Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #16
Campaign Structure Part II
A Brief Word From Johnn
Thank you very much for the fantastic responses to the
campaign journal question. Last week I asked for your tips
and advice on keeping in-session logs for future reference
and fond memories. I'll be distilling the responses down to
a few key tips and publishing them in an upcoming issue.
Also, a quick note to say I'm moving the publication schedule
from Thursdays to Sundays. A fantastic new job doing
computer programming has me hopping during the week now, so
it's up to the weekend to supply some free time. :)
I hope you enjoy this week's second and final part to
Peter's super article about campaign planning.
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Campaign Structure Part II
Guest article written by Peter Maranci, Copyright 1996
Part I is available at: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue15.asp
- The Meta-Cycle
Also known as an "arc", the meta-cycle is a long-duration
story form that has a beginning, middle, and end. This type
can be divided into two sub-forms: "Padded" and "Expanded".
A to a1; a2, a3, a4 etc.; B; b1, b2, b3, etc.
Padded story structures are a fairly straight combination of
types I and II. Between the beginning and end of the entire
cycle are any number of sub-stories; these sub-stories have
comparatively little impact on the overarching story. In
such a structure, the existence of a "middle" point is
usually academic; between the beginning and the end all
stories are interchangeable. There is little difference
between this form and that of a Never-Ending Cycle that
includes a beginning and ending, and the advantages and
disadvantages are similar to the Type II form.
A to aa to ab to B to bb to bc to C
In the expanded meta-cycle structure the basic story is
enlarged to a large but limited extent; there is a
beginning, middle, and end, but each of these are developed
in greater detail. The basic story is developed in greater
detail and depth, through sub-cycles with associated sub-
plots and recursions. This is the most complex of the
various structures. It is also the least common in any
The expanded meta-cycle a form of saga, and as such its
roots are ancient. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are excellent
historical examples of this form; in modern literature, The
Lord of the Rings is an obvious exemplar. Both The Prisoner
and Babylon 5 are combination forms, containing type II and
III elements; though they have definite arcs and go through
an evolutionary process, there is a degree of "padding" used
to add bulk to the story. This additional padding may be
necessary to avoid the simplification of an expanded saga;
otherwise viewer/participants may find every new plot point
to be too obviously connected to the main plot. In other
words, if everything that happens is significant to the
story arc, the creator will suffer the considerable
disadvantage of predictability and consequent boredom and
disenchantment by consumers.
There are obvious advantages to the expanded meta-cycle. It
allows the creator to tell a story in great detail; there is
no limitation on length apart from those imposed by the
medium (i.e., until the show is cancelled, the publishing
option is dropped, or the players stop coming to the game).
A well-done saga is also addictive. As
players/viewers/readers learn more about the characters and
setting they come to care for them, too. The result is loyal
fans who support the efforts of the creator, and often
attempt to create their own additions to the story (which
is, of course, the point in a roleplaying game).
The last advantage to the expanded meta-cycle is the least
tangible, and the most difficult to define. It is a sense of
meaning. By its nature the saga must have a point, and if
the story is successful that point will be powerfully
conveyed to the participants. It is even possible for that
meaning to influence the participants' lives outside of the
story itself, and thus to make a lasting mark on society.
But in any case, a well-done arc, once completed, can be the
most powerful form of storytelling possible. Each differing
part of the arc can give added resonance and meaning to the
Disadvantages are obvious. The expanded meta-cycle demands a
maximum investment of time and skill. If handled poorly, it
falls apart; and the failure is that much more painful to
the creator because of the work that has gone into the
creative process. The structure is also less flexible than
other forms; additions and alterations must be weighed
carefully to avoid disrupting the basic story. The expanded
meta-cycle also demands more from the viewer/player, which
can be a particular handicap in commercial media; once the
saga has begun, bringing new spectators up to speed on the
storyline is difficult (come to think of it, that applies to
roleplaying sagas as well).
All of these forms of story structure are used in
roleplaying games. I've run and played in all three types
myself. Type I is any one-shot scenario; soloquests also fit
within this category, and so do many Paranoia campaigns (I
suspect that TOON games do as well, though I haven't played
Classic AD&D roleplaying campaigns can be placed within
category II, though the continuing improvement of character
abilities provides an upward curve to the power level of the
game that makes it a less than perfect example of the type;
old-style Traveller with its lack of PC skill improvement is
closer to an ideal Never-Ending Cycle, though typically
characters tend to acquire money and equipment over time.
In my own experience I'm presently involved with an old-
fashioned round-robin RuneQuest campaign which could be
considered to be category II. It's fun, the characters are
relatively low-maintenance, and it's easy to create a
scenario for the campaign.
"Deep" roleplaying campaigns can be generally placed in
category III. My own Nereyon campaign fits that category
nicely: it has a definite beginning, middle, and end (though
not reached yet), and has lasted for eight or nine years.
Over that time the characters and world have evolved
considerably, with numerous revelations that have required
the players to reconsider past events in a new light.
Conversely, their actions have changed the world and forced
me to re-evaluate major plot points.
When I began this essay I assumed that insofar as the types
would be compared to each other, the expanded meta-cycle
would emerge as the superior structure. It was that form of
roleplaying that drew me into the hobby, after all; and I've
spent twelve or more years working on that form. On
television, meta-cycle shows such as The Prisoner and
Babylon 5 have stood head and shoulders above other forms in
my book. Of course sagas are the best way to go -- or so I
But that's not how it turned out. It's fortunate that I'm
involved with two RPG campaigns, one each of types II and
III; that gives me a chance to compare. And to discover that
comparisons of this sort are meaningless. It's a cliche,
yes, but the fact is that each form has unique and valuable
qualities. Each has its place. Perhaps the meta-cycle RPG
campaign is under-respresented in the gaming world, but then
the effort for such a game is more than many people would
want to expend -- and in truth many GMs probably lack the
skill and patience to develop such a campaign. Other forms
offer different enjoyment and advantages, and the
comparative success of type II roleplaying does not detract
from the good points of type III.
In television, too, there are outstanding shows in all
forms. B5 and The Prisoner are well-written and enjoyable,
but the original Star Trek is equally so -- and that show is
almost pure type II. And The Twilight Zone proves that a
show that follows the type I pattern can be as classic and
well-done as any other.
The lesson, then (if one may be derived at all) is that
though structure determines the nature of the entertainment,
it is quality of writing (or in roleplaying games, quality
of design) that determines how enjoyable the experience will
be. Given the choice, I'd rather play in a type II campaign
run by a great GM than in a type III game run by a mediocre
one; just as I'd rather watch The Twilight Zone than Star
Trek: Voyager. It isn't even a difficult choice. :-)
Feedback or questions about this week's article? firstname.lastname@example.org
Have more fun at every game!
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