by Stephen Beeman
A bored young woman leans against a lamp post in a shady part of town. Her attire shows a marked lack of taste and modesty. A tall, mysterious figure in a trench coat approaches her. After a brief negotiation, the woman leads the man into a run-down hotel. They climb the graffiti-scarred stairs to a small room – a bed, a chair, and a view of the alley. The woman tosses her short leather jacket on the chair and turns to unzip her spandex blouse. Suddenly, the man grabs her by the shoulder and spins her around. For the first time, she sees the man's shadowed face. His eyes are glowing with a demonic light! The woman's screams fade as the camera pans out the window.
"We will return to E*S*P*I," a disembodied voice announces, "after these important messages . . ."
Roleplaying is at its best when the GM and the players cooperate to create an interesting, exciting narrative. Often the GM will shape this narrative into the form of a novel or movie. Such formats help the GM structure his plot, and let the players visualize the action more easily.
When I set up E*S*P*I, a psionic-detective campaign, I wanted to create this sort of narrative with my players. But our sessions had to end by a certain hour and were occasionally postponed, making it difficult to sustain a long, complex novel- or film-style plot. I needed a format that lent itself to short, self-contained, fast-paced adventures involving a standard collection of characters and settings. The obvious answer – a television series!
Conceived as an hour-long detective program airing on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m., E*S*P*I resembled a cross between Miami Vice and Poltergeist. A big-budget series, it was filmed on location in New York City, and feature paranormal plots, superb special effects and top-notch actors. The title was also the name of the detective agency, Eric Seneca Private Investigations, which specialized in psychic investigations. All the PCs were employees of E*S*P*I. This background gave me a convenient framework for adventures – I had a preset length and basic outline for each episode (the TV show format), a collection of regular NPCs (supporting actors with recurring roles), an endless supply of foes (the New York underworld) and a ready source of plot ideas (real detective shows). The result was an easy-to-run campaign that both I and my players enjoyed.
Structure. Each episode of an hour-long TV series breaks neatly into five parts. It begins with a "teaser," designed to catch the viewers and hint at the villain or conflict for the episode. In a multi-part adventure, the teaser shows scenes from the previous episode.
Act I introduces the villain's crime fully, and gets the PCs involved. It climaxes in a minor confrontation with the villain or his henchmen when one of the PCs gets too close. This confrontation, which will often take an impersonal form – a bomb in an apartment, a car chase, a sniper – should put the PCs on the right trail.
Act II centers on the PCs' investigations, as they put together the pieces of the puzzle that lead to the villain. By the climax of the second act, the investigators should be fairly confident of whodunnit; the tension in this act comes from the need to catch the villain before he gets away or strikes again.
Act III brings the PCs into direct confrontation with the villain, climaxing in – we hope – the miscreant's downfall. Following Act III is the epilogue, which wraps up loose subplots and clears the stage for next week's episode.
Length. Each adventure is a single episode of the series, and should be playable in a single session. An occasional adventure can run two or even three episodes, in a "To be continued . . ." format. But even the episodes of a two- or three-part story should stand alone well enough that they can be enjoyed by those who missed one part or another.
The sessions I ran lasted five to six hours. If you have less time per session, it is possible to run a single episode over two or three sessions by ending each session at a commercial break between acts. This method demands that the next session be held soon, though, since TV episodes are structured to leave the audience – and the story – hanging during commercials.
As a general rule, the teaser and the epilogue each take about fifteen minutes to play out. Acts I and II, which are full of action and information, should run about two hours apiece. Act III usually lasts about an hour, most of which is taken up with the climactic combat.
Character Development. The characters in a TV series change very little, compared to the characters in books or movies. This is done deliberately, so that the episodes can be written, filmed and aired in any order, without disturbing continuity. At the end of every adventure the major characters should have changed as little as possible, while the background and NPCs should not have changed at all. You can radically alter the background if you want to, but in doing so, you destroy one of the major advantages of this sort of campaign – the stable of recurring NPCs and locations.
The Bible. Every TV series has a "bible," a book containing information about the characters and setting of that series. Descriptions of all the sets are found here, as are details on the likes, dislikes and personal history of each recurring character. Writers refer to the bible as they write each episode. The GM of a TV campaign should compile his own bible, with maps and descriptions of the most common settings, character sheets for PCs and NPCs, and notes about previous episodes.
The Teleplay. With a fleshed-out bible and a solid plot-concept, a GM can put together an episode fairly quickly. Start at the conclusion and work backwards. Who is the ultimate villain, and how do the PCs finally catch him? These answers should give you Act III in a matter of minutes. Next, determine why the PCs will be hunting this particular fellow. What heinous crime did he commit? Answering this question gives you the teaser. Then fill in a logical chain of clues for the investigators to follow through Act I, trying always to leave the investigators more than one option (there should be two or more ways to obtain all the necessary clues). The nature of the action in this act will be determined by the path that the investigators follow.
Act II will likewise depend on the adventurers' actions, but no matter how they get there, the climax of Act II should be about the same, since it has to lead into Act III. Add some brief notes on subplots that will need resolution in the epilogue; you shouldn't need more than that at this point, because most of the epilogue will depend directly on the characters' actions throughout the adventure. Finally, go back over the teleplay you've created, fleshing out the individual scenes. Build the villain and his henchmen, write their dialogue, and tailor the details of some of the scenes to particular PCs.
This entire process seldom took me more than one or two hours, once I had a good premise for the episode. I drew ideas from a variety of TV shows, giving each episode its own flavor and disguising the cookie-cutter method used to create it.
Once the series' format has been established, the show can enter production – that is, you can start to run adventures. The GM, as the series' producer, should make copies of the bible available to the players so that they can jump right into the series. Of course, and detailed information on recurring villains should be deleted from the players' edition of the bible!
After he has run a few episodes, establishing the style and flavor of the series, the "producer-GM" can hand off his duties to other GMs. These GMs, taking the role of episode writer-directors, follow the series format to create new episodes. Because of the stand-alone nature of each episode and the continuity enforced by the bible, a series campaign can run for quite a while with several GMs rotating director's duties. Of course, the series' producer remains the ultimate authority on the campaign, but each director can add his own touch to the show.
Copyright © 1997-2016 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.