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So You Want To Play An RPG?: Episodic vs Longform Storytelling

October 22, 2013

Hey there new GMs and people who are bored at work.

 

I’ve already talked about how to make your adventures more flexible and interesting. I’ve also covered ways of how to build player investment through attaching them to locations or NPCs, basically anything that gives them a sense of grounding in the world. Today though I’d like to talk about some wider themes in regards to campaign structure.

Per usual I want to break this down via the always useful rhetorical tool of false dichotomies. In particular I want to look at the difference between episodic storytelling and more unified storylines or a series of story arcs. There are pros and cons to both, and they offer interesting rewards to both players and GMs.

The first thing to understand is the real difference between the two.

Episodic storytelling is about having a story per session, adventures that are short, interesting, and generally disconnected. You see this a lot in procedural shows like Law & Order or House, MD. The benefits are obvious; the stories are fast paced and intriguing, there are normally a few central NPCs that you can have fun with, and it allows you to explore a lot more of a setting whether it’s one city or a continent. However, just like on television, there’s a desire to keep the main characters (the PCs) fairly static, the case-a-week can become boring and lead to fatigue and disinterest, and the stakes are rarely particularly high because you know there’s a status quo to maintain.

On the other hand a larger story arc allows for a slow build with a distinct climax. Adventures span multiple sessions, and they’re generally more complex or at least part of a larger whole. Your players can get really attached to these stories because these stories lend themselves to recurring NPCs (whether allies or enemies), to grander threats that feel real, and a chance for them to be more heroic. The drawbacks to this kind of storytelling in gaming though are harder to spot at first. The main issue is that unlike a book or a television show, you’re not in control of what the main characters do so the players can easily take actions or become disinterested in the main storyline. As the campaign goes on, you might find yourself suddenly finding that there are aspects of the story or setting that have become far more intriguing than you originally thought they would. Distractions are the primary con in a larger campaign oriented toward a single goal.

The other danger is of course the concept of that single goal.

I remember the early animes I watched. It was the typical shonen fare; Dragonball Z, Yuyu Hakusho, Digimon, and so on. These are all shows that start off with a really big goal for the main characters, some kind of really impressive threat or accomplishment that they have to deal with. However, the problem with these shows is that eventually that goal is going to be accomplished. This is what results in the continuous attempt to extend the storyline with escalating threats. The same thing can happen in a game with a main goal. These games can sometimes go beyond their intended lifespan and become just as stale as the ‘static’ episodic game.

Storytelling is a difficult thing in general, and it’s hard to know exactly how to structure the story or stories you want to tell. Especially when there are essentially three or five more ‘writers’ pitching in and offering direction as well as their own two cents about the world they inhabit. The answer to which of these to choose is actually to ignore the entire premise of how I structured this discussion.

The reason why procedurals become stale is because there is a distinct need to maintain a status quo. I remember once talking to someone about House and our divergent opinions on their decision to finally grow the character in season 5 or 6. His opinion was that they should have started doing it earlier. I agreed with him to an extent, that the character growth was too little too late but my real problem was that at that point there was no reason to do it at all. When you try to shift gears at that point it becomes painful, obvious, and annoying. The same can be true of player characters trying to develop new skills or personalities as the game progresses. The adventures get built around the idea that they will react a certain way, or have certain abilities and when they don’t it can throw a wrench in the thing.

Constant steady growth isn’t the solution. The grand campaign has plenty of its own pitfalls and gaps. There’s always that pull to connect everything that happens to the machinations of the main villain or one of his countless plots. After all, most traditional villains in a campaign whose singular focus is defeating them, have vast resources, plans within plans, and a wide network of operatives. The thing is, that’s a staleness and boredom of a different kind.

The best way to tell a story, especially in an RPG, is to blend these two storytelling methods. There is an overarching story, or several longer story arcs, but you take the time to develop the world through one off sessions, or have a short story arc that just popped into your head and might put the players in a situation they’re not familiar with. An inverse of this is to mostly have episodic stories but with recurring NPCs or connections that eventually blossom into a larger story arc with a definitive ending.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did this very well in my opinion. It had a long slow start, with hints of a larger storyline. A lot of the earlier episodes were devoted to letting the cast explore their characters and the audience to get to know the world. It was very episodic in the beginning. The important thing though is that while the storyline of the Dominion War slowly began to eat up more and more of the series’ run time, they still devoted episodes to comedic moments, character explorations, or just interesting thought provoking stories. All of this made the ending that much more satisfying. Perhaps though, that’s one of the things that made it so good. The fact that the storyline had an ending.

Episodic stories become boring because they never end, and the pitfall of a larger story arc is the desire to revisit those characters and ask “what are they doing now?”

What you want to do is indulge your desire to explore the characters and the world while you have a chance. In the case of a larger story arc, before you reach the end the players should feel comfortable that they’ve explored the world and their characters fully or at least as fully as they want to. In an episodic game you need to allow for slow and steady growth, and encourage your players to follow leads on their own to create larger story arcs.

The key though is to have a way to bring all together at the end. Whether it’s a smile and nod to the adventures the players have had akin to Star Trek: The Next Generation, or a grand conclusion where all the loose ends get tied together like The Wire. That ending is one of the more important things, and we’ll talk more about that in another article.

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