Afterschool Tropes Special: The Campaign as a British TV Series

This trope post is going to be a bit different.

Instead of applying tropes to characters or adventures, why not explore a few tropes that could apply to the actual structure of a campaign?

As I’m pondering about my last campaign, I decided that I would spare you the analysis and discuss the key lesson I learned from it here.

You see, my campaigns have almost always crashed before we concluded them (the last one nearly did).

There are always multiple reasons for them but mostly, I think it’s because they run longer than the writer’s capacity to fuel them, and by writer, I meant me, the DM.

Then I started to think of my campaigns as a TV series. I started comparing just how much they tended to resemble long-running American TV series.

Very much like these shows, Seasonal rot often set in our campaigs. (That’s when a series takes a bad turn in terms of plot choices and ends up leading to a bad season, think Battlestar Galactica Season 3)

Then, this year, I discovered the joys of British Brevity with Life on Mars and Spaced. In such shows, seasons last just 6-8 episodes and then we’re done. I also recalled Tommi’s Burning Vikings campaign…

…and I had an epiphany!

I always have been making my campaign based on long plotlines. TV Tropes calls this..

The Story Arc

A story arc (a contraction of “over-arcing storyline”) is a sequence of episodes that puts characters through their paces in response to a single impetus; basically, an ongoing storyline. This can be a few episodes, an entire season, or even the focus of the entire series.

However, while I tend to spring for Myth Arc (i.e. really long story arcs), I find myself stuck with limited time to prep and occasional bouts of the White Page syndrome.

In such cases, I often have to hunt down pre-published adventures with no link to the story arc (or a tenuous one at best). While I sometimes can hack them to fit into the storyline, more often than not it jars with campaign continuity.

I also often end up taking a series of questionable decisions, like adding strange sourcebooks and merging genres and mechanics in the campaign. I do this without thinking about the consequences and I invariably find myself struggling with a campaign so complex and full of loose threads that I become discouraged with it and just feel like abandoning it…

This in turns affects my enthusiasm and makes the game less fun than it could be.

Memo to Self… you also tend to do that with your jobs Phil.

Oh shut up Freud, I’m writing here!

Anyhow, as I sat there watching Life on Mars, I pondered:

Why not make shorter campaigns around a specific Story Arc? Let’s say 5 to 6 four hours game sessions based around a core idea I can describe in 10 words of less. (See my guest post on that at Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips).

With such a short span, my core idea will remain to the front and not be derailed by a random adventure or me adding things… I could now afford to wait a few weeks to add new material in the next mini campaign.

Also, if I decide to take a published adventure, I can make the adventure the actual story arc without having to worry about long term plots and such.

So basically this would make my campaigns modeled after British TV series.

At the same time, why not allow players to choose if they want to play a new character or keep the same one in the next campaign?

This would basically make each campaign a “season” of the series.

Characters would progress in their power level from campaign to campiagn, each new character being at the same levels as the others in the party.

Then at the end of our gaming year, we decide if we continue with that model, Keep the structure but start at the bottom of the power tree again or abandon it and purchase/play a classic adventure path.

Yeah… that could work.

What I really like about this approach is that I can let time pass between those mini campaigns and allow players to decide what it is their characters (retired or not) did during that time.

This would allow marriages to be had, children to be born, treaties to be negotiated, businesses to be run. If a player decides that a character should retire, so be it… he will be until he/she decides to call upon him in a later campaign.

Then when we all agree to a timeline to start the action once anew, the characters become heroes again. Others can also rise to the challenge: nephews, sisters, spouses and friends of ex PCs. Alternatively, new heroes could join the returning heroes.

I feel a lot of possibilities.

From a more gamist D&D 4e perspective (how’s that for an oxymoron?) , such a model would allow players to experiment new characters and get to use new sourcebooks as they become available.

This would allow the gaming group to infuse newness in the game without waiting for the end of a long season (or a character’s death) to switch.

I feel that such a campaign model would be ideal for our upcoming D&D 4e games. I’m not too concerned with continuity as those who long for it can keep the same character over a long time.

That being said, nothing prevents the DM from doing a little bit of Arc Welding and tacking on a Myth Arc to the emerging stories that results from these short adventure… Much like reader MAK proposed in my little characterization tips contest (still a few days to participate!).

So am I onto something good or am I missing something… are there disadvantages I fail to see that can bite us with such a model?

Let me know!


  1. It’s a shame you chose Life on Mars as your example. The BBC DID make a sequel (Ashes to Ashes) to that – a far inferior, basically worthless adaptation that suffers from the same Season Rot that you condemn elsewhere. (YMMV of course – my wife certainly disagrees with me).

    However, there are many BBC series that do illustrate your point; Ultraviolet is a good one.

  2. Reverend Mike says:

    Oh, wow…this is exactly the thing that’s happening with 4e for my group…after I finish running Keep on the Shadowfell, we’ll be diving into my 4e campaign, possibly with some break…some players wish to keep their characters while others wish to explore their options…this whole thing is an excellent way to meet both needs in a coherent flow…

    I’m stealing this…

  3. FSkornia says:

    Ok, first comment post here for me, though I’ve been reading for a while now. I just want to say that this actually is a really great idea and one that I used during my last campaign I ran. The campaign was a modern day setting using a “mechanics-lite” homebrew system a friend of mine developed.

    When I originally conceived of the campaign, I planned it to be a campaign that had an overall plot arch, but the plot would be interrupted by nonrelated (or sometimes seemingly nonrelated) adventure sequences.

    For example (to continue using the television metaphors), think about how the X-Files ran, where there would be numerous stand-alone episodes interspersed with episodes that advanced the “Mythology” arc. I intended to run a complete adventure (beginning, middle, and end) each session, which generally ran 4 hours.

    This ended up working out so beautifully, I will find it hard to run a lengthy single-plot campaign again.

    For the first part, it really worked out for the players. Since we have a rather large group (full party was 8) it can be hard to get everyone together every week. So if someone missed a session they only missed out on that adventure, and when they showed up the following week they would be ready to jump into the beginning of the new adventure.

    Second, it was a joy for me to prepare. Instead of lengthy (and sometimes very tedious) prep time for extended plot arches, I only had to plan for a 4 hour adventure. This gave me the ability to play around with a lot of different themes and story types. We had sessions that became extremely investigative, other ones that ended up being heavy on character development.

    In the end, my players found they were able to remember entire sessions, instead of just snippets of a lengthy campaign. By having many smaller adventures, I was able to explore in depth information that my players put into their characters’ backgrounds and informations.

  4. The need for an all-encompassing Myth Arc depends a lot on the players, our tacked-on plot did not really change the earlier style of having standalone one-to-few session tactical-combat-heavy adventures (favored by the players). What the plot arc did was create at least somehow believable transitions between the individual “scenes”. We DM’s basically had two objectives when creating a session:

    1) tactical challenge: the location, monsters, traps, etc
    2) plot advancement: clues, revelations, etc

    Our gaming group has a style of play one could call “binary” for lack of better term, evolved from the difficulty of finding frequent enough common gaming time: Our gaming sessions are very combat-heavy, almost wargaming-like, while the campaign notes Wiki is entirely roleplaying- and plot-centered with combat details left out. So for the sessions, the DM has to prepare the tactical part, but plot advancement details can be added on top afterwards. This makes the plot preparation task a lot lighter since the DM has some time AFTER the session to elaborate on setting and plot details.

  5. Ethalias says:

    Regular reader, first time poster (I think!).

    I like the sound of this approach, it seems a flexible way to run a campaign.
    There’s nothing to stop the GM from blending an arc with the episodic format either.. Taking a successful/popular plot thread and extending it, adding further developments/adventures related to the NPCs/groups/BBEG etc, without the whole campaign turning into one long saga.

    I think it’s something that requires prior discussion with players, like any specified play style I suppose.

    Keep up the good work Chatty, best wishes to your Son.

  6. I love how different readers take different things with a given post! Yay!

    @Gazza: Well British TV takes some time to percolate through the American TV stew that us Canadians are exposed to. While I have heard of Ashes to Ashes, I’m still on the 6th episode of LOM’s 1st season.

    However, A to A is actually the perfect example of my proposed model. The player playing Sam Tyler ‘retires’ (no hints!) and the player decides to play a female police officer in who returns to the same universe, only 8 years later joining with the original cast of characters.

    Now if the mini-campaign takes a bad turn, like you allege that AtA is, then it’s no big thing to close it faster and move on to the next mini campaign (or start anew).

    @Reverend Mike: Thanks. You know, as I was saying to Dave the Game yesterday, when you give out your ideas for free on a blog, someone stealing your idea is the equivalent of making a sell. So thanks for shopping at Chatty’s, be sure to check our bargains in the Trope department!

    @FSkornia: Welcome to the blog! Thanks for the kudos and I’m happy to see that the model works, although from what I get in your comment, you were playing more of an episodic model with a phantom Myth Arc… That’s also great.

    What I have in my mind to try is more the Mini-Series/British Seasons since I can’t fit full adventure in an evening as we sometimes don’t get 4 full hours of gaming. But I really like the concept of TV episode RPGs… I got the original inspiration for such adventures way back when in Mekton.

    @MAK: Our styles are basically identical. We are butt kickers and Adrenaline junkies in our games, but we turn storytellers when we discuss our games off table.

    @Ethalias: Welcome! I really appreciate when readers take the first step to join the community and voice their opinions (especially when you tell me how you like my stuff… that never grows old! he he).

    I fully agree that such a model needs to be discussed with players first as some players expect unending adventures with pauper to legends storylines.

    Heck, my level 1 to level 18 D&D adventure took us 2 years to play but the action happened over a period of 4-6 months give or take.

  7. I see what you mean, but the problem is similar to Highlander sequels (“There should be only one!”) and Matrix sequels (where the third movie not only sucked, but went back in time and retroactively made the second movie suck as well) – which is to say that a bad sequel can tarnish the memory of an otherwise fun campaign (or movie, in my examples). Without spoiling Ashes to Ashes for you, the issue I have with it is that it makes much of the deliberate ambiguity of Life on Mars (“Is he insane? Is he a time traveller? Is this a near death experience?”) moot – in order for Ashes to Ashes to even exist, some of the previous ambiguity is at the very least less ambiguous.

    Lest I be accused of pushing the movie/RPG analogy too hard, I should probably point out that I actually did experience this “sequelitis” problem. Way back in the day I ran a campaign called The Kingdom of Skaili. The details of the game are unimportant (and on my web page if anyone was REALLY interested), but suffice it to say that it is the most memorable game I’ve ever run – DECADES afterwards it’s still the one that my players fondly remember. About a year or so after I wrapped that game – a natural conclusion – I decided to run a sequel (“Skaili Revisited”) set about twenty odd years after the events of the first adventure, with all new PCs. I think it went something like three sessions, despite the fact that I’d spent a LOT more time planning it than I ever had for the original, and despite the fact that the original (in my estimation) wasn’t even really that good.

    Now, granted my players still fondly think of the original, but they’re no longer in any hurry to go back there – some times the story is just OVER.

    Err… arguably that all supports your original point, of course, if you’re saying that sometimes brevity is a good thing. Indeed there are entire games that are short term by nature (My Life With Master, for example). It depends what you’re shooting for. Running a campaign with a beginning, middle, and end is going to be similar to something like an action movie or (at most) a short series of such movies; the more typical approach shoots for something more akin to a soap opera (and I’m using that term VERY loosely, as I intend it to include things like Babylon 5 or Buffy). The appeals of the latter are many – the players get to explore all levels of the game (assuming it has a concept like levels, of course) with the same characters, the GM gets to reuse a lot of material which makes it easier to prepare adventures, and the world gets the sort of depth that promotes immersion. But that is not to suggest that the former idea of a short term campaign doesn’t have its own appeals – in a group like mine, most campaigns END UP being short term regardless of planning, so you might as well take advantage of it. :)

  8. @Gazza: Agreed on all accounts. That’s why, I wouldn’t feel bad to junk a campaign altogether because it took an irrevocable turn that even starting a new mini campaign in the same ‘universe’ can’t make better.

    I’ll explore this with my players this summer and if I adopt that approach, you’ll all get exposed to how it works out. Expect the DVD sets of the 1st Season by X-mas 2008! Complete with never seen behind the scenes outtakes like Eric mooning us…again!

  9. /derail

    Bar your door, because saying BSG sucks is apparently geek heresy. ;) That said, THANK YOU. Season 3 blew goats, and turned my entire group off the show — our weekly pre-gaming ritual for many months.

    I’ve since snuck back and starting watching season 4, which is excellent so far (3 episodes in). If you, too, stopped at the end of 3, I recommend giving 4 a try.

  10. @Martin: I’m at season 3… I have to start it, knowing that it’s going to be painful. Although after having forged on through Season 2 of 6 Feet Under, I think I can survive anything… knowing how awesome season 4 is supposed to be I’ll forge through (or just read the synopsis and jump to 4 directly).

  11. Primetime Adventures, which is an RPG focussed on replicating the good parts of TV shows, came to the same conclusion and suggests short seasons of 5 sessions or long seasons of 9 sessions. As they point out, if you enjoyed the season, you can always have the network buy another– as long as the GM’s willing.

    In my short-run game group, we did the same with Star Wars Saga– we wanted to try it out but not commit to an indefinite campaign. The GM prepared a 6-8 session adventure, which wound up feeling like the perfect length, like one of the movies. We’re currently clamoring for a sequel when he gets time enough to prepare it! [Which is another great advantage-- it can be difficult to foresee obligations months off. If something comes up, then you were already planning on a break point. If nothing comes up, time for a sequel!]

    ScottMs last blog post..A few recent finds

  12. Okay, first, let me say that I like your idea, I think your idea is sound, and I may well appropriate your idea in my next campaign. Also, I answer rhetorical questions as a past time.
    That said:

    Why not make shorter campaigns around a specific Story Arc? Let’s say 5 to 6 four hours game sessions based around a core idea I can describe in 10 words of less.

    Hum, the same reason most modern writers write novels instead of short stories. (well, half of the reason why at least.)

    A writer writing a 5,000 word short story may do 1/10th to 1/4th as much research and setting development as they would for a 120,000 word novel. The time writing and editing is often on a similar discount. In the long run, word for word, it is much more efficient to write novels than short stories for most writers. (Then there is the money thing… short story publishers don’t pay a living wage for your work. In SF, the major magazines are still paying the same rates for a short story as they were in the 1960s. But that really isn’t here or there.)

    I suspect that you’d face a similar (though possibly less extreme) problem with running a series of micro-campaigns.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..Geneology, what’s that

  13. @ Michael Philips: I see your point and that is especially true for DM who do all the background design work up front and improvise afterwards.

    For instance, I’m not sure my buddy Yan would like to DM such a campaign model (yes I’m baiting him… he he he)

    But if all Micro Campaigns occur in the same gameworld on a shared timeline, previous (or expanded) world building work is not lost at the conclusion of one micro campaign. Much like short stories done in the same world like some Conan stories.

  14. Chatty beat me to it… A shared world is what gives the micro campaigns the needed continuity! And throwing references to previous events or locations that the current characters don’t know but the players do is great fun. This sort of episodic play also helps to build the game world gradually which makes it even better suited for new episodes. It’s a win-win situation!

    A peek at our game world is at – quite lightly covered, since I don’t have time to translate the whole thing from Finnish and there does not seem to be much interest in pseudo-historical settings (I kind of understand – anyone could check Wikipedia for such details)

  15. One of my two 4e campaigns I want to run was one that uses some of the concepts from Birthright. This is an interesting approach that could work for that campaign. Since each stage in the nation’s development would be a “season” and would involve different threats. Plus I could show the development of the country over different times, which would call for different character archetypes. Early in the nation’s development it would be all gritty frontier characters and wilderness adventure, later players would switch to playing their descendants who are now bored baroque nobles.

    Thought provoking idea.

  16. Well if you have a “sandbox” approach you actually do little to no preparation for each session.

    Your concept is almost the default game settings for this kind of GMs. It requires no big conceptual leap in a sandbox game to change group. What you’ve bin doing (The mythical plot) is a lot harder to do in the sandbox approach.

  17. I disagree that “sandbox” means no prep. Sometimes it means way more prep. You often have to anticipate where the players may be going with it. Now you may not prep out every single path they could go down, but you do have to make up lots of shallow but wide adventure snippets, or at least familiarize yourself with gameplay that they want to engage in.

    If they are prone to committing crimes, then you prep some heists up to have on hand. If they are wont to rescue princess you have some damsels in distress to drop in.

    Stupid gravatars won’t update. :(

    Captain Cursors last blog post..I Need a Horse!

  18. Well I did little to no prep at each session, since everything you mentioned was all part of my initial world creation preparation.

    Plot hook’s, with some organizations their goals, typical henchman leader and I would improvise for the rest base on the player action.

    That being said I did some prep before each session but it was mostly a though process to be mentally prepared and have the most probable material at hand.

    Every one as is own approach and mine does not mean that every GM that uses the sandbox approach rely as heavily as I do on their own improvisation skills.

  19. I really think that Sandbox gaming is a campaign structure and improv is a Gming technique.

    While both go well together they are not the same. A sandbox game can be exceedingly prepped if the GM needs a “ready for everything” toolbox to run it.

    But what do I know, I suck at improv and the idea of running a sandbox game scares the $hi7 out of me!!

  20. We’ve tried most shades of gray in the sandbox vs railroad axis from “so, what do you want to do now” to playing spectator to deus-ex-machina NPC’s – as may be guessed, neither extreme has worked very well.

    What has worked OK is (not surprisingly) a DM-generated rough direction that the players play along with, but can provide their own twists and turns that the DM then in turn incorporates in the storyline. If you are familiar with agile software engineering, it’s not that far off… Game sessions are like sprints of development and the direction is re-checked between each session.

  21. @MAK: Yup same here. So I guess that if I do use the short campaign model, that will make us Northen RPG brothers.

  22. I like the concept. I immediately thought about “24.” A very specific, though often convoluted, plot centered and taking place in one day. Each season is its own storyline, but draws in elements from previous storylines, and has recurring elements and characters.

    This serves both the short term goals of being focused, while allowing you the long term elements of the myth arc, should you choose to invoke them.

  23. I like this idea, especially ’cause my group thought of it long ago. But we didn’t do anything about it.
    What we wanted to do was get away from campaigns that lasted years in real time, and get more DM rotation.
    What did we do? Well, I ran for 3 years, while my wife ran for 3 years-plus. Our Buffy game ran for 4 years, my wife is in year 4 of Shackled City, and so on. I’ve run a 1-year game that had a definite endpoint (someone suggested a 13-episode season), and an 8-session game that both felt satisfying. I think I will work harder at paring down my dreams in the future.

  24. Color me late to the party…

    I think it depends a lot on session length and frequency, too. I’m currently playing a group that gets about 3 or 4 weekly 4 to 5 hour sessions in every month. I don’t know what the DM’s long term plans are, but as an alternate game I’m running a Savage Worlds mini-campaign (Zombie Run) that is structured very much like a TV mini-series. So far, this is working really well. However, I won’t be continuing the experiment. Once the “Run” is over, we’ll be moving on to something else.

    Dr. Checkmates last blog post..Lately it occurs to me

  25. Damn, I wrote this post a year ago.

    Since I mentioned it in a Podcast today, I just want to say that I’ve been doing those mini-campaigns since last August and it’s worked like a charm! We played 3 such campaigns and PCs are now at level 9, one of which is the same since day one.

  26. As before, Philippe, your writing continues to improve, and this is a strong post conceptually as well. Bravo. (It’s not just the wine and the afterglow of watching Prime Suspect 4 talking, either! Well, maybe.)

    Wallys last blog post..Key to understanding me during dark times.

  27. @Wally: Thanks for the praise. That post is from one year ago, but it’s one of my good ones. I’m quite proud of it.


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