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Story Pacing The Carter Way

Posted By Phil Vecchione On July 24, 2009 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 12 Comments

When I was a younger GM, I ran a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles campaign.  I came up with a lot of great story arcs, but I would get so excited about them, that I ran them too fast. I burnt through several storylines so fast, that I had to reboot the campaign five times. Call it excitement, call it youth, but I got so excited about the story arc that I created, that I would take something that should have lasted a few months, and run it in just a few weeks.

For years, this lack of story pacing plagued me as a GM. Everyone liked my stories, but my campaigns never lasted very long because of the speed at which I ran though my plots. I would go through all my great ideas in a few months, and then burn out. It frustrated me, because I never could get that long campaign that I always wanted.

All that changed for me in the early 90s when I found my guru of story pacing:  Chris Carter. You might remember Mr. Carter from a little show called “The X-Files.”  Love it or hate it, “The X-Files” is a great model for campaign pacing. So, let’s take a look at how pacing was done in “The X-Files,” and then we can see how it applies to your own campaign.

The Truth Is In There

X-Files episodes fall into two types of episodes:  The Mytharc, or Mythology, and the Monster of the Week. The Mytharc centered around the conspiracy that Cigarette Smoking Man, Mulder’s father, and the original Deep Throat were part of, and how it related to the disappearance of Mulder’s sister. The Monster of the Week episodes were often just single episodes that contained unrelated stories.

If the Mytharc episodes had been done back to back, it is doubtful that they would have made up more than 3 seasons of episodes. Instead, the show lasted 9 seasons. How did 3 seasons of story last 9 seasons?  Dilution.

What Carter and the X-Files writers did, was to space the Mytharc episodes out by putting Monster of the Week episodes in between. The effect is that the Mytharc story arc was diluted and went farther.

Diluting Your Plots The Carter Way

How do you take the concept of Dilution and apply it to your campaign?  It’s going to take a little upfront planning. The first thing you need is an outline of your major story arc, broken out into 5-7 sessions. Then you are going to need a short list of individual stories; things that you can run in 1-2 sessions.

As an example, let’s look at a story arc that involves a plot of a religious cult to release their deity from an ethereal prison. After some brainstorming the outline looks like this:

  1. The Cult attempts to kidnap the Captain of the Watch
  2. The Cult infiltrates the Thieves Guild
  3. The Cult smuggles a set of religious artifacts into the city by ship
  4. The Cult kidnaps the Princess
  5. The Cult attempts to open a portal to their deity using the artifacts and the Princess in a ritual

Taken back to back, there are only five sessions for this story arc. If you are playing weekly, this is just over a month’s worth of story.  In a bi-weekly game this would be just over two months of story. Not bad, but this is an intricate plot and one month does not do this type of story justice.

Now, Using dilution, we can lengthen the story arc with some individual stories:

  1. The Cult attempts to kidnap the Captain of the Watch
  2. The Heroes rescue some merchants who have been attacked by bugbears
  3. The Heroes help an older mage collect some dangerous spell components
  4. The Cult infiltrates the Thieves Guild
  5. The Heroes go on a quest to find a friend who has gone missing
  6. The Cult smuggles a set of religious artifacts into the city by ship
  7. The Heroes find a lost wizards tower
  8. The Cult kidnaps the Princess
  9. The Cult attempts to open a portal to their deity using the artifacts and the Princess in a ritual

Now with the addition of four individual stories we have stretched out this story arc.  Run weekly, and we now have over two months of stories.  Run bi-weekly we have 4.5 months worth of story.

Advantages of Dilution

Diluting your story arcs has the following benefits:

  • Less Brainstorming Needed—with your story arcs lasting longer, you won’t have to brainstorm new ideas as quickly. This will aid in preventing burn-out.
  • Creates Anticipation—spacing out story arcs makes the players anticipate the next episode of the main arc.
  • Increases Player Investment—when players have to wait to confront their enemies it increases their emotional investment in the game .
  • Creates a Sense of the Passage of Time—by spacing the individual stories out, you create the feeling of the passage of time.  For more complicated plots, having that feeling of the passage of time often makes the plot seem more realistic.

Advanced Dilution

When you have the Dilution technique worked out, and have tried it a few times, you can try the more advanced version. Dilute one story arc, with another story arc, in essence braiding two story arcs. Get real fancy and into the braided story arcs, sprinkle in a few individual stories and your campaign stories not only last longer, but your campaign becomes more complex, in a good way.

Go Forth and Dilute

The Dilution technique is an easy way to get more mileage out of your storylines and to stretch your your plots so that you do not burn through them so quickly. It requires a small bit of upfront planning, but that planning can provide you months of story ideas.  Now take that great story arc that you just came up with and dilute it out.

Tell us about your experiences with story pacing.  Are you using dilution or another technique?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Story Pacing The Carter Way"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 24, 2009 @ 6:21 am

Ah yes, the old “premature campaign climax”. I know it well…

But as we get older and (hopefully) wiser, we learn to enjoy the ride. And we make sure our partners players get as much enjoyment as we do.

#2 Comment By Rechan On July 24, 2009 @ 7:14 am

Now, if only the Mythology episodes didn’t drag and get convoluted… X-Files was very influential on me growing up, but even now, only some of the MythArc episodes were good, imo. (The Cigarette Smoking Man’s life history was great, though).

Now on topic, the Carter method certainly works. In fact, I may have to look at this for my upcoming campaign.

You could expand this, for instance, if you wanted to have a little more sandboxy approach – you have your MythArc session, and then present 3 directions the PCs could go, and then when that’s done/almost resolved, you drop the next MythArc.

There’s a variation of Carter Way I’ve seen: The Whedon Way, from Dollhouse. Or, if you’re more “old school”, the Babylon 5 way. Instead of having MythArcs, each episode is mostly a Monster of the Week – but, the subplot reveals something regarding the MythArc, or at least, the subplot is building on something. After a few episodes, the Subplot Stew episode comes along, where the smaller parts come to fruition, exposing the whole. Additionally, the Monster of the Week episodes are referential – in Babylon 5, the Dock Strike/Riot of one episode will lead to a negative opinion by the EarthForce Senate in the next.

#3 Comment By Rechan On July 24, 2009 @ 7:24 am

Continuing from the above post, there’s another variation. The show Burn Notice is very, very structured.

Each episode breaks down to:

Main Plot
Subplot
Main Character’s Relationship with support character.

The important thing here is that the SUBPLOT moves the season’s arc along. Every episode, it’s the SUBPLOT the character really cares about, but the Main Plot is just “The job that fell on my lap, distracting me from the subplot”.

An example of this in a game, then, is your Cult seeking to unleash the Gods. Let’s say todays session, the PCs set out to “Research the Cult”. But, while at the library, demons bound to an ancient book are released, suddenly trapping everyone in a demon freeforall in the library! However, by the time the PCs wrap it up, they’ve found the book they were looking for on the Cult. The info leads them to next week’s Subplot.

#4 Comment By kenmarable On July 24, 2009 @ 7:42 am

Great idea!

Also, to expand on the Babylon 5 example (or the JMS Way if you will), his original plan was an expanding Mytharc presence. I forget the exact percentages, but the plan was along the lines of:
Season 1 – 10% Arc episodes
Season 2 – 25% Arc episodes
Season 3 – 50% Arc episodes
Season 4 – 75% Arc episodes
Season 5 – 100% Arc episodes
So as more of the arc is revealed, it takes up a larger amount of screen/campaign time. Plus as Rechan mentioned above, even if the A story was stand-alone, the B or C subplots were often arc related even if only noticeable in hindsight. (And in the end, I think Season 3 qactually jumped to 80-90% arc, 4 was 90-100% arc, and then eased up only slightly in Season 5. Definitely a case of the arc taking over the series.)

It’d be trickier to do this expanding arc, but at the same time it feels a bit more natural. As the PCs get deeper into the villian’s master plan, they will become more motivated to seek out more clues and ways to stop it. When they are 26th level and have a rather clear idea of the extent of the campaign-wide threat, they could easily get annoyed with “distractions”.

#5 Comment By DNAphil On July 24, 2009 @ 11:32 am

@Telas: I almost used the “premature climax” reference in the article. But I think that there is something to say for age giving you the patience to let a story take longer to unfold.

@Rechan and Kenmarable: Awesome ideas. Perhaps we will have to have a few more Story Pacing articles based on some other writers. I have used a Whedon-like approach in other campaigns.

I also like the JMS way..in fact it touches on something I did not bring up in the initial article, and that is,while delaying a story arc is good, you do eventually have to deliver the climax to the article.

The JMS way is a nice formula for developing a story that fits the scope of the characters. In Season 1, the characters are lower level, and not central to the plot, as they rise in level, they become more entangled in the plot until its conclusion is all that lies before them.

Great discussion…and great ideas.

#6 Comment By Tommi On July 24, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

My gaming improved tremendously when I stopped stalling and fearing that the story might go forward or actually end. We play a game, story is created as we play, and at some point it ends. We start another game then. Sometimes old characters are used, sometimes new ones are made. There’s plenty of stories to be created and told, so why stall?

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 24, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

Due to real life issues, I’m finding that solid A plots don’t take much in game dilution to stretch out– other commitments cancel sessions and slow the pace below anything I’d want. It’s kind of nice to go full circle– I’m back to enjoying short series of 5-10 sessions, often 80% main plot. Then when that game’s done, we can try out another.

I like the dilution plan and the JMS approach for delaying things until characters have the right level of investment and power for the main plot. For D&D it makes perfect sense, and will make your campaign hold together more than a series of unconnected modules.

#8 Comment By Bercilac On July 24, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

I agree with Telas and Kenmarable. Stretching out a plot a bit is fine, but leaving it entirely by the wayside? I know, as a player, one of my motivations is to uncover the long-term story, as well as develop my character (and its stats) along the way. So if you feel the need to stretch out the plot with sub-plots, a lot of players would probably appreciate at least getting a clue to the wider story, or some sense of connection, in the mini-plots.

For instance, in your adventure 7, I’d be asking “Why are we messing around in a Wizard’s tower?! The cult is still at large!” Unless there were suspected cult connections, and at the end some new information about how they operate.

On the other hand, I’m often in Tommi and Scott’s position, of only being able to play occasionally, so delaying the plot is a bit unnecessary.

I think in my next campaign I’m going to have an “introductory arc” that deals with purely local matters (the initial campaign setting is probably a week’s travel time from one end to the other, or less, haven’t quite decided yet). However, throughout I will start introducing players to the concepts and ideas that make up the “global arc,” which will involve much tougher challenges and have a more “epic” feel. In the long run, assuming the players defeat those challenges, I predict a short “god” arc, where the players set themselves up as super-powerful individuals in the setting and try and establish themselves as the dominant actors. Once they achieve this level of dominance, it’ll probably be time to close down the campaign. Probably.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 24, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner…

Most of the Savage Worlds campaign settings have a “Plot Point” progression that allows the GM to pace the overarching storyline as he or she wishes.

#10 Comment By DNAphil On July 26, 2009 @ 7:19 am

@Bercilac– So you bring up a good point about the Individual stories. The main story arc has to resolve itself each session in a way, that the players cannot easily stay on that story arc. So perhaps in Session 6, the players destroy a cell of the cult, but do not have a link to the main cult, or they believe that the cell they destroyed was the main cult. In either case, the players believe that they can move on.

#11 Comment By jonmcnally On August 6, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

I’ve been lurking Gnome Stew for a short while and now feel compelled to register and comment on this post …

I love the dilution method. It’s worked well for me, particularly in a Star Wars (1E) campaign I ran years ago. In that one, my self-authored arc sessions were diluted by published adventures, giving me time to observe, adjust, etc.

Wandering from direct discussion of dilution, I’m very interested in the example you presented. I notice that the first four parts of the five-part arc could imply some failure on the part of the PCs.

Phil, I’d love to hear how you might present one or more of these without incurring undesirable player wrath.

#12 Comment By manodogs On August 10, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

I’ve never had this problem, but I see from the comments that many have, so maybe I can provide a different way of looking at things:

When I “grew-up” (well, got older – I’m staving-off “growing-up” as best I can) and became a “real” writer, I was excited to learn that I already knew most of the concepts involved in “real” writing because I’d been using them in RPGs for years! I just had to learn the jargon, which is not present in any RPG (I think it’s because the hobby had already forwarded its own.)

All TV shows (since these are the topic – or sub-topic, if you like) have an “A Story” and “B Story.” The A Story is “Monica wrecked her car;” the B Story is “Chandler met a girl online.” There are lots of ways to handle this, but the usual is keeping them separate: the A Story is forwarded for seven of the 11 minutes (between commercial Breaks) and the B Story is handled in the remainder. This approach is almost always used in ensemble sit-coms, which is why I used the example I did.

In larger, episodic dramas – such as the X-Files – this is sometimes more complicated, but the B Story is almost always the “Meta-Plot,” or larger story (referred to above as the Mytharc); the complications arise when a single episode has both an A and B Story – such as in the episodes where Mulder is chasing-down answers, while Scully is handling the Monster of the Week, back home. However, this is still just two stories: Mulder is forwarding and expounding upon the Metaplot, while Scully’s foibles become the B story.

I understand this can be a bit confusing, and I don’t know that I’m doing it justice in this limited space, but the concept should be easy to research online or at your local library.

As you can see, if your campaign has a Metaplot (and not all do) – an overreaching story or goal for the entire campaign, such as the cult story above – then you have single-handedly laid-out the larger, “B Story.” Technically speaking, this Metaplot will become the B Story in almost every session in which it is not the A Story; that is, every session in which this Metaplot is not at the very center, it is still working and ruminating in the background and should affect the session, the PCs, and so on, indirectly.

While it need not be forwarded every session, it needs to be addressed (if it is not by way of the session’s events, themselves) – but rarely should you address it directly (it’s just tacky).

For example, any and all NPCs directly involved in the Metaplot are constant reminders – no specific references necessary – and buildings, settlements, and so forth count as NPCs (and you should be developing them as such!). If the PCs suspect a particular NPC is involved in the cult, have them bump into him at the market while shopping for rope to help in their completely disconnected dungeon-crawl – no exchange, no dialogue, they just see him there – or simply note the church bell’s toll at some point during the adventure! All of these ideas are better than saying, “Don’t forget about the cult!” It’s really that easy.

Every PC in your party is also a Story – whether they are the A Story or B Story depends on the session, the troupe’s (and individual players’) desires, any encounters or plots that arise throughout the course of play, etc. Every player wants to advance his/her character, so right there’s an A or B Story you can *always* fall back on (note we’re not just talking about their levels, et.al. – they should have goals and desires above this). Their personal histories are goldmines of story ideas, directions, et.al., that can be thrown in the mix at any time.

I haven’t even mentioned random encounters!

As you can see, campaigns don’t *need* an overall story or goal – simply creating your characters and setting them forth to interact in, and with, your campaign setting should suffice. But if there’s an overall goal, you should never have a problem with it ending too soon. New goals arise because of character desires, changes in the environment or society, random events and encounters, and more; in fact, your biggest problem in this arena should be making sure you *get* to the campaign goal(s)!

Make sure your players develop their characters’ backgrounds before play, and stay true to their characters during play; an evil character would be far less likely to want to stop the cult than to find some way of benefiting from their rise to power – unless the cult’s plans will hamper him or his lifestyle! Right there’s a great story to add to the mix!

I hope this helps!


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