Role Playing Tips - By Johnn Four
CAMPAIGN STRUCTURE PART I
Written by Peter Maranci, Copyright 1996
Fundamental to any roleplaying campaign is the conceptual
structure which controls it. That structure is the basic
frame upon which the gamemaster creates the framework of the
campaign, like a tapestry on a loom; as the initial pattern
is set, so the goes the game. And yet the creation of
campaign structure is rarely considered as a subject in
The basic building block of all plot structure is the story;
a flow of events containing a beginning, a middle, and an
end. This essential unit can be used in three ways. There
are few unalloyed examples of these forms in the real world,
of course; many stories combine different elements from
various forms, with one type predominating.
I. The Stand-Alone
A to B to C
A stand-alone story is self-contained; the point of the
story is the telling or playing of it, and once the end is
reached there is nothing more to be said. In roleplaying,
the one-shot scenario is an example of a stand-alone
structure. Made-for-TV movies follow this pattern; so do
many short stories. Anthology shows such as The Twilight
Zone are an excellent example of collections of unrelated
stand-alone plots. This structure offers the advantage of
extreme clarity and comparatively little commitment of
time. It is limited in effectiveness, however. Compared to
other, longer forms it doesn't give the creator enough time
to develop sub-themes and character development.
Participants have less time to build a strong attachment to
characters. On the other hand, a series of unconnected
stand-alones allows treatment of many widely differing
stories and settings.
II. A Never-Ending Cycle
A, B, C, A, B, C, A, B, C... (repeat until failure)
Take a set of characters and produce a string of stories
about them and you have a cyclical plot structure. This is
the most common form on television; almost every drama and
sitcom falls into this pattern. So do most comic books.
Early roleplaying campaigns used this form almost
exclusively, and I suspect that it is still the most popular
type of campaign.
The advantages of this form are several. In a way, it
provides the greatest quantity of material for the effort
expended by the creator; once the characters and setting are
created, new stories may be plugged into the formula with
ease. Characters and setting are unlikely to change, and so
require little or no upkeep. The formula can be repeated
indefinitely; participants will have a chance to become
familiar with the characters and develop attachments.
Individual characters and settings can be more richly
developed over time, as they accrue incidental details --
though the creator(s) must be careful not to alter the basic
structure, lest the cycle be disrupted and disaffect
The cyclical form offers advantages from a
sociological/economic perspective, too. As the only form
which has the potential to continue indefinitely, it is
ideally suited to a medium such as television in which the
ultimate point is marketing. Obviously once a successful
structure has been developed those who profit by it are
unwilling to allow it to end...
...which is itself a disadvantage, of course. In television
in particular the purpose of the cyclical story is not to
tell a story, but to protect a profit-making entity. Thus a
disadvantage of the cyclical form is its inherently static
quality. Successors to the original Star Trek series are an
excellent example of this; corporate executives have made no
secret of the fact that their only purpose in producing the
show is to "protect the franchise" and thereby their
profits. Absolute changelessness is the law. Thus far this
approach seems to have been successful from a financial
viewpoint, though it is arguable that the Star Trek story
and universe have been diminished by it.
One interesting aspect of the cyclical story pattern is the
means by which it ends. The point of such a pattern is to
continue indefinitely; as with all things, however, the
story eventually must come to an end. Since there is no
provision for winding the cycle up, however, the result is
that cyclical stories often end abruptly, with little or no
sense of closure. In the case of television, this means
either no ending at all or a hasty wrap-up episode with no
meaningful connection to the preceding body of work.
Next Week: Campaign Structure continues, introducing you to
The Meta-Cycle, a surprise conclusion and an excellent bit
of advice for your own campaign structure.
Have more fun at every game!