Reader Contribution: The recap newsletter

Posted on January 27, 2011 by

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I was contacted by a reader named Michael, who offered to write a guest post about the way he handles recaps in his game.  I had written about recaps before, but his way was a lot more creative than mine.  He actually created an in-universe prop for his players.  I found it interesting and offered to publish it here for readers of newbiedm.com. You can reach Michael at Alive30@aol.com or @Alive30 on Twitter.  Enjoy.

“Where Did We Leave Off?” Another Tool to Enhance The Game Recap

I’ve benefited immensely from various suggestions, tips and ideas from this site and others. I’ve spent hours creating a world, developing story hooks, building encounters and making props to interest the players. It’s an enjoyable process, but it’s time consuming! And returning to the table every other week and needing to remind players about the story and world I’ve spent so much time cultivating can be frustrating.

One of the more challenging aspects of running a campaign is maintaining a sense of momentum. In our group, we play every other Friday. However, if we have to skip a week for whatever conflict in the schedule, then we could go a month or perhaps longer without a gaming session. Even if the schedule runs smoothly, a common question from the players at the beginning of each session is, “So, what is going on again?”

A previous article detailed numerous methods for providing the players with a game recap.   I have flirted with many of the ideas presented in article, including starting a website for our campaign on Obsidian Portal.  I soon became overwhelmed with Obsidian Portal; I’m sure it’s a fine tool, but I do not possess the time or motivation to maintain a website that my players may only occasionally visit in the first place. One of the players generously offered to keep a journal from his character’s perspective, which was a great idea. But it was not something he could sustain because it took up too much time. Also, when he did complete and bring it to the next gaming session, the players would pass around the journal to read when they arrived, which took away valuable game time.

With all this in mind, I had the pleasure of welcoming two new players into the group to start the new year. Our 4e campaign has progressed from Level 1 to Level 9. During that time, there have been many quests and NPCs that have built a backbone for the world. It was unclear to me how I would inform the new players of all the important details without (a) writing a huge document to detail the story thus far and (b) boring them to death!

The following idea is something that can help you introduce new players to your campaign, manage The Game Recap problem, and also spice up your entire campaign. I give you the Fake Newsletter.

First, a bit of background on this idea. While in graduate school, I lived with three other guys and once had the idea to write a fake newsletter about the happenings in the apartment. I borrowed heavily from The Onion, and created a four-page newsletter that poked fun at my roommates, myself, and other people we knew. It went over very well, and I had a blast putting it together. It eventually inspired my roommate to write a similar newsletter months later, and we took turns every few months creating a new issue.

So, when trying to determine the best way to educate new players about the campaign, it dawned on me that I could create a fake newsletter for the world I created, Cydonia. The campaign thus far has primarily been rooted in the port town of Poormina, so I started to generate ideas to create an issue of the Poormina newspaper, Poormina Times.

An advertisement from the newsletter. Now the PC's know what inn to go to.

My primary goal with the paper was to introduce the new players (and remind the current players) of important events and NPCs in the campaign. The second goal was to write it so that it was entertaining and fun. A third goal, which came to me after I started the process, was to plant seeds for future story hooks in the campaign.

Please take a look at the finished product, which was generated using Microsoft Publisher and then saved as a PDF file. I realize the names and events mentioned will not make any sense to you because you’re not involved in the campaign, but it provides an example of a finished product. If you do have Publisher, then you can follow the instructions to navigate to the “Vintage” template that already exists. The Vintage template seemed to be the best fit for me in terms of “looking old” and having the right style. The good thing about the template is that most of the formatting work is already in place for you; you just have to write your news stories and swap out the images for something more appropriate. For most of the images, I did a simple Google Image search and scrolled through pictures until I found something I liked. I commissioned a good friend, Grant Gould, to illustrate two of the character images; Wiklund on the front page and Brother Laurence on Page 3. His art is amazing, and I encourage everyone to check out his site at www.grantgould.com.

If you do not want to start from scratch, then you can start with my Poormina Times file from MS Publisher and change the text and images to match your campaign. If you do not have access to MS Publisher, then you could use a Word, PowerPoint, or any other program to achieve the same goal. Now that you have the fake newsletter idea and a means for writing it, here are some suggestions for how to craft the newsletter.

First, decide who you want the party to be most aware of in your world. For me, there are many villains, but the overarching nemesis is Wiklund, a doppelganger who has been confronted by the party twice but slipped away both times. He has not been featured in the campaign recently, but introducing the character to new players (and reminding the current players of his presence) was important. So the main story focused on the doppelganger threat in the kingdom.

After highlighting the primary villain, I wanted to introduce three of the most-prominent NPCs that have assisted the party throughout the campaign. The NPCs in my campaign that have interacted the most with the party are: Brother Laurence, retired battle cleric from a religious/military order; Dorwin Farringwray, opportunistic rogue and scoundrel; and Hornan Dawntracker, captain of the local town guard. Once I decided on the most crucial NPCs, I wrote a story for each of them.

For the rest of the stories in the newsletter, I detailed the current quest for the party, which is stopping a relentless assault from pirates. Another article introduced a future story hook regarding problems in the sewers underneath the city. I used a brief article to discuss the current happenings of two major players in the world that the party has heard of, but not interacted with yet – the king, Tougard VI, and his most-trusted religious advisor, High Priest Adamar. I used the Advertisement spot on Page 4 to highlight another NPC, Zannan, who has assisted the party in the past.  And the final article was more inspired from various political commentary and editorials.

For the final article on Page 4, I wrote an editorial decrying the party from the perspective of someone that questions the adventurer’s methods and goals. Think Stephen Colbert or Bill O’Reilly. This was by far the most fun piece to write, because I knew it would get under the skin of my current players. And did it ever!

After completing the newsletter, I sent the PDF file to my current and new players several days before our next gaming session. A lively discussion ensued through email about the articles in the newsletter, with the commentary article on Page 4 drawing the most attention. Our wizard now wants to track down the writer and confront him; he sent this message to the group, “Notice how the author of the article didn’t put his name there? I call Shifter Propaganda! Next stop, flyer establishment, and beating the crap out of the editor! It’s made of paper, it’ll BURN!!!!”

Perhaps after the pirate ordeal, the party could deal with the writer – who could turn out to be a doppelganger himself or somehow spur another quest in the campaign. Let your players respond to the newsletter and see what fun directions it could take you!

Some final points:

  • Obviously, I have lifted various ideas from movies, television, books, and websites. Two clear examples are the names Farringwray and Adamar, which were stolen from the Penny Arcade podcasts and the film, A Knight’s Tale, respectively. I encourage you to borrow ideas from any source you deem worthy. My only caution is that my players have caught on to this as they are familiar with the same references. If you want to use a character from a movie, novel, etc. that has a specific story arc, then perhaps shy away from giving him or her the exact same name. For example, the party is not going to be surprised if the politician, Palpatine, turns out to be an evil wizard!
  • I do not plan to generate this type of newsletter in between each session; I simply do not have the time for that! However, I will likely use this newsletter format from time to time to keep things interesting. I suggest you avoid anything that feels like busy work for your campaign. The main goal is to have fun and enjoy the time with friends. If an occasional Recap assists and is fun to create, then this is one method to achieve that end.
  • Raid The Onion and other news outlets (e.g., print, online, television) for story and formatting templates. If you still receive a newspaper (local, campus, etc.), page through that and get ideas for how to bend those stories to your campaign.
  • Last, I’m familiar with MS Publisher so generating this file only took a couple of days. You can reduce the preparation time by cutting it down to just one or two pages. I attached the file so you can easily write your own material over the format provided.  I would be happy to answer any questions, and would certainly enjoy viewing newsletters that you create for your campaign.

Poormina Times (The actual newsletter pdf)

The publisher file

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