A session often has life or death decisions, and deadly combat. The dreaded total party kill is a legendary part of tabletop role-playing, and the subject of many a post game story. However, not every session or arc needs to be live-or-die, and not every victory is survival. Often after an intense session the players have expanded resources, and may have lingering fears from certain failures they encountered. One solution to this problem, and often a fun thing in general, is to have breather sessions. And it is this topic that I will be covering today.
What Is a Breather Session?
The idea behind this kind of session is that it diverges from the regular flow and does something different. Instead of fighting the forces of the undead, maybe the party gets to attend a victory party as guests of honour for their efforts in the battle. And as they are there an assassination plot is sprung. The idea is that the normal stakes are gone, and the chances of everyone dying are low. However, consequences are still present. Perhaps one of their supporters gets assassinated, making the next section harder. Perhaps someone gets killed in the crossfire. Or perhaps their success gets them even more support. Real results should still occur, and I personally find it's best if they tie back to the main focus. However the idea is that we are taking a small break or detour.
The sequences and sessions that make up a campaign can be very different. There are many instruments, rules, and creatures that we as Dungeon Masters can use to make interesting session and provide interesting situations for your players to influence. However, after really intense twists and amazing triumphs, it can be a good change of pace to ramp down. Take a small breather, and do something in a smaller scope. For the players, it gives them fun where they don't have to worry about their characters dying as much, while still influencing the campaign and having fun. It’s also a good opportunity to shake things up. A little levity now and then can go a long way in a serious horror inspired campaign.
I don't remember a big campaign where such a thing didn't come up in some way. Even if you don't consciously think about it, there will be shifts from intense sessions where massive, earth shattering things happen to calmer build up for the next. What makes breather sessions different is that instead of building to the next thing, we might go somewhere else for the session and do something a bit more relaxing. Instead of investigating part 2, we may go to our victory party where complications occur. Of course, there will be some effect on the main quest. Whether it's through gaining resources, or keeping important characters alive, it still feeds back.
Generally, if the campaign is very long I find such a thing to be incredibly useful. It's not always needed, but it's a very useful tool to keep in your bag of tricks. It's also a useful tool if you have players who want to keep playing when someone can't make it. However, for smaller campaigns such a thing is unneeded and disrupts flow. You want that constant buildup in a three-shot, or possibly even in a 9 session mini-campaign.