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Keeping Kosher

It's like a television series, but it's not

by Walt Ciechanowski
Sep 30,2004


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

It's like a television series, but it's not

I've used a television model for my last few campaigns. I even changed my lexicon. "Campaign" has become "series," "adventure" or "scenario" has become "episode," player characters are the "cast," and I even group my episodes into "seasons" (sometimes a season represents a story arc, but often I simply draw an arbitrary distinction).

This model has usually worked well for me. I like to use recurring NPCs and subplots, and my campaigns are often designed around a localized area (such as a small town). Many roleplaying games, especially those designed around licensed television properties, are also using this model. Over the years, however, I've noticed a few things at the gaming table that don't quite fit the television model. In today's column I thought I'd point a few of them out.

1. PC actions should determine the story, not the other way around.

I listed this one first because it applies to most "story-oriented" RPGs, not just those following a television model. In a television series, the most important aspect is the story. The writers determine the direction of the story, and the cast must conform to the preplanned scenes (with little or no improvisation).

In an RPG, the Game Master determines the general direction of the story, but it is the players who determine the outcome. I've seen (and been) a GM who gets so wrapped up in the story he wants to tell that he edits the decisions of any player that threatens to derail it, often sacrificing realism (and mood) in the process.

Let the players determine their own fate and deal with the consequences. If the PCs are supposed to be the superhero guardians of the city and they ignore the pleas of the mayor over his kidnapped daughter, let them deal with the consequences after the mayor's daughter is murdered. If they botch a mystery so badly that the serial murderer will succeed and get away, let the serial murderer kill his next victim and get away.

Use television series as a guide. Many series have had to deal with an actor leaving the show, requiring a rewrite of plot threads (Babylon 5, anyone?). Whenever you prepare a new adventure, leave open possibilities for new characters to get involved along the way while old characters exit. In the long run, allowing PCs to suffer the fate of bad decisions or poor dice rolls will do less damage to the coherence of the campaign than GM editing.

2. Players want equal screen time for their characters.

While a television series has the ability to have entire episodes revolve around a single cast member, players in a roleplaying game don't enjoy sitting around while one player receives all of the attention. I used to call this "Decker syndrome" in my cyberpunk days (when the party computer wizard jacked into the matrix to open a door and had this huge fantasy adventure for a couple of hours while the rest of the party sat on their hands).

A player's own character is the most important cast member to that player. She wants to see her character's subplots develop, take a leading role in the session, and have as much (or more) screen time than the other characters. This makes sense. The player is usually emotionally invested in her own character. The player is putting in just as many session hours as every other player at the gaming table. She didn't schedule six hours out of her week to watch other people enjoying themselves.

I've found that the best thing to do is limit each session to one subplot (this works especially well if you can link the plot and subplot thematically). Try to keep the plot going as you advance the subplot. This keeps the other players entertained while you devote some attention to a subplot. If you can engage the other players in a particular subplot, so much the better! Finally, try to minimize the "real time" you spend during a session on a subplot.

3. Players don't like hanging threads.

In television, writers can get away with teasing their audience with some unresolved issue and leave them hanging for weeks or months (or, in some cases, a full season or more). In RPGs, players want to pursue every issue until it ends. If a recurring villain shows even the slightest interest in a PC, you can be sure that the player in question won't say "hmm, this is interesting. I wonder if there may be a romantic development in the future?" Instead, you can count on her to chase down the villain and demand an immediate explanation. Also, players may not be satisfied to let the villain escape after his plans are thwarted, no matter how appropriate to the genre. Instead, they will tend to exhaust every possibility to catch him, to the point of letting you (the GM) know that the only reason the villain escaped was because you let him.

My only advice here is to expect that any hanging thread is going to become an immediate subplot to be pursued at the earliest opportunity. If you want to tease your players, make sure you have a logical reason for them to keep their distance at the moment.

4. Player Characters are dynamic.

There is usually very little character development in a television series. Cast members usually start out as competent as they need to be, and change little over the course of the series. Conversely, players expect their characters to have significant growth over relatively short spans of time (I'm sure this comes from the golden age of class and level systems, especially when first level characters were often severely underpowered). They expect their characters to look very different at the beginning of Season Two then they were at Season One.

This one is difficult to overcome. Players have gotten in the habit of acquiring and spending experience points over three decades of gaming. My usual response is to give out lower amounts of experience, but that is only slowing the inevitable. I've also found that players enjoy "invisible awards," such as a new contact or progression of a subplot, as much if not more than being handed experience. Most GMs work with the players in designing characters suitable for the campaign. That process should not end once actual play starts. A GM should monitor experience point expenditures in order to ensure that the characters are still suitable for the campaign. Take your time in rendering a decision on a new power or skill. I can't tell you the number of times my campaign went off in a completely new direction because I didn't pay enough attention to what my players were purchasing. It is easier not to let a player have something than to take it back.

5. Players expect even and balanced power levels

Many television series revolve around a single hero and a group of contacts. Even in an ensemble television series, there is no need for balance. No one worries about the fact that Superman is much more powerful than Aquaman. In an RPG, players expect their characters to be built around the same amount of points as everyone else and will do everything they can to ensure that balance (in my glory days playing AD&D, it was not uncommon for PCs with bad rolls on ability scores or hit points to "suicide" themselves in order for the chance to roll a better character). In some cases, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, drama points are used to settle that imbalance.

Coupled with this is the dramatic flaw. In a television series, a cast member may be a struggling alcoholic or paraplegic with no discernable tradeoff. By contrast, players expect their characters to be rewarded for flaws with balancing advantages (or pick flaws that actually aren't much of a disadvantage in a particular campaign).

I think the best thing here is to design your campaign with this balance in mind. Be aware of the true power level (in GURPS 3e, the standard power level was actually 145 points, not 100) and adjust it accordingly if you are going to accommodate flaws. Make sure that major plots are written to the team, not an individual character.

Keeping Kosher

I still like to design my campaigns as television series. Just be aware that there are differences between a television series and an RPG, and adjust accordingly. I hope I've helped some of you to avoid traps into which I've already fallen.

Good Gaming!

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