Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What I Learned About Campaigns from Watching Sliders

My wife and I recently canceled our cable, as we realized that we spent a lot of time finding series to watch from beginning to end on Netflix, and when we weren't doing that, we were watching the same syndicated television over and over again from the time we turned on the TV.



My wife wanted to watch Sliders again, as she had always liked that show, but neither of us had watched much of the later seasons of the show.  As we did, some thoughts about ongoing campaigns, themes, changes, and when to let go all occurred to me.

Spoilers for the Whole Freaking Series  (Do I Still Have to Say this for a Series from the 90s?)

For our purposes, let's define what jumped out at me.



You have a series with a set cast of four people.  The original concept was that they are all from the same place, start jumping around dimensions, trying to get back to their own, and have adventures in between on strange worlds.

So as the "campaign" starts, you have the whole cast with a common origin, i.e. that they come from the same Earth, and you have a common purpose, getting back home.



Eventually the plot thickens, as a recurring set of villains are introduced, the Kromaggs, who could show up and create a meta-plot.  Regardless of how you might have felt about this addition, it's something that's not uncommon to a campaign.  The longer it goes on, the more you might feel you need more texture in the ongoing narrative than just that "everybody wants to get home."

Now everybody wants to get home, and they all have the same bad guys to personally rail against.

Eventually, though, you also lose a few cast (party) members and replace them with new cast members.  One of the new cast members may not have the common goal of returning to the same Earth, but they don't have a homeworld that they want to go back to.  Another cast member, introduced a little later, has a direct personal tie to another character.



At this point, we have a secondary bit of metaplot, in that the characters not only want to get home, but that the Kromaggs have to be defeated and the brothers have to find out the secrets left to them by their parents.  More on this secondary bit of meta-plot later.



Finally, you have the last permutation of the team, with one of the original cast members gone  (but very tenuously connected, by yet more meta-plot, to the new guy introduced), and one of the new characters tied to that character leaving, and another new character introduced that has the same "hook" that the second generation member of the team had, i.e. she's not going home, but she doesn't have a home to go to, so why not go back to the home of the one, single, solitary guy that has ties to the original Earth that the show started from.

In my personal opinion, by the time the show ended, a lot of the cohesion, chemistry, and fun of the show had been wrung out of it, and the ending was just sad.  Not sad in an effective emotional storytelling kind of way, but sad in that you have a hard time believing the show ended that way.

But how does this relate to campaigns?

Party Turnover

When one member of the original cast leaving, the show didn't lose too much of the party chemistry.  When two members left, it was getting iffy, but the show had a fairly good hook for the new person, i.e. that she was from an Earth she wasn't going to go back to.  When the next new addition was added, the meta-plot was kind of painful, but introducing a long lost sibling at least created some automatic emotional connection.

The problem comes when you introduce a second person with the same hook as the first one to the party.  Another person that has the "I can't go home so I'll help you" isn't unique anymore, especially when she is also the "we need a scientist character to work on the Timer" character.  And when you try to replace the lynchpin character  (more on this later) with someone that has "some" of that character fused to him, but is pretty much a new character, it's hard to care anymore.

The point is, it's not always easy to see where that point is, but at some point, when you have reached a certain high water mark with your party, and the chemistry is tuned in, losing too much of that chemistry will make the campaign feel like its something else entirely, at which point, it might as well be something else entirely.

None of us want to see players leave, but sometimes we can't help it.  More controllable are character deaths, but sometimes, even those can't be helped, or ignoring them will damage the campaign more.  At some point you have to sit down with your players, talk about how much has changed, and address the real possibility that it may just be time for a new campaign.

Insane Meta-plots

I may be slightly misapplying the term meta-plot here, by which I mean not so much an overall push for the setting to change with or without the players, but the very high level overarching story of the campaign, not the plots of the individual adventures or even three or four adventure story arcs.

Long term campaigns will develop meta-plots.  When you play in the same setting, and similar themes and characters show up, this is actually a good thing.  However, there is a danger of having those meta-plots start to run counter to the nice, simple concept that the campaign started with.

It's really easy to see how a simple plot like, "let's keep sliding until we get back home" can start to feel thin after a while.  But introducing a race that can slide more effectively and threatens your home world, thus creating more of an impetus to get home, can come dangerously close to changing the whole premise of the campaign.  The new plot element has to be used lightly, or the focus and feel of the campaign shifts.

The most dangerous meta-plot trap of all is to fall into a meta-plot that is so important that it affects the whole campaign, but doesn't focus on the party equally.  Granted, you can usually get away with this in movies, because you know your "chosen one" is there for the whole thing.  However, television can be a bit more like a campaign in that your actors may not sign on for the long haul.



Making one character the chosen one, or having a huge plot point revolve around two player's parents, can be a big issue if they leave the campaign.  Suddenly, a lot of the drive in the campaign is ripped away.  Even players that might not have realized just how much they were playing second fiddle suddenly realize it when the whole campaign grinds to a halt.

But can you fix a meta-plot mistake with more meta-plot?  I'm not going to say no, but I'm inclined to lean that way.  Saying that a brand new character still "counts" as the chosen one, when it's obvious that he's a brand new character, even if he has some small aspect of the old character, isn't going to fly.

Think of it this way:  if the party paladin is on a quest to kill a dragon that is the ancient evil of prophecy in his religion, and he is reincarnated as a thief that really doesn't care, but the party is expected to all decide that fighting the dragon is a good idea, how much emotional investment does that spawn in the party?

"This is me, from an world where I am absolutely nothing like myself."
So the lessons that we learn about meta-plot and the campaign?  Make sure that it only adds and enhances the basic, established premise of the campaign, as established at the beginning, and make sure that the meta-plot doesn't tempt you into creating a Chosen One or Two that the whole campaign hinges on.

And at some point, if your meta-plot gets too heavy, look for an exit, not more meta-plot.  Talk to your players about how you can wrap things up in a satisfactory way  (see the next point), and don't be afraid to end it.

How To Say Goodbye

There is a huge temptation to leave the door open to more adventures.  If you have the chance to give your players an epic ending, take it.  Give them a payoff.  Let them hang their hats on One Big Thing, and then walk away.  Worry less about leaving the door open than going out with a bang.

You may want to use these characters again someday, but odds are that you will have a long time to think of how to do that, in a way that doesn't occur to you now.  It may never happen, but if it does, it's not something you need to be able to do right now.  So don't half-ass your crowning moment of awesome for some theoretical reunion.  Give your players a reason to want to have that reunion, because of the fond memories.



Trust me, I've screwed up campaign endings before.  I'm not saying this as someone that always gets it right, but as someone that has often felt that he wished he could have changed that last adventure to do things a little differently.  There are always going to be times when you can't give your campaign a proper ending, so when you get the chance, make the most of it.

5 comments:

  1. So what about an RPG like DCC? Do you think it is possible to successfully run a long term campaign in a system like that which can chew through characters at a significant rate?

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    1. That's a good question, and it was rattling around a bit in my brain as I was writing this.

      In the games I've run or been in in recent years (D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Deathwatch, Rogue Trader, DC Adventures, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Star Wars Saga d20, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and Star Wars Edge of the Empire), I think DCC has a fairly unique conceit that is part and parcel to the game.

      In almost all of those other games, the assumption is that the players will want to play the same character over time and watch the character develop. There are a handful of games that I don't think assume that same thing in the design.

      For example, I think DCC is really set up so that you can see really over the top things happening to the characters, and to have memorable adventures, but not so much to see that character have a family, rule a kingdom, etc. Those things could happen, but the "meat" of the assumption is that the world is terribly dangerous, only the strong survive, and everyone wants to die with an epic story on their lips.

      To look at some other games that have similar "non-standard" conceits, I'd point out that in Call of Cthulhu, often times there is a big conspiracy based story that the investigators are trying to unravel, and finding out that big conspiracy and having a chance to stop it is more important than any individual investigator involved. I think that even the somewhat random skill advancement scheme supports this style of play.

      Paranoia is another game that I would say is somewhere between DCC and CoC when it comes to assumptions. You aren't going to have a clone that has a long and successful career with meaningful character development, but you may have a clone that did something really nifty before he blew up and the next guy showed up.

      So while I think that the above holds true for the majority of RPGs, I think that there are some games that have a different assumed play experience.

      In fact, I'd say DCC, while very influenced by Appendix N fiction, is structured very much like an anthology series, where the setting and some of the players are the same, but can vary greatly in cast over the long term.

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    2. I think the 40k RPGs have more in common with DCC. Some of them can be more episodic in nature with entire cast change over if the players and GM are so inclined. All of them share the outlook that "in the grim darkness...there is only war." No one in a 40k game-with the possible exception of Rogue Trader-has any right to expect a happy ending. There will never be an end to heresy, xenos, mutants, chaos, backstabbing, or the dangers of warp travel. To borrow and slightly warp the end of level text from Super Mario Brothers: "Good job, kill team. Your target was in this castle. Your next target is in the castle over there. Good luck."

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    3. I'll give you Deathwatch. In that case, you are telling the story of the Kill Team, not so much the individual Kill Team members. I haven't read it in depth, but I'm betting Only War is also very much about telling the story of the unit and not the individuals in the unit.

      I do think that Rogue Trader, being "Evil Capitalist Star Trek" is still built around a relatively stable concession of party continuity.

      Interestingly, I'd say that Black Crusade might have more of a party continuity conceit as well, as the story isn't "how are these agents of Chaos destabilizing the Imperium" so much as it's suppose to be "how do these guys work together, and how do they remain individuals with the taint of Chaos hanging over them and tempting them."

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    4. Black Crusade is a tough one. The entire game is built around signing compacts which give the heretics a reason to work together for a very specific goal. Once that is accomplished everyone can go their separate ways or decide that they work well together and find a new cause. If the person whose compact everyone signs on to dies or leaves, then you may have to start adding layers of meta-plot as to why they are still bothering.

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