Episodic Adventures: A New Take on RPG Adventure Design?

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No, but life can get busy. Sometimes so busy that you leave the gaming table for 15-years before you realize how much you love playing RPGs. Even then, once you return, there are inevitably issues of timing, scheduling, who is -in- the campaign and who is -out-, etc. Recently, something “clicked”, and I’m left wondering if I may have hooked into a solution: Episodic Adventures. This is a “draft idea” – its not fully formed so I would really love some feedback from you. Take a look and let me know what you think.

I propose that RPG publishers try a new model for developing engaging their fans by developing so-called “Episodic Adventures” and campaigns centered around these as the main story-driving element in the game.

Episodic Adventures are objective-based, one-shot scenarios (episodes) that are strung together to form a coherent adventure spanning multiple game sessions. The idea is largely inspired by thinking about gaming, and running an RPG campaign, like a network television series. Each adventure is akin to a show’s individual season , and as just as we watch multiple seasons of our favorite show this is similar to stringing together multiple adventures into a campaign.

Characters, and even the GM role, are shared among all the players in the group. The focus, i.e. the #1 priority, is on getting together on a regular basis for campaign continuity. Adventures are designed using a few common rules that keep things moving:

  1. Episodic Sessions. Each game session is designed to be relatively self contained and should last no more than 3 to 5 hours. This is similar to gaming ‘Con “tournament style” play, but it’s more cooperative than competitive. Players also leave their characters with GM when they go home, in case someone else fills in next time.
  2. Adventure Story Arc. While each adventure episode (read: session) is self-contained, there is a common story arc that spans multiple episodes, much like a traditional adventure. This story arc goes beyond simple continuations of a theme, and genuinely aims to provide the PCs with long-term objectives worth moving towards.
  3. Character Ownership. Who is playing which characters may change from session to session depending on who is able to play. Characters can be created in a typical way where each player essentially “owns” them (each character has a primary player), but players should know that the characters may be played by other players at some point during the campaign.

Eposodic Adventures in TV Terms

This approach can be applied to both strictly scripted campaigns (aka Adventure Paths) and to homebrew sandbox games (an approach I prefer), but avoids all the hassle of “Who’se gaming this week?” or “What happened last week?” If executed properly, taking this approach to RPG design could open up the game to a whole new group of people who might otherwise “not have the time to invest” in gaming in the first place. Players can drop in or drop out without affecting the general flow of the campaign overall. It also allows for some interesting flexibility in terms of game design: i.e. as a designer you are writing for the session, not for the adventure.

The important take home message here is that our typical adventures are broken up into granular, stand-alone episodes that help people jump in or drop out without disrupting the overall flow.

In the future I hope to expand on this idea a bit more and perhaps develop a test-bed adventure to see if this approach works. I expect it will, but first I’d love to get some feedback. What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Episodic Adventures: A New Take on RPG Adventure Design?

  1. Not a new concept (seem to recall thinking like this found more in superhero gaming than traditional fantasy) but certainly well put and well researched.I especially like the point about character continuity, since that seems to be the main sticking point in my experience.

  2. This is something I’ve also been thinking of, and how I’m planning to do my upcoming beasts and barbarians campaign. I have no longer plot plans than what character backgrounds, give, although I have a feeling that there will be a larger plot that just is born from a villain or some other feature.

    What I don’t like about your plans is giving pc’s to other players. I’m jealous of my characters, and I Really don’t want to hear what some other player did to my character. Besides, I like characters having secrets and ulterior motives, which becomes an issue if characters are used this way.Rather I’d put essential characters of missing players on gm control, or perhaps being absent in current session – encumbered by duties, spending time with family or furthering personal goals. Furthermore, I’d put some characters of present players off the camera from time to time and let the players play npc’s. I’ve used this mechanic when a group has split.

    When thinking of this type of gaming concept, I’m always thinking of Babylon 5. I really like how characters were used in the show.

  3. My friends and I do something similar now that we’re all living in different parts of the country and have children ranging from new born to 5 years old (really makes it tough to get a good chunk of gaming in). We meet 3-4 times a year if we’re lucky, and the GM always designs the session to be as self-contained as possible, yet within a greater plot arc to give satisfaction and character development.

    The only thing we would never do is the character ownership as you describe, as for us, character interaction and conversation and relationships developing and changing over time are just as important as plot, and we get attached to the characters we play. It would break my brain a tiny bit of someone stepped in to play another person’s character – though I have played in games where that happened and coped, but it did break something special. Shaper and Maker also makes excellent points about secrets making the approach tricky.

    Oh dear, does that sound mad? The point I wanted to make though is that when life gets complicated, adapting the pacing and plot to accommodate sessions few and far between is an absolute necessity.

  4. This sounds like a grand idea. As a guy with two young kids, I barely have time for a card game, much less a standard RPG. But would the shorter scenarios feel satisfying? And would you really be able to avoid lengthy prologues to catch up a new player?

    I’ll admit I’m not a big RPGer, but I love both games and gaming backstory. As a writer, it sounds to me that you are talking about the short story in RPG format… So a string of short stories written in the same gaming universe? Involving the same characters, a boss and villain or two? That much seems doable.

    As, for the comments about characters, would every character need to be in every episode? Or could it be scripted such that if one or more were missing, the play could go on?

    • @DAVID – yeah. that’s a GREAT way to think of this. Maybe I’m channeling my love for Short Stories into gaming… reoccurring characters: Yes (that’s the party), but not all the time. Just like with any good sitcom or television drama, sometimes a character or two is not in the episode, or only briefly there with a very minor role. RE: see my more general reply/comment below.

  5. I appreciate all your inputs! As I mentioned on Google Plus – while I see that many people actually may already game this way at their own tables, very few adventures (from my experience) are written with “episodic adventuring” in mind. i.e. the designers are designing around the concept of the adventure, instead of designing around individual sessions. I think there could be a HUGE benefit to gamers if this subtle shift was put into practice.

    Regarding “character sharing”. I agree 100% with ShaperMaker and Emma – I’m not suggesting that the characters be shared completely, only that the group wil take over the PC’s in cases where the player is absent from the game. Character Exits – which is what we do sometimes when a player doesn’t show up – bug me. In this case, the PC simply vanishes and everyone pretends like its’ no big deal and that it doesn’t matter if the PCs are 1000 levels underground or on some starship at the edge of the space time continuium… it doesn’t makes sense, from a story POV. Instead, the GM should essentially be the caretaker of the PCs between sessions – if a player is absent, the GM hands out the “extra” character to someone who is deemed responsible and will be able to play the character true to the player’s intentions. This way – the –story– remains consistent and the characters remain in the action/storyline.

    • Thanks for the clarification, but I still wouldn’t like that at all, for the reasons I gave. If a player can’t make the session, the session doesn’t happen. It means we meet very rarely, but when we do, everyone who should be there is there, and the character/player consistency is maintained. Otherwise, for me, it would turn the character into a cardboard cut out.

      But isn’t that the great thing about running games – we can tailor how we run them to the tastes of the players and GMs involved :)

  6. So, yes, this is a good idea, and one that’s been kicked around in a few forms, and I admit that ‘ve got a project or three that fitst his general mode on the back burner, but there is definitely room for tweaks.

    The biggest is the issue of character ownership. Changing character ownership can totally support a rotating cast of players, but it’s tricky. People get attached to their characters, and this kind of handoff is not popular. You can pick games that make this easier by choosing a setting with less character ownership, such as one based on a wargame or one where you play characters from a licensed property (The Forthcoming Marvel game will probably be good for this) .

    An alternate approach is to embrace a premise that freely supports a rotating cast of characters from session to session (Spirit of the Century was designed fro precisely this premise) but that puts more pressure on the GM to really drive towards a conclusion of each session. That’s hard, but I view it as a good kind of hard.

    Anyway, if you haven’t already, I totally suggest checking out the book “Crafty TV Writing” by Alex Epstein. Fantastic book ingeneral, but the tips on writing television map very well to episodic, structured play. (And, of course, when the new edition of PTA comes out, I suspect it will also be a useful resource)

    -Rob D.

  7. Jonathan, what you are describiing is very similar to the way we designed our adventures in Olympian Breed. As jobs and family are always placing demands on our time, it’s hard to get any “regular gaming” done. We really like the episodic approach because even if we miss a couple of weeks between games we can still pick up right where we left off (sometineds with a brief recap) and keep advancing the overall story plot. I hope you will check out Olympian Breed – Epic adventures set in mythological Greece for Savage Worlds. It’s available now from DriveThruRPG.com. Anyway, keep writing, I find your thoughts to be most enlightened!

  8. @Lilith — I’ll have to dive into my super secret vault of Dragon/Dungeon mags to find this now… stay tuned!

    @Rob — THank you for stopping by. There goes ANOTHER chunk of cash for your games. Sheesh! To be fair – Spirit of the Century has been on my “to do” gaming list for a while. Now, if I could only find some people to play a one-shot of it. (Does it work for one-shot adventures?)

    @Vikki — Thank you for the kind words! I’ll definitely check it out. Savage Worlds is one of my favorite systems, so you’ve already got me at 50% interested and I haven’t even seen it yet! =D Perhaps we’ll check it out and review it here in our Clockwork Reviews column some time. =D

  9. Interesting ideas. I’ve been running a Call of Cthulhu campaign for some years now, and one of the investigators in the group has been shared between different players, depending on who can or can’t make the session. Players leave notes on his sheet for the next player who picks him up, which makes for very funny reading. (The fact that this is CoC and the character is slightly mad does help, of course). However, it’s worth noting that the player who originally made him doesn’t want to play him any more, as he feels that he’s not really his any more.

    As for published arcs, see White Wolf’s Orpheus. That was interesting in that the six books in the line told a fixed storyline, with a definite ending. This seasonal “metaplot” was intended to be played by all groups, although the individual episodes were left up to the GMs. Kind of similar to what you were thinking?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orpheus_(role-playing_game)

  10. We do this in one of the campaigns that I play in. We don’t have character continuity though. When a player leaves for awhile, we basically “write them off the show” but we leave the door open for them to come back. Something like, the character appears to die, but no body is ever found or some other scenario. It’s also pretty easy in modern setting campaigns to just have a character be hospitalized for short but not permanent leave of absenses.

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