Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Game for a Season: Running a Campaign Like a TV Show

Hey, readers!

Today, I'm going to share a campaign layout that has changed the way I think about running games in general. To be honest, I'm not 100% if someone else has thought of this before or laid it out the way I have. Personally, this is from my own brain and not ripped off from someone else's ideas. (At least not intentionally.)

With that out of the way, let's address a common assumption.

Most people think of role-playing campaigns in one of these two mediums: books and movies. And why not? For a long time, books and word of mouth were the main ways that stories were communicated. Film is also a huge contender these days as a viable visual medium that tells about the lives of people, the terrible things that happen to them, and how they try to resolve it.

What do these two mediums have in common?

First of all, most books and movies follow the basic plot mountain scheme. Remember this from High School?

They both tell one story about a character or group of characters that follow this main arc. We meet the people involved, something happens that set larger things into motion and creates a problem, the characters try to solve the problem and get into more situations until it all explodes in one climatic scene, then the issue is either resolved or unresolved, someone or something has changed, and it ends. There can be sub-plots, but that's the basic stretch of the narrative.

You also get this story told to you over a reasonable amount of time. For movies, that ranges from an hour and a half to about three hours typically. For books, that really depends on the length of the book and how fast you can read, but unless you are an incredibly slow reader or the book is a tome, it won't take you more than a few weeks at most to finish.

However, if you try to place this model on an extended roleplaying campaign, it starts to break down in some rather distracting ways.

First, most roleplaying campaign plots don't fit neatly on plot mountain there. Sometimes the exposition is muddy or thrown out completely. 95% percent or more of the time spent in the game is dealing with the rising action while the climax, falling action, and resolution are usually resolved in one session. Not to mention the tendency of a lot of games, especially when D&D is involved, to just go from town to town or dungeon to dungeon with a loose narrative tying it together to make it somewhat cohesive, which makes the plot a series of hills rather than Mt. Everest.

Not to mention, there are sections on the 'Rising Action' slope that are boring and tedious which can consume entire sessions, making certain characters feel left out or abandoning an element someone enjoys completely. Dungeon crawls, anyone?

Secondly, roleplaying campaigns are not completed in a timely matter whatsoever. Most groups, if they're lucky, meet once a week, every two weeks, or once a month with a session that typically lasts anywhere from two to three hours or more. If you're going from start to finish, it could take a year or more to finish a campaign. Most games don't even survive that long! People move away, get new job schedules, can't make it on gaming day anymore, or the campaign just fizzles because you're stuck on the Rising Action slope. How many campaigns are actually finished, or even reach the climax, which is supposed to be the best part?

Not many.

So, maybe there needs to be a new model. What sort of entertainment offers a story about characters going through problems in reasonable time chunks where plots are more like a series of hills in a mountain range offered over an extended period of time?

TV shows.

If we model our campaigns and sessions after TV shows rather than movies or books, we open up a more satisfying and compatible system to work off. Just think about your favorite TV show for a second or two. What elements are in play here?

-A somewhat stable cast of protagonists and antagonists that appear every time.

-Episodes that have a beginning, middle, and end, usually with a climax included.

-Episodes that don't last more than 12 minutes to an hour.

-Sometimes they include an overarching story and meaningful changes based on events that happen (Continuity). Sometimes they don't.

-Groups of episodes are divided into seasons that typically have anywhere from 12 to 22 episodes.

Now, let's translate those episodes into role-playing campaign philosophies. 

-The cast consists of the player characters and any important recurring NPCs.

-Every session deals with a unique issue that is resolved by the time the session is over, with a climax included!

-Plot mountains can be completed within the span of a session with a smaller scope.

-Sessions have the opportunity to build off of one another and create an overarching plot that is advanced in some way by the smaller plot mountains that the season consists of. However, if you do not want to stick to continuity too much, depending on your style of game, you don't have to! 

-You can end the season whenever you want! You are not necessarily waiting for the huge payoff that the climax gives, so you can wrap up loose ends, shut the game down, and renew for another season if you want to return to those characters/stories again!

I'll go into more details in the nitty gritty by showing you how I've done this for my Teen Titans game in the future, but for now, these are just some things to wrap your mind around. I will say that this system and model will not work for every group template or group in general, but for some of them, it is so much easier on the GM and more satisfying for the players.

Hope you enjoyed my long post! If not, here's a funny picture.



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