Monday, September 24, 2012

Episodic Games, not Epics

As a teacher, one of the hard things to learn is to tell a complete story in a lecture. You don't want to just keep plodding through the material in the book, but make sure each day starts with an introduction and ends with a conclusion. I think an RPG session should be very much the same.

This can be hard, because you want to plot out a nice epic. You have a vision of the end. Its one of your best ideas and showcases all your creative genius. But ultimately, I think this view of an RPG is somewhat flawed.

I'm guilty of this sin too. In the Dark Sun game I finished running a year or so ago, I had a great plot which answered a question for me about why a wooden spear killed a sorcerer king. I decided that the other sorcerer kings orchestrated it. The Heartwood spear wasn't a holy primal artifact, but dragon-forged. Everyone knew what Kalak was attempting with his ziggurat. But the other sorcerer-kings knew that they would be in danger if they acted together. Like a big game of chicken, no one would be willing to expose themselves by making the first move. So they set up mortals to do it.

A nice plot, but that doesn't help with each individual game session. I tried to plan things about the one piece of the puzzle that I wanted to reveal each game. Early on I planted the seeds so they would know that the sorcerer-kings each hated a different race and even tried to exterminate their enemies. I had a race by the different factions to find the Orbs of Kalid-Ma, the artifact that Kalak was using to attempt full dragon transformation, and also the Heartwood Spear which disappeared (confusing people to no end with talk of spheres and spears). Some games, however, fell short of that mark, I'm sure.

Part of the problem, I've come to believe, is 4e's emphasis on the encounter. I found myself plotting encounters much more than stories. The plot was in the background while encounters took more planning. It was easy, but that's one thing that left me feeling dissatisfied with the game. This is why the one-hour game session goal of D&D Next is so appealing.

So I've come to believe more and more than an RPG session needs to be treated more like a short story. Like a good episode of a TV show. Each revelation of the larger plot can be a shard in each adventure, but a session should, in general, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That can be really hard with 4e, where you're more likely to plot the 3 encounters you'll have time to run.

As I've been reminiscing about the Fading Suns game I ran a while back, I'm surprised at how much material I was able to cover in a 3-4 hour game session. We had tales of falling moons, cannibal lust, noir investigations into stolen goods, shoot outs, revenge stories... All of these generally lasted one night.

Now, 4e can be done well. I don't want to disparage it too much because in many ways it is a nicely balanced edition and easy to run. It just takes a long time, and when I ran my competitive game it was hard finding people who would agree to a 6-hour time slot. The adventure was a relatively simple excursion into a cave with a shrine at the end. But it had a story, it had a beginning and a clear end point.

We all know bad TV episodes too. I recently saw one in the anime I've been watching. I tend to like anime mostly because it shows some non-western stuff that I'm into (Buddhism) and it tends to have extended stories and plots, though a lot of American shows are moving into this direction in the past decade or so. But the action-less background revealer episodes are usually a downer, and anime often has these (along with jumping the shark in the last 2-3 episodes of a series).

If you do plan your games to be episodes, lectures, or short stories... Well, I think there's some really clear advantages there. First, you can do it when you're missing a person or two. Its hard to pick up on the dungeon crawl when you're missing a player. If you end each session well, you can do a side story with those days when you're low on people.

Second, you can also add in extras for one night easier. What TV series doesn't include characters that show up infrequently or for just one story? The guide to the next ruins, the family member in trouble, the stranger you meet on the road... all of these make great one-shot characters and can be easily included when your focus is the game session, rather than an "adventure" or the encounter or a huge campaign arc.

Third, sessions are generally more coherent. Two or three-part episodes might be necessary sometimes. Or multiple episodes in the same broader story arc. But its nice to start afresh often, instead of trying to remember where exactly you left off. Its easier to summarize things when they're complete, so even easier to pick things back up next time. Even if one session is finding the dungeon, the next is getting to the end of it, and another session is dealing with the revelation at the end of the maze or fleeing for your life. The cycle of building suspense and drama, reaching the climax, and then resolving the issues can help make things feel coherent. They're clearer units to use.

Finally, when each (or most) sessions tell a complete story, its less of a bummer when you don't finish. Let's face it, the perennial problem of any RPG is that a good campaign rarely finishes. People move, they lose interest, they have kids, they get married, and they have other lives. Asking people to commit to a weekly game might not be feasible. Every other week or once a month might be all you get. But if each session is self-contained, that doesn't matter quite as much.

This isn't particularly new advice. People have noticed it over and over again. But we also need to be reminded of it. Some systems (4e) might lead one to ignore some of this, since they focus on other aspects of the game. But I was recently reminded of this, and its probably something I'll need to be reminded of again.

Its not just that the rules make us want to think in grand ways. Its also things like the door-stop fantasy novels, and trilogies or longer series. Fantasy literature yearns for the epic. Each book or movie or series is a world-saving extravaganza, so we need more and more new worlds to save. Its also why the sequel can be so disappointing, because the same characters need another, more epic threat to defeat. One world can only be saved so many times (except for places like Kryn and Abeir-Toril, apparently).

When I look back though, a lot of my most successful games have been done in this "one-shot" way. So run each session as though its the last. Weave the threads of your grand plot through each episode, and you'll be headed in the right direction.

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