03 January, 2016

The Three Episode Story Arc System (part 1 of 3)

When I GM, I like to bombard my players with options. I would rather have my players tossing up which lead to follow rather than trying to work out a single lead while the story stagnates. I run a lot of short form games, three/four/five session storylines, before we move on to something new. This gives the opportunity to try a variety of rpgs, and stops us getting bored from the slow slog through tedium that I've encountered in almost every long term campaign I've suffered.

Practice at this short form campaign style has lead me to a few specific thoughts that I've decided to share.

Firstly, I'll point out that I like self contained stories, so every session I run has an appropriate introduction, build-up and climax. This way, if a player has to miss a session, they don't miss out on a satisfying conclusion to the events of the previous session. Conversely, they can come in from a fresh starting point at any later session, because each session does tell a complete self contained narrative.

But from there, I like tying those individual stories together, and weaving background elements in each of the stories into something deeper and richer. That's where the three episode story arc comes in.

It's something you see in serial television, especially in recent years now that the idea of binge watching has taken off. Each episode tells it's story, but when you watch them in succession it becomes possible to pick up on specific nuances that integrate into a much wider story. One episode will tell it's story, while setting up a fragment for the larger sequence. A later episode will tell its specific story while picking up that fragment and developing it further. An episode later still will tell it's story while resolving the wider fragment that had appeared in the previous two episodes.

When I've watched a show once a week, I have a tendency to forget these fragments and focus on the week's events. When I binge watch a show, the weekly events seem to blend into each other and the longer narratives take on more significance. So this is how I'm thinking when I try to plot a short campaign.

Here's a pair of 5-part campaign structures that I've used in the past.

Game 1: A (intro)
Game 2: B (intro), A (build-up)
Game 3: C (intro), B (build-up), A (climax)
Game 4: C (build-up), B (climax)
Game 5: C (climax)

Game 1: A (intro), B (intro)
Game 2: A (build-up)
Game 3: A (climax), B (build-up), C (intro)
Game 4: C (build-up)
Game 5: B (climax), C (climax)

These two structures play out quite differently. The first is more evenly paced, but feels a bit anti-climactic. The overall story builds up to the middle session and then peters out in the last two sessions as previous storylines are resolved one by one. At the end of the five sessions, every story arc has been completed but it defeats the point of running a game where players can drop in or drop out. You need to be there for every session early on to see where the stories begin, you need to be there for every session later on to see where everything ends.

The second story structure is a bit more spasmodic, it starts with a bang, then simmers through the second session as things build for the first arc. The third game is still the big bang when one story starts, one builds and one concludes. Then we go back to simmering as the last story arc developes. Comcluding with a more satisfying "Bang" when two storylines conclude at the end of the campaign. This second structure has the advantage that a player might be able to mss the second or fourth sessions without losing too much on the overall plot. They'll still get to see where everything starts and where everything finishes, even if they miss one or both of these sessions (but of course it would be more satisfying for the narrative if they did attend regularly).

I've done similar things dividing seven session campaigns into mini story arcs (often 4 or 5 of these), and generally it's worked. 

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

It's certainly worked better for me than trying to run a single story over five or more sessions where introduction is interesting, the climax is interesting, but the comlications and build-up stretched over the middle three sessions just feel a bit too drawn out.

These have been very patterened stories, with intro/build-up/climax pacing occuring once per story or once every second story, but they certainly don't have to be this way. I've got more to wrote about this,  and that will cme over the next few posts.

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