Tabletop Meditations #9: Campaign Structure

As a work of traditional fiction has a basic underlying structure so does a Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TRPG). Story, Plot(s), Scenes, and Story-Beats are the building blocks of traditional fiction. Likewise, the structure to a TRPG is built of a Campaign, Adventure(s), Episodes, and Play Units. As knowledge of the basic structures of fiction can help authors write their stories the knowledge of the basic structures found within TRPGs can help to sharpen a Game-master’s communication skills and adventure-writing/story-telling prowess. Both traditional fiction and role-playing games structures are tiered and begin with the most basic of building blocks, the smallest units composing those higher up with those of higher tiers increasing in complication. The most basic building block of a fictional narrative is the Story-Beat.

A Story-Beat is an emotive change in a character or exchange between characters (as in action/reaction) and which is replaced in RPG Narratology with the social exchange between the participants; these being the Game-Master (GM) and the Players. As the characters that are involved are the Player Characters (PCs) controlled by the players and the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) run by the GM is where the story-beats lie. The story-beats are smeared across realities that is they are present inside of the game world and outside the game world among the participants and as there is not always an emotive change marked in certain specific characters determined by a single author but is dependent on the exchange of information on what the characters are feeling and doing and how the players themselves are reacting to what is going on within the game. Since the emotional change so to speak is distributed over multiple people and existent partially in a shared fiction, it is the exchange of information between these participants and frames of experience (a la Frame Analysis) that is of importance here with each single exchange between participants known as a Play Unit.

GMs should take note, always take down notes by the way, of the exchanges that seem to be important either those that contain a nugget of info that the GM can play on later, those that apply directly to the current action in the game, and those that may hint or directly spell-out character traits and especially player interest and reaction. GMs should initiate exchanges with vivid and characterized descriptions playing to the interest of the players and/or their characters in order to hook them immediately. It is also vital that the GM’s narration contain enough information for the players to act on but not overwhelm them with too many extraneous details. It should entice the players to ask questions and/or act maintaining longer and more frequent exchanges improving the overall flow of a campaign. These exchanges are what construct the game world in the minds of all the participants. Multiple Play Units will build a single fictive scene.

In fiction a Scene is a unit of action within a story marked by a change of time or place (change of scene) and which contains an event which moves the story forward. Note that the entrance of other characters can also demarcate scenes. Essentially the same can be said of TRPGs save that sometimes the demarcation of a scene is more reliant on the presentation of a question, puzzle, or problem by the GM without the scene changing in time or place with characters dying in between these exchanges as well as certain characters simply vanishing or becoming suddenly scarce altering the scene, meaning it’s slightly less structured strictly speaking. Thusly, within the context of RPG Narratology it is probably more befitting to call these units Episodes instead of scenes. An episode in the context of TRPG narratology is a related grouping of related Play Units where the setting/background does not have to be fixed. An example of this is a conversation between 2 PCs while walking through a magic portal beginning before they walked through and continuing through and on the other side, the backdrop changes radically but the episode is composed of the exchanges between the PCs. This somewhat transient notion in TRPGs can be difficult when trying to translate between traditional narrative and TRPG narrative especially in such instances as trying to blog a personal (or a character’s) tabletop experiences. Those that blog their experiences around the table may try to demarcate portions of the campaign by Session instead of by traditional narrative units or even those of TRPGs being discussed here.

However, a TRPG session is not a very appropriate unit as it contains both real-world interaction and the exchanges between participants which build the fantasy world of the game. In addition, as most game sessions often run a few to several hours, there will be tons of information most of it being extraneous to the narrative the blogger may be pursuing aside from the world-building elements. A full session will also probably not have a clean break at the end or a cleanly demarcated beginning especially if the session begins on a continuation of a battle which began last session or on such an incident which has stretched across several sessions. Thus, a single session can consist of several Episodes strictly speaking and may not even contain whole Episodes at the beginning and ending. Not to mention distributed episodes, that is small exchanges or incidents that connect into a single episode but which are not temporally contiguous (they don’t follow each other in occurrence), are separated by other unrelated exchanges and/or episodes or are otherwise composed of out-of-sequence Play Units.

When writing or setting up for episodes a GM need only bank on multiple exchanges where they hope to end on a desirable result from their perspective. Basically, the GM will want the PCs to end up after this series of exchanges in a place or situation that either leads directly to another planned episode or that which they believe that they can work with, giving them fodder for more episodes further down the line. Keeping Play Units and Episodes in mind a GM can structure their thoughts and ideas while running the game and writing for their campaign. A game-master can learn to keep tidbits of info in mind and group them together later when it comes time to act on them in-game helping to form the threads that run through campaigns which the GM’s writing and narration helps to bind together into adventures.

Multiple related Episodes will accumulate to build an Adventure which may or may not be consecutive or broken up among episodes that take the Campaign in different directions or digressions which will matter later connecting to other non-contiguous episodes or future episodes. Basically in fiction this is Plot/plotlines. Plot is a sequence of events divided into Scenes each single scene often presenting a single event. A fictive plot is constructed of a sequence of scenes (as are Subplots but for the purposes of this article there is really no distinction between Plots and Subplots). A minimum of 3 scenes construct the traditional plot in fiction with a beginning, middle, and end type of striation within the text. In a TRPG, plot is essentially constructed of 3 vital exchanges or episodes which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. As the building blocks of a TRPG plot is constructed of a series of bundles of exchanges guided by the writing (the GM’s and any other authors of any of the material they may be utilizing for the game as well) within the context of the game world and which is very mercurial and apt to change direction and nature suddenly and unpredictably even from the GM’s perspective, it is most useful to refer to TRPG Plot as an Adventure. An Adventure is a single plotline that can be followed through a campaign referring only to the game and meta-game elements necessary to communicate said plot.

An adventure is of course slightly more complex than the previous two lower tier structures (Play Units and Episodes). As stated before an adventure is composed of three parts which are Presentation, Complication, and Twist. These component parts need not be in equal size or be executed in roughly equal spans of time (either real or in-game). Each component is however, an episode. Presentation refers to an exchange initiated by the GM which presents information that gives the players something to be solved or acted upon in such a way as to lead them to another scene or episode though whether the players follow this to the next episodic component of the current adventure is unpredictable and may require the GM to make another go at the Presentation or put a hold on the current adventure to go on a player-fueled tangent. The next in the strict sequence of episodes that build an adventure is Complication.  A complication is the consequences of the players’ action(s) or an additional bit of information which throws a wrench into the players’ plans basically it’s a bump in the road or any type of obstruction separating the players from their goals that they otherwise couldn’t predict or that didn’t exist beforehand. The solution that they find should ideally lead them to the next component episode, the Twist. ‘Twist’ refers to yet another unforeseen consequence of the players’ current action(s)/previous solution, or the addition of another element by the GM which the players probably didn’t plan on appearing; this element however should have had clues as to its nature and its possible appearance scattered throughout the previous episodes that the players have already played through.

The episodic structure of adventures can be demonstrated in certain methods of writing adventures, adventure in the sense of current common usage that is, such as the Hook, Line & Sinker (HLS) format which structures adventures into 3 tiers. This structure though does not have to be limited to just 3 episodes it may take more to get the PCs to go along with it (if they ever do which is probably a hint to the GM to just drop it and present something else) or for them to progress through each single stage. The HLS format puts the plot-hook in the beginning episode to immediately try to capture the players’ attention by having the GM play to their characters’ motivations but a GM should also try to play on the players’ interests as well. Basically, it’s giving the players a reason to act and can also be inserted between the Presentation and Complication stages as well if the PCs were initially uninterested. Placing this ‘reason’ at the very beginning places a fair amount of trust in the players’ abilities not just to pick up on it but also their will to act on it. Putting it off until it can be used as the bridge between the Presentation and Complication phases can give the players more to latch onto adding to the likelihood of their taking action.

This brings us to the overarching super-structure underlying both fiction and TRPGs. In fiction this structure which is composed from the bottom up of Story-Beats, Scenes, and Plot is Story. A Story is the text resulting from the totality of the aforementioned structures with the addition of characters, details, and the background (that may or may not involve world-building) in which the events of the story take place. Of course, these underlying structures which authors of fiction use to construct their stories vary so much from those of TRPGs at this point it is probably more efficient to call the Story of a TRPG a Campaign. A Campaign is the totality of all of the game and meta-game exchanges, participant characters (both PCs and NPCs), any material that the GM used regardless of original source or author(s), and the game world where the campaign has taken place. It is from this accumulation of detail and narration from which the participants can extract their personal narratives from the point of view as either their character(s), as a player, or a combination of the two. It is also in this higher tier structure where the world-building occurs as world-building is done through the accumulation of information gleaned from the gaming material and from the information drawn or resulting from certain exchanges and demonstrated in certain episodes. Adventures help to propel the characters and thus players through this shared world which they not only can alter through the actions of their characters but also help to construct episodically.

A TRPG Campaign is built of adventures, episodes, and finally communicative exchanges between the participants called Play Units. Knowledge of these basic structures will allow the GM to plot out adventures and help their improvisation technique when dealing with at-the-table exchanges within the context of the game world which serves as the sandbox for the players. Game-masters can seize control of their writing through the use of the 3-tier structure of adventures and can collect information learned from certain episodes to direct the flow of the campaign. They can break down the campaign and its subsequent adventures into episodes allowing them to find and pick up lost threads (ones not intentionally dropped that is) within the campaign and gain a deeper knowledge of the PCs and maybe even their players perhaps even themselves (when it comes to gaming style).

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