TAKING THE FORMAT OF TV SHOWS FOR SOLO PLAY
This is an idea that really relies on a certain kind of narrative structure, one where you’re fine with the concept of your game being like a show on television. One of the things I struggle with sometimes in my solo games is determining how exactly to break up play. Sometimes I can play for a few hours, sometimes I only have 15 minutes. It’s one of the greatest flexibilities of solo play, but I run into this issue where I have a long session followed by a short one, and I have no idea how I would share the short session in an ongoing actual play. It doesn’t lend itself well to the nice, detailed sessions I see on other people’s blogs.
In fact, I have a lot of APs that started out strong in the first session or two, and then I run into that problem. At the end of December, I shared one such session in a solo game of Electric Bastionland, but took it down because I was dissatisfied by how the second session didn’t complement the first, due to being fairly short. It makes it difficult, though, because part of the enjoyment I get from my solo play is the ability to share it with others.
I’m not really the type of person to watch many shows, and usually I don’t enjoy myself all that much if that’s all there is for me to do. However, lately I’ve been watching a couple. It gave me the idea that maybe, my solo play could be broken up into episodes, rather than dividing it by session (for the reasons mentioned above) or dividing it into scenes, as I don’t love adjudicating where a scene begins or ends.
It’s a fairly simple concept, but I think it’ll help other people like me who are maybe in the same boat. Does this need a whole blog post? I don’t know, maybe. Does that matter? I don’t think so, I’ve got plenty to say here. Here’s how it works.
The Structure of an Episode
Even within a serialized show where a plot builds over the course of several episodes, each individual episode of a television show follows about the same pattern. The scene is set, the goals are established, some kind of opposition pushes back to create conflict, and the conflict is resolved in some way. In a broader sense, we can think about episodes as cycles of conflict and resolution, with a kind of "uptime" focused on pursuing goals and facing opposition, and "downtime," which takes place between these periods of focus. Often the downtime is at the end of an episode and/or the beginning, before the plot starts moving.
The episodic style of solo play is going to focus on that cycle. This is a sort of bookkeeping tool to help consolidate the plot of your game, however it's also meant to create some variation in your game. Dividing notes by sessions creates arbitrary start and stop points that demotivate me, at least, as I find it hard to grasp the plot when I get going again. Dividing them into scenes, meanwhile, helps me get "refreshed" by being able to start a new scene, but I find it difficult to organize a bunch of scenes and I don't have the easiest time telling when to end a scene. Dividing into episodes, however, leans on a predictable structure that I can rely on, allowing myself to be refreshed when I start a new one while also keeping meta-plot bookkeeping light and out of the way. I'll outline what this looks like.
Setting the Scene
An episode begins by setting the scene. This helps establish the world and the mood, but the important thing is to not think too much about this. Since you're playing solo, you can take this in whatever direction you want. But this opening will also serve as a bit of an anchor. It can be as long as you'd like, but I'd recommend keeping it pretty brief, just a few sentences. The reasoning for this is that the sooner you get to your character, the sooner you can begin influencing the game world.
Establishing the Goal
Once the opening scene is established, focus on your character and their situation. Once your focus is here, the plot begins to be set in motion. This is the point at which you should know what you want to achieve on the small scale. Thinking about it like an episode on TV, what goal can be accomplished by the end of the episode? This can vary wildly, including everything from going to a party or getting one’s driver’s permit, up to developing superpowers (superhero show origin episodes, anyone?) or rescuing someone from Hell (I’m sure this happened in some episode of Supernatural). It largely depends on the scope of your game.
Role-playing games are about resolving problems, I think. I don’t really know. They’re about a lot of things, but a major component of them is determining how to resolve issues and achieve goals. I’ll make a larger post about what opposition can look like, but within the scope of this article, just think of it as anything that gets in your character’s way. To take perhaps an unexpected example from television, let’s consider the show Forensic Files. No, it’s not like the dramas or sitcoms on TV, but every episode has some kind of opposition for the investigators: disparate pieces of evidence, unreliable witness testimony, red herrings, and the piece of the show that this program is centered around, evidence that requires the help of a forensic specialist to interpret. It’s not enough for a character to want something and get it, they have to encounter an issue to resolve to get there. I think every show has this, as it creates drama, points of interest between the slower procedural parts.
When you’re in the middle of play, opposition to your goal will probably rise naturally from context and the use of an oracle. Keep in mind that opposition can be flexible. It can be stretched out to several steps, or condensed if going through several steps to accomplish something isn’t fun or interesting. There’s room for your character to be sidetracked and distracted, and elaborate schemes created to accomplish a goal can involve several steps’ worth of opposition in service of the greater plan.
The central issue in the episode is resolved, one way or another, by the end. A character gets their driver’s permit, or maybe they fail but learn a valuable lesson about hard work. The bad guy is stopped from blowing up the Statue of Liberty, or the main character succeeds or fails in a step to prevent them from doing so. The end of your episode of play should be wrapping something up, even if it’s small.
I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that the end of the episode requires that the problem be neatly solved. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Shows that are especially episodic tend to only have plot that exists within the episode, and doesn’t leave much (if anything) to be resolved later, such as classic episodes of Scooby-Doo, or Kolchak: The Night Stalker (or that’s what I’ve heard, anyway, as I haven’t seen the latter). Other shows, such as popular dramas with several seasons, like The Sopranos and House of Cards, set things up ahead of time and the payoff comes multiple episodes later. Many, many shows fall somewhere between these.
Leveraging the Space Between Episodes
The last point I want to get to here, and one which I think is a core part of the episodic system, is downtime. This is the other half of the Uptime, Downtime cycle that shows tend to have, however it’s not equal in proportion to uptime. This is the kind of thing you might see at the end of the episode and at the beginning before the character’s start engaging with the core plot of the episode they’re in. It may not be shown at all, and references may be made to something that happened off-screen.
Downtime activities can include a number of things that you might find boring or uninteresting to explore during the play session, but are still things you want to touch on. This can include shopping, cleaning up after a disaster, commuting, and other menial tasks that may not be fun to play. You can envision these like a montage.
Furthermore, things can happen between episodes, including the setup for the adventure that your characters will be on. Maybe you don’t want to go through the process of getting the quest from the old man. It could be fun to start in the middle of the action, and leveraging the space between episodes like this allows for that.
Note that this whole approach is based in the perspective of someone who's watched a little bit of television, and has never written for television. I think this is a good thing and well-suited for solo play. I think many solo gamers don't want to know the plot as they play, they want to experience it for themselves in this interactive medium, but some kind of guiding framework can keep them from going off the rails and wandering aimlessly until they’re frustrated.