DM Tips for Restarting a Retired Campaign

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 30, 2009

After almost a year we are putting our current campaign on hold, and rather than start something brand new we’ve decided to return to a campaign that we put on hold just before the release of 4e. In many ways going back to a retired campaign can be even more difficult than starting from scratch. As I prepare to put on my DM hat and dust off my old notes I’ve been thinking about all the things I need to do to make this transition run smoothly.

I’ve come up with a few tips for DMs planning to go back to a campaign that’s been on hold for any extended period of time. These are guidelines that I’ve used and found useful. If you have additional tips that have worked for you, please leave them in the comments section below.

  • Avoid information overload

  • When returning to an old campaign its natural for the DM to want to dump everything he can remember onto the players. Resist this instinct. Don’t overload the players with information. Even though it’s been a while since you’ve played in this campaign, you’d be surprised by the amount of details your players remember. Just don’t expect them to remember every little detail. Even in an active, ongoing game it’s unlikely that a level 10 party remembers everything they did at level 1.

    Don’t describe every battle the PCs ever fought in, just recap the PCs most significant milestones. Make sure they are aware of any important details relevant to the overall story arc. All the little bits and pieces that fall in between can be filled in on the fly. There’s a good chance that the players will start to recall details as they get back into these characters again. Be mindful of providing too much spoon feeding. After all you don’t want to ruin carefully laid plans by drawing too much attention to something that is supposed to seem trivial.

  • Make their motivation clear

  • Although you don’t want to overwhelm the PCs with information it is very important that they have a clear understanding of their goal. It sounds kind of obvious, but the purpose for the adventure might not be as clear to the PCs after all this time as it is to the DM. Make sure the PCs know why they’re involved in the adventure. Allow them to ask in-character and out-of-character questions to clear up any misconceptions. This can be especially helpful to the players if the campaign hinges around a deadline. If the PCs don’t realize how little time they have remaining then they may not play their PCs with the sense of urgency you’re expecting.

  • Allow the players to tweak their characters

  • Depending on how long it’s been since you put your campaign on hold it’s possible that D&D has undergone significant changes since you last played. You should give each player the option to recreate his PC using the latest rules and sourcebooks. Encourage the players to focus on keeping the flavour of their original PC rather than mechanics. It’s important that everyone like their character since they may end up playing this campaign for a long time.

    If someone wants to create a totally new PC I generally say yes. Players may envision their PC as a race or class that wasn’t previously available when the campaign first began. By allowing them to modify their PC you’ll make them happier and more eager to get back into the thick of things. Or perhaps they never felt that their previous PC fit in with the party or the campaign style. Although I prefer that most of the party remain unchanged, I’m willing to let a couple of the players start fresh.

    Tweaking the party may be even more necessary once you take a look at the distribution of roles. After an initial conversion of our old party we discovered that we had four leaders and two strikers. (It looked like this: Cleric, Bard, Bard, Artificer, Rogue and Ranger.) The players need to have fun running their PC and as the DM you should do whatever you can to make this happen.

  • Warm them up

  • It’s been a while since these PCs saw action. It’s also possible that one or more of the PCs was retired and replaced with a brand new character. It’s going to take a while for the players to get used to playing these PCs. So give them a chance to warm up. Skew the level of the encounters down a notch or two for the first few encounters. This gives everyone a good chance to get back into the proper mindset of these PCs. It lets the DM observe their behaviour and it lets the PCs develop some routines.

    Don’t throw them too many soft pitches. After a few encounters make sure that the monsters and obstacles are level-appropriate. I’d recommend three encounters at PC level -2, two encounters at PC level -1, and then everything from that point forward the same level as the PCs.

    Another good way to get the PCs back into the mindset of these PCs is to run them through a Dungeon Delve. It doesn’t have to be part of the main campaign and you don’t even need to award XP (although I suggest you do). This gives the PCs a chance to reacquaint themselves with these characters in a forgiving environment. This will be especially useful if you’ve got new characters joining the party. What happens during the delve should stay in the delve. So if a PC dies or uses an expendable item, I’d strongly recommend that this not have any impact on the real game.

  • Jog their memory

  • One of the great things about playing a long-term campaign is that the DM can introduce reoccurring NPCs. If you’ve done a good job of making these NPCs memorable, the PCs will recall who they are and the situations in which they met them all those months ago. This is a good way to remind PCs about little details they probably forgotten. It also eliminates your need to dump too much on them all at once (as discussed above). If you can have the PCs go to familiar places and interact with familiar NPCs then they’re more likely to remember why they liked this campaign in the first place.

  • Whisper in their ear

  • During any long-term campaign I try to give each of the characters a goal or side quest specific to that PC alone. Usually it’s something private that the other PCs are not aware of. Perhaps one PC learned something they chose not to share or maybe a PC has a secret agenda that they’re trying to accomplish unbeknownst to the rest of the party. The DM should have a private conversation with each of the players and remind them of these secrets. Reminding a player about this information may jog his memory about other important aspects of the campaign.

    These one-on-one conversations may be more useful if conducted outside of the normal game environment. In the past, I’ve handled this through private email exchanges. This way I don’t waste time during our once a week get together. Nothing kills a gaming session like the DM taking each PC, one-by-one into the next room while the rest of the party sits there with nothing to do.

  • Cut the players some slack

  • It may take a while before the players remember the little details of the campaign. For the first few sessions it’s important to be forgiving. Remember that the DM is encouraged to say yes whenever possible and this is good situation to be mindful of this guideline. During combat allow the PCs flexibility when deciding on their actions. If they say they want to use a power and then change their mind, try to accommodate the change. As they play these PCs more and more they’ll realize which powers and items are best suited to a given situation. So cut the players some slack at first.

These tips, tricks and reminders have worked for me in the past and I plan to put them to good use again in the coming weeks as my group transitions back into an old campaign. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you’ve got additional tips that you think work, please share them.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rook July 30, 2009 at 10:16 pm

All in all, a great article. Not just good tips, but a good list of things every DM needs to keep in mind when getting back in the saddle. My current group is running two different campaigns, one D&D and one Star Wars. Because of scheduling we only get together to play once every month or two. So I have to deal with these same problems all the time.

When we switch back into a campaign I always start off with a short, Cliff’s Notes version of what happened last time. I then allow time for everyone to look over their characters and we do a little Q and A session to see what each player remembers about the campaign. It takes away some precious game time in the beginning, but it’s well worth it after everyone is back up to speed and ready to get back into it.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: My Iconic Character(s) =-.

2 Ameron July 31, 2009 at 8:51 am

@Rook
Thanks. I really thought this article would generate more buzz.

I like your idea of a round-table Q&A before you get started again. By letting the players tell the story as they remember it, the DM can learn what parts of the story left the strongest impression on the PCs. It also lets the DM know which details he may need to place more emphasis on. Taking a couple of hours during that first night back to bring everyone up to speed doesn’t sound like a waste of time to me at all. If anything, I think it will get the players excited to get back to the old campaign.

3 Johnn Four July 31, 2009 at 1:00 pm

“Whisper in their ear.” Nice phrasing!

I too am looking at pausing our 4E campaign and either starting a new 3.5 game or returning to the 3.5 game we left off to go play 4E. We’re actually leaning toward a Pathfinder campaign.
.-= Johnn Four´s last blog ..The Nimble Mind: Making Skills Matter in RPGs =-.

4 Ameron August 4, 2009 at 10:20 am

@Johnn Four
These tips should prove useful for DMs regardless of RPG or edition. If even one point I’ve suggested helps, then I’ve done my job.

5 skallawag August 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

A tip might be to start up a campaign blog or write a short story to go over the campaign events.

Also remember that you, the DM, and your group will be excited about returning to an old campaign. Don’t just throw multiple options/adventure paths out to the players. Give them a direction in the beginning an then open up options after a few sessions. You don’t want to lose your players at the beginning and lose sight of your overall adventure arc — once you lose them, you may never get them back.

6 Ameron August 11, 2009 at 10:22 am

@skallawag
A campaign blog has been incredibly useful for my ongoing campaign. Starting one up for the new campaign is an excellent idea.

I agree that clear direction is critical in the beginning. Depending on how long the game was on hold the PCs may think they remember the details and the facts, but time has blurred the truth. It’s important for DMs to keep reminding the PCs of events that happened and that their PCs would clearly remember, even if the players don’t.

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