The RPG Campaign as Episodic TV: Two Techniques

In addition to the regular D&D game I run, I’ve just started up another tabletop RPG campaign using the Geist system. Like many of White Wolf’s “limited series” games (Promethean, Changeling), the concept is incredibly provocative. You died, and in the moments of death, a being “more than ghost, less than god” offered you a partnership. This being, called a geist, shielded you from death and allowed you to survive. You are a living human, but now you can see ghosts, control strange creepy powers, and even travel the underworld. The mood of the game is a cool mix of the macabre (you died, and now you see death everywhere) and the celebratory (you got a second chance at life! Live it up!).

The bittersweet mood, morbid theme, and cool antagonists reminded me of shows like Angel, Dead Like Me, and Death Note. So I decided that I wanted my campaign to run like an episodic, ensemble-cast television show. I also wanted to explore giving players more control over the game, while maintaining primary authorship as GM; tossing a strong flavor of the indie RPG into a traditional system. As a result, I’m using two techniques: Episode Previews and Cutscenes.

Episode Previews

Before each story, I go around and have each player provide 2-3 “shots” that could each be a several-second chunk in an episode preview. Examples range from the simple (A character meets with his cop friend at a Starbucks) to the provocative (A character has an occult book open, with her geist whispering to her) to the just plain bizarre (A car hits a goose at sunrise, and a man dashes out of the bushes to drink its blood). Those are all actual examples from the “pilot episode” of our campaign. I then use these shots to plan the next story/adventure/episode in the campaign. In the process, I need to resist my natural urge to plan far in the future or in too much detail; I want the players to be able to guide the story where they want it to go.

As an incentive to craft useful and interesting preview shots, a character gets an experience point every time their player’s shot occurs in-game. If Jay has coffee with his cop friend, he gets 1 XP. Note that this is a decent reward in White Wolf’s system; 2 XP is enough to buy a minor magic ritual or a useful social relationship.

This has gone quite well so far. One of the preview shots was of a character receiving a gift of a good weapon; my first instinct was to reject it as self-serving, but I then decided that it was a valid choice… although the gift might not be what it seems. Indeed, this is a good approach to any shot that seems inappropriate; have the shot turn out to be something other than what it initially appears. Television does this all the time: a preview shows a character dying, but it’s really an illusion; a preview shows the villain turning good, but by the end of the episode the evil plot behind the subterfuge is revealed.

This technique may be unique; I don’t remember reading about it, although I read enough RPG blogs that I may have subconsciously absorbed it. It’s still in its infancy, as we’ve only run two sessions, but I like it so far.

The Cutscene

I was at a bit of a loss what to call this technique. The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 calls it “vignettes,” but that seems a poor fit. Regardless, the way it works in my campaign is that the players get to play incidental characters when their own characters are “off-screen.” For instance, crime procedurals like Law & Order often have a teaser at the start of the episode where the murder occurs without the detectives around. Similarly, my pilot episode opened with an attack at a club. The players controlled random people attending the club, and got to determine their actions and behavior during the scene. This allows the players to gain some insight into events of which their characters are unaware. Additionally, during a scene in which one or two PCs are separated from the group, the players with absent characters can play NPCs.

The other part of this is that I will usually have the players make up their cutscene characters on the spot if they are not established characters. I say, “Who are you?” and they have to create an NPC from whole cloth. This generates some interesting characters for use later on, and gives the players another way to guide the narrative.

This has worked quite well so far. There are already some recurring NPCs that have a specific player assigned to them, and some interesting NPCs — and plot hooks! — have arisen from this system. The biggest issue we’ve run into is confusion over who is playing whom. If a cutscene NPC later appears in a scene with the PC who is controlled by the same character, it can be confusing which character I mean in descriptions. This means I either have to make it clear that a character now belongs to the GM, or I need to be very specific in how I talk (“What is Jay doing?” rather than “What are you doing?”).

Conclusion

It’s still very early in the campaign, but I really like this system, and I think I’ll continue using it in other campaigns I run. It means there’s less risk of players getting bored due to inaction or feeling dissatisfied because a game isn’t following the path they like. I’ll write up the first episode once it’s completed so that you can decide for yourselves.

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4 thoughts on “The RPG Campaign as Episodic TV: Two Techniques

  1. Coincidences abound, because I my copy of Geist shipped from Amazon a few days ago. I’ve been considering the idea of doing some different things exposition-wise and these ideas are interesting. I’ll be curious to see some more specific examples of how they operated.

    Do your players have a problem (or even care) about separating the things their character knows vs. what they learn playing someone else during a cutscene? That’s the only bit I can see being potentially sticky, but if obviously highly depending on the group’s style and goals.

    1. My group’s good about it so far. If a scene should keep certain secrets, then it’s easy enough to make sure that the players’ temporary characters don’t find out about those secrets. I trust my players not to blatantly metagame, but if one were about to find out the big episode twist in a cutscene, I’d say something like “And then you see something shocking. Meanwhile, your characters are back at base.” That way, the tension and mystery is maintained, and the PCs will be the ones to actually reveal the mystery instead of some one-off character.

  2. At the end of each session/episode of Primetime Adventures, players get to describe a “Next Week on…” snippet, similar to your Episode Previews. There’s no XP reward for having the scene show up in the next session. Primetime Adventures is a really good system for playing TV shows. You might be able to crib the screen presence+spotlight episode mechanic from it. It’s basically a way of tracking how important each character is in a particular episode. Screen Presence 1 means the character is there but not really important to the story, e.g. River in most of Firefly. Screen Presence 3 means the episode revolves around that character (their “spotlight episode”). 2 is in-between. Screen Presence is also your character’s effectiveness in-game.

    The Cutscene technique reminds me of NormalVision, which Ben Robbins wrote a couple of posts about. He does some very cool things with D&D, like West Marches.

    1. I may have subconsciously cribbed it from Primetime Adventures; I remember glancing at the game system. Screen Presence sounds interesting, but I’m not sure I want to carry the TV metaphor that far.

      NormalVision does seem a lot like the cutscene/vignetting technique. I think it’s something that’s been discussed quite a bit in the “I want to be more narrativist but not a hippy indie RPGer” crowd.

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