On the Batman TV show you would see the meanwhile in action quite often. The voice would come out of no-where and say “meanwhile at the bat cave” or some other story important location. This trick was used to explain that the audience was being shown something else that was going on at the same time so that future events would make more sense. For D&D a “meanwhile” is a short break from current story line to play another short game in the same world with different characters so that you can expose information to the players so that their understanding of the narrative is strong, even when their characters are confused. I think a few examples would do a better job explaining this concept.
WotC_Josh took me on my first dive into a “meanwhile”. In his campaign we are playing a group of freshly graduated arcane school students in a post apocalyptic world. Civilization is kept close to nodes, the only source of water that can be used to grow crops or sustain life in anyway. Our group thought they had found a way to fix the water supply problems of the world. Really they collapsed a barrier between their world and several other planes. For the “meanwhile” quest we played a band of mercenaries sent to investigate a Halfling village that had been taken over by slavers, a quest that our other group had to let go of because they had collapsed the barrier. After three game sessions our mercenary characters caught up with our regular group in the time line and the barrier dropped. Each player chose their favorite of the two characters they had and those characters were shunted to the feywild and the others were left in their home plane. The campaign continued from there but we have all kept our secondary characters, waiting for a chance to use them again.
Josh’s “meanwhile” allowed us to play through some story that we had missed and let us chose to play new characters if we wanted to. If he had done the same thing without the “meanwhile” quest new random characters would have shown up and the player’s feelings of story continuity would have been injured.
I am currently running a game called “Legacy of the Scarlet Fist”, it is a pirate game set in a low-magic world that is quickly becoming not so low magic and the resulting arms race. The characters are the crew of the Scarlet Fist, the world’s most renowned pirate ship. The crew of the Scarlet Fist took a job to hunt down and destroy or capture another ship called “The Red Leviathan”. They did just that, but upon capturing they found out that this massive mechanical, lobster shaped, submarine required undead to run and that it had an army of zombies onboard that they had no way of controlling. Using what power the ship had left they took the Red Leviathan to Ape Island, an island populated by intelligent apes that protect a temple that houses an unknown treasure, and let the zombie army loose. At the end of that session I offered the group a “meanwhile” quest. We would take a three game break from the main story and they would play the part of the Erathis worshipping military specialists that were sent to retrieve the unknown treasure of Ape Island. Next game they exit the temple to find the island covered in zombies, they must make it from the temple to the shore where they can escape aboard the Scarlet Fist where the two story lines will meet back up.
My “meanwhile” gave the players a chance to play in the middle of disaster of their other characters creation, while exposing some plot information that they would not have otherwise gotten. Future parts of the main story will make more sense to the players while still allowing the characters to be confused. My meanwhile will not really allow for new characters to be added to the main crew of the Scarlet Fist but I think the Ape man they picked up along the way may join up with the ship as a low-ranking crew member. This “meanwhile” is important because the players would have felt weird if a group of adventures had stumbled out of the jungles of Ape Island with the unknown treasure in their hands. I don’t think the actions of the characters will have change much because of the “meanwhile” quest but I think the increased understanding and involvement in the story means the players will enjoy it more. Only time can prove my theory, but so far the “meanwhile” has been a lot of fun.
So with my limited experiences I have begun to form an opinion on “meanwhile” quests.
First off, I think they are a great idea, in both examples above the group had good time while the DM go to expose a part of his world that would not normally gotten a chance.
Secondly, I think it is important to make the character goals between the two groups very different from each other. In Josh’s game we went from altruistic, angsty teens with nothing to lose to experienced soldiers for hire that would check a dying man’s pockets for money before even thinking to help him. In my game they went from the free spirited crew of pirate ship to the bureaucracy laden holy soldiers of Erathis. This was nice because it created a great break from the campaign and cleared divided the two groups of characters.
My last piece of advice is to keep the “meanwhile” short and communicate the desired length of time to your player before you begin. In Josh’s game we were done in three sessions, I was shooting for the same time frame but a string of excellent role-play meant that we are going to be doing four sessions. I think any longer than that and you will start to lose sight of the core campaign. In my next campaign I am thinking about planning in one or more “meanwhiles” or maybe even try to make an entire story out of them.
Have you ever had a “meanwhile” quest in a D&D game? What was it like?