My regular gaming group prefers to play our main campaign only when every player is available. Scheduling is hard, so we’ve canceled a lot of sessions over the years as a result. The past few months though, we’ve kept to our schedule more often because we’ve introduced a backup game. This game is:
- Run by me, so that the main campaign’s GM can PC (and also because I like to GM)
- Set in the same world and time as the main campaign
- Run as a series of one-shots, with weaker continuity than the main campaign, and
- Thematically distinct from the main campaign.
We call it the B-side game, and hitting all of the bullets above each time we play is a fun little side project for me. While my group started this to deal with scheduling challenges, I’d recommend this format for any group that wants a change of pace, especially if there’s a player who’s looking to experiment or build up skills at running one-shots with little prep. Here’s how we do it.
Tag in a backup GM
Or even better, a couple of them, since you want to be able to play this game when a subset of your players are availble; if you can avoid having any single player be a lynchpin, you’ll get to play more often.
It’s especially valuable to play your B-side game when the main campaign’s GM is available to play, so that they have a chance to experience their own game world. I also recommend sticking to the same ruleset for the same reason, and so that there’s less of a mental shift required if you switch from A-side (main campaign) plans to B-side last minute.
Setting the B-side game in the same world as the A-side lets your group enrich the setting and explore paths that the main party didn’t follow. As the GM, you also get the benefit of free plot hooks, recurring NPCs, and lore, courtesy of the main campaign. You also leave open the possibility of crossovers.
In our game, each player has a B-side character that they reuse between B-side sessions, although they’re welcome to change at any time.
One and done
B-side sessions should be self-contained, so that they never interfere with scheduling the main campaign. This requires forethought to pick an appropriate starting point and discipline in guiding the session to a satisfying conclusion.
There’s often an impulse to over-script a one-shot, but try to fight this. My trick is to make the first scene so open-ended that I can’t predict what the players will do. We collaborate from there, and in the last hour of our planned game time, I’ll start actively looking for ways to bring the session to a close.
All the usual one-shot tricks apply: Start in medias res, cut scenes agressively, pit the characters against the clock, and don’t pull your punches.
If your players reuse their characters between B-side sessions and you use the tricks above, weak continuity is a natural consequence. Even if a session ends with a cliffhanger, seriously consider jumping in time or space for the next session. Blank spaces and apparent contradictions are interesting.
Besides ensuring that we play more often, my goal for the B-side game is to complement the A-side game in a way that’s exciting for the players and doesn’t compromise the main campaign’s status as the main game. While organizing play into one-shots help with this, the tool I employ most is using setting, characters, and plot to push the tone of the game away from the tone of the A-side.
We’re playing Starfinder. Our A-side crew is a party of semi-professional space pirates, chasing down an ancient super weapon while getting in the middle of some complicated interplanetary politics: Great stuff for a long-running campaign, with a lot of space opera and space horror influences on a grand scale.
For the B-side game, we stick to smaller stakes. So far, the party has been down on its luck, stuck on a desert planet. While there are still big action moments, I’m drawing on cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic tropes, and aiming for a tone like the slow episodes of Cowboy Bebop. It’s punchier, more comic, and generally less real than the A-side campaign, which makes it natural for the players to want to flip back to the A-side by default.