Episodic Campaigns Part 1: 3 Ways To Run Them - Roleplaying Tips

Episodic Campaigns Part 1: 3 Ways To Run Them

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #607

Interested in running a game where players can drop in and out at any time, each session starts without a hitch regardless of how the last one ended, all while still building an epic story arc?

I’m planning such an episodic campaign. And I’m considering three approaches I’ll share with you today:

  • Home Base Campaign
  • Hexcrawl
  • Open Table

(Note: I’m talking about using systems like GURPS, D&D, Savage Worlds and such, constructed for ongoing campaigns, and building an episodic structure with them. I’m not talking about games designed to be run as one-offs each time.)

What Is An Episodic Campaign?

Blank Slate

Like a TV series, each session starts as a blank slate, with minimal carryover from what happened in previous games. There is setting continuity, but some time might have passed since last episode.

This makes prep easier and offers interesting storytelling possibilities (especially with time passing). However, it can also cause problems with believability and consistency.

For example, if you run out of time and the PCs are in the middle of something, how do you resolve the episode so a new one can start fresh next time? (I have a nifty solution for this, coming next week in Part 2.)

Freedom From Schedules

Your sessions also function well regardless of who shows up to play. It doesn’t matter if you have players who can’t make it every session or if you have high player turnover.

Better yet, you can announce simple drop-in games where you don’t care who shows up or what mix of players arrive. A great formula for gaming more often because player cancellations won’t monkey wrench your fun.

More Story

Out of necessity, episodes also offer singular, simple plots. Each session should have one simple premise, best formed as a question:

  • What if ______?
  • What happens when [trigger event] occurs?
  • Will the PCs complete [quest]?

When running long plot arcs you often get stuck in the grey zone.

What’s the grey zone? It’s the doldrums you hit mid-campaign. There’s no momentum from rapid successes and developments. The PCs have lost their way, aimless. Dots too far apart don’t connect anymore. Energy, motivation, excitement dwindle.

But with some kind of resolution every episode, you actually get more story told. The premise gets resolved every time one way or another. Players experience more loops closing, which builds momentum, energy, and interest.

Stack up several episodes and you can build a compelling story quite nicely, and avoid the grey zone.

I think we all understand the concept of self-contained sessions. So let’s move on to a few ways you can structure your campaigns so they’re episodic.

Home Base Campaign

I’m looking right now at my D&D comics. The old ones, where the heroes gather at a tavern in several issues and get thrust into adventure. I loved those stories.

And RPT reader https://plus.google.com/u/0/112026047546416896570 Jesse Cohoon suggests the same, with adventure re-use thrown in:

“With rotating players, use the meme of them meeting in the same tavern each time. The players probably will eventually get to know each other, and they know their adventures are going to be short and back in town to heal. If you run multiple players through the same dungeon, have it changed each time, due to the other player’s presence. You kill off X, but Y takes its place, which may be a bad thing, if the monsters keep getting more powerful.?”

In a Home Base Campaign, the PCs begin most episodes at their base. You trigger the session’s adventure and you’re gaming without delay. It doesn’t matter who shows up to game, because the base is a hub for all characters to mingle.

Over time, you can make the base part of the plot. The bad guys assault it, a secret gets discovered, or disaster strikes, for example.

Some players love to “farm” these recurring places. They’ll create their space, fill it with details, expand it over time. This gives you more adventure seeds and reward possibilities.

For example, in my Riddleport campaign the PCs owned an inn. They started decorating it with the stuffed heads of monsters they slew. One player, Dave, drew awesome maps of the inn and stocked it with NPCs for me!

Plot Engine

A Home Base episodic campaign needs just one critical ingredient => a Plot Engine.

Create a way to launch a short adventure each game with a clear focus and end point.

The engine needs to be simple, believable and consistent with your world. It also needs the ability to launch dozens of interesting episodes. It doesn’t matter if the adventure is really about the starting point, or if you just use Plot Devices.

For example, the PCs might run a detective agency and get a case to find a missing girl. But that’s just how you get them into the main premise => what happens when the PCs encounter a plot to destroy the city?

The key is the detective agency gets lots of cases. It’s the Plot Engine.

Here are a few ideas for Home Base concepts with Plot Engines:

  • Pathfinder Society from Pathfinder RPG
  • Mission Impossible “Your mission should you choose to accept it…”
  • Divine agents righting wrongs in the world
  • Special forces sent on missions
  • Servants of a powerful wizard who needs things (nod to http://www.atlas-games.com/arm5 Ars Magica)
  • Villagers who protect their friends and families from the villain
  • Robin Hood or pirates
  • Dark heroes who take over when the police/guards get blocked or overwhelmed
  • Bounty hunters

Home Base campaigns have several things going for them:

  • Familiar and reliable starting point for easier planning.
  • A cause or reason players can believe and enjoy.
  • Future plot and reward options involving the home base itself.

Hexcrawl Campaigns

Discovery creates excitement. The unknown creates tension. Reward potential drives action.

In this type of campaign (whether it involves hexes or not — it’s just a label) the PCs are explorers. Each session begins with something new to delve into.

5 Room Dungeons are a perfect mechanism for this type of game. Short and sweet, you can drag & drop these into the hex and your session is ready.

https://plus.google.com/u/0/10001007233235137826 Dave Sherohman offers a great resource and interesting read: “You could get ideas on how to manage this from Ben Collins’ Grand Experiments: West Marche West Marches writeups, especially if you’re looking to do an exploration-focused game.”

You’ll need to address how different PCs become available. If you have a stable group then it’s not a problem. They pick a direction and go. Here are some ideas for juggling a PC menagerie:

  • Caravan
  • Ship
  • Floating castle
  • Doctor Who
  • X-Men
  • Stargate

In each example, you can have a group of people available at any time for “OA teams” of volunteers or assigned PCs.

Also help give PCs a reason to explore better than “you have to.” Ye olde Help Wanted board or job board is a great mechanic. This gives players choice.

You can also add in longer-term quests to give something for the PCs to watch out for. For example, a wizard who learns the PCs are explorers might ask them to bring back any strange flowers (with roots intact) they might find. Then sprinkle these flowers into episodes once in awhile.

You can combine Hexcrawl with Home Base. I plan to do so with Chaos Keep. In addition to lots of adventure possibilities in known areas, the keep is in the wilderness with lots of unmapped and unexplored regions nearby, which is frightening to the locals. If the PCs want to explore a new hex, they can do so anytime.

Open Table

I discovered this very cool idea through https://plus.google.com/u/0/+JasonPaulMcCartan/posts>Jason McCartan. He has https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/114064619783496272023 a long-running campaign where characters sortie into a nearby mega-dungeon each episode. I have a cleric going, and it’s a lot of fun to play.

At session end, the PCs return to their home base to heal, buy/sell and exchange information with other adventurers.

He’s using http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/98978/Barrowmaze-I?affiliate_id=5044 Barrowmaze for the dungeon. It has several entrances, making it accessible to multiple raids and delves over time. It’s a large, deep dungeon, giving him years of gameplay. It also has an overall plot arc, which he’s seeding over time.

But the neatest thing about his setup is it’s all played online through Roll20 with a group of 150+ players. He announces a session, the first 7 or so who show up form an adventuring party, and they enter the Barrowmaze looking for loot. Ultimate flexibility.

The campaign design and operation is worth a book unto itself, but some of my favourite parts include:

  • A G+ Group where players can trade secrets, exchange or craft items, and deal with NPCs between sessions => it’s a living campaign with tons of players
  • Easy drop-in and pretty much guaranteed play as GM => no more cancelled sessions from lack of players
  • Jason makes the dungeon react between sessions => it’s a living dungeon!
  • He has a <https://plus.google.com/116591329459864837864/posts/a1Fjc8kofzJ>Player League going where players earn points for participation and loot => it’s like player XP
  • It’s all run online, meaning as GM you can squeeze in a session anytime you have 2-4 spare hours => just announce the event and show up

I gotta tell you, I’m really tempted to run a campaign like this for Chaos Keep. Can I be your GM? 🙂

I’m just noodling over how it would work. It takes up a lot of Jason’s time. And I’ve got projects lined up all this year. So time is my biggest worry.

Maybe co-GMs could handle the day-to-day G+ Community interactions, run the Leaderboards, approve PC-PC/NPC transactions and help me setup the session events?

Anyway, you can clone his setup and start your own Open Table. It’s a great way to run episodic adventures.

Three Ways To Play

So there you have it. Three ways you can have the best of both worlds. You can game more often with a bit less prep by running episodic campaigns with any combo of players who show up.

Once you devise a framework, whether one mentioned in today’s tips or something else entirely, you’ll be able to craft your sessions as standalone episodes.

Next week we’ll explore tips for running an episodic campaign, and I’ll share my tool for ending the session and tying lose ends up when you run out of time.

Meanwhile, if you’ve run this style of game in the past and have a good tip to share from your experience, please send it my way!

Graphic of logo used as divider

Brief Word From Johnn

Reading Body Language Is Easier Than I Thought

I just took an online course about how to read body language. Everyone, including your players, engages in this non-verbal communication all the time. It’s quite amazing once you start recognizing and interpreting the signs.

For GMing, this information is pure gold. Use it to get quick reads of the table. Who’s sad? Who’s nervous? Who’s mad?

You can even read players’ minds because their body language will tell you what they think of each other – and you. Use this information to understand and improve player relations and to be a better facilitator and referee.

For example, the furrowed brows and tight-lipped mouth – even if they flash for a short moment – means you should approach that player differently (because it means they’re mad) than one with closed lips and a raised mouth corner (because that means they’re feeling contempt).

You can also use this skill to portray NPCs better. Just make your face and body language emote as desired, and your players will pick up on the cues subconsciously (or consciously if they’ve learned to read people too).

The course I took starts with the 7 universal facial micro-expressions. It turns out every human has these same 7 reactions that you can read, regardless of culture, age or verbal language spoken.

Though there are over 10,000 facial expressions, you just need to master the 7 core ones to correctly read people 80% of the time.

Then there’s body language. Does a player have their arms and legs tucked in? Are they leaning back in their chair? This says they’re withdrawing from your game. They’re nervous or worried and are literally trying to make themselves smaller, even if they don’t realize consciously that’s what they’re doing.

One of my biggest Aha! moments was you can use body language to make yourself feel the way you want. If you are not feeling confident, for example, you use the body language of confidence and your brain will respond. The brain and body are tied together, so you can change your thoughts simply with the right body language.

Fascinating stuff. There are many books and courses out there about reading facial expressions and body language. I just signed up for the next level in the course series I’ve chosen, which is all about human lie detection.

If you are interested in the courses I’m taking, drop me a note and I’ll shoot you the info.

Meanwhile, today I have some tips for you on episodic campaigns. Games run like a TV series, where each session starts fresh.

There are many advantages to this campaign structure, chief being much easier coordination and more frequent gaming.