My group is three sessions into a Star Trek series with me in the GM’s chair, and last night’s episode cemented one of the things I like most about running this game: the episodic structure.

I’ve played episodic games before (notably Stargate) and enjoyed them, but until now I’d never run one. There are different ways to approach them (and the Decipher Star Trek RPG Narrator’s Guide offers excellent advice on that topic, whether you’re running a Trek game or not — great book), but the one we’re using is to combine pure episodic structure with serial structure.

In Trek terms, that means it feels a lot like The Next Generation, where episodes from week to week don’t connect directly to each other, crossed with Voyager, where there’s an overarching storyline that connects episodes over the course of a season — but not like Deep Space Nine, which is more purely serial (IE, you can’t just drop in anytime and start watching).

If, like me, you’re mostly used to non-episodic campaigns where adventure one flows into adventure two flows into adventure three, running an episodic game is a great change of pace. It also offers some significant advantages over the traditional serial structure:

  • Variety – Unlike a more serial game, every session can be wildly different from the one before it, and equally different from the one that follows it. So far, we’ve had an exploration/disaster episode, a diplomatic episode, and an espionage episode — and it hasn’t felt hodge-podge. In a more traditional campaign, it would have been hard to stick those three sessions together.
  • Flexibility – Want to have several weeks pass in between sessions? No problem: Just narrate a brief interlude, and it’s done. In a traditional campaign, I feel much more constrained to have time flow more continuously, as adventures tend to bleed into each other; in an episodic game, that pressure is off.
  • Self-contained sessions – I made single-session adventures a design goal for this game, and so far I’ve been able to stick to it — each episode stands on its own and takes one session to play. (“To be continued…” two-parters will likely crop up later on.) The older I get, the more I find this approach makes the best use of my limited prep and gaming time.
  • Pacing – When you write a a convention-style adventure that can fit into a single session, it forces you to carefully consider pacing and only include the most important stuff. This can easily be done in more serial games, too, but the episodic structure forces you to do it — there’s less wiggle room, which I find to be a good thing. Everyone at the table also knows we’re striving for single-session episodes, and we play accordingly.
  • Drop-in, drop-out – This hasn’t come up yet for us, but if one player isn’t available, we can still play: Unlike a more serial game, having someone on the sidelines for one episode doesn’t strain suspension of disbelief, and if I know about an absence in advance I can build an episode to suit the players who will be there.
  • Adaptability – Because I’m not driving for the completion of a multi-session story arc, I can change things up on the fly. If one kind of episode, a particular key NPC, or some other element of the game doesn’t resonate with my players, I can change things up and write that element out of play. That’s harder to do when you need continuity.
  • Cast of thousands – Although this is a biggie for Trek games in particular, it’s not unique to Trek. With an episodic game, you can introduce all sorts of characters that might be hard to work into a continuity-driven game, then keep the ones your players like as a recurring characters. I love making characters, so this is a pleasure for me as a GM.

If you’ve never tried running an episodic game, I highly recommend it. This approach stretches different GMing muscles, offers a different kind of fun, and in my opinion generally fits the realities of trying to mesh multiple players’ gaming schedules with real life and still have a blast on game nights better than a traditional ongoing or serial-style game.

After another few sessions of Trek, I’m sure some other advantages will become clear as well, but at the moment this is what’s popped out at me. What am I missing from this list?

Similarly, thus far there haven’t been any disadvantages — it’s just a different style, not a better or worse style. If you’ve run long campaigns in an episodic style, were there downsides?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



16 Responses to The Benefits of Episodic Gameplay

  1. I’ve been doing a semi-episodic campaign lately. Really, the only difference from a plain episodic campaign is that each episode takes several sessions, then we move on to something new and different.

    I have to say, it’s working better for me than my previous campaign, which was purely episodic. Maybe it’s because I’m not so good at judging how long a given game is going to take, so it’s a relief to lose the time restriction and just let it flow as long as needed.

    I do miss the convenience of dropping and adding players though.

  2. What system are you running Star Trek under, if I may?

  3. Had a read of the startrek narrator’s guide.. It is indeed pretty damn awesome advice :)
    We’ve been used to a series game, and getting all the players into one spot every week is indeed very hard. Now we’ve started a new game, while still very serial, we’ve made it such that as long as we can get 3 players (out of 5)at the table for game, we can find things to do.
    I’m definently going to read the narrator’s guide indepth and use its hints :)

  4. When I was in university we switched to Shadowrun partially because of the way it worked for episodic play. Our play was a bit sporadic due to people’s schedules, but the big advantage was that if someone couldn’t make it that session, they just weren’t hired for the mission. It worked out really well and fit what we were trying to do. I’m a pretty big one on campaign continuity so people dropping in and out during an adventure is one of my pet peaves… but this worked around it nicely. Also, it worked nicely for us to be able to rotate GMs as we wanted, as we all had the same “feel” for the campaign, so it gave me a chance to play sometimes as well.

    As for the downside… the only one we really had was that sometimes and adventure (episode) took longer than a single session to play, which normally wasn’t a problem, but because people did rotate in and out, it meant we had to get the same group together for another session to close it out before moving on. Not a big deal and it didn’t happen often, but it is something to keep in mind.

  5. Call of Cthulhu works in this style too: wildly disconnected scenarios with arbitrary chunks of time in between and occasional radical changes in the cast. I’ve only run a handful of scenarios that were short enough to fit into one session (especially with my current group where I only get two to three hours of play per session) but making the play explicitly episodic would be a good way to structure play, I think.

  6. @Dunx – Agree. My 1920s trad CofC group actually finished up a lengthy and clue-intensive campaign recently and requested a switch to episodic play for a while. I was happy to accommodate them as I have a couple of dozen publications, each of which is packed with six or more stand alone adventures I thought I’d never get to run.

    I also agree that CofC games run to multiple sessions more often than not and so are a little less easy to mung for a missing player in a believable manner. In my case it’s because I prefer to let the players set the pace as much as possible. If they take six hours to play a “four hour scenario”, as long as they are having fun I don’t force the pace at all.

    Another benefit to disconnected scenarios with arbitrary time passing between them is that it is possible to have players read Mythos Tomes using the outlandish time scales quoted in the latest edition of the rules, and the somewhat daft SAN loss rules for doing so don’t cause the gears to grind (or to be more accurate: no-one is there to hear the gears losing teeth).

    This interstitial time is a good place to saddle player characters with inconvenient aspects of life that they so often won’t role-play around voluntarily – Wage earning, career progression, romantic entanglements that may involve acquisition of a life partner and of course lengthy sojourns recovering one’s mental stability in the nearest Sanitarium (though there are a number of excellent published scenarios for adventuring under those conditions).

    Of course, as a GM one must fight the urge to open a session with “It’s two years later. You’re broke and homeless after a scandalous affair with your secretary was unearthed in the local paper brought you infamy and divorce” or “it is now three years after your ill-advised quest to read every book you recovered from that ruined monastery sent you madder than a balloon and you were dragged, naked, screaming and eating your own shoes, from the University bell-tower to Arkham Asylum”.

  7. An excellent article, Martin. I never thought about the increased ease of changing the tone of the individual sessions with this style of play when compared with a linked campaign style, but of course it’s head-slappingly obvious now you’ve pointed it out.

  8. @theEmrys – I’ve had a similar experience with my Shadowrun campaign. We usually only play every two-three weeks, so maintaining a “continuous story” becomes a little difficult. Players tend to forget details and motivations after that much time. Playing “episodes” keeps everything fairly self contained, with only large, and easily remembered story details arcing across multiple stories.

    I like a lot of the strengths of episodic play, specifically the fact that it makes game prep so much easier. I can plan missions out well ahead of the game if I have time since player actions in intermidiary games aren’t as likely to affect other episodes. When some players can’t come I’ll run adventures centered around the few that are there. Its also easy to drop in and out other friends that may like to join us for a session or two (usually, that only happens when I know a few players won’t be there to keep the player count from getting out of control).

    The thing I don’t like about it? Now that I’ve been running an “episodic” style campaign for over a year, I can feel my storyteller side itching to run a more story centric campaign with overarching implications from the results of the player’s actions.

    I’d like to find a comprimise situation that maintains the episodic nature of the play sessions, as I really do like the focused structure, and combine that with a story centric overall plot that links missions together and factors in the choices of the players.

  9. Would it be fair to say that Episodic Gameplay only really works (or works best with) certain kinds of games? Could you do an episodic DnD? Just asking what everybody thinks.

  10. @Kikatink

    I can’t speak for all games, but certainly the one I play you can, including DnD. That being said, I do thing some lend themselves better, but it all depends on your play style. If you like “one shot dungeon crawl” type games, than it’s EASY in D&D, but it doesn’t have to even go that far. The only hicup I think you have is if you want overarching stories or such.

    For me, I like continuity in the game so it’s better for me to have a more “in game” reason for people popping in and out of the party.. but you can do that between episodes if you want. With D&D you could have an adventurer’s guild and they take who’s available when a rumour comes up… :)

  11. @Kikatink – Certainly some kinds of games lend themselves to Episodic play. I run a Shadowrun campaign which lends itself naturally due to the “mission” structure of gameplay.

    Still, there’s no reason you couldn’t run any other game systems as such. Modeling your D&D sessions off of any number of fantasy TV shows would effectively turn your game into an episodic one. Hercules, Xena, He-Man, Pirates of Darkwater, etc. are all shows with a consistent cast of heros that wander and drop in on a new problem each episode. Effectively your group would be a wandering adventure party and you just hand wave whatever inbetween travels occur and start the session off with something along the lines of: “You hear rumor of a plague in the town of Farspree and decide to lend aid. After several days of travel, you arive on the outskirts of town…”

  12. @unwinder – This is definitely a different strokes kind of thing — I need to be reined in, or my shit takes forever. I’m glad “overflow episodic” works well for you!

    @Jeffrywith1e – Decipher. I love it!

    @theEmrys – I’m hoping this won’t happen, but you’re right that realistically it will.

    @Dunx – Good point about session length. We start at 6:00, take a dinner break, and can go until about 2:00 am if we really need to. I’m working us down to wrapping up around 11:00, but even that’s well outside of a convention slot.

    @Roxysteve – If I ever get to run long-term CoC, you and Dunx have convinced me to try it this way — it sounds like a fantastic mix.

    @BishopOfBattle – I haven’t felt as though I’m giving up story linkage yet. What my players do will impact future sessions, and as time progresses I’ll be trying to show them that in different ways. But you’re right that it’s not quite as direct a connection in some ways.

    @Kikatink – My experience has mainly been with games based on TV shows, which of course episodic gameplay is perfect for. ;-) But Bishop’s right: You could totally do D&D this way. I’d expect the main wrinkle to be that D&D isn’t usually played like this, so there might be some growing pains at first.

  13. I’ve run games like this before. Usually the early sessions of my campaigns are episodic in nature and they grow into longer story arcs. Considering my group’s present situation, an episodic or semi-episodic campaign may be better suited for us. Thanks for the article.

  14. I think one of the games that caters explicitly to episodic gameplay is one of the unsung heroes of the improv world. The game I’m referring to is Time & Temp. I don’t know if any of the gnomes or readers have ever played this jewel before, but I actually got it in the Pakistan flood relief bundle posted on here not too long ago. After being out of the GM’s chair for nearly a month, I was excited to continue the campaign, when I realized that I might not be able to make the session. I handed off the printed-out rules and some hastily written notes to my best player, and let her run Time & Temp in my stead. The players had a blast! I was so proud of MY temp, but more importantly we established a new tradition: after each established adventure in the campaign ends, we pull out our T&T characters and have a celebratory mission. The catch: we switch GM’s each time. I love this, as it gives me a chance to be a player and gives them a chance to be a GM! I’m looking forward to playing in the next game, of course, after I finish out our current adventure.
    I love my group that’s willing to take chances.

  15. Hehe, I deleted the game description in my frenzied typing. ^^
    Time & Temp takes place in the near future, where time travel is an established idea. However, the past and future are fragile, and irresponsible time travelling can create universe-ending paradoxes. In order to accomplish time travel without causing undue disorder in the timeline, the best employees for temporal careers are…temps. The characters act as temps who are sent on missions to fix anomalies in the timeline. The game is very light on rules and very heavy on improv. The core of the game is the Matrix, into which you plug in your dice rolls. Different combinations can give bonuses or cause harmful effects, but roll too many of the same number and you cause a paradox, ending the universe…and the game. The game lends itself so well to episodic play, simply by virtue of it being impossible to execute a plot across millennia. It’s really worth giving a shot.

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