Lessons from a TV series bible. #11: episode thumbnails

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

The eleventh item of the checklist is “Episode thumbnails”

  1. Episode thumbnails Next, include three or four thumb-length descriptions of subsequent episodes. Write only about a paragraph for each, setting up the principal A- and B-plots and then describing how they’re resolved. The purpose here is to demonstrate that our idea isn’t just a one-shot, but has “legs” that can carry it over the course of one or more seasons.

This evokes something that @RogerBW always says: that if you can’t dash off six to ten workable ideas for adventures in a campaign that you mean to run you don’t have a workable campaign idea. The purpose for an RPG campaign is just what Ury indicates for a TV series: to demonstrate that your idea isn’t just a one-shot, but has “legs” that can carry it through a sustained campaign.

I’d like to add a few thoughts:

  • This has to be six to ten adventures conforming to the standard format for the campaign — that is, consisting of X doing Y in Z. You will perhaps pad out your campaign with the occasional “bottle episode” or “shore leave episode” once the characters are established, and eventually switch up the formula with a few variations and inversions to change the pace. Don’t count those. You need to establish a pace before you can change the pace, you need material to pad out before you can add padding. Unless six adventures come easily to mind and perhaps ten with a little thought then you don’t have enough material to establish a pace and contain padding with.

  • You are going to get more material to use once you have specific player characters to work with. Don’t count those either. That’s what is going to unfold your six to ten generic adventures adventures out to the dozen you will actually run.

  • You don’t need detailed synopses here, just thumbnail sketches of adventures, just adventure seeds. But be careful that you only count actual adventure seeds that encapsulate the substance of an adventure. A lot of times GMs and writers mistake a mere hook for an adventure. Any adventure seed that ends on a note of mystery is not an adventure seed. You don’t need to know how it will turn out, but you do need to know what is happening.

  • Combining a couple of thoughts from above, make sure that you have adventures for this campaign, this premise, this adventure format. For example, right now I’m trying to work up the courage to run a campaign of troubleshooting missions for “effectives” of Human Heritage or the Ethnological Society in my interstellar-SF setting Flat Black. I jotted down twelve troubleshooting missions for effectives of Human Heritage in twenty minutes, and that would be good enough if the template adventure for an adventure in Flat Black were “go to a planet with a mission; effect an investigation, caper, or clandestine op to discharge the mission; leave”. But it isn’t. The core of an adventure in Flat Black is the complication of the mission that is raised by the encounter with the exotic society of the planet. And I don’t have enough of those to be sure my campaign has legs.

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This model works best if you have a campaign that tends to the episodic rather than to the serial. When I run a fully serial campaign—which I have done a number of times—I can’t come up with “adventures” because the campaign doesn’t have adventures. It has developing situations whose later stages emerge from the way the earlier stages are actually played out and can’t be planned ahead of time.

And, for example, when I ran Manse, much of the storyline for the first two years grew out of things that two of the players came up with for their characters’ houses: the House of Life had an infant of unknown paternity who had peculiar characteristics, and the House of Light had lost the correct text of their part of the great ritual that shielded the Manse against supernatural forces (the player put together a magnificent script for the ritual that included passages much like the second verse of the Ankh-Morpork national anthem). I could not have anticipated those before the players created their characters, but being ready to jump on them when they showed up served me very well.

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I agree that emergent adventures/campigns can be great fun, and e.g. my occult WWII game now largely consists of the players deciding what’s the best use of their resources, but some players engage more than others and I like to have a procedural structure sitting there to answer the immediate questions of “what should we do next”.

So I’m with Brett on this: maybe I won’t use all of my 6-10 standard adventure ideas if the PCs come up with something more interesting, but they need to be there so that if I do suddenly need to fall back on the procedural-episodic I know I can do it.

(Other twists: the agency gets taken over. Mirror universe. The Most Dangerous Game.)

With my local players, I’m looking at campaigns that have a natural episodic structure, because that seems to be safer. But with my San Diego circle, if I offered a serial campaign, the players who signed up for it normally seemed to be able to engage their characters with it.

Is there some other rule of thumb that you use to gauge whether the campaign idea has the “legs” to carry it through one of your campaign cycles? Do you have ideas that seem to be campaign ideas but that you end up shelving because they don’t imply enough material to sustain an actual campaign, and if so, what triggers your doubt about them?