Wednesday, August 22, 2012

RPG Thoughts- Game Building 2

This is the second in my series about creating a modern campaign. It started as a series of emails to Eldest Child, who has started running an Alternity Game with his buds (Check out his blog here). 

Since it was written as emails, there are random starts and stops and with how busy I've been elsewhere, it is a bit of a keep you interested thing. However, I like to think the information is still good.

Building a Game 2: Campaign Arc

A good campaign is like a good tv show. Allow me to elaborate on that for a moment. TV shows that last a long time come in two varieties; serial and episodic. A serial television show is where there is an ongoing continuity, and if you miss an episode you miss major changes that happen. Episodic television is the opposite of that though, every episode follows the same format, but nothing really changes episode to episode, so it doesn't matter if you miss an episode since major changes only happen at the season level.

A great campaign works along the same lines as both. Typically, you have each adventure or session that have nothing to do with each other, but every couple sessions you have one that ties into the overall story arc of the campaign. This way you can provide variety and different types of challenges to your PCs each session, but there is a continuity that you can follow and will eventually drive the campaign.
The campaign story arc is a hard thing to define. You almost have to sit down at the beginning and decide how it is going to work out. That's what separates veteran DMs from novices. A veteran DM can roll with what his PCs do to create a good story line out of thin air, whereas a novice has to have it all prepared before hand. I'm not going to talk about creating a campaign story arc on the fly, since that is not something that is helpful to people who already know how to do it. This is a series for beginners, any way.

Now, the first thing to keep in mind is the length of a campaign. We would all love it if our campaigns lasted forever, but in truth that's a lofty goal. Campaigns fall apart for a number of reasons; real world commitments, game burn out, and even falling out amongst players. So it is best if you plan a campaign to last a certain number of sessions. If you plan forward, you decide how much you need to do for your campaign arc.

This is where things get tricky. You have to decide how many sessions that your campaign will last. This is probably the hardest thing that a new DM can do, and to be honest its one that even veterans have trouble with. I've had a lot of campaigns end out from under me for no apparent reason, and you will too. It happens. That's why pre-planning can be infuriating. However, you have to be realistic with yourself. If you are planning to play 'whenever we can all get together', you are better off with a very short campaign maybe four sessions, if that. On the flip side, those of us blessed with nothing but time can take a completely different scale and plan for hundreds of sessions. Now, most people I know play in a regularly scheduled manner. Use that schedule as a basis for what you are planning.

Now, most games I've ever played have lasted a year, (possibly two) typically playing once a week. However, a year long plan is a good benchmark no matter what game you are playing. Things will stay relatively stable across the course of a single year. Others disagree and think that a six month ideal is better, and in a way it is, since you can have a bit more flexibility should real world issues come up. The end of the day, your schedule and how long you are willing to run it is what will decide the number of sessions.

If you are playing a weekly game, a campaign will typically last 52 sessions. Bi-weekly games will last typically last 26 sessions. Poor monthly games will last a scant 12 sessions. However, knowing how many sessions a game will last will allow you to make a better plan.
Going back to the television analogy, you want to build your campaign like a TV season. Let the first season be short. Very short, almost like a mini-campaign, that way if your PCs decide they don't like the game, you will get a nice little self-contained game that you can look back at fondly that you can end easily.
The first season should be about four sessions. The first session where everyone learns the rules and creates characters doesn't count. That's like getting the pilot picked up. Season one should be about the variety of things that can be done in the system. Go out and have fun with it. The first three sessions of the season can be about anything (or nothing at all), however the fourth episode should be your first story arc episode. That gives you everything being neatly cleaned up at the end, but a nicely dangling piece of bait should the PCs want to continue.

That's the good thing. If they PCs decide that they want to continue, then go ahead and 'pick up the back 9'. Expand the campaign to a further 9 sessions. Roughly 25% of all sessions should be campaign story arc. They should not be 1,2,3, arc. Mix it up, throw them around, make your PCs guess what is going on. The final session of the first season should be where the PCs finally discover what the 'Big Bad' is. That's when things really start to take off.

Plan out the rest of the seasons, even before you get to the end of the first season. Since you already know how long your campaign is supposed to last, you can build it up differently. A full year of weekly play will allow for 4 total seasons (that includes the four plus nine first season). A biweekly game will get two, but the poor monthly will barely get one.

This allows you to plan out exactly how you will dole out the story arc. Now, the good part of this type of set up, where you are leaking information about the overall story arc is that you don't have to have each story arc session actually directly do with the story arc. That seems like an oxymoron, but keep with me here. The thing is that it can have to do with the story arc in a very ancillary way. For instance, if the session has to do with a genetically altered animal, it could be that the big bad of the story arc is actually the person/group who paid for the project, even if they had nothing directly to do with it. Or one of the scientists works for the big bad, or something like that.

It has gotten too busy to continue...more later.

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