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Roleplaying Between Sessions

by Mike on 11 December 2023

Judge, a Patreon of Sly Flourish, asked the following thought-provoking question:

"Any ideas on engaging players between sessions? Not everyone can make every weekly session and I was looking to engage people in the off weeks in particular."

The idea of playing RPGs when all the players aren't sitting around the table (physically or virtually) is a powerful one. How can both GMs and players stay engaged with the game away from the table?

GMs have lots of ways we can stay engaged in the game – sometimes so many we feel overwhelmed by the number of options. Figuring out where to spend our time between games is its own problem – one I try to tackle with Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

But what about players? How can we keep players engaged in the game between sessions?

Flash Fiction

Writing short bits of flash fiction – 100 to 500 words of in-world narrative – is a great way to keep players engaged between sessions. You can email these stories out or share them over a campaign Discord server if you use one. Flash fiction doesn't typically involve the characters. It might follow a villain or an important NPC or fill out parts of the story the characters don't witness but the players can. Sometimes this fiction breaks the connection between a character's view of the story and the player's view of the story but that isn't often a problem.

When writing flash fiction, pick a particular NPC for the point of view and a central idea you want to come across. What's the main thing you want to reveal in your flash fiction? Make it specific. Add important details. If you're using it to introduce important NPCs or locations, you might even bold their names to show players what's important. You can also use flash fiction to show the players the results of their actions in the world.

Such pieces of between-session fiction are a great way to keep players engaged in the game and to show off angles or perspectives they wouldn't have otherwise had.

One-on-One Roleplaying

If you have the time and circumstances, you can do some one-on-one roleplaying between yourself as the GM and a player in between sessions. This bit of roleplay could be a simple conversation over lunch, coffee, or during a walk. It could be online over Discord either using voice chat or text. Often this one-on-one roleplaying begins with a particular question like "do you go visit your uncle, the sage, back in the high district?" and then builds off of the results. If it feels weird, you don't have to jump in character – just talk about what the character is doing and what the world is doing around them.

This idea of one-on-one roleplaying anywhere works great for one on one games in general but it's also a great way to fill in time between sessions.

Such roleplaying works well if the characters are in a spot for downtime, so their actions fit in with whatever the other characters are doing during their own downtime. Downtime isn't required, though. Instead, such scenes could be a flashback – something they did the last time they were in town.

Between-Session Downtime

If you're in between adventures and have the option for some in-world downtime, you can run downtime activities in between sessions. Discuss these activities at the end of a session, over email, or in whatever campaign tool you use like Discord if you know your players check it. Like running downtime activities in general, it works best if you offer up a handful of options – ideally ones tailored to the characters. Then ask them to write up what they want to do and reply back with the results. Downtime works well with this type of asynchronous gameplay since specific time isn't as important in downtime as it is with something like combat.

Prompt-driven Character Exploration

It's one thing to run one-on-one activities between sessions but doing so puts a fair burden on the GM who's already busy prepping for the game at the table. One way to give players options for in-between sessions that don't require much work from the GM are prompt-driven character exploration activities. For this idea, the GM gives a prompt to one or more players to fill out some of their backstory, drives, motivations, or character development. Campfire prompts are an example of the sorts of questions we might ask.

Here are a handful of potential prompts:

These one-sentence prompts are a good way to pass ideas to your players and give them the prompt they need to engage with the game in a way that doesn't require a lot of extra work for the GM.

Other Resources

While researching this topic, I found three useful resources discussing this topic:

Bluebooking by Justin Alexander on the Alexandrian. This excellent article talks about the history of "bluebooking" in which players kept their own journals of activities and shared player to player roleplaying outside the eyes of the GM.

De Profundis by Michal Oracz and Cubicle 7. Recommended by Justin Alexander, this game is a roleplaying game in which players share Lovecraftian-style letters to one another, all in character, describing the weird stuff they see in their journey. It's a cool look at asynchronous roleplaying.

Invisible Sun by Monte Cook Games. A very different sort of mysterious worlds-outside-of-worlds roleplaying game which has multiple phases of gameplay – only some of which happen at the table. Invisible Sun is sometimes available as a Bundle of Holding for a low price. The book The Gate includes descriptions of these phases of gameplay including an out-of-game "Development Mode" where characters develop outside of the normal game around the table.

Another Option for Roleplaying

Such out-of-game activities aren't for everyone. With three games a week, I barely have time to prepare for an actual session, much less engage with different players individually. For groups with a fair bit of time between games and players and GMs eager to keep playing, between-session activities are a great way to stay engaged and enjoy the game we love.

More Sly Flourish Stuff

This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Adventure Structures for RPGs – Adventure Crucible by Robin Laws and Empire of the Ghouls Deep Dive

Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

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RPG Tips

Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

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