Roleplaying Campaigns as Television Shows

Roleplaying games were my first introduction to the world of professional game design. Every RPG ever published assumes–if it doesn’t actively encourage–its players will create house rules, homebrew monsters, and custom worlds. This makes the RPG table a perfect place for aspiring writers, actors. and game designers.

I hung my dice up a few years ago. Our regular group dissolved as members moved out of state and we were unable to find dedicated players to fill their chairs. There was the occasional pickup game but board game design became my bailiwick.

The break between campaigns enabled me to find a new perspective. One year ago, I elected to climb behind the screen and form a new group for a new game. This campaign wrapped up recently so it seemed like a perfect time to share the experience.


RPGs as Serialized Epics

Twenty years ago, J. Michael Straczynski brought a television show that was completely new to us. Babylon 5 was scheduled tell an epic story over the course of five years. And then stop. Nobody was writing that kind of television at the time. Most shows were serialized and open-ended like a comic book.


Twenty-first century television has a number of great shows of this type. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones are all shows which tell epic stories over multiple episodes. And then stop.

These serialized epics are the new template for my campaigns.


Serialized Epic Advantage: Extended Stories

Any episode of a show from my childhood like Happy Days or Beverly Hills 90210 packed every story into a tidy three-act structure which fit nicely into a single episode.

That’s not how Breaking Bad works. Walter White doesn’t deal with threats to his business in a single episode. If a threat appears in one episode, his response will be revealed to us gradually. He may begin responding to this threat in the same episode but it is likely that multiple episodes will pass before he has completely dealt with the interlopers.

The stories in serialized epics stretch over multiple episodes.

When I began playing RPGs in 1980, each session was a single dungeon crawl. We grabbed our gear, girded our proverbials, and dove in. Once the dungeon was suitably stripped of treasure, the characters that climbed out were pretty much the same ones that dove in. We could enter the next dungeon pretty much the same way we entered this one.

In a serialized epic RPG, stories play out over multiple sessions. A party member may be attacked in one session, investigate the source of the attack in the second session, and act to neutralize this source in the third. Rumors discrediting party members may emerge, requiring a number of sessions of damage control all while the opposing faction keeps working to wreck the team’s rep.


Serialized Epic Advantage: Consequences

Not only did other shows pack their three-act structure into single episodes, they also tended to set everything back to normal by the end of that episode. No matter what else happened, we are going to see Bruce Banner hitchhiking down an anonymous strip of middle America by the end of each episode of The Incredible Hulk. Sure, we had the occasional To be continued… but these were rare exceptions.


Walter White’s actions reverberate through the series. Any time he puts on his Heisenberg hat and begins plotting, we know things are going to change for keepsies. His actions are consequential.

When our party finished a dungeon crawl, we were done with it. Apart from the stray magic item and a character level or two, that hole in the ground was any other hole in the ground. They held no further significance for us and their builders certainly weren’t going to come looking for us to punish us for destroying their creations. And what if we were to change up their order? So what? They had no effect on one another anyway. Our characters–and the world they lived in–were unchanged by their experiences.

Every major action by the player characters in a serialized RPG will revisit them later. Toppling the evil overlord leaves a power vacuum; if the PCs don’t find a way to fill this vacuum, they will have to deal with the new evil overlord who moves in to fill it.


Serialized Epic Advantage: Conclusions

Gilligan’s Island was the continuing story of a group of castaways on a tropical island trying to get rescued. Showrunners had only one goal; for the show to be popular enough to keep renewing it. With high enough ratings, it’s conceivable that Gilligan’s Island could still be on the air today.

Deliberate open-ended structures like this rob shows of dramatic opportunity. It puts them on a treadmill, always running but never moving forward. The castaways cannot be rescued or the show would be over. The castaways also cannot fail to survive or there would be nothing to watch.

Breaking Bad was conceived as the rise and fall of a drug lord. No matter how popular it may have been, it had to end. Walter White had to end.

Serialized Epics are created with an end in mind. Planning with a conclusion in mind is exactly why these shows can include extended stories plots with consequences

Running a serialized epic RPG frees the game master from mundane questions about how to keep the game plodding along from one session to the next. Instead, she can focus on building the game to its climax.

Running a serialized epic RPG also frees the game master from concerns of power creep. Certainly, the PCs are getting steadily more powerful. But the stakes they fight for are also rising, as is their competition. The PCs NEED a steady rise in power. Without it, they won’t be prepared to face her campaign’s conclusion.


A Serialized Epic Conclusion

The combined advantages of extended story, consequence, and conclusion led me to choose the serialized epic model for my RPG. It was the right decision.

My serialized epic campaign ran for just under a year. The heroes began with an investigation into a series of serial killings with implications of the supernatural. Their story went on to feature investigate hauntings in Hollywood, possessions among the New York elite, and a hunt for the Spear of Destiny. Through all these adventures, they were opposed by a supernatural horror fixated on fulfilling a dark prophecy. The campaign climaxed with a battle on the Siberian plains under the prophesized eclipse. And we had fun along the way. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?



What do you think of the serialized epic model for campaigns? Did I miss any features? Have you played in one? Have you run one? How did it turn out? Share with your fellow readers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog. If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


4 thoughts on “Roleplaying Campaigns as Television Shows

  1. JMS conceived Babylon 5 as a televised novel.

    I enjoy the occasional one-shot RPG session (usually to try out the system or setting) but on the whole I prefer the epic feel of RPG campaign. I like being one of the protagonists in a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s my most sought-after gaming experience.

    For years Pathfinder has been publishing story path modules that have this epic episodic feel. Our group greatly enjoyed playing through their Council of Thieves / Westcrown campaign.

    More recently WotC has been publishing episodic epic content through their Adventurer’s League program, which is very similar. I’m in another group that’s currently playing through the Curse of Strahd campaign. (The current campaign is Storm King’s Thunder, but we’re a little slow.)

    I’d be surprised if some of the other RPGs, like the new Star Wars RPG, don’t have something similar.

  2. I absolutely loved Babylon 5, it was utterly fantastic, and I pretty much always enjoy tv series that have a storyline that progresses from episode to episode. 24, Lost…all very awesome.
    As for roleplaying, I have never been in a true roleplaying campaign, being mostly a solo boardgamer, but there has been a series of solo adventure books called the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever. It pretty much did the same, and as such I really enjoyed it a lot. Another example is the Sorcery! series by Steve Jackson.
    Off-topic: great blog you have here 😀

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