My RPG DNA, Part IV: The Mini-Series

(Part I, Part II, Part III)
I'd call it the finale, except that I won't stop role-playing any time soon. One side effect of the Rise of Genre and Multi-Genre in my campaigns was to push me more and more into the New School arena. I blame/thank genre emulation for this. As I said in Part II, D&D is in many ways its own genre. Game sessions have little to do with Lord of the Rings' or Stormbringer's narratives. So when one explores different genres, one may have to divest oneself of those D&D genre trappings, many of which are staples of Old School gaming. This is a lesson I learned early when running Supers campaigns. This genre doesn't call for killing and looting, or even accumulating XP. If D&D is its own animal, emulating itself, Supers generally attempt to emulate comic books, where the genre began and is still most represented. Supers have their own tropes that must either be obeyed or twisted (which is its own acknowledgment of genre). Batman must be able to bust out of a block of ice despite his human strength. He must have the perfect gadget for any situation regardless of his equipment list. He must take the time to deal with a romantic subplot in between story beats. He can't buy a super-power no matter how much XP he's racked up. And he can't kill even if he causes damage that would overwhelm the Joker's hit points. So beyond the emulation of Powers, a Supers game trying to emulate "4-color comics" needs to address many issues that are DRIVEN by genre as opposed to realism and math. DC Heroes, for example, dealt with these with Pushing the Limit, Omni-Gadgets, Subplot support and Bashing Combat. These, and other aspects of the system, said one very important thing: Genre matters.

And I'd say that's been my background philosophy since the 90s, but it's taken a more and more central role in the last few years. From Old School roots as grown a decidedly New School tree. When genre matters, certain things get more attention than others. One of these is the game's narrative structure. If Supers come from comics, then you start thinking of role-playing sessions as single issues of a comic. If you're playing a Doctor Who RPG, then you're looking at how episodic television tells stories. I realize that mixes Genre and Medium, but it's how things worked out.

Back to DCH
In the mid-2000s, I was having problems with player availability. Though Dream Park accommodated this well, it also meant I was trapped in one-shot hell. They made me long for campaigns where I could do more long-term planning and truly explore a world. Campaigns had a knack for collapsing when players became unavailable, however, as happened to my GURPS epic, Shiftworld (see Part III for details). Games became either unrewarding or disappointing. I returned to DC Heroes, this time with a different group of players from the Dream Park gang, because it allowed for one-shots within the same world. By taking the JLA's "roll call" concept and sticking to one or two-part adventures, players could show up based on their availability, could miss sessions, etc. It also became possible to have guest characters in (usually actual DCU heroes), or run one-on-one mini-sessions that were all about the subplots.

The players called their team the Crusaders (no relation to the Archie heroes), and for the attendant website at least, I treated the game as a comic book (as if it had spun out of the Legends crossover in the late 80s). When it went one-on-one, that's just an issue focusing on a single team member. Comics do it all the time. It ran 32 "issues", a good run, and ended, wouldn't you know it, in the middle of a longer arc ("Neutron Dance"). Grrr. DC Heroes' usual emulation did its work, of course, but I added more. By setting it in a particular continuity, and numbering the issues as if they were a monthly, I could make the characters go through that continuity's big crossover events. For example, I brought my issues of Millennium, and allowed them to interact with other heroes in the big crowd scenes (usually in place of Infinity Inc. or the Outsiders, cuz really, who cares if they get wiped from continuity). They even changed some outcomes, and lost a hero in Invasion!

I think we ended the campaign mid-stride by consensus. The motivation just wasn't there anymore, especially with a key player or two moving away. I booted up Planescape again with the remaining players, but despite my best efforts, and 'porting over the idea of subplots and a single living location, sword & sorcery remains a tough sell with my current crop of players. Though I wouldn't say this campaign died in the middle of things, there were a lot of things laid into it that never paid off.

There must be a compromise
Back to the drawing board... What made the Crusaders campaign (where player availability was fluid) last so long, but Planescape (where players remained available) not? I decided it wasn't about availability, but rather boredom. It's my own fault. Through the decade, I trained us to like variety. When I became bored with one-shots, I ran in the opposite direction, towards the interminably sustainable campaign. I ran too far. After a number of sessions, players became bored with the lack of setting variety, and disenchanted with whatever they felt was wrong with their initial character concepts or the setting's shortcomings. With one-shots, they could ride it out. In a Supers campaign, it was also pretty easy to run a subplot to change a character's concept because that's part of the genre's tropes (and it happened). Not so easy in AD&D.

The solution was staring me in the face: The mini-series. Those huge open-ended campaigns of my youth could be called novels (if not very good ones), and lately, I'd been doing way too many movies (one-shots), but seeing my Supers role-playing sessions as a comic book installments had trained me to see games as largely episodic. What else is by its very nature episodic? Television. And so I began to exploit that comparison.

I started attracting players to the idea of a single episodic "season" that would last X amount of time (number of sessions = number of episodes). If they loved their characters and the "show", we could return to it at some point and do another season. If they felt the story was over, we wouldn't need to. It even allowed players to sacrifice themselves in the last episode if they felt it was the way to go. The structural conceit also informed mechanics, and I endeavored to pick a game that was very cinematic (which was in tune with the pulpish habits I'd picked up running Dream Park and DCH). That game was GURPS Black Ops, using Warehouse 23 as an HQ (this was about a year before Warehouse 13 came out on tv for real). We used Cinematic Points and other cinematic rules, in keeping with action movie and television tropes we were trying to emulate. I sold it to players as Men in Black meets John Woo meets Torchwood. It sold even before the pilot, and ran for a whole summer. To emulate the genre further, I added a teaser to the front end of each episode in which players could riff high octane without the need to roll dice, catching the end of an untold tale (think Indiana Jones).

Following it up would prove difficult. Everyone in the group was deep into Doctor Who at the time and emulating an actual television show seemed to be the next evolution (and would bring in new interested players from the friend circle). Cubicle 7's new DWAITAS was coming at the perfect time. And then there were delays with the product, compounded by drifting interest in key players (real life was interfering), and it made us skip an entire summer. It's much harder to start something during the university year (as opposed to keeping something going), so it wasn't until March of this year that we finally got to play DWAITAS (and we're 2 episodes away from the season finale, I'm happy to report). The game pushed us even more deeply into New School narrativism with television structure ideas like Previews of the next session, while keeping it very quick and cinematic just as our previous games had been.

The future...
Our Time Lord story should end within two or three sessions, sadly delayed to the beginning of July (real life again), but it's a delay that allows us to prep for the next mini-series. What will it be? I'm looking very closely at Savage Worlds, which has the same pulpy, "story point"-driven style as most of our recent games. Its multiple settings provide hope that we can re-use it for other mini-series, with less chargen fuss than GURPS tends to represent. And its Plot Point campaigns are already working from a mini-series point of view. Just a matter of choosing a first setting and going with it.

The adventure continues... (Part V in 3-5 years, thanks for waiting)

Further reading about this era :
Thoughts about the Doctor Who
Who RPG: Casting the Time Lord
How to tie all those loose ends
New School Lesson: Role-playing between sessions
New School Lesson: Subplots
New School Lesson: The secret function of dice
New School Lesson: Cinematic Points
New School Lesson: Picking up the pace
New School Lesson: Worse things than death
New School Lesson: Diceless moments
New School Lesson: Previews


Jeff Moore said...

Thanks for this. I really enjoyed reading your RPG memoirs. I am going to try to pull together a last minute Doctor Who one-shot for tonight and see if I can make it happen. I'd love to try the new game.


Siskoid said...

It works best with last minute plans.

The "arc" stuff I've been trying to do feels like holding back when the players are normally encouraged to go wild.

Anonymous said...

So, who was the Crusaders' insider Manhunter?


Siskoid said...

Neutron, the Super I played, who acted as leader, but never field leader. He was the guy who stayed at HQ and coordinated police calls and basicallyrolled his eyes at the other heroes' shenanigans.

He was replaced by a robot duplicate at one point, but the Crusaders beat the robot and rescued the real Neutron before going off to the crossover and stealing Booster Gold's thunder by disarming the bomb themselves.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding! I really enjoyed reading all these.


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