Marvel comics didn’t invent continuity, but they certainly perfected it. From the early 1960’s through the 1990’s, every Marvel story built on every previous one in Byzantine complexity.
Many of us long to craft those kinds of campaigns. However, reality often encroaches on our world-building plans. People get busy, go back to school, get addicted to “Matlock”, etc… In this article, we’ll look at four approaches to continuity, and their advantages and challenges. Hopefully it will provide some alternatives for building your campaign in a busy world.
This type of campaign follows one set of characters through a single, long term story. It’s like a long running TV show such as “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones.” What has gone before matters. It provides players with a rich secondary world where their characters can improve and even form friendships. I suspect it is the kind of gaming most players want.
These campaigns do require both players and gamemasters (GM’s) to keep track of all that history. At some point it may become a bit bloated. I know I tend to forget some of the details after a while. There is the danger of boredom with playing the same characters for a long time. It can sometimes be difficult for new players to integrate into the group, especially when discussions of past glories occur. Perhaps most significantly, these types of campaigns can be difficult to maintain with adult schedules. Expect cancelled sessions because not enough people can make it.
CONTINUITY WITH SIDE QUESTS
This may be a way to have your cake and eat it too. In this approach, players can go on side quests with their regular characters on low attendance nights. The main campaign goes on when you have a (somewhat) full complement. The side adventures take place at some time before or after the main continuity.
One potential problem could arise if a character dies on a side quest. What effect would that have on the main storyline? Also, a side quest is one more thing for everyone to keep track of. Do they get to keep and use magic items or loot from a side quest in the main adventure? Which timeline did all this occur in? Will you need Doctor Who to keep track of it all?
CONTINUITY WITH A BACK-UP GAME
This approaches uses side quests, but with completely different characters. It may even take place in a different genre. These can be a nice change of pace for both players and GM’s, and there is little chance of overlap with events in the main storyline.
This approach may not work for all players involved. Some may not want to play in the back-up genre. Some may find they like the back-up game more! As with everything, good player/GM communication is key. Even if folks don’t like a particular genre, they may be willing to give it a go if you explain that it is only for one session. There is one additional burden for the GM: you’ll have to have your back-up adventures prepared in advance since you may not know when you’ll need them.
LOOSE OR NO CONTINUITY
In this option, each session is a stand-alone adventure, though your players may use continuing characters. This approach borrows from episodic TV, and is used in some organized play societies. It works well for groups that can only meet sporadically, or that have different players from session to session. Plus you don’t have to keep track of the history.
This format does not really support epic-style campaigns. You might include some recurring villains to get more of an epic feel to the campaign. You could even have a finale where they get to face the villain, like the concluding episodes of some TV series. Also, you will need to be more flexible with the order of your encounters. Sometimes players may take longer than you thought with some early encounters: you’ll have to scrap a few scenes to get them to the finale. Other times they’ll rush to the planned concluding scene and you’ll have to retool your encounters to fill out the session. Neither of these situations are insurmountable, and both have happened to me more than once.
Your continuity choice doesn’t have to be a permanent one. You can run a Strong Continuity game, and have occasional side quests or alternative genre sessions ready for low attendance evenings. You may find that your Loose Continuity game is really working and you can start incorporating more continuing, epic adventures. If everyone is enjoying most sessions, you’re probably on a good path.
What approach do you take to continuity? What other approaches are there? Let us know below.
You can get other types of continuity as well; me and group played a lot of Legend of the Five Rings and some of the characters we played have strongly shaped our version of the setting.
Great thought and something that can happen if you are playing in an established setting. PC’s actions might change the outcome of Star Wars or Middle Earth.
Thanks for reading.
I’ve found strong continuity also helps players care about their characters and the world itself, since they get to see the lasting impression they make on it as time goes by, and the sense of history their characters develop is something they talk about for years after the campaign has ended.
One trick I’ve found to help with continuity is to have some in game news service, (be it the inter galactic FTL News feed, or some local paper in a fantasy setting) report on events of note that occur during the campaign (both ones the characters help shape and things they are uninvolved in.) Being able to look back on the news feed (assuming you post them in a forum or your campaigns wiki) allows the group to better keep track of notable events, and what impact they have had on the setting without needing to pour through a years worth of (often disorganized) session notes.
My folks get their news when they check in town. Great thought!
I’ve more increasingly toward strong continuity campaigns with some kind of backup game, or the occasional “side quest” which is usually a backstory session or two. One thing we wound up doing for the long-running BSG game we had was “troupe play”, where the players who were the core group had several characters. It allowed for more varied types of adventures — military, policing the fleet, politics, etc. — and allowed for “crap! X can’t make it and I need them for the next encounter!) moments. I had a Fleet News Service newsletter I would send out from time to time to not only catch them up on things they missed, but to let them see how the general public was responding to their antics.
Since moving from troupe play back toward the one character/player, we’ve been beset with scheduling issues. I’ve started thinking about other characters for the players to let them explore other aspects of either this game world, or different game campaigns for the inevitable call-out.
Black Cambell, we hit this too. We even have a separate backup game for those low attendance nights.
I think this is a common problem in modern life. Strong continuity definitely helps the Players engage with the setting, but can be an issue for adults who struggle to commit to a schedule.
I prefer to set up the game so a rotating cast of Heroes makes sense in the narrative. City-based games, or ones with a definite base of operations, facilitate Heroes weaving in and out of the narrative. The rotating cast of Heroes makes shifting the spotlight around so much easier.
As for continuity, I aim for the best of both worlds by running a series of mini-campaigns within the same overall setting. Each mini-campaign lasts about a year, including numerous one-shots and Interludes to vary the pacing and focus. The established Players appreciate the bigger story and the consistency of playing in the same setting over many years. Newer Players are always welcome, and because the current mini-campaign is relatively short, they are not swamped by the setting continuity.
Each mini-campaign has a different focus, style and setting, allowing us to explore far more of the huge game Cosmos.
YGMV, but this version works for us.
Tales of a GM
Great thoughts Phil. We always struggle with what to do with absent players and their characters. Lately they just join in when they can even if it breaks the continuity a little. I’m just glad they can play when they can. Thanks for the thoughts.
I like to use a continuous world, but let the players create new characters at the end of major story arcs if they want. They can build a whole new party in a different part of the world, our keep some characters and weave on the new.
This prevents them from getting bored with their characters over the long haul, but lets us continue to explore the setting, whether homebrew or commercial.