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Close to the Edit

Le Mot Juste

by Ross Winn
Feb 27,2004


Le Mot Juste

I have been roleplaying for more than two-thirds of my life. After I moved out of my parent's basement, one of the proudest moments in my life was the first time I was paid to write and it got published. Okay, that is a horrible exaggeration. The birth of each of my two children was a much bigger deal, but being published was pretty cool, and it still is.

As I began to write and play more and different games, I started to be subtly dissatisfied with the lexicon I was using. I was looking for ideas and concepts that simply weren't generally used in the lockstep wargaming world of 1980, and that was usually the paradigm I found myself in.

As I changed and my games changed the lexicon was pretty much unchanging. In fact, the words I was using to explain or reinforce different concepts were actually limiting what I was trying to do. Language is funny like that. Generally the more defined I made my ideas the more I limited them. There are words that are more open ended, more mutable. Finding a balance between defining and limiting became a sort of hobby.

This is something akin to the concept of true names. Once we know something's true name we can control it. People spend entire careers trying to define a thing. However once they define a thing everyone wants to prove them wrong. Like the term I used earlier in this column, lexicon. To me the term lexicon involves acquired words, jargon, defined ideas, and a way of looking at things. Of course since I have defined this term people will find fault in it.

So when you run a game people commonly describe this as a campaign. However in my lexicon campaign is not the right word. For that matter neither is scenario. Roleplayers inherited these words from wargamers. Campaign and scenario have all of these military overtones; like the Gallic Campaigns of Caesar, or the kidnap scenario. These visions also call to mind a political competition. Neither brinkmanship nor a popularity contest are commonly adventurous or entertaining, at least not in my understanding of the words. Campaign is a technical term. It sounds academic and calculated, without room for spontaneity or improvisation. This doesn't sound at all like a story. It does not sound entertaining, engaging, interactive, or creative. If we concede that roleplaying is in fact about all of those things then campaign is simply not the right word. As a matter of fact, using it may well be simply bad for roleplaying.

You may think that a bold statement like bad for the hobby is too much, and you are welcome to your opinion. However terms and definitions can be very restrictive. The risk we run by having a lexicon is the risk of closing ourselves to terms we haven't designed or defined. I have seen many online communities and newsgroups decimate their audience by over-specifying. I have seen others fragment from vagaries. "It is a fine line between stupid and clever", as Nigel says.

So if campaign is not the right word, then what is?

Saga is a term I have heard bandied about. Saga is an old term, originally from Iceland. Sagas were long intricate stories explaining everything from the origins of the world to the succession of kings. Many sagas are generational, and few RPG 'campaigns' to use the defunct term, are generational. Some may be, and some may well aspire to be, but few actually are.

Is Story a better choice? After all sagas are a subset of stories, in some ways campaigns are a subset of stories as well. Is story too short? There are many stories and story elements in a so-called 'campaign'. However story is too short to describe what we do. There are many stories in a so-called campaign. However the 'campaign' is not broken into scenarios, or even scenes. Some stories are resolved quickly, others are never fully resolved. At least not to everyone's satisfaction.

Chronicle is a very common term for 'campaigns' in some circles. Chronicle intimates that someone somewhere is writing all of this down. Since few, if any, roleplaying 'campaigns' are written down in story form the term chronicle seems a bit disingenuous. I do understand the impetus to try and change the lexicon. After all I am doing exactly that myself. I am just looking for the right word, and I think chronicle is not the right word.

Saga, story, campaign. None of these seem to work. What will work may come from television. The television metaphor works for a few different reasons, but the most important is the form's inherent familiarity. Because most of the world has been exposed to television at some point in their lives the metaphor is easily understood. Because the form is understood it is easily communicated.

Series is the closest term to the serial story form we engage in while playing RPGs. That being the case, we can discuss the various parts of a series, and some elements even within those parts. It is almost a given that certain parts of this metaphor will break during this discussion. However taken as a whole I think the discussion works well.

An American television series can go on forever or for a mere five episodes. In the seventies and eighties, the wildly popular television series M.A.S.H. told the story of a Hospital Corps during the Korean Conflict. However the series went on for many years, almost five times the length of the Korean Conflict itself. Remember Space Rangers? No? Not surprising since the 1993 show lasted a short four episodes and is an excellent example of a series lasting barely into the midseason, leaving no time for resolutions of any sort. Anime television series have a much different life-cycle.

Anime series are commonly of a set length and all of the episodes are commonly completed before the first episode airs. So even if the series tanks the story as envisioned is complete. This may be a bit optimistic, as I have played or GMd in as many series that have failed as succeeded. The anime series is commonly 26 episodes long. Longer stories are composed of multiple seasons with bridge stories between them.

So how does the anime series, and its forms, transfer to the world of role-playing?

A series is a group of stories with a designed start and finish. In the course of a series most of the stories are resolved, though some can be left open for resolution in the bridge pieces or in the next series. When translating this into the game sphere, some GMs may feel uncomfortable with 26 episodes. It is perfectly acceptable to decide that your series has only 13 episodes, or 20, or the full-boat 26. However, fewer than 13 episodes has proved to be too short in my experience.

Series commonly have some elements that run throughout the entire story, while others are resolved much more quickly. It is not uncommon for an unrequited love, or a background conflict like a war to last even over multiple series. At the same time the climactic duel or the opening crisis are commonly an episode in length. Which brings us to the Episode.

Like a book has chapters, a series has episodes. An episode can be thought of as a single show or a complete story element. The episode has a defined beginning and end but may well be composed of a few smaller units called sessions.

How long is an episode? To be honest the GM is the final arbiter of this. Some GMs may well be able to pack several scenes or even an entire episode into a session of play. However a session of play needs to be defined as well.

One session represents a few hours of play - often an evening of play. In college I could and commonly did play sessions as long as twelve hours. I am sure that there are groups that also feel completely comfortable playing for only two hours. A session of four hours is a decent mean.

The smallest block of time we will discuss is the scene. A scene can be thought of as the time between commercials in a television episode. A session may be one or several scenes depending on their complexity and composition. Large combats in mechanically challenging systems can take multiple sessions even though they comprise only a single scene.

My Experience
As a GM I try and have two to three scenes in a session of play. I also try and have two sessions per episode, and thirteen episodes per season. I realize that these boundaries are very flexible and take it in stride when a casual encounter turns into a session of character interaction and exploration. GMs must be flexible, and suffice it to say that there will be a column or ten more about the lexicon. After all, once we have a lexicon we can begin to exchange ideas.

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What do you think?

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