I’m sure you’ve seen TV series where no-matter what happens in the episode, everything is back to normal again by the end, ready to start next time. TV Tropes calls this the “reset button”.
The Reset Button is any means by which previously occurring drastic events are made partially or wholly irrelevant by the end of the story. This is very common to American TV shows both live-action and animated, particularly from The Sixties through The Nineties, because programming directors like to have the luxury of repeating episodes in any order or no particular order at all.
TV Tropes – Reset Button
Resetting the story is way to make sure that the viewer/reader doesn’t have to sit through lots of episodes of back-story to understand the characters, or what’s happened to get them to the current point in the story.
“It’s just a matter of knowing the secret of all TV shows; At the end of the episode, everything is always right back to normal.”
— Fry, Futurama
It can be extremely limiting because you can only go so far with a story before you have to reset it all, but also can be very useful.
If you don’t reset the story, there’s an unlimited amount of directions your story can head towards, and this can be played out without looking back. One of the first TV series I saw with a constantly changing story was Babylon 5. The story changes so much over the 5 season story-arc, and things change so much there’s no way they could have told the same story if they had to reset everything at the end of every episode. Characters evolve and change, political situations with different alien species change, and a war breaks out, and when you’re telling that sort of story, there’s really no going back.
But think about the disadvantages of an ever-changing story like this. It means that you can’t gain new audience along the way, who would start watching a TV series halfway through when so much has already happened and they have no idea what’s going on? Every new viewer has to start right from episode 1 to understand the full story.
So resetting the story does have many uses, in contrast to Babylon 5, think about the Simpsons. You can watch any episode in any order and it still all makes sense. New viewers can be introduced at any point and get the same enjoyment as a long-time fan.
Resetting the story in your roleplaying game
If your roleplaying game has been running for a reasonable length of time you’ll likely have lost a few members along the way. Don’t worry, it happens, people get too busy or just can’t afford the time. So you’ll need to get new members. Like the viewers who won’t start watching Babylon 5 in the middle, your new members will have no idea what’s already happened, and how the story has got to where it is now.
I’ve known roleplaying games run for years, perhaps even 10 or 20 years. That’s a lot of story your new members have to catch up on, so they’ll probably not even bother.
What you need is to reset the plot every so often. Give new members a jumping on point where they can contribute to the story without feeling inferior for not knowing the exact details of an event that happened several years ago.
This doesn’t have to be as rudimentary as it sounds, and there doesn’t need to be a big plot hammer come down and totally reset everything, and convert all your characters back to how they were, it can be as simple as giving your characters a regular place to go back to after the end of a mission. For example a good detective story could have the characters return to their office after a successful investigation, ready to start the next one. Star Trek gives us the excellent example of returning back to the spaceship after a mission on an alien planet, ready to receive their next orders.
Obviously character subplots and relationships can’t be easily reset, but the main storyline can with a definite end point. If you time your new players to join at the start of a new story or mission they will feel like they’re with you right from the start, and won’t have much story to catch up on.