GM Lessons: The Filler Episode

You and your role playing group have just concluded a major quest, but it may seem a bit overwhelming to launch straight into the next one. It’d be like Frodo getting back to the Shire, and Radagast the Brown giving him a bracelet to throw into the icy waters of Middle-Earth’s North Pole. Yeah, okay, I guess, but…haven’t we been here before? Is it always going to be this ‘Rinse and Repeat’? In the book version of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the hobbits instead return to find Saruman the White inside Frodo’s house with some armed ruffians, and they have to defeat him. This is a great example of an epilogue that showcases what the heroes have learnt, and how different they’ve become. What’s more is it alleviates the grandness of the plot that’s just ended, bringing back some contained, small-town adventure that brings the characters full circle.

If we translate this style of progression to our role playing adventures (and why wouldn’t we?  Tolkien’s influence runs deep in D&D even today) then what we get is a one or two session adventure that concludes any loose plot points, gives the players a chance to show off their new skills, and serves as a break from any world-ending, serious overtones. I call it a Filler Episode. Just like a TV series, your sessions are episodic, and sometimes you need one to focus the spotlight back onto the characters and their skills. This lesson is going to explore the best ways to do that, and try to establish any do’s and don’t’s.

The first thing I do is I create the quest. This has to be something the players can’t really turn down, but can’t be too serious. So using dear Tolkien’s example, its not another One Ring to Rule Them All, its a secondary surviving villain come back to settle a score, giving the heroes a chance to protect their homeland without the help of their more stronger friends. The last time I did this, I made it a bit silly: The players’ Inquisitor (their boss) ordered them to retrieve a crate of very rare whiskey from a distillery on a planet, which had become a lawless backwater after a natural disaster. This fit the narrative as their Inquisitor had become quite the rogue in their eyes, and not beyond using his acolytes to make his life easier. It also showed that, in his own way, he trusted the players now and their abilities. So give the players a simple goal to achieve, a single target, as well as motivation.

The next thing I would do is define the path of the adventure. Be warned, it is going to get a little railroad-esque. But if you think your players will start wandering off, you can make moves to make it near impossible or pointless for them to not continue their actual objective. I read a great little one-shot session guide where it said to have three or maybe four encounters planned out:

1. At the beginning, even better if the session starts during an encounter, giving the players instant action, and no chance to lose direction. If you start off in conversation with some NPCs, it’ll give the players a chance to talk their ways out, but don’t forget to make the antagonists interesting (So not human soldiers or goblins), so there’s already new things to engage with here.

2. One or two in the middle. Give the players a chance to choose the route to their objective (through the deserted town, or through open desert, for example) and plan an encounter for these locations. It could be running into a scouting force of the bad guys who ultimately the players will have to face, or it could be a bizarre creature of your own design. Just remember again to spice up the fighting, give your enemies some interesting attacks or effects that the players haven’t seen before and will force them to think.

3. A finale. Have an antagonist who will attempt to stop the players achieving the objective. In my example, I had a violent gang who’d taken up residence in the distillery and were selling it off themselves. I also had a plan for a giant sand worm to pop up near by if a battle were to take place, to be used as a distraction or a third party in the fight. Either way it should be climatic, tense, and give the players a sense of accomplishment.

The Filler Episode can be a great opportunity for us GMs too. If you’re like me and have notes after notes of plot hooks, character ideas, places, and creatures, you can plonk some in here if they couldn’t find a home in your main adventure – maybe that’s what happened to poor Saruman in Return of the King. Also, its a great opportunity to bring in any new players who’ve been interested in joining a game. They would only need to play one or two sessions, its not too serious, and very straightforward. I would advise finding out what kind of character they want to make, and tailor a section of the adventure for them. For example, if they want to be Legolas, give them a chance to stand on a sand dune, picking off creatures as they come with their bow, or if they prefer talking, have an NPC who they know be there, or an opportunity to beat an encounter with charm or deception.

Ultimately, the Filler Episode is a great place to be a little silly with your friends, wrap up anything from a previous adventure, introduce new players, and to dump your GM ideas where it won’t be too disastrous if it doesn’t work. Last time, I found out yes, I can play a villain with the voice of Christopher Walken, and I can improvise quite a lot of it too. I also learnt that my players are able to utilise stealth and deception to accomplish their goals without bloodshed. I was content not to unleash my sand worm because I thought they did a great job. I thought that, like the Hobbits, they had showcased all they’d learnt, and surpassed my expectations as to what their characters could do.