When running a home campaign, it can be a good idea to encourage players to create back-up characters. Even better, why not have them develop an entire second party altogether? Aside from offsetting player character death and fatigue, an auxiliary band can become a source of completely new adventures and subplots all on their own. It can also provide the PCs alternative play styles from the usual sessions and add freshness to the campaign. You can even run these sessions with a particular theme, such as one that is more comedic, diplomatic, expendable, or even more evil than the main group.
It goes without saying that most gamers have a good sense of humor. For this reason, it can be a good idea to cast aside plot believability for a session or two and delve into the absurd by running a farce, parody, or comedy. This works best against a campaign backdrop where the primary party is engaged in a particularly nail-biting point in your story. Say, for example, the PCs are finally about to face the evil wizard overlord—after of course, expending all their healing. Taking a breather and putting this moment on hold means that you can have a second group of adventurers appear in the town nearby. Their objective? The wizard’s less-than-deadly brother Clifford, whose dastardly plan is to rearrange the village’s furniture by color while being aided by an army of whimsical gnomes who whisper dirty limericks.
For combat-oriented campaigns or in situations where PCs have fought a person-of-interest that you meant them to question, problems can arise whereby a little more finesse than usual is required. In such cases, characters with more personable backgrounds can come in handy. Perhaps a duke simply needs to have his palms greased, or a hobgoblin vice lord is open to mutual cooperation; a second band can act as diplomatic salves for these encounters.
While it may seem like common sense to have the original party deal with these issues, the purpose is to provide a fresh set of personalities for the campaign. This second set of PCs could even develop into an investigative or diplomatic arm for the PCs to use later on. Too much involvement in a campaign can diminish the need for the main force, but there is no reason the primary party, out taking care of business on the frontier, could not be aided at home by a cosmopolitan group acting in their best interests.
The expendables are the group of PCs at the complete opposite end of play style from the politician’s group. Although roleplaying should be at the heart of gaming, sometimes players just want a basic session of hack-and-slash. That’s when a “super-powered,” stab-first, ask-questions-second group can come to the rescue.
For instance, if the main party is off tracking down a lost artifact to stop an impending breach from the Fey World, throwing in a session or two where the players take on the role of a medieval “marines” recon party can be a great way for the players to blow off a little PC steam. It’s also a way to have them face skirmish forces before the climactic showdown with the real baddies. Such a group of advanced scouts can allow you to create a series of really exciting and deadly encounters—ones that won’t affect the larger campaign.
The Proper Villains
Lastly, for the not-too-squeamish groups out there, there is always the possibility of running a series of encounters that have a second party donning a villainous affectation. Some players may find this devil’s advocate gameplay a bit too much, but you may find others who throw themselves full force into the role. To mitigate the consequences of the first scenario, talking to players ahead of time about this option can allow those who aren’t comfortable with such a direction the chance to say so.
The purpose behind these sessions is to give this shadow party a chance to create problems in the campaign world—problems that the main force must deal with, such as a kidnapping, theft, or assassination. Each of these serve as good hooks for later encounters. A great conclusion to the evil troop idea is to set them on a collision path with the main party. However you run these scenarios, remember the goal isn’t to completely destroy the main storyline but to create difficulties for the primary characters that the players themselves can have a direct hand in creating.
Whichever thematic banner you ultimately decide to introduce the second team of adventurers under, remember that it’s best to tailor the sessions around specific styles. At the very least, perhaps on one of those nights when a key moment in your campaign is coming up and one of your players is unable to make it, rather than missing out on a chance to run your usual group, you could always throw in one of these ideas as a great fill-in session. After all, it can be incredibly exciting to have the PCs suddenly hear the sounds of a fellow group of adventurers coming to their rescue. Deciding beforehand whether these arrivals are hard-edged mercenaries bent on plunder—or dumbfounded knaves just as shocked to see a dragon as the beast is to see them—can give the session an extra touch that makes a great campaign memorable.
About the Author: I am a relatively new member to the world of tabletop gaming, but in my short time playing, I have traveled through a plethora of settings, campaigns, and system—all of which I have enjoyed and taken with me on my ever-expanding quest throughout this unique community. My emphasis is and always will be on the richness of characters and the ability to create truly satisfying experiences for my fellow gamers and adventurers. I recently wrote a Living Forgotten Realms adventure module that premiered this year at Gen Con 2012, and I’m looking forward to adding even more to the gaming world in the future and beyond. You can find my module at LivingForgottenRealms.com.