04 January, 2016

The Three Episode Story Arc System (part 2 of 3)

I like to make sure the games I run have an appropriate sense of pacing. This means varying the degree of difficulty or changing the rate at which events are thrown at the characters. This can be done pretty simply by dividing up the challenges in a story arc, then throwing those challenges back into the mix when different story arc elements combine into specific episodes of the series (or games in the campaign). For simplicity, I like to allocate tension levels to the story. The introduction of each story has a tension level of 1, the build-up has a level of 2, and the climax 3. This basically means that the build-up is twice as tense as the introduction, and the climax is three times as tense. With a tension of 1, the introduction gives characters an opportunity to explore that part of the story without too many risks, as the tension rises to 2 the elements associated with this story arc become a threat to the characters and cause problems, and as the tension approaches 3 the dangers really hit home.

If we look at the plot structures indicated in the previous post, different plot arcs in the story will contribute different amounts of tension to each of the games in the campaign...

Game 1: A (intro - 1) [Total = 1]
Game 2: B (intro - 1), A (build-up - 2) [Total = 3]
Game 3: C (intro - 1), B (build-up - 2), A (climax - 3) [Total = 6]
Game 4: C (build-up - 2), B (climax - 3) [Total = 5]
Game 5: C (climax - 3) [Total = 3]

Looking at the numbers, you can see how I thought the structure seems anti-climactic. No real threats at the beginning, then threats rise in the middle, only to fall away, almost as a denouement at the end. 

Game 1: A (intro - 1), B (intro - 1) [Total = 2]
Game 2: A (build-up - 2) [Total = 2]
Game 3: A (climax - 3), B (build-up - 2), C (intro - 1) [Total = 6]
Game 4: C (build-up- 2) [Total = 2]
Game 5: B (climax - 3), C (climax - 3) [Total = 6]

In the second pattern, we can see the tension remaining low, sharply rising, dropping and rising again at the end. The flow just isn't as nice, but the ending remains distinctly climactic. Bear in mind that this is all theory, and actual practice may play out differently at the table, but it's nice to have a grounding in that theory to possibly understand why something might (or might not) work. 

Game 1: A (intro), B (intro) [Total = 2]
Game 2: A (build-up), C (intro) [Total = 3]
Game 3: A (climax), B (build-up), D (intro) [Total = 6]
Game 4: C (build-up) [Total = 2]
Game 5: B (climax), D (build-up), E (intro) [Total = 6]
Game 6: C (climax), E (build-up) [Total = 5]
Game 7: D (climax), E (climax) [Total = 6]

When the numbers are allocated to the seven game structure, they flow a bit more like the way you'd expect from the rises and falls of narrative tension in a television series designed for 'binge watching' (such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Into the Badlands, Darkmatter, Killjoys, etc.) and that's closer to the way I've been running campaigns for the last decade or so. 

It's also the way I've started running campaigns on a micro scale when I'm at conventions. I know that the game at a convention needs to be a self contained story, people don't lay their money on the table just to tell half a story, so it's better to be fairly regimented with what happens when. That can be hard in a freeform style of game, but this system makes it a bit more manageable. I remember the old days of the Sydney RPG convention scene (pre-2000), when GMs would rigorously playtest their convention modules to ensure they played out within a 3 hour timeslot. They'd get three or four groups of players to run through their carefully scripted games, pulling out (or cutting down) scenes that were too long, or adding in scenes if things were playing out too quickly. It was considered that a 'best practice GM' would playtest their game at least three times before revealing it to the public at a convention...and even then, some games might run short or long and nothing could be relied apon with 100% accuracy. I played in games that ran more than an hour over-time and it felt like we hadn't gotten anywhere, I also played in games that ran an hour under time where everything had been resolved. Would it be right to blame the scenario? The players? The GM? Throw your hands up and say nothing can be controlled? A bit of everything, and all of nothing.

If I know I've got three hours to run a game, I'll divide it up into 7 20 minutes mini-episodes (or scenes). There is a 20 minute buffer at the beginning to allow playes to read through character sheets and get a brief rundown of the game, there is another 20 minute buffer at the end for a denouement to discuss the game at the end of the session (or to flow into if the game gets intense and needs a bit longer to either resolve final climax or generally cool down). Following that 7-episode structure, that gives me an idea of how many challenges, or how difficult those challenges will be. 

If I'm running a game like FUBAR, where I don't know where the story will go, or where the characters might end up, I can still have a good idea of when the challenges might unfold, and at what points it might be necessary to introduce new story elements, expand upon existing story elements or set things in motion to resolve earlier plot lines. It stops the whole thing from completely devloving into chaos. 

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