So Episodes, and their structure. Last time was looked at taking the chronicle pitch and planning out the series of events that would tell this story. Now we have a series of events that tell a particular story that we wish to run, we will now look at exploring a few of these events that take place together, or almost together, and now plan an episode about these.
An episode in any TV series depicts a small part of the larger story. An event occurs, like a murder, a theft, a discovery, a terrible accident (this list is limitless really) and deals with the immediate causes and effects about this event. For instance in Supernatural in season 2 a girl foresees the death of one of the main characters. This is a story that revolves around a simple concept, even though it is part of a larger plot for the entire season and series. However, Supernatural is also a show that is filled with episodes that have no relation to the main season or series plot.
Now lets take an example event and apply an apply it to an episode. Let us once more refer to my Vampire: the Requiem chronicle and take a major event, the assassination of the leader of the Carthians. This event involves a number of things. First let us look at causes. There is the need for the opponents of the Carthians to cause unrest within this political group. There is also the need to show that even those in a position of power are just as likely targets as anyone else. This event within the chronicle is a critical moment as it initiates a number of things. Firstly it escalates the rumours of a conspiracy within the Carthians. It also starts the election process and more importantly makes the player characters (PCs) key witnesses, investigators and allies as they become involved in the whole mess.
So we have the reasons for an event occurring, and also the desired (yes, desired, there is no guarantee that any of this will happen) outcomes after the event. Now let’s apply these to the episode.
Generally an episode consists of a number of scenes. In TV again let’s take Supernatural as an example. An episode in that show has a number of keys scenes. Typically they are;
· Find out that some weird shit has gone down and arrive at the location and discover the first bits of information on the weirdness. Who has died? How? Where? And any other little bits of weird evidence.
· The first initial investigation that leads up to a conflict, either directly or indirectly with the antagonistic force. So this may be searching a haunted location and some initial attacks by the ghost, or say, in the episode ‘Wendigo’ , the conflict is the presentation of a complication, like the theft of survival equipment.
· There is then the next bit of investigation and a series of revelations.
· Another scene based upon some form of conflict or challenge that leads to the tension of the episode being heightened.
· A scene where the last bits of investigation and revelation leads to the group being able to formulate some form of plan or solution, which takes us to…
· Final conflict/challenge event.
· The last key scene deals with the resolution of the event and some form of character growth.
So that is 7 key scenes. Now that is not a hard and fast rule. There can be more or less scenes depending upon the complexity of the story and the player choices. Now just like the chronicle structure of events, scenes are, in a way, mini-events, and they are a guideline of how the players get from the start of the episode to the end. Not all of scenes will happen. Others may occur without player knowledge and so with their interference, and so take place ‘off screen’. Some scenes may even need to be added on the fly. But really there are 3 scenes that have to occur. The introduction, the finale and conclusion, and a scene in the middle where the tension and risk in the story are heightened. If we can map the tension in the episode it should increase slowly towards the middle of the episode, spike, then increase slowly (perhaps drop a little) then spike up again before settling for the conclusion.
Now an episode does not have to focus on just one plot line, it is possible to include two or even three plot lines. This adds to the complexity, however, it is best within the episode to focus on a conclusion that involves the just one of the plot lines. So while other plot events are being heightened for the other plots, one plot progresses so that a significant event occurs. It is this event which is then the main focus of the episode.
To help in the design of episodes it may well be worth trying to classify the episode using the ‘Thirty-Six Dramatic Situation’ by Georges Polti. These have been shown in ‘Mage: the Ascension – Storytellers Guide’. Along with ‘The Big List of RPG Plots’ by S. John Ross, we can identify the type/types of stories being told in an episode. We are even able mix and match these plot archetypes, going as far as making and episode appear to be one type of plot before, as a twist, becoming another. The old bait ‘n’ switch.
So what more can I now add? Well how about just the act of writing an episode. Script over notes? Notes every time. Typically each scene in my notes consists of a few basic elements.
· Name – Just to inspire the writer more than anything.
· Objective – Well exactly what it says. What is the point of this scene? What should be revealed or occur.
· Location – a brief description of the location, including anything atmospheric. Perhaps included a list of sights, smells, sounds.
· NPCs – a list of NPCs present for this scene and why they are present.
· Play by Play of the scene – this list simply is a bullet point description of the scene and how it ideally should play out, with further bullet points for contingencies.
· Clues – every scene should be treated as if it is a crime scene, laden with clues, but also red herrings.
Really the advantage of this is to allow absolute flexibility, while not having planned out so much that all that hard work is wasted when the players go off on a tangent or find an unusual solution or mess up on an epic scale. Scripts are only of use when you have a particular scene in mind that has to occur. Most often this is at the start of an episode.
So that rounds that up. Next time will be roleplay techniques in game that I make use of, and then we may look at just general horror roleplay tips.
Lets us see.
Went to the Stavin' Chains gig in London, which was a crazy/fun night with Kane, and ended up with a late night booking of a hotel room (very nice big bed!!!!). The next day we then were at Aiko's for her house leaving party as she and her house mates finish uni, and so much meat was chargrilled and alcohol consumed.
And of course there was Paris. I really can't write it up better than glittersavvy, suffice to say Paris takes some working out but then when you find what you like about it you finally understand why it is a great place to be. Personally the revelation came during the evening after going to Versailles (which is epic... if you don't understand why then you should be shot for being a pleb) and then walking about the Latin Quarter.
Inside the Paris Opera House
Some of the Gardens!
At the Grand Trianon
Out side the Petite Trianon
Of course my spoken French was bollocks. I could say hello, thank you, ask for the bill, but that was all really, and was all that was needed in the end with such a modern city.
Oh and we walked everywhere. From one end of the city centre to the other. It is fairly easy to navigate the main roads, the trick is discovering all those excellent side streets where real shops and bars lurk. The real Paris.
Otherwise I've been writing a little and sorting out funding for the future. Hopefully better news on that soon.
So last time I went on about chronicle structure. How to put together episodes of a chronicle to make a coherent whole that tells a main story and follows sub plots, in such a way that it allows for the players to have as much influence over the direction of the plot as possible. This time we look at taking that structure and using it for a chronicle idea. But first we must consider the main issue. Just what do you want to run for your chronicle?
The chronicle follows a pitch, a main idea that will sell the chronicle to your players. So for example let us take a few chronicles and games that I have played in. Firstly for Vampire: the Requiem the pith was simple;
"The players are a group of recently embraced vampires who become involved in the deadly political games of the Carthian Movement, an election for a position of power, and the power games between the Covenants."
Pretty simple. So far the players have been working for one of the Carthian election candidates, and have seen firsthand the benefits of change and conservatism within the Carthians, and all this occurring before the larger back drop of intra-covenant power games, elements of which that can be investigated in sequel chronicles.
Another example is a Technocracy game for Mage: the Ascension in which I played;
"The players are a task force of operatives using enlightened science, combating a variety of threats, including a conspiracy within their own department."
Another, this time for Fading Suns;
"The players are a group of Questing Knights and their entourage, having set out from Byzantium Secundus, to investigate the claims of a lost house of nobles on the recently rediscovered world of Iver."
This last one is for something I am planning for Geist;
"The players are a Krewe of Sin-Eaters in Paris, and must deal with the needs of the dead that haunt the city, and also the insane plans of a ghostly mage who plans to rewrite the face of the city and the world itself".
So those are all pitches. In a sentence or so your chronicle has a definite concept, the players a purpose, and of course there is an end. So now we must take these pitches and elaborate on them in order to fill out the potential 7-10 episodes of the chronicle.
First and foremost be flexible. Episodes contain events. Some of these events occur only due to player interaction. Others occur even if the players do take action. Some events will occur with the player’s knowledge, others will not. So across the 10 or so episodes will be a series of events that can take place, and it is these events that push the story along. They also are the frame work for the chronicle's start, middle and end.
For example, in Vampire right now there are three main events that define the player's chronicle and journey. In the start they are presented to the Chairman of the city (the Carthian equivalent of Prince). In the middle we have the assassination of the Carthian Prefect. The final event is the election and the consequences for the players. These events are set in stone. They occur regardless of player interaction, and are the result of NPCs acting, rather than reacting. The players react to these events, but have freedom in how they get from one event to the next.
Other events can then be added along the chronicle timeline. They can be things like people having secret meetings, murders, thefts etc. Now these are events that can be discovered or simply the effects of them felt (for instance the Invictus and Ordo Dracul team up in my chronicle and the meeting of course takes place secretly. There is then a later event, an Ordo Dracul ritual, which the players drop in on as they follow clues. If they didn't discover it a vampire would have died and they would not have known why).
Once these key events have been put in place, and others littered throughout (or at least ideas of events for a chronicle can move direction dramatically due to player involvement) you are now in the position of putting these events into episodes.
The other advantage of this event planning is that you take a simple pitch and can elaborate upon it easily. For instance, going back to the Vampire election plot as you have noted there are interactions with the Ordo Dracul and Invictus. Now these were not in the original pitch, but have been added as the event time line, based upon the pitch, has been laid out. But how?
Well NPCs are not static reactionary plot instigators. They are characters like the PCs. They too have plans and react. They also have history. So the looking at the Carthian election plot the questions were who would want to interfere and what do they want to get out of it. This is where event planning becomes a two way street of ideas. Some events are based upon background material you have developed already for your game setting. Some events ideas will in fact shape this material. For instance the Ordo Dracul, why do they want to be involved in the election plot? Well they are banned from the city for some reason. Now this reason was either a) already written down by me or b) (and this is true) was an amendment to the background based upon the desire to have them act as an outcast group.
So from pitch to chronicle is about planning events (not too rigidly though) that lead the main plot (and eventually sub plots) from set events that occur at the start, to the end, via events in the middle. By looking at these events, their source and results, you can further expand upon the pitch and the background material of your setting, leading to a plot that has internal logic to why things are occurring.
Next time we will look at episode planning, taking events from our timeline and expanding them into entire episodes.
Colin Powell quotes (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93). At present, US Secretary of State, 1937)
How true. Plans never survive. Just the good bits, the parts that allow for adaption and alteration. Good plans have contingencies, trap doors and well allow for a degree of failure so you may win another day. This is true in everyday life, war and research (I can hold my hand up and proudly say that unexpected results and major barricades to progress have led to better things coming out of my work than initially expected).
So how about his in the realm of gaming?
I am a firm believer that my history with wargames and ccgs has led to a good ability to plan, but more importantly, not act rigidly with the constraints of these plans and even throw them out of the window when the chips are down and the shit hits the fan and spatters! How many times have I seen a spell fail to go off and leave my charge in tatters only to then leave the enemy with the initiative but also forgetting the potential for a flanking maneuver by my own forces. Or what of the times I have played magic only to see a combo get annihilated but leaving the opponent short of the cards needed for defending against a lowly grunt who proceeds to grind them into submission. Sometimes things happen unexpectedly but in such a way to offer new options, options only realised and utilized if you have the courage to fly caution to the wind and grab a hold of that chance.
Table top roleplay games need this attitude. You can plan a story until the cows come home, and it will never come out how you expected when the story is attacked by your party of players. But then that is how it should be. It is their world, their story as much as yours and they have to make their own choices. This is no Fighting Fantasy adventure.
Now every rpg book has a proportion of the GM section devoted to hints on how to design chronicles/campaigns and the individual stories. So I am going to try and be concise here and give my own tips on chronicle design and cover the story/episode design next time.
So where to begin? Episodic or not? I run episodic chronicles, and everyone I have gamed with does the same. What would I say the advantage of this is? Well the first is forward planning. Each episode has a purpose, to tell a specific part of the story, to offer particular revelations and information while presenting new questions and mysteries. Additionally using such a structure allows for some episodes to be stand alone, while remaining part of the larger setting, offering light relief from the main plot of the chronicle and giving both players and GM the chance to tell more varied stories. This is equally true of all episodes, just that the plots of these episodes can be tied together further to tell a larger story. Ultimately each episode gives the sense of progress, revelation and accomplishment, while also giving the chance for dramatic cliff-hangers and also serving to give the game a sense of pace and urgency.
I feel open ended chronicles. Those with no specific episodes and so no specific milestones means that there is a danger, in the wrong hands, for the game to stagnate and lose a sense of purpose or pace. If anything it means more book keeping to track where PCs and NPCs are at each session, while in episodes and between them, you can easily state what actions have passed without the player’s knowledge, since this NPC actions have to occur for the next episodes to occur. This actually makes more drama for the players as they are able to potentially, under their own ingenuity and pro-activity, to influence these events, and vice versa.
Ok so with that out the way how do we structure the chronicle? What story do we want to tell? We begin with the pitch. This is the 'big idea'. At the end of the chronicle a particular story has been told. If we go back to my Vampire: the Requiem chronicle the main pitch is simple. It the story of the Carthian power struggle and the reform of the politics of the Kindred Society. This immediately means that at the end of the chronicle there are consequences, both for the NPCs (one person is elected the other not, and the reactions to these) and of course the players (did they make the right choices, do they gain power and influence and at what cost). Layered into the chronicle can be smaller plot arcs concerning each player character but that again should follow the rules of change and consequences. The worst stories are those where at the end nothing has changed but the PC stat lines. That is not a story. That is glorified dungeon grind.
So let’s go back to the chronicle structure. We now have the main plot and the smaller plots and ideas for some other stories we want to tell. How do we string this all together? Let us assume there are 10 episodes for the chronicle. We need time to plan ahead for the plots that involve specific PC details so we shall allow these plots to begin development in the later portions of the chronicle. So the first 3 episodes are best suited to being devoted to the development of the main plot, essentially allowing for us to introduce the players to the game and the setting. It is during these initial episodes that the PCs can begin to get a feel for the main plot. Initial mysteries are introduced and NPCs. During this initial phase revelations are limited to revealing information that allows for progress of the mysteries, the presentation of enemies (those that are obviously enemies) and the presentation of allies (well both those that are true allies and those that are in fact using the PCs). In Chess terms these are the opening moves. Defences are tested, alliances are determined, traps are laid and initial pawns are put onto the front lines. Going back to Vampire in the first episode the PCs are introduced to the city and the Kindred, gain initial employment and make allies and enemies while performing a simple 'retrieve the dingus' mission. In the second episode the PCs are given another job which furthers their career progress while introducing new elements of the setting, allowing for a bit of exploration of the particular PC traits (in my case we looked at the systems for spirits and introduced elements of the Circle of the Crone when the majority of the game is Carthian centric.). Episode 3 focused more on a murder mystery, introducing more NPCs and setting in motion the main plot of the chronicle and allowing the PCs to choose a side and gain further prestige and enemies while introducing the more social elements of the setting.
Following these initial episodes the middle part of the chronicle serves to propagate the main plot, introduce elements of sub plots and allow for an episode or two to focus on other stories ideas. Now some of these plots can occur within the same episodes, thus allowing the PCs more options while also allowing for them to naturally get distracted as plots progress in the background if they choose not to pursue some. There is a danger though that an episode might contain two or more dramatic conclusions. This is in fact not useful as it can ruin the pace of the story, but it can also be used to add tension as the players feel that they have two or more things to solve at the same time.
Finally the last two episodes should lead to some form of finale, with plot points tied up (though not all have to be, just those critical to the story the chronicle is telling) so in my case the election of a new leader of the Carthians and some form of political reform and the resolution of the situation involving the Ordo Dracul. Other plot points can be resolved if the players determined them to be important, but then it is worth maybe keeping a few unresolved ready for a sequel chronicle. Also keep one episode in the last three episodes free so the players can be proactive and resolve plot points, thus furthering the feeling of control on their part.
So in summary the structure for a chronicle looks like this;
1 - Introduction - Introduce settings, NPCs, PCs, potentially main plot
2 - Settings Exploration - Further setting elements showcased, NPCs elaborated upon, PCs further explored, potential main plot started
3 - Escalation point 1 - Setting should be fully showcased by this point and the main plot started and escalated
4 - Main plot exploration
5 - Sub plot introduction / Freak of the week
6 - Main plot and sub plot continue/ sub plot ended/ sub plot 2 started
7 - Escalation point 2 and sub plot conclusion
8 - Loose Ends - open episode for PCs to pursue the clues they have and so influence the last two episodes
9 - Finale Preparation - Sub plots end and PCs can start to plan for the end based upon results of tying up loose ends from last episode
10 - Conclusion - Grand finale, plans are executed and events lead to a setting change and changes for the PCs.
Next time I will look at how we take a chronicle concept and apply it to this structure