So many roleplaying games hook with the idea of being able to tell stories like our favorite TV shows but then stick to tried and true methods of telling open-and-close story arcs from novels or movies.
Now, to be clear, that’s not a flaw, per se, but I don’t believe it hits on the idea of how to tell a story like a TV show.
The Old TV Storytelling Method
In older TV shows you have a villain/monster of the week. The protagonists defeat said villain, only to have another one to look forward to next week. The season finale often features a super-thin plot that supposedly ties all the villains of the season together, doing an okay job at making the season feel cohesive.
However, it’s often not the storytelling that endears us to these shows (except in the case of the really good ones). Most cult fans of the old method are usually in it for the unique characters, situations, or ideologies.
The New TV Storytelling Method
Like most forms, the serialized form of television has grown over the years. In recent decades, the “villain/monster of the week” format has not necessarily been replaced, but has been enhanced with “villain/monster/situation of the season.”
Today’s TV shows often introduce the audience to a particular villain in the season premiere, who escapes capture or death only to become more dangerous as the season goes one–often meeting their end in the season finale. These stories feel more cohesive than the old “villain/monster of the week” stories because we can see the driving force behind the weekly situations (and often they’re just that); we may even begin cheering the villain on if they’re written particularly well.
In fact, today’s audiences have a name for the “villain/monster of the week” storylines: Filler Episodes. If a story doesn’t move the season story arc forward then we often consider it a fun romp through the setting, but otherwise unnecessary. (If the show were a novel, that chapter would have been cut.)
How Roleplaying Games Do It
Since modern RPGs got their start through the dramatization of miniature wargaming, which is by its very essence a “villain of the week” kind of thing, it is no surprise that RPG campaigns are strung together “monster of the week stories. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. MotW games are so popular that games have been creating with that very title. And they’re popular for good reason: they fit the session format (particularly one-shots).
But so many games fit this format that there are very few that have adopted recent methods of TV storytelling (which is the most relevant form of storytelling for our genre). Fate Core is one such game, with its campaign threat aspects and emphasis on the major milestone for large-scale character advancement. But most Fate games I’ve played in still use the MotW format (again, not bad, but I’m suggesting something different here).
The Never-Ending Adventure
Building sweeping stories like the TV shows of today is relatively easy to do. I don’t think it’s for every group, nor every game (it’s a terrible format for one-shots, for instance). But for a long-standing game that lasts years (how rare those are, at least in my experience) a web of intricate plots and sweeping story arcs that end after another story arc has already begun can add suspense to motivate players for future games. (And I’m not talking about the “plot hook for next week” method.)
Creating a campaign of complex, interlocking stories is a simple as creating a big goal or villainous plot (one of each is better) and outline different milestones for them. Once play has begun, and a milestone on a goal or plot has been reached, then create another one. You can continue this for years on end. No breaks in the narrative, no “stopping points” in the campaign, but you can still zoom in on the immediate situations.
And if your campaign does end, your players are likely to act as though their favorite TV show had just been canceled. (They might even start an online petition to have Netflix pick it up.)
- Vary the number of milestones you have for different story arcs. And reserve the best rewards, and worst consequences, for the longer story arcs, thus adding a sense of importance to them. (Only one long story arc at a time; the main arc of the campaign at that point, no other arc should be more than half the number of milestones as the main arc.)
- Start with a big villain who has a part in an extra long story arc. And before that villain meets its demise, introduce another one as a seemingly minor villain that steps up to “big bad guy” level in the same session that the former villain is finally defeated.
- Focus each milestone on a situation, and use those situations for your games. So your players are facing the situation after situation, but with the main villain or situation linking them. This is where it starts to feel like a TV show.
- Alternate between long and short story arcs. Use convincing reasons why the main story arc is “busy” at the moment (the short story arc being time sensitive and carrying a hefty consequence for ignoring it is usually a good reason). This is your “filler” episode.
What are some ways that you string your campaigns together to keep them interesting for years on end?