Lessons from a TV series bible. #3: Structure

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

The third item on the checklist is structure.

  1. Statement of your structure . How long is each episode designed to run? Traditionally, you have a choice of either 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Most comedies are 30 minutes. Most dramas are 60 minutes. But there are exceptions.
    Is your series a traditional continuing series, that is, it’s intended to run as long as it garners decent ratings, or is it, by intention, a “limited series,” designed to run for only six to 13 episodes, and then call it quits? Is the show episodic, meaning that, while it has regular characters, each episode tells a stand-alone story? (Most police procedurals are episodic.)
    Comedies have to be broken down even further. Are you proposing a classic three-camera sit-com filmed in front of a studio audience (e.g. The Big Bang Theory , Mom , etc.), or a more contemporary, heavily edited, single-camera show (e.g., Arrested Development, Young Sheldon , etc.)

The issues that Ury raises in the first and third paragraphs there seem to me to relate only to TV and streaming series, plus maybe radio. Am I wrong about that? Can anyone suggest analogous issues for RPGs that demand this level of consideration in specifying a campaign. For instance, does the length and frequency of sessions make that much difference? I think that it’s intrinsic to the improvisational nature of RPGs that they be unrehearsed, done in one take, and unedited, so I don’t think there is anything analogous to the dichotomy in comedies that Ury describes as so important to TV.

RPGs do, however, present a really important difference of structure in the range from one-and-done adventures (for scratch games and presenting at cons), long adventures run over multiple sessions, short campaigns consisting of a limited series of adventures analogous to chapters or acts only partly distinct from the whole, indefinite series of self-contained episodes with little continuity, and long or indefinite campaigns with strong or dominant threads of continuity running through them.

  • One of this issues, especially for elderly gamers who are no longer single and dateless denizens of the same university campuses, is the difficulty we have making such a firm commitment to regular gaming that it is safe to gamble on continuous campaigns.
  • Another issue is that many RPG systems provide such a strong “zero to hero” structure in their experience systems that the GM has to plan for the content of the campaign to develop as the player characters go through their metamorphosis.
  • I’m not sure of this, but I suppose that if you are running a long or indefinite series of distinct episodes with little continuity, the adventures are very likely to be procedurals, so the character-players need to know that they ought to design iconic characters each with a schtick to execute in repairing exterior disorders, whereas on the contrary if you are planning a series with strong continuity with a definite end in contemplation, and especially if using a game system that will drive the PCs to thorough change, dynamic PCs with room for character growth might be more appropriate.

With that last point in mind, I’m a bit surprised that Ury doesn’t mention in here the need to decide whether your series is dramatic or procedural. As far as I know he wrote the book about the difference between dramatic stories and procedural stories, and in particular their distinct need for dynamic characters (who resolve conflict through character growth) in dramatic stories and iconic characters (who repair disturbances in the order of the world by executing schticks) in procedural stories. (See his essay “Your Hero: Dynamic or Iconic”, quoted on the NYC Screenwriters’ Collective message boards.) I think that RPG characters are much more often, even usually, iconic, so perhaps that goes without saying for us. But TV series include dramatic types and procedural types, the distinction is important, and I would have expected Ury to mention it in an essay on developing TV series.

I know people who instantly spot multi-camera versus one-camera shows and reckon they have a different feel to them. Maybe this is the same as the visceral feeling I get with some sitcoms (e.g. The Big Bang Theory) that it “feels like a sitcom” and so I’m not interested?

I agree that frequency and length of sessions doesn’t affect my campaign design – though it does affect GMing tactics a bit, when systems have things that happen “once per session” (experience awards, powers, etc.) and e.g. Whartson Hall sessions are typically 1½-2 hours of play rather than the 3-4 hours tacitly assumed by the rules.

When I started gaming, and this links back to the titles a bit, the assumption was that “Roger’s game” would continue indefinitely, with characters dying and being replaced. When I changed schools and left all the old players behind, “Roger’s game” went with me. (Character retirement was a possibility, but never seriously discussed, and in fact I don’t think any of the groups lasted long enough to consider it; experience points came more slowly in those days and Gary Wouldn’t Like It if a character started above first level.)

The major divisions I see are one-off adventures and indefinite campaigns, and the usual plea I make is for a third form, games longer than a one-off but with a definite end in sight. The big Call of Cthulhu adventures would be examples of this, and I believe to some extent Pathfinder’s Adventure Paths: I’m not saying the characters should be unplayable at the end, but this is definitely an end of that particular story, where it wouldn’t be unreasonable for some of them to say “OK. I’m done with adventuring, I’m going to go home and start that squid farm I always wanted”.

The TV equivalent is probably the telenovela: considering just the structure, this is a soap-opera-style broadcast schedule (multiple episodes per week), but in less than a year the story is done. I haven’t been able to get hard numbers, but I think the filmed minutes tend to be the equivalent of about five seasons of conventional serial TV production; the key point is that, contrasted with serial TV, there’s no worry about being cancelled before the story is told… or having to pad it out with new material because it’s popular even though the real story is finished.

Of course in an RPG one can say “hey, I really enjoyed this world / these characters, shall we do some more” because there aren’t the questions of set storage, actors going off to do other parts, etc. But I like the idea of a “book” or “trilogy” level breakpoint above the “a few chapters” breakpoint that comes naturally from individual adventures – and the idea that one’s campaign can have such an ending.

(But I enjoy designing campaigns more than I enjoy running them.)

A typical RPG character’s arc is “getting stronger”. But I do think it’s possible to hybridise these styles of game, just as modern dramatic TV does: sometimes we’re doing our things, solving crimes, etc., and sometimes we’re having personal conflicts and growing as people. (There’s some correlation with “stand-alone” and “arc” storylines, though of course “arc” can be a procedural effort against the season villain and “stand-alone” can be dramatic events that leave the protagonists changed.)

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The dramatic/procedural dichotomy seems to become more complex in RPGs. On one hand, RPGs do have the mechanism of experience, which leads to character change over the course of a campaign, not exceptionally but as a matter of routine. On the other hand, such character change tends to be incremental rather than catastrophic, and it doesn’t often result in changes in a character’s shtick. So it seems that this is a sort of character growth that fits procedural stories better than dramatic ones.

In a dramatic campaign, then, character change must be in dimensions other than competence: in relationships, mission, and motivation. But I think in at least some game systems, such change would often take the form of acquiring traits with a negative value: in GURPS, for example, voluntary disadvantages such as Disciplines of Faith or Sense of Duty, or disadvantages with a self-control roll such as Gluttony or Phobia. This doesn’t happen a lot in most systems, but GURPS, for example, has fright checks, and Call of Cthulhu has SAN rolls.

It’s somewhat striking that these changes are dictated by dice rolls or other game mechanics, and that they seem specifically to fit into horror campaigns. There doesn’t seem to be much place for a character to gain a disadvantage voluntarily, either by taking time to change their behavior or by trading it for new positive traits. I’m not sure what a game system would look like that made this kind of change a core mechanic or a core element of play.

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I didn’t originally treat my campaigns as having planned endings, but as I settled into having cycles of new campaigns and handing out prospectuses near the end of a cycle, I also started thinking about final installments, and sometimes planning what the final installment would be; for example, in Oak and Ash and Thorn, about British teenagers straying into the realm of the fair folk, the climax was their confrontation with the Dark Lady of Ulster. On the other hand, sometimes I come up with a climactic episode during the course of play. I’m heading for one in my current campaign, Tapestry, which is why I’m working on a new prospectus for that player group.

I’ve said for a long time that when the player characters come on stage for the first time, the best part of the campaign is over.

In RPGs, in particular, this can be done through what I think of as a “Shore Leave” episode (after one of the original Star Trek episodes that Theodore Sturgeon wrote): the PCs have a break in action, adventure, and struggle against the foe, and each get to do things that are personally meaningful to them.

I would argue that “I can now fight/tech/spellcast better than I could before” is not character growth in a literary sense. This may be what you mean by “doesn’t often result in changes in a character’s shtick”; they do the same thing but better.

The hypothetical system which backs up most procedural TV I’ve seen could be regarded as binary skills: my PC is established as the person who has Entomology, and they use it to get the entomology-related clue in this scene. (Quite like Gumshoe investigative abilities, really, if you take the numbers as purely a ration of spotlight time.)

I think that the wargame-descended strand of RPGs has a lot of people who strongly dislike having their character not in their control, and even now games are hesitant to do it. (Which is odd, because many wargames have morale rules.) Random rolls for disadvantages to apply are a fairly blunt instrument; a thing I’ve seen in other games such as FATE, and as an optional rule in GURPS, is the idea that you choose when your disadvantage kicks in, but you get some sort of mechanical benefit from invoking it.

To me “role-playing” means “working out what your character would do, then doing it in game”. This approach clearly post-dates early D&D; the version I’ve heard is that it’s more in the Arneson thread than in the Gygax one. My approach to building a GURPS character is generally to work out who they are, then choose disadvantages to match, and so the disads very rarely feel restrictive because they’re the way I’d play the character anyway. But what I think GURPS was designed for was the classic D&D type player who wants to play an optimisation monster; the disadvantage gives you extra points that you can spend on good stuff, but in theory it should restrict you just as much as adding that good stuff gives you freedom of action.

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Yup. It can feel forced, and some players just aren’t interested, but I do like to spend some game time on what PCs do when they’re not adventuring – especially in a world where you can have non-adventuring time, e.g. one with functioning civilisations rather than just The Dungeon and The Town.

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The superhero genre is notorious for this. In the 1930s Superman could run faster than an express train and lift an automobile; in the 1950s he could fly faster than light and shove the moon out of orbit. But he was still the same archetype. It’s rare to have a superhero change dramatically, and such changes are often reversed: Barbara Gordon is out of her wheelchair again, and I believe Jean Grey is no longer possessed by the Phoenix, though I’m not keeping up with Marvel continuity any more.

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When I was in San Diego, I didn’t have problems with this; I had over a dozen players who were happy to sign up to play once a month in a campaign of mine, typically with a duration of two years. I managed a sustained campaign in Riverside as well. Here in Lawrence, it seems to be harder; I’ve had more than one possible player say they just couldn’t commit to half a year of showing up one weekend afternoon per month. I’m not sure if this is a matter of my not having invested years in developing a circle, or a generational change, or Lawrence being a smaller community, or what.

I can say that my San Diego population was as large as it was because I had invited in one woman, in the first cycle for which I offered a prospectus, who was very socially active and connected; I can count fourteen other players who came in because they had connections with her, or with someone she brought in (and there are three more who are my fellow players in a campaign someone else is GMing). In Riverside, I made the acquaintance of one player who was enthusiastic and worked to recruit other players. Here in Lawrence, I do have contact with someone who plays a similar role, but he’s found it frustratingly hard to put together anything like a reliable circle of players for himself, so he’s not a comparable resource.

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I’m a bit puzzled that you always mention this as a hypothetical rather than a real alternative. Since 1986, when my “Survivors” campaign was constrained from the beginning to run only seven weeks and definitely end at the beginning of swot vac, I and my GMing friends have occasionally run what we called “miniseries campaigns” agreed from the outset to have a single subject (perhaps with distinct chapters) and reach a definite conclusion. They weren’t usual, but they did occur.

They are largely outside my personal experience. The long-form gaming I’ve met has been much more along the lines of the traditional TV series: keep playing until it’s not fun any more, and a bit longer, and then it sort of stops without any real conclusion.

I’ve only done that once in the past quarter century, at least in San Diego: Tapestry was so well liked that I continued running it after I moved away, first going down by Greyhound, then by Amtrak, and now via Zoom. But otherwise my campaigns had a set duration. In fact, they had two set durations: minis that lasted six months, and full-length series that lasted two years (one of which I extended to a third year because all three campaigns were going so well).

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A case where that did happen was the early part of Roger’s Wives and Sweethearts campaign, where the characters were changing from young civilians into professional naval officers. That involved acquiring disadvantages, as part of a personal transformation, which felt easy and natural, at least to me.

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Those being, of course, the optional disadvantages on the “naval officer” template - Sense of Duty, Code of Honor, etc. There was a cast of NPC cadets along with the PCs, to provide friendly competition and interaction; some took everything, some took none, depending on who they were.

These points are both related to my observation that many role-players and RPG designers confuse capabilities for character, and wouldn’t recognise character in the literary or dramatic sense if it bit them on the arse. The kind of thing that is supposed to grow in character growth or develop in character development has no support in most RPGs.

Character generation in RPGs is very often exclusively focussed on defining and constraining characters’ capabilities, and character-players pressed for a description of their character’s nature to flesh out its capabilities usually supply back-story rather than character… Even those RPGs that do provide rules support for a character’s values, aims, attitudes, and characteristic approach usually treat those as limitations on or augmentations to capabilities, as though the important difference between Miss Marple and Father Brown were that Brown wasted points of Clerical Investiture and Knowledge (theology (Catholic)).

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Whereas Miss Marple gets points from her low HT and Social Stigma (Spinster).

But I think this is basically the wargamer / adversarial GM problem: the early dungeon-bash D&D encouraged character optimisation and more generally system mastery, and if you do that there’s no room for weakness. This produces the “smooth character” I’ve mentioned occasionally on the podcast, because any rough spot or snag is something that the GM can catch you by to get an advantage. Got a sweetheart? She’s been kidnapped. Like beer? The beer is poisoned. So you focus exclusively on what makes you a better dungeon pillager.

And I think this may well be why Champions and GURPS explicitly give you points for disadvantages: sure, you have to act honourably, but in return you get to hit things harder.

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