Friday, April 24, 2009

Episodic vs. Rolling Campaigns

In designing and writing the Tankards & Broadswords RPG, I have been explicitly aiming to facilitate "episodic" game play; that is, campaign adventures that do not necessarily follow on each other's heels, but have spans of time in between in which the PCs are engaged in other activities that might very well affect them in a significant fashion.

The reason I'm doing this is because much of the adventure fiction I'm taking as inspiration for the T&B RPG is episodic in nature - "high adventure" short stories and back-pocket sized novels or novellas, as well as movies and television shows that deal with one specific adventure at a time, big or small, and not some never-breaking rolling plotline. While some individual gaming sessions might follow on the heels of one another in terms of the narrative because an adventure arc is too long to finish in one sitting, the idea is that there might be days, weeks, maybe even months or years in between adventures, and the PCs aren't just sitting around idly tossing back tankards of ale and growing fat somewhere warm and comfy.

The funny thing is, though, that I get the feeling a lot of RPGs and a lot of campaigns aren't episodic at all - rather, that they follow an unbroken "plotline" (I use that term not to indicate a railroaded "plot", but rather that it is an unbroken linear narrative). The current Traveller game I'm in is tracked almost down to the hour, and the Harnmaster campaign I had the ill fortune to participate in has had an unbroken narrative for going on five years of real time (I've no idea how much in-game time, but I know it's been more than a couple of years). That game was so minutely chronicled that the "session notes" written up after each game would extend into the 14-16 typed pages range.

I'm sure most campaigns fall somewhere in between "episodic" and "rolling". There might be a week or two in between adventures where your character's aren't rampaging through a dungeon but instead selling off treasure items, buying new gear, researching spells, and recuperating hit points. Many gaming groups also like to handwave a lot of long distance travel, summing it up with "you trek across the plains for three days when suddenly...". However, I don't really consider these to be episodic breaks in the campaign - it's more a matter of "skipping over the commercials" since there's nothing interesting going on during the campaign, so why play it out? Yet, even in these situations, the time spent is accounted for somehow - the players and GM know that Lothar the Bold was lounging in a tavern waiting for his new suit of plate to be forged, or that Yurik the Warlock was researching a new arcane ritual. The time might not be played out, but it is accounted for.

So now, as I am designing and writing the rules involving episodic adventures and campaigning, I am curious to hear what other gamers think of this campaign style. Have other people played in campaigns where the time in between adventures has been purposely left "blank"? I can imagine many module-heavy campaigns have some element of this, but I also figure that even these campaigns had some sort of narrative tendons holding everything together. I know this style might be antithetical to the epic "Hero's Journey" campaigns a la Dragonlance where the whole campaign is one long rolling "epic adventure", so I would love to hear from people who like those sorts of campaigns as well.

And also, even more specifically, what do people think of the idea that, depending on how long the break between adventures is, characters may pick up ranks in random skills, acquire loot, take on allies or a nemesis, gain reputation or wealth, or even suffer an injury that's not yet fully healed at the start of the adventure? My "Intermission Rolls" would have both positive as well as negative results, and while as written now these rolls are not mandatory, a GM could very well make them such depending on how they want to implement the rules. I know some players would take great offense at anything, good or ill, happening to their PC without the player "being there" for it to transpire, while others wouldn't care in the slightest. An inquiring mind wants to know your opinion of this idea.


Scott said...

Midkemia's Cities book has a fantastic set of tables for generating between-session events. Characters can serve in the military, spark romances, get wounded, go on off-camera adventures, and so on.

kelvingreen said...

Pendragon has this built right into the system, and it's one of the reasons why I love the game. I don't think it's right for every game, but I could see it being adapted well to Traveller, for example.

My current Call of Cthulhu game is evolving/devolving into something like this, largely through necessity. The players want to keep their characters, and so are willing to wait for months of game time to pass between scenarios so that the poor wretches can spend some time at the local asylum to recover from the last investigation. It fits quite well into my group's erratic schedule, which is a bonus.

Darkwing said...

Rolemaster had an optional rule for that--but it was to be used when a PC was for some reason out of the loop of the game for a long period. A roll was used to determine whether or not said PC gained a level in the intervening timespan.

I would tend to lean against getting free ranks in skills, etc. Half the reward for playing in a session is the advancement of your character, either in terms of getting items or getting skills.

I would feel somewhat annoyed if I attended every session of a campaign, only to have someone show up to one game out of ten, only to have them get the same advancement that I did. (granted, such rewards would be given in addition to the normal experience gained from playing). In any case, it would feel like people would be getting free stuff for no effort.

On the other hand, if such things were tied into the plot, for example, you learn a new skill from a kindly person, only to have that person get killed early in the session, which drives the session's plot, then that's fine. Same goes for getting an item which turns out to be a MacGuffin for that episode.

sirlarkins said...

Yeah, Pendragon is explicitly built on the assumption that the PCs will have one "adventure" per year, the rest of the year being taken up with mundanities that can be resolved with a series of die rolls. There is also the chance to train and improve, or if the characters are old, slip into decrepitude. I adapted the Pendragon training rules to the BRP percentage scale to use in my own fantasy campaign, which has had large gaps of time between adventures--the last such gap was four years! I definitely prefer this approach, although it's only recently I've been using it. I like to see PCs actually age and develop long-term story arcs.

Ragnorakk said...

Darkwing said...

Rolemaster had an optional rule for that--but it was to be used when a PC was for some reason out of the loop of the game for a long period. A roll was used to determine whether or not said PC gained a level in the intervening timespan.
It was Rolemaster Companion IV. Has a section for generating events in 'down-time', or how (and what and how much!) a character develops skills and such. It has a related Random Events Chart that can leave rollers killed, jailed, bored, gaining or loosing wealth and treasures, becoming deified(!)

I've always been really partial to the idea. It is a dream of mine to actually have a player tell me - "I'm going to
spend two weeks reading."

Still waiting...

MJ Harnish said...

I use an episodic structure to most of games nowadays because I like the faster pace (in terms of story development) and the fact that it's easier to handle player absences. I write about the format and my experiences with it quite frequently on my own blog:

P_Armstrong said...

My two most recent campaigns, a now ended C&C one and my still ongoing B/X Northern Marches, were both rolling campaigns.

As a change of pace anything else I run for the foreseeable future will be episodic. I am loving my Northern marches game but sometimes it is nice to have a change of pace. I like the idea of having short segments of finite duration. Sometimes the living, breathing thing that Northern Marches is becoming can make me feel a bit like Atlas.