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?