Episodic Campaigns Part 2: Tips and Session-Ender Narration Tool - Roleplaying Tips

Episodic Campaigns Part 2: Tips and Session-Ender Narration Tool

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #608

Last week, I talked about running an episodic campaign where players can drop in and out at any time, each session starts without a hitch, and you’re still building an epic story arc.

I explained three ways to frame an episodic campaign:

  • Home Base
  • Hexcrawl
  • Open Table

This week, we’ll dig into a few tips to help make your episodic campaigns more successful and interesting. I’ll also share the tool I created to make sure your sessions end on time.

Start In Medias Res

After the first few session starts, you can get into each adventure even faster by putting the PCs at the entrance to the dungeon or in the middle of a situation and pressing the go button.

This saves potential headaches too, by removing unexpected player choices, whims and delays.

For example, you might brief the players on their new mission and then they’ll kill time shopping or planning. Instead, start them in the middle of the first encounter, describe how they got there, and get gaming right away.

Once your group understands how this works, they’ll help you by doing more administrivia between sessions.

Give Great Briefs

The shorter nature of adventures in episodic campaigns might create a bit of tunnel vision. Fix this with a brief that informs players of what’s happening in the world.

Whether you start In Medias Res or not, learn how to kick off each session with a succinct overview of interesting things that have happened since last episode.

You likely cannot maintain an “every living moment” timeline because players and characters will swap out. And the need to start each session fresh will cause time gaps between sessions.

Use this lapsed time to update your world and campaign. Villain’s gonna get busy, random events happen, people make all kinds of decisions…with consequences.

But instead of gaming this out like you would in a non-episodic campaign, figure out what happens and describe it to players at the start.

Then use this to give you continuity, no matter how arbitrary session endings are or how much time passes between episodes.

You can manage larger plot arcs and world events this way too. For example, you can put a war in the background and then give updates each session on how it’s progressing.

Once you get good at this, you can start sowing seeds for upcoming episodes. For example, the boss gets a cough in one brief. Turns out it’s something serious. Three episodes later the PCs are questing for a serum. Two episodes after that the party learns the boss’s cough was no accident. A couple episodes after that it’s a plot to poison the whole city.

Create Situations, Not Floorplans

Invest time in fleshing out NPCs and your setting, specifically enemies and encounter locations.

Set up situations (a kidnapping) instead of linear adventures (loot this dungeon).

You can always manage the real timeline of a situation (sudden revelations, villain makes a mistake) but you can’t control how much time players will take to walk a floorplan.

If the game ends and the PCs are stuck on level two of the dungeon, you’re going to have to handwave them back to the reset point for next session. That’s always disappointing.

But with a situation, you can manage the clock and cut complications (to end the session faster) or add more (to play for time). And you can make it seem like the PCs are driving the cart.

Stomp The Time Killers

Combat can take up a lot of time. So can shopping, levelling up, roleplaying, and cautious adventuring.

Figure out what takes up the biggest chunks of time in your sessions and look for ways to speed up gameplay. It’s important you don’t get stalled in encounters so you can fit more encounters in each game.

Else, episodes turn into single encounters and it’s hard to make a plot out of that.

Take what non-essential bits you can out of the game and handle it between sessions, like shopping, dividing loot, and minor roleplaying.

Delegate what you can for your players to divide and conquer. Things like taking session notes, tracking loot, rules lawyering, and game area clean-up.

If roleplaying unimportant parley comes up often or gets prolonged, cut it off. The NPC has an important appointment to get to or bad guys kick down the door.

Apply the Pareto Principle here. Chances are a smaller portion of your game is where the most fun lies. Figure that out and then experiment with how to get more of that into each session.

Find A Reason For Them To Go Back Home

Here’s a great tip from Yosi on Is the paladin’s Divine Sanction an immediate interrupt, op. attack or what?

You should have a clear reason to send them home at the end of the session, a reason you should be so familiar with that you’ll be able to adjust to whatever the characters did to your dungeon in each session.

It may be a guardian, a curse, or the common knowledge that in nights bad things are moving through the dungeon and destroy and kill and maim whatever they see.

Then let the PCs see what this thing does so they’ll know for themselves why they shouldn’t bump in the dungeon for the night. This way, it will feel less forced. They’ll also still have the option to stay, which means that they chose to stay and thus they carry the consequences.

And don’t just think about why the PCs need to return home. Think about how they’ll get back for the start of next episode. Avoid creating situations where the PCs will get trapped or travel too far.

I’d enlist your players’ help here. Explain the requirements of the campaign. It’s just necessary to get home each time no matter what. Ask them to think about their “out” as session end approaches. Accept their ideas and suggestions on how to wrap things up and be ready and available for next time.

Throw Down Deadlines

Here’s another great tip via that How can I plan, prepare, and enforce an episodic structure? from IgneusJotunn.

Each session, set out in that night’s story a clear reason for having limited time, set a timer, and run with it.

Why the time limit exists should change as often as possible and make sense for the genre.

Eclipse Phase: “We have two hours before the life support systems fail and anyone with a biomorph dies.” “Whoever did this stole the password hashes and is no doubt running a brute force attack. If we don’t catch them in two hours, they’ll have the logins to the entire station.”

Standard Fantasy: “You can see the lights from the ritual! We have two hours to stop them before they raise an army of the dead!”

Dresden Files: “I will shoot a hostage every hour until my demands are met…” “The cops will be here in an hour. Once that happens, we want to be gone.” “Sundown’s in an hour. If we’re out after sundown, we’re dead meat.”

I usually set the timer to go off fifteen minutes or so before we need to wrap up – enough for a kind of epilogue of how they did, and a bit of kibitzing before everyone heads out.

Sudden Episode Ending Generator

What happens if you need to end the session with the PCs still in the field?

When there’s about five minutes left I’d narrate what happens. You are taking control of the PCs’ actions here, which is a no-no in most cases. However, it’s necessary to wrap-up and reset so everyone can handle admin stuff between sessions and then start next time fresh and available.

Let your players know this could happen. It gives them a bit of motivation to play with efficiency, but it also sets their expectations so they won’t get mad when you wrap up the story yourself.

If you get stuck on how to wrap things up, or you want the dice to decide, here’s a table you can use at session end. Thanks to Eric Sheldahl and Jesse Cohoon for their table suggestions.

Adventure Success – Remaining Part

1 – Critical Fail
2-5 Partial Success
6 – Critical Success

Critical Fail

1. Bad guy escapes
2. All treasure/rewards lost
3. Ally grievously injured (disease, poisoned, cursed, dying)
4. Worst trap triggered by random PC
5. Clues discovered but entirely misinterpreted
6. NPC turns against the PCs

Partial Success

1. 50% of clues discovered, however at least one is wrong
2. Bad guy defeated, but he escaped, however he left a trail
3. 1%-75% of treasure/reward recovered
4. Bad guy escapes but lieutenant captured
5. 1%-75% of locations explored, but several places still unknown
6. Bad guy gets an unknown advantage

Critical Success

1. Bad guy captured
2. 25%-100% of treasure/reward recovered
3. All clues discovered
4. Gain new allies
5. Gain an advantage over the bad guys
6. A major potential threat is neutralized (possibly behind the screen)

Create Your Own Series

That should give you enough of a framework to create and play an episodic game. You can even turn your current game into an episodic campaign by adopting some version of the home base or hexcrawl idea.

Graphic of logo used as divider

Brief Word From Johnn

I’ve updated roleplayingtips.com so it has a search engine.
You can search the new site content and the classic old site at the same time, so all tips currently online are at your disposal.

Search was a top requested feature when I surveyed you awhile ago, and my apologies for it taking this long to get online.

Anywho, I hope it makes finding tips easier in the interim until I get Johnn Four’s Kickass Guide to Game Mastering online, where I’ll be refreshing and updating the tips archives.

Character Events Table Coming Soon

A couple weeks ago I asked you to send me ideas for stuff that might happen unexpectedly in a PC’s life.

I received some great suggestions, and am compiling and editing a table of them to give you soon.

You can use this table for inspiration or to make random rolls during the adventuring year to stir the plot pot a little.

One trend I noticed was taking control of a PC’s actions.

In my experience, this causes players much frustration. They expect to have a say in what their PC does and says. Honour this expectation to reduce friction.

For example, one entry was “Character gets a new job.”

I’d turn that around and say, “Character receives a great job offer.” Or, “PC loses job” and apply it if your characters have jobs in your campaign. And the job loss would for sure be out of the player’s control, such as from a catastrophe, employer going bankrupt, or something along those lines.

I’m calling this out because I saw quite a few entries where GMs were like Agent Smith in the Matrix and forcing their way into PC bodies to dictate character actions.

Try to catch yourself doing this if it hapens, and flip it around so it becomes an interesting choice or dilemma for the player.

Stay tuned for the table, it’s coming soon!

-Johnn