Martin’s excellent article on episodic gameplay made me think about my own episodic campaigns. For many of the reasons he outlined, I’ve found episodic campaigns to be a fun way to run a game and I’ve run several successful ones.
That said there were a number of pitfalls that I’ve encountered along the way, and some of these did derail episodic campaigns. I thought it might be a good idea to list them here in tandem with the previous article.
Before I go further, I should point out a couple of things. First, my sessions tend to run for 3-4 hours of actual play. These pitfalls may be less of a problem for GMs running longer sections. Second, I’m going with Martin’s intent to run a complete adventure within the span of a single session. Some of these pitfalls obviously wouldn’t be a problem (or may cause new ones) if adventures can spill over from session to session.
- Increased Workload- One of the big appeals with the “fire and forget” method of episodic design is that you aren’t wasting time developing long story arcs. Unfortunately, it can be even more stressful to try and create a full adventure that lasts the span of a single session given that you have no breathing room to adjust mid-stride. I’ve actually found that it takes far more work to prep three episodes for three sessions than a single adventure that takes three sessions to complete.
- Burnout- In a traditional weekly campaign, 6 good adventure ideas might take 4 months (or more) to run. In an episode campaign, you’ll burn out of those in a month and a half. Players (at least in my campaigns) tend to want to play their characters for longer than that before shifting gears.
- No Room to Breathe – It’s easy to shift into the mode of staying the course so that the adventure can be finished by the end of the session. Unfortunately, this means that many subplots and PC-driven scenes get sacrificed along the way. The “leaner and meaner” approach can be off-putting for players that enjoy spending time just “being in character.”
- Pencil-whipping – Sometimes things bog down no matter how hard you try to trim the fat and you start pencil-whipping to finish on time. The coveted showdown with the Big Bad can be quite disappointing if you end with “gosh, look at the time…well, you’ve solved the mystery and cornered the villain. Let’s just say you win the fight so we can break for the evening.”
- Exponential Character Growth – I’m conditioned to give out XP by adventure rather than by session so I often discover that my PCs are far more powerful a few weeks into an episodic campaign than in a traditional one. Depending on the RPG, PCs can go from being beginners to world shakers in the span of a few weeks.
- More Frequent Absenses – While enabling a player not to show for a session with little impact is a good thing, episodic campaigns tend to increase absenteeism. Without a cliffhanger, you haven’t whetted the players’ appetites to return and finish what they’ve started. It’s also much easier to blow off a game if you know that you can start something new the next week rather than trying to catch up on what you missed. More frequent absenses also run the risks of last minute cancellations and dropping attendance for the session below critical mass.
- Untouchable Metaplot – If you do run metaplots during an episodic campaign you may find that you’re actually telling a larger story in serial form than running a truly interactive metaplot. Without carefully weaving the metaplot into the episodic format, you run the risk of tossing elements at the PCs and not allow them to do anything about it (or worse, making them feel like there’s no point in following it) until the big reveal.
- Waning Interest – Many of the above factors can cause an episodic campaign to end prematurely. Burnout is the obvious example, but players that miss multiple episodes without a metaplot to drag them back may lose interest in the campaign. Frustration with an untouchable metaplot or numerous adventures with little campaign “growth” can also lead to a quicker end.
These are just some of the pitfalls that I’ve enountered. Some of them have been mere speedbumps, others completely derailed a campaign. Some of them have done both.
I’m sure that there are many more to add to the list, so for those of you that have run episodic campaigns what other pitfalls have come up? If you’re planning on running an episodic campaign, what worries you most?