RPT#16: Campaign Structure Part II
Peter Maranci, Copyright 1996
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”.
Padded: 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.
Expanded: 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 medium.
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 whole.
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 any).
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 thought.
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. 🙂