Time to talk about one of the F-words of tabletop campaigns:
While not every GM does it, a good number of us have to rely from time to time on filler sessions or side-arcs to pad out a campaign during an extended player absence, the holiday season, or until we’ve had enough time to properly plan the next serious arc after players went in a surprising direction.
For some campaigns, filler is a needed break from more serious topics to give players an emotional breather before diving back in, or to explore aspects of their character that can otherwise go unnoticed during the hustle and bustle of a campaign’s missions.
But despite the prevalence of filler sessions in gaming, it seems like two ideas come up again and again, and they are just as often ill-fit to the group and become something for at least some of the players to endure rather than enjoy. I’d like to change that.
The two filler session ideas I see over and over again are nonlethal combat contests (the arena model) and formal social engagements (the gala model). I suspect both models are so regularly used because both illustrate a largely unfiltered way for players to enjoy a specific sub-slice of gaming: combat or social roleplay in pure, undiluted form.
Naturally the first problem is that you’ll rarely wind up with an entire table of people who are fans of all one or all the other, else your whole campaign would be like this in the first place. The solution seems to be providing players a blend, but the truth is that some of your players will want these filler moments to be their excuse to go to extremes they can’t otherwise access in the game, so don’t throw either idea out the window just yet.
Instead, let’s talk about the good and bad, and some much-improved alternatives to the arena and the gala.
To expand on the arena concept, it’s typically a brief but elaborate excuse to let the PCs engage each other in one-on-one combat without consequences. It may be a simulation, a shared mindspace, shadow/clones of the PCs, or just an in-character tournament with prizes and the like.
The out-of-character motivation is always the same: many players want a chance to try out their build against a true equal, that being another PC operating under the same constraints at character creation, to see who would emerge victorious. Whatever the in-character rewards, chances are good these tournaments will always lead to out-of-character bragging rights for the rest of the campaign (and sometimes long after).
Problem: not all your PCs are combat-oriented, and those who are aren’t necessarily optimized for one-on-one contests, so it’s not exactly a fair measure from the get-go. On top of that, of course, not all your players are interested in PvP combat even in a non-lethal sense, and many may not want to force their characters to get beat up just so a different player can boast in the future.
If you want to entertain the players who want to know who would win one-on-one without alienating and frustrating the others, I recommend instead of an arena a series of feats-of-strength contests, each addressing a slightly different aspect of the system you’re using. Instead of fighting each other directly, the PCs compete against a series of targets that test different skills to see who succeeds by the highest margin.
Placing in any particular event awards X number of points for first, a few less for second and a few less for third place (or just first and second if you have a small group). In the end, scores are ranked as a sum of all the events put together. That way, PCs who are exceedingly good in one area can’t dominate the entire competition, though they may be able to win a particular contest.
Give players a lot of wiggle room to address the challenges to allow PCs with very different builds to attack the same problem in a variety of ways – the fighter might Climb over an obstacle wall, the druid may shapechange into a bird to fly over it, and the rogue may find a secret door to walk straight through it. One combat contest may be against a large, heavily-armored training dummy, when the next is against a wide field of weak targets, etc. Also remember that there are ways to have action and rolling without combat, so don’t let the classic arena notice limit your range of view.
The gala model faces similar challenges – a grand social event where players who enjoy intrigue and politics can shine, but those who find those games tedious may become frustrated to the point of disruption very quickly. For a lot of campaigns, a gala is a greater departure from the everyday session than a combat contest, so expect to meet even more resistance than you might with the classic arena model.
At the same time, because it’s such a departure for most games, the gala can make for excellent filler if done right, since it’s a genuine breather that allows for character development roleplay that’s often impossible in the heat of a regular mission. Give the players who desire that kind of development plenty of room to breathe, and those who want politics a chance to toy around with key figures in the region. More on that here and here.
For those players who aren’t keen on the social aspect of the gala itself, there are a couple of good alternatives that are still light enough to make for easy filler from the GM point of view. Nearly all of them require a separate location: a second event for the less-social PCs to attend elsewhere but at the same time as the gala event itself.
It may be a seedy pub or a biker bar where a friendly brawl breaks out (where PCs who wouldn’t fit in at the formal gala have their own kind of party), or a small side-job like mercenary guard work (a chance to bust a few heads in the evening hours), or a quick bit of crime while so many eyes are on the gala itself – something low-key but active to keep the other players entertained and leave those interested in the gala itself the freedom to enjoy themselves at their pace without worrying about the other players growing bored or frustrated.
Alternatively, if you want to keep everyone interested in the event at least tangentially and not risk an us-vs.-them sentiment even in part, then I recommend linking the side job to the gala. Make it clear that gala attendees will need intel on some of the major players at the event – intel which can only be gained by others after the party has started.
The other PCs then have a mission to hack into a system, break into an office, beat up security or otherwise gain the needed information to relay to their colleagues at the gala who can then use it to more successfully negotiate or con key NPCs, turning the whole affair back into a party mission, just with two very different theaters so that everyone is doing what they enjoy.
Something similar can be done with the arena model as well, turning the gallery at the combat contest into a gala of its own, but that can sometimes be too many moving parts to try and juggle in real-time. When the primary focus is on the social event, it’s often easier to hand-wave portions of the more combative elements in the interest of time. When the primary focus is on PC combat contests, trying to properly handle social NPCs and interactions can seem especially taxing and bog the entire event down, so I recommend against it unless you feel very comfortably juggling those two arenas while still giving deference to the physical contests.
Done right, filler quickly becomes something your players will be eager for and look forward to between major story arcs or during holiday seasons, rather than something to dread or roll their eyes at. And when you realize your players actually want your filler sessions, that’s generally a very good place to be.