I began my role playing career by running games. To this day I find running games more enjoyable than playing in them (partly because I am very easily distracted and find that I am not the best player in the world because of this) and thus have run far more games than games in which I’ve played.
My game mastering style has changed a lot over the years and recently has gone through another major change. I’ve discovered TV is at the heart of the change.
In the beginning I was primarily running adventures that were incredibly linear and connected with each other only because they had the same group of main characters (the players). This style stayed with me for a long time. When I began playing more World of Darkness games I started running what could easily be described as a Sandbox style role playing game. I would stick the players in my populated city and let them decide what they wanted to do. If things slowed down I would throw something new into the story and see how they reacted to it. Occasionally a major plot would form and I would focus on that for a while but the true story of the characters’ lives was not broken into any other chapters save those artificial chapters created by the ending of a session.
Recently I have begun to see that while this Sandbox style was interesting, planning for a beginning middle and end to a particular story, plot line, chronicle or whatever can really have a better impact overall. Oddly I have television to thank for this new revelation.
So, what exactly does television have to teach us about role playing games? I would have to say, a lot. In recent years television itself has gone through a lot of changes. Downloadable shows, Tivo and boxed sets have changed the way we look at television and the way that writers need to address their craft. Go back ten years and a show’s continuity was important, but nothing compared to what it is today. Ten years ago it was a task to review an episode for continuity errors where today it is as simple as buying a boxed set or catching it on NBC.com.
Compare X-Files to Lost for a moment. X-Files had a pattern that has been reused over the years by other shows. They would mix “Monster-of-the-Week” episodes with “Mythology” episodes. Generally an infrequent watcher was able to tune in to enough shows to get the gist of what was going on without needing to feel (pardon the pun) lost. Then look at Lost where a commitment to the show is practically demanded as the story is ongoing, with only minor events being wrapped up from episode to episode.
I would like to talk about three different formats I have seen on three different TV shows and how they could be used as a backbone for plotting a role playing game. The three shows I chose are X-Files, Heroes, and Veronica Mars. I will admit that the only show out of these that I have seen every episode of is X-Files but I have seen the full first season of Heroes and the first two of Veronica Mars and will be basing my observations on them.
X-Files as a Chronicle Archetype
As mentioned above X-Files had a mix of Monster-of-the-Week episodes and Mythology episodes. Some people found the Monster-of-the-Week episodes far more compelling than the Mythology episodes and considered them the backbone while others were far more interested in the Mythology and tuned in primarily to find out where the over-story would go next. The idea here was to reward the faithful by giving them a continuous story but to not overburden them by breaking up that story with less linear smaller stories. While these smaller stories certainly related to the over-story and did not exist within a vacuum (for example the non-Mythology episode Leonard Betts is the first time it is hinted that Scully may have cancer) they could be enjoyed separately or as part of the whole.
What does this mean for role playing? Some games lend themselves fairly well to this pattern. I would say a Dungeons and Dragons plot line would do well within this structure as well as any adventure heavy game with an element of mystery intrinsic to the story. It permits a game master to separate out the important events/quests/adventures and allow the main story to unfold over time. I can’t say that I ever intentionally used this Archetype when writing a role playing campaign but I did essentially use it with my last Dungeons and Dragons game. Some of the places the players explored were related to the massive bizarre plot I had created but others were simply interesting places with fun treasure to be found.
Benefits and Negatives of an X-Files Style Plot Archetype
The benefits of this kind of plotting are that the game master can throw in any kind of adventure and have it fit. If the main plot the characters are a part of deals with a powerful evil wizard, that wizard (or his minions) do not need to be in every session (episode). As long as this is well established early on the players will understand that not every thing that happens to them is the machinations of Bob The Evil Wizard and will thus look for other solutions. Sometimes an idea pops into a game master’s head and it seems like a good one even though it’s kind of off-topic to the rest of the adventure and the X-Files Archetype will accommodate this.
The primary negative of this format is that players may become too emotionally entrenched in the over-plot and may not be pleased with the only occasional Mythology sessions. I have often had the problem where players were either disappointed with the smaller stories I tried to give them or simply became frustrated when they could not confront the “Big Bad” (to use a Buffy phrase) when they wanted to.
Heroes as a Chronicle Archetype
The TV show Heroes is only in its second season right now. As I mentioned I only saw the first season but I still think that this show offers a definite Archetype for us to examine. Heroes offers us a very different kind of plot than X-Files. In Heroes there is a continuous over-plot that dominates everything and even when smaller stories are focused on they generally relate to the over-plot. With a few exceptions the viewer feels that they are being moved forward toward an end that is constantly being hinted at. I think my current Werewolf game fits snugly within this archetype as almost everything that has happened to the players, whether they knew it or not, lead back to The Rail Man and his minions and everything has been building toward a confrontation.
Benefits and Negatives of a Heroes Style Plot Archetype
The main benefit of a game run in this vein is that it’s easy to keep the players focused. When everything you give them can lead them to the same place it’s harder for them to wander or lose track of what’s important. Sometimes compromises are necessary as certain aspects become more important than originally intended and others take a back seat but since it’s all leading to the same place it won’t be as problematic as it could be with other styles.
The negative of this format is that everything needs to be related. Well, strictly speaking a few outliers and red herrings are not going to break the game but they need to be handled delicately. Another negative is that pacing becomes incredibly important and ways to make sure the plot moves in the fashion you want without being too linear in feel need to be implemented. Occasionally players will feel less in control of their characters if things are not handled well since you do not want them to try to face the Big Bad before the story says it’s time, but you also do not want them to become overly frustrated by continuously side stepping their attempts to do something that you do not want.
Veronica Mars as a Chronicle Archetype
Veronica Mars had an interesting way of addressing the over-plot for each of its seasons. In general each of its episodes involved a mystery that did not span beyond the confines the episode that it took place in. However most episodes also had inklings of the over-plot sprinkled throughout. I always preferred the smaller stories but I know some people tuned in to learn more about the larger story and I think that this really creates a best of both worlds scenario.
Benefits and Negatives of a Veronica Mars Plot Archetype
In this campaign one of my players played a character named Gumball. Not only was he a pretty cool character, he had a neat background story about how his sister Jem, a famous pop star, had disappeared while he was running jobs out of the country and trying to keep a low profile.
Because the players all needed to make money Gumball was not able to focus exlusively on searching for his sister but every once in a while information would pop up and he would get a new lead to look into.
Unfortunately the game ended before Gumball could discover the whole truth and for my own amusement I am including that here. Jem, an attractive elf, had been dating a Goblin Rocker, Orc, named Crag. Not only was she far more attractive than him but she was far more famous as well. Crag had his followers but he was not a major mover or shaker on the Goblin Rock scene. In truth Jem was not even all that into Crag, she was primarily dating him to annoy her manager. More than annoyed her manager became concerned that if the affair came out Jem’s image would be tarnished and the money he was making from her would dry up. On the other hand if she were to disappear…
It was a fun story that had Crag as an interesting character that was only encountered through his music, fans, graffiti he left on walls and one brief phone conversation. Then Crag got blown up. I was actually thinking of having him turn up alive after all but it never got to the point where I had to make a decision. Likewise I waffled a bit as to whether or not Jem should be alive. The original idea was that she was locked inside her managers massive house while he lived off her royalties.
The main benefit of this style is that it offers you the opportunity to tell smaller stories while continuing your large over-arching plot. This is similar to the advantages that the X-Files technique offers but is far more subtle. Rather than having adventures that are wholly focused on the over plot you simply offer tiny pieces of the over plot as the smaller stories unfold. This can be done between adventures, incorporated into the adventures, or can be offered as distractions from the adventure the players are currently on.
The negatives of this are that players may become too focused on the over-plot and will begin to ignore the smaller stories you are trying to tell. As a game master, to get this to work, you will need to make the smaller stories the absolute focus and then simply seed the game with hints at the over-plot. Another negative of this style is that it works far better for personal stories than it does for chronicle-defining events. In other words, it’s great when one of the characters is looking for a lost relative and you want to seed that plot among the other adventures the characters are participating in but it is less effective when you have a Big Bad that is introduced but then expect the characters to only sort of pay attention to it.
This is by far my favorite archetype. I think I actually like what the show taught me about plotting a role playing game far more than I liked the show. If you have never seen the show before you might want to check it out for exactly these reasons as I feel the writers did an excellent job with combining the two elements they were working with (the individual mysteries and the over-plot).
TV Does Have a Purpose – Fodder for Role Playing Plots!
So, that’s it. Three different TV shows with different ways of presenting stories that I think are all viable backbones for a chronicle. Perhaps the next time you sit down to write a new campaign outline you will think of one of these, or any other show you watch, and wonder how you can use the plotting style to your advantage. If you do, or ever have before, I would love to hear about it in the comments.