating and allows for ad-hoc games with players who can't participate in the regular sessions
- You don't always need a full group. Depending on where the players choose to go, they might be able to go down with as little as two people. This stops people from feeling obligated to turn up, which in turn helps them to be happier overall
- The narrative and story elements are discovered rather than presented. In an approach similar to Dark Souls, people can ingest as little or as much of the story as they want
Its an elegant way to leverage a B-team, and complements nicely with the normal sort of linear campaign that the A-team is likely running.
The funny thing is, what originally started as a filler activity for when the main campaign was paused, quickly became the preferred option for my players, so we closed out the A-team and their campaign and switched to playing with the B-team every session.
Which probably makes them the A-team now.
The most important thing for me is that my players are happy and having fun, so I'm indifferent to which option they choose to get their D&D fix. The perpetual dungeon is actually a bit more flexible for me as well, because I can easily slot other groups into it if I want to do an ad-hoc session without having to do a whole bunch of standalone preparation.
I will be making another blog post in the future that explains how I run my perpetual dungeon, so look forward to that.
Spoiler alert; it involves a dead pool and sleep deprivation.