Episodic RPG play. It’s not my strength.
So, it was my turn to run something, and I floated Legend of the Burning Sands. I mentioned to the players that I was going to try to make it more episodic, both to make it easier for people to drop in or drop out for sessions but also to try to be more like Heroes of Rokugan. Why? Because I think self-contained sessions have certain advantages.
So, I run my first session. It could have left off there, but I wanted to introduce an additional NPC. So, session two was just a second part to session one. Pretty much at no point have I had a session that didn’t tie into a previous session, usually the one just prior.
I just don’t think in terms of TV episodes. I think in terms of a continuous narrative that builds upon prior events. Developing storylines is what waters my camel.
Let’s take NPCs. My NPCs are often trying to accomplish something because it has been hammered home to me that NPCs without their own thing going on aren’t as deep. The campaign set up of trying to take out the Caliph and her Khadi obviously requires that the Caliph and Khadi be doing something that impacts the party. But, the various allies the party has all have their own things going on. Because that interests me.
I can run a tactical wargame. I’m a big fan of the HeroQuest boardgame, and I’ve made it somewhat RPGish. What I struggle with is the idea of running a RPG campaign that uses a RPG system like how D&D and the like are played – videogame RPing.
Because there are so many stories to tell. I have had so many ideas for characters or scenes for short stories or longer efforts that I’ve never even bothered writing down. Maybe, I can push myself to write a novel during my lifetime, but it’s so so much easier to write stories while playing or running RPGs because it’s so much more focused than when I’m left to my own devices.
Anyway, getting off topic. What is good about episodic play besides the ease of handling players dropping in and out?
Less pressure. Episodic play will tend towards resetting things. Now, for RPGs, it’s different. While the narrative might not progress, the PCs will. D&D will see level increases, as you go from dungeon to dungeon. HoR sees character improvement and probably rank increases as one plays mods. But, success/failure/just general impact on the world is muted. This can not only make the players’ lives easier as they can screw things up and only lose out in XP or goodies or whatever. This can make the GM’s life much easier by not having to have PC actions change the world much.
Less engagement. While I find that too much of my play sees players who don’t engage as much as I think they should, by setting the standard to “what you do this session stays in this session”, you don’t need as much engagement.
Less quagmiredom. Continuing a narrative can mean continuing a story where the party is in some sort of highly problematic situation or some really boring situation. Sure, a superior GM will figure out how to have fun things prepared no matter what. I’m not a superior GM. I don’t have fun options always prepared for every possible player decision. As a player, I might meta hard to make sure that my PC is doing stuff, but I get players who seem tolerant with doing nothing because their characters wouldn’t do interesting things. More specifically, when it comes to structure, if the players like having 20% combat, 20% investigation, 20% puzzling, 20% arguing about how every plan someone comes up with is dumb, and 20% joking about Star Wars, then you can consistently plan those breakdowns when coming up with sessions.
When you have a coherent narrative, some things may not make any sense to do, like murdering enemies. For instance, I had a LBS session planned at a party. It turned into two sessions (spread over three sessions because someone missed one of the sessions). In part one, there was nothing to fight, except for sparring or other play fighting. It was a party. In session two, there was something going on that had various possibilities for combat, but it was pretty much up to the party to activate any combats. After a certain point, things seemed to drag, as the players didn’t know what else to do.
Now, not knowing what to do is a separate axis. But, it connects. What do I mean? When you have an episode, the plot of the episode, the results, the set pieces, etc. should all basically be in place. I’ve only gotten stuck in a few HoR mods in terms of completing the adventures, but I’ve almost always known what I was supposed to do. I thought it was interesting when a couple of my players thought of my Gaki Mura campaign as a sandbox. I didn’t think of it that way, but I could be wrong. While having a preplanned plot is against the idea of sandboxes, I do go light on forcing my players into the plot much of the time. And. I expect players to have their own interests in where to take things. I don’t mean that I expect every player to have a non-party goal or to have an idea what the PC’s story arc should be. I just expect players to engage with the world to the point that their characters have things they want to accomplish to where the players help shape the direction the campaign goes in.
Using LBS as an example, so the PCs want to get rid of the Caliph – what’s their plan for doing that? I’ve yet to get any input on how they would accomplish that. They could go intrigue/politics to remove them from power, go combat (sort of, kind of hard to fight things that cannot be destroyed, but you could just imprison them), explore (to find their hearts), “magic” (find a power great enough that it can take out indestructible “humans”), get them to fight each other (and take it out into the desert), or whatever. If they don’t do something, then that aspect of the campaign remains status quo. Now, I have things in mind that don’t relate to this core campaign element, but the players don’t seem to have any sense of those, either, partially because I’m too subtle, partially because of lack of curiosity. Yes, a selling point of this campaign was to educate the players on the setting, so we can just have weekly stuff happen that doesn’t really blow up Medinaat al-Salaam.
Meanwhile, there are so many ways to take advantage of things to move their supposed agenda. They have a relatively large number of allies that they don’t ever ask anything of. They don’t make any effort to learn about their enemies. They don’t make any effort to really change anything about the world. What burned me out on running the Gaki Mura campaign was this precise lack of player input into the campaign, where every session felt like it was just me coming up with something happening to the PCs. I very much try not to just dictate events to players as that’s supposedly a bad thing – taking agency away from players.
So, maybe the campaign should be far more episodic. Maybe it should just be “The Medinaat al-Salaam Files”, where the Caliph is always the sheriff/Nazis/Gargamel, where the Betty and Veronica of the campaign are always waiting for the PCs to take interest, etc. Except, I suck at that, and it will bore me silly to not have some sort of progressing narrative.