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The Pitfalls of Episodic Gameplay

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On October 27, 2010 @ 9:03 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments

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?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

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10 Comments To "The Pitfalls of Episodic Gameplay"

#1 Comment By wraith808 On October 27, 2010 @ 10:16 am

In our DnD game, we have a primary campaign in Eberron, and I suggested, since I hadn’t GM’d for a while, that I have a filler campaign- to give the GM a break, and in case we didn’t have a full complement.

The first order was to get players invested; since it was a filler campaign, they’d have to have a hook; I didn’t want it to be gaming for gaming’s sake. I did that over the course of the first few weeks, and I did notice that the player absence bit was more prevalent than in the ‘regular’ campaign. And with me not having GM’d for a while (and never 4e), combats took longer than they should have, putting me under the gun to finish sessions. It has been very good for polishing off the GM’ing skills, I have to say, though I have run afoul of quite a few of the points above. The one that you list in part, but not specifically, is the lack of time to prepare. I find myself always running short on preparation time, though I think that will get better as we put the campaign in it’s rightful place- as filler. Right now, since I’ve been running it for about 6 weeks straight through, and I’ve had issues with the Character Builder not being updated for Dark Sun, it’s been a lot to prepare for with little time- then it’s a bit of a let down after all of that when sometimes it’s canceled at the last moment because too many people sit out.

But overall, it’s been pretty rewarding, and the players have seemingly enjoyed it so far.

More on the campaign at http://epicwords.com/campaigns/970

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 27, 2010 @ 10:20 am

Nice work, Walt! I like how you point out that this is not meant to refute the benefits of episodic game sessions, but instead this article will keep GMs aware of the potential issues with that style of adventure.

I really enjoy having my sessions wrapped up into a single episode of a longer running campaign. A lot of what you mention here I have encountered myself. I’ve been shifting from improvising everything to a bare minimum prep style of GMing. I still improvise about 95% of what happens at the table, but planning the framework for an episode has improved my games a great deal.

The big issue though is the “Untouchable Metaplot” that you mentioned. In my case it is the “Constantly Revised Metaplot”. The players are the ones crafting it, and I’m just constantly adjusting what is slightly ahead of the player’s vision. It really is a difficult thing to do, because you start with a finale in mind and by episode three it is out with the trash.

#3 Comment By wraith808 On October 27, 2010 @ 10:23 am


Re: “The Constantly Revised Metaplot”, I guess I haven’t encountered that as much, because in general, my ‘meta-plot’ reads like a decision tree, because seeing that the party was leaning more towards evil alignments, I figured it would be like herding cats, so I needed to be prepared for anything!

#4 Comment By unwinder On October 27, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

I would say that my number one problem with single-session episodic games was that my players really wanted to do “sandbox” type of stuff, and basically go around exploring the game world of the day, or trying to seek out some sort of rare item that was more important to them than advancing the plot, or playing pranks that they had worked out in advance on NPCs. Typically, by the time they got their sandbox fix, I’d only have about half the session left to run the entire episode.

Another issue I had with episodic games is that you really, really need to plan a lot more carefully to fit your adventure into the right timeframe. This didn’t go well with my level of experience in that campaign, and I had to run late on several occasions.

Compounding the problem was, as you mentioned, the level of absenteeism. It was very difficult to plan encounters when two players missing, or two extra players picked up, could have a pretty huge impact on how long combats took to run. Especially if the combat was intended to highlight the abilities of a player who wasn’t there.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 27, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

@unwinder – I am not encountering the same types of problems. I’m guessing that is because we are all playing different systems. I run my own Fudge derivative, so it is incredibly flexible. It allows me to focus on the role playing and what the players are trying to accomplish.

The problem is that now the pressure is on me to read the players properly. They will point the story in a certain direction, but they can only take it so far. I have to decipher what their expectations are, and rarely am I even close at the beginning of the campaign. Once things get rolling though I can start to home in on where they hope the game goes and build upon that.

It is a series of rough starts for me, but eventually it gets on track and we have a good time.

#6 Comment By Razjah On October 27, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

I am currently running an episodic campaign and I agree that it is a lot more prep. The problem is that you can’t exactly prep it. My game is currently Pathfinder and the PCs are part of a guild, they pick up whatever contracts they want and go do them in the order they feel like. This means that I don’t know where they want to go until they do. I have gotten good at throwing monsters at the PCs that are nothing more than numbers and a name- I barely even use the bestiary now.

I think episodic games a great, but I do not know how long term a game they can be. With a metaplot like many TV shows such as Burn Notice the game at least has an aim and a path. A true sandbox episodic game tends to have the PCS behave in great mercenary

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 27, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

Good counterpoint, and I’ll echo Patrick in saying that I dig how you covered another aspect of episodic gameplay, rather than refuting the aspect I covered. I’ll keep an eye out for these things!

I will say that #1 in your list is really one of my favorite things about this play style so far. I can see how it has downsides, but I don’t really like adventures that stretch for more than a session or two — it’s too easy to lose the thread, and (for me) too tempting to let things bloat unnecessarily.

#8 Comment By Astronut On October 28, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

I had great fun running an episodic Trek game a few years ago, but I’m finding time restrictions make it impossible to do that now (I generally get about 2.5 hours for a game on a Thursday night due to travel times).
I’ve opted for what I call ‘mini-series’ games, where I plan out a 4-6 episode arc with a definitive beginning and ending, with cliff-hangers, but open for the same characters to pick-up again for the next one. I then opt for a month or so break between each arc which gives me time to plot the next story.
It’s worked quite well so far, players commit to a couple of months’ worth of gaming, but can easily switch in or out between games. It falls nicely between episodic and campaign in terms of the amount of work involved, plus I get regular time off running it.

#9 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-10-29 On November 2, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

[…] Item Wishlists and You Knowledge is Power (Part 2) Putting Some Fairy In Your Tale The Rule of Law The Pitfalls of Episodic Gameplay […]

#10 Comment By black campbell On January 11, 2011 @ 2:28 pm


I’ve used the mini-series idea, as well, for periods where I’m visiting gamer friends someplace, you’ve just got a new group and need to feel them out, or just don’t know if the game you were hot to run is going to have the legs to last beyond a short story arc.

I tend to choose certain games for the more episodic approach — particularly espionage games where they might play the same characters, but each adventure is a discrete “movie.” For stuff like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, I’ve mostly aimed at long story arcs with episodic elements to them.

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