Lessons from a TV series bible, #10: Pilot episode synopsis

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

Item 10 on the checklist is a synopsis for the pilot episode.

  1. Pilot episode synopsis . Now that you’ve set your stage, it is time to describe your pilot episode. This is generally a short one- or -two-page-long synopsis that details the principal action that occurs in the first, introductory episode. In addition to description, the synopsis can contain key dialogue and exchanges. Don’t bother breaking the synopsis up into “acts,” as the length of placement of these can vary from network to network, and be absent entirely on premium cable platforms.

This raises two questions for RPG campaign design. One is about synopses. The other is about pilot episodes.

🄐 Synopses

Not every approach to RP adventure design admits of anything so detailed as a synopsis. On one hand, some groups and GMs like an an approach to scenario design in which nearly all the interest is tactical. If the important part of an adventure is what monsters the PCs kill and rob of their stuff and the tactical choices they make in the fights, then a synopsis is trivial. On one other tentacle, groups that play to find out what happens do not allow the GM to write a synopsis ahead of play.

🄑 Pilot episodes

Ury takes it that we know what a pilot episode is, and I’m not sure that I do, especially with regard to an RPG campaign. It seems to me that in one way a pilot episode is a sort of shakedown for the actors and crew, rather like a fitting for a new suit. The format, characters, and situation are taken for a run to make sure that everything is working well, and to discover problems and surprises. The writers, crew, and actors expect that things will be adjusted after the pilot; parts re-cast, characters replaced, premise and format tweaked. In another way it’s a sample for the studios and networks, that lets them see how the idea that worked on paper actually translated to the screen, and gives tham an opportunity to demand changes to any content that seems too unconventional or likely to offend wowsers. I gather that it is far from unknown for a the networks to cancel the production if they don’t [think their affiliates and advertisers will] like the content. And in a third way I understand that pilots are often made as an introductory episode for the audience, to establish who the characters are and what they do. Perhaps, in a dramatic series, the pilot episode will establish the status quo ante and depict the initiating incident of the arc plot, thus establishing the dynamic situation that will develop through the series or season.

Is there, ought there to be, any analogue in RPG campaigns? Is there something special that we ought to do in first sessions or first adventures that I have been missing? Would it be a good idea to play a preliminary session or adventure of each campaign with the understanding that it is a trial run and that there will be an opportunity to make changes after it?

  • The thought occurs to me that the character-players in a campaign might feel a bit uncertain and disoriented in the first adventure of a campaign, not sure how the format is going to play out or how their character is going to work, and therefore that it might be a good idea if I exercised more direction in “pilot sessions” than I expect to do usually, to make a clearer offer of what the “format” (template adventure) is going to be, and to help the character-players have a better and more encouraging time.

  • Another thought occurs that maybe I ought to make an effort in each “pilot adventure” to offer each PC a clear opportunity to demonstrate their character and schtick, as I understand them, so that the players get to try them out for fit and function.

  • I have very many times had the character-players of a campaign that I was bruiting decide after the first adventure that they did not want to play what it turned out to be. Usually that’s a perfectly normal and proper demonstration of “fail early, fail often”. But in the case of one of the best campaigns that I ever ran, three of five character-players dropped out after the first adventure and were replaced by one who was a much better fit.

  • When we discussed pilot episodes one time before it turned out that a lot of us and our character-players depend on develop-in-play to get a real feel for our characters, and expect to need and allow character tweaking and replacement for up to quite some time after just the first adventure.

One thing that a pilot type session can be good for is to make sure the players have characters they want to play. Especially if trying out a new system. This way, after the session, you can let them tweak their characters freely if the initial design did not work out the way the player expected.

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My ability to plan out a plot is limited, because my practice is to treat plot as something that emerges from my interaction with my players, which depends on the nature of their characters. I can sometimes have a basic concept in mind, such as “a young woman arrives in Alta California and is revealed to be the new Slayer” or “a group of refugees from Sauron’s victorious armies are drawn together in the wilds of Eriador and find a common purpose.” But I have from three to six co-authors who decide many of the details during the course of play. That seems to be inherent in the practice of participatory fiction and drama, as contrasted with composed fiction and drama.

My notes for an (episode, investigative) adventure often start out as “person X is doing thing Y”. First I need to know who X is, and why they’re doing Y. Then I unfold that into the steps X is taking to achieve Y. Then I look at each step and decide what it is the PCs will first find out about. Then think about some relevant other NPCs and what they want, and how they’ll cross the investigation…

But after that it’s often very flexible: most scenes should come from a clue and provide another clue, and eventually there will be enough clues for action against X.

I’ve recently started making this explicit. I’ve often said before “if you’re not happy with the character, the end of the first adventure is a good time to change it”, but by calling it a “pilot” I open up the possibility of replacing the character completely (that actor wasn’t available) – and as GM if I think things are creaking I similarly feel at liberty to change the underpinnings rather than just slap on reinforcement.

I definitely try to use the pilot to let each PC show off what they can do, to have a fairly balanced adventure rather than one that focuses on the netrunner or the fighter or whatever. Not only does this give them the “look what I can do” fun, it makes sure they have some idea of what they can do and how it works in the game.

(I’ll answer the emergent point in #11.)

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Mine too. So I my adventure plan consists of an antagonist, a conflict, and a crucible for the PCs in a situation that is arrayed with possibilities. And then I play with my character-players for find out what happens. Which is why I expressed doubts about a synopsis.

Nevertheless I wonder whether the first passages of play in a new campaign require more planning than the later ones, or anything else special.

I’m a lot more willing to have a linear plot progression in early sessions specifically because the players may be taking time to get the feel of the setting.

(That said I’m quite happy with mostly episodic adventures, often with assigned missions – the equivalent of your CSI etc. where we open on the case of the week. That’s a convenient and familiar structure, which can then to some extent be subverted by the weirdness.)