All dungeon masters have been there. The enthusiasm that surrounded their games has begun to ebb; the players, while still enjoying themselves, start deriving more fun from joking with each other than being absorbed in the campaign; and the dungeon master feels mounting pressure to amaze the players with the next encounter, but has no idea what that encounter could look like under present circumstances. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the game, but the “fire” is slowly burning out.
One way to renew player and dungeon master enthusiasm is to play a “mini-series” of adventures for variety and a fresh perspective. For our purposes, a mini-series is a short adventure or two, not to exceed five game sessions in length, using different player characters. I first read about the idea in the second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons supplement Creative Campaigning nearly 20 years ago, and have successfully employed the concept more than a few times.
It is possible, but not necessary, for a mini-series to support an ongoing campaign. In a past game of mine, it was used when the heroes of my primary campaign were about to assault a subterranean orcish stronghold, for the purposes of recovering a dwarven artifact. It was well-known, particularly by the party’s dwarven cleric, that the complex had once been a prominent dwarven clanhome that the orcs overran and despoiled, and the tale of the courageous dwarves who fought to the last in those halls had become the subject of numerous narratives and war-chants in the years since.
It was at this point in time that TSR released The Complete Book of Dwarves supplement, which offered numerous class kits and abilities for dwarven characters. The players thought the rules in the book might be fun to use, but they already had established characters in the current campaign, so doing a “dwarf campaign” would have to wait indefinitely – or so they thought.
They were surprised when I asked them how they felt about stopping the action in the primary campaign, going back in time, and doing a short adventure that re-enacted the fall of the dwarven hold. They could create dwarven heroes using the new rules and play characters which were part of dwarven legend at game present and, while the historical outcome was well-known, the object wouldn’t be to win, but to send as many orcs as possible screaming into hell during the process of losing. They would be given modifiable maps of the stronghold, a list of characters and available resources, and half a session to set up their defenses before the I, as DM, assaulted the halls with countless orcs. The players jumped at the chance.
And so it came to pass that in the year 418 AR, that 31 dwarves stayed behind to protect the retreat of the civilian population of Granitehome in the face of impossible odds. They slew 208 orcs before Mandek Marblefist, the last dwarf still standing, used his dying breath to cleave the skull of Klorthak the orcish warchief – while standing atop his father’s tomb and with three orcish spears stuck in his chest.
When I used the same map for the now-orcish stronghold, the players viewed the setting in an entirely new way, commenting as they explored, “Here’s where Inglaf fell,” and “I can’t believe the orcs just threw all the dwarven dead in here.”
Of course, a mini-series doesn’t have to support your current game. Just as a vacation in an exotic place is an exciting change of pace, playing something entirely unrelated to the regular campaign – particularly if it is a setting that couldn’t sustain a full-fledged campaign of its own – can refresh player interest.
Any sort of mini-series also brings short-term opportunities for experimentation. Interested in trying out new house rules or supplemental material? Even if the material is unablancing, you only need to worry about it for a few sessions in a mini-series. Want to experiment with an all-elves campaign, or a game where all the heroes are rogues starting a new thieves’ guild? The mini-series provides a safe venue for exploring those possibilities, without damaging the regular campaign. It is even possible to foreshadow coming events in the campaign through a mini-series, where temporary characters have a brush with the great evil to be fought in the regular game; whether the characters bind the evil (which escapes in time for the campaign proper) or are overwhelmed by it before they can precisely identify it, the players will view that evil in a more personal way when it emerges in the regular game.