Monday, August 29, 2016

The Ups and Downs of Fully Episodic Games

Especially during summers,  I try to run episodic games.  What I mean by that is that every session is fully self contained  (even if I have to force the issue) and that there is no case where the same player has to be present two weeks in a row.

The main upsides to this from a play perspective are logistical benefits towards player attendance, but it also allows for easier planning from a GM point of view in that I always know how the game will start, and who will be present.   It allows a number of "boardgamey" mechanics to come in place to deal with what people are doing between games.  I am currently using this to also track where they can start a game from,  but you could also use this (and I have) to force them to start from the same spot each week, which allows you to better control the options available and explain how characters just "show up".

The main downsides from a play perspective deal with immersion. When you make the game episodic that becomes a key decision making point in planning courses of action.  How much actual time is left in the session,  something not at all in a character's mind.  When the payoff will occur also comes up as a factor.  In a non-episodic game it is perfectly acceptable to spend one session planning a caper and the next one executing it.   In an episodic game, no one wants to spend a session planning a caper they will not (or at least may not) be present for.  As a GM, this may require stepping in to remind people that, out of character, this is an episodic game and that if they have a lot of planning to do they should reach out to you after this game and before the next one to cover all that planning.  It will of course be a less immersive and more resource allocation/boardgame style of planning,  but it does mean it doesn't waste the weekend of those who won't partake in the outcome.

I personally find the episodic nature makes the games more memorable in discreet chunks. Rather than remembering specific scenes or moments of a longer arc there tends to be very concrete memories of specific Saturday nights and all of the details, big and small.   This makes it much easier to remember the little details that become important later. I do find it makes the game have less of a resonant "theme" after the fact,  a side effect of remembering distinct "episodes".  This makes the campaign as a whole less, "sticky" for lack of a better term.  There is an almost instinctual habit of comparing session to session rather than viewing them as a cohesive whole even if they form part of a chain of progress towards a campaign wide goal.

When creating content for an episodic game, the brain naturally flows towards content you can re-use in future campaigns,  by function it has to be easier to disconnect to other parts of the setting because it has to be something that can be approached in one sitting chunks and then left alone for potentially several weeks.  As a perk, this makes it easy to create publishable adventures, especially site based adventures.  The downside is of course that this easily disconnected and reconfigurable content would be subpar as a setting book.  It would take heavy rework to make everything not seem like a bunch of disconnected set pieces (specifically because that is what it is)

As a closing thought,  one great advantage of a fully episodic game is it takes zero effort to switch to another campaign  (such as a non-episodic game) for any length of time,  or to switch back during odd weeks.  It allows for a great filler campaign when key players for a non-episodic game are missing,  you can revisit old characters and have a nice little self-contained adventure.


  1. Because of the group of players with me (actors, animators, academics) and my own crazy life there's a good chance one or more will be off of us will be on assignment, conference, what have you so I've gravitated towards a more episodic style over the years. I often go, "Oh this would be perfect for x, x, x, and x" and then send out invites.

  2. I can do episodic, but I really don't like doing it. It just feels like it doesn't get anywhere. We play once a month, and the players are pretty good about showing up, especially if I end the game with a good hook.

    If you can't show up that day, then usually you are in a bubble, unless there is a rare instance where your character must interact with something or other, as I do like to keep adventures character driven, in that case, I'll treat you as an NPC. That is an option, but it is something that I have very rarely have had to do. I'll also make excuses for why a character isn't present, and while this approach would be unexceptionable by many tables standards, it works for us, because, like I said, we all enjoy a really deep and immersive game. If you miss too many games, then there are consequences for that too, typically your best gear gets redistributed to the party, as that character has had to quit as well, and while they take a share of the treasure away, they aren't dead . . . unless they are murdered by the party, which has happened because of a break up and we knew that that person would not be coming back, but usually players can float in and out of my games with no problems, and without it getting overly episodic to the point were a timeline is irrelevant.