Monday, December 17, 2012

Beat Structures

One area where I’ve done a lot of work in is studying the beat patterns of other serial media (specifically comics and TV shows) for an idea of how to translate those ideas into an RPG format.

Basically there are three different types of beat structures:
No beats: each episode is self-contained in terms of plot and the only changes, if any, are in character growth.
Seasonal/arc beats: most episodes are self-contained but a high percentage of the episodes are linked to a longer plot that has a beginning, middle and end)
Interwoven: each episode flows directly from the previous episode and into the next one rather than any sense that the episodes are self-contained.

My preference as a GM is for the middle structure with seasonal beats because I feel that those produce the best stories over the length of a campaign. There is plenty to be said for the episodic structure when it comes to adult gaming (in terms of player reliability) and for wanting to explore a setting without having a larger idea in mind. I try to avoid interwoven games these days because it is the natural resting spot for subplot kudzu, but I expect some of the campaigns I build here will lend themselves to that style.

I don’t see a great need to spend time on an episodic plot structure, but there are a few things to point out. First is that even if the campaign is episodic that doesn’t mean there can’t be any returning characters, but that they would tie themselves to individual PC subplots rather than the campaign as a whole. If one PC is hunting or being hunted by someone that can come up from time to time but each appearance should be dealt with in a single session. Dependent NPCs are a similar link that enhances the campaign but forms a personal rather than campaign arc.

The second is to point out Robin Laws thoughts on Iconic heroes. Iconic heroes are very good at what they do – so good that the usual experience point drivers don’t matter – and are so deeply imbedded in their own personality and idiom that it doesn’t change. Instead their presence acts as the catalyst for the situations or people they encounter to grow or change.  That lets us get the sense of growth or resolution that is important for common narratives without appreciably altering out heroes, which eases the episodic plot structure.

Now then, on to the seasonal/arc beats! For the purposes of this blog most campaigns will be seasonal in the sense of there being 6-12 sessions before a conclusion. This is best typified by looking at a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which each season introduced a new major threat (the Big Bad) that didn’t influence every show but drove the longer term narrative tension.  In some campaigns I will recommend asides showing what the Big Bad is up to as to keep the plot on the players radar, in others I will recommend against that to keep more secrets – the latter is much more an X-Files model. (This minor distinction is one thing that makes those shows feel so different.)

Arc beats are those that run from campaign to campaign. They are similar to seasonal beats in that they serve to tie things together but they don’t have the same frequency, which lets you get some downtime from the overwhelming menace or let things percolate before becoming coming to a head. A good example of this is the Phoenix Saga from X-Men, where we witness Jean Grey getting cosmic power and using it for good in the first ‘season (X-Men issues 94-108)’, it becomes a backburner issue in the second ‘season’ (X-Men 109-121) and then having been well established becomes the driving force for the third ‘season’ (issues 122-136). I don’t know that I’ll come back to any campaigns in this blog, which makes the ‘season two-three’ structure of arc beats less relevant.

So when do seasonal beats take place? The most common structure is to introduce it in the first or second session (the big question is if including it in the first session will deform the PCs personality development), then again a third of the way in, then two third, then in the big end game. In a nine session campaign this would be sessions 1 or 2, 4, 6 or 7 and 9. This structure is pretty consistent in the media properties I’ve explored, so it’s worth hewing to as a way to capture the field. In a 12 session game that would be 1, 4, 8 and 11-12 for a big two part ending. As a standard part of my campaign design here I’m going to start with a beat analysis of the source material so that I can tailor the campaign to the source material’s feel.

Finally there are Interwoven campaigns in which there is no real distinction between the sessions. This doesn’t mean that plots don’t open and close, but it does mean that those events aren’t designed around session breaks. This makes the campaigns more organic, but also harder to control in terms of subplot kudzu unless you’re willing to do a lot of prep work. This design doesn’t mean that the interwoven campaign has no filler moments but that those – like the other parts of the campaign – start and end where and when they fall.

As I said, Interwoven campaigns are much more susceptible to Subplot Kudzu but that doesn’t make them impossible to design or run in this sense. They work well in campaigns where the players have already claimed control of the strategies (and possibly objectives) because the lack of hard, GM controlled ‘here is the end of this session’s plot’ gives the players a greater sense of control. Of course, it also means a lot more work on the GM’s part to make sure the world continues to feel real and respond properly around the players.