GMing Mistakes 16 – Avoiding Big Story Moments

For some reason, there’s this notion that having long campaigns makes them epic. Sometimes people go even so far as to assume epic is synonymous to long. Well, this is not true. Epic is about celebrating the great deeds of heroes.

Most of these ‘epic’ campaigns seem to fall more into the mediocre camp. If you look at good movies, TV-shows, books or games with narratives, they try to build up to something and there’s a rhythm to this. But just building becomes boring. You also need a release.

Many GMs seem to prefer a status quo. They don’t want to change the world much, because keeping things the same enables them to keep the players running missions that don’t mean much in the big picture. Length of the campaign is seen as a virtue, when it clearly shouldn’t be. Is a three hour movie automatically superior to a two hour one? Of course not. No one would assume that. Is General Hospital (which has run for roughly 5500 episodes as of this writing) better than Breaking Bad (62 episodes), Band of Brothers (10 episodes), The Wire (60 episodes) or The Sopranos (86 episodes)? If you are reading this article, I can probably say you wouldn’t think so.

If you are doing this, how do you fix it? You have clear story arcs. This isn’t exactly new. Aristotle wrote about this in his work (I assume it was Poetics, but it’s been something like 25 years since I’ve read it, so I can’t be sure). He brought the idea of three acts into drama (which covered both comedy and tragedy throughout most of history) and it’s still used constantly in writing.

The idea is that the first fourth of you story is setup, the next half of the whole runtime is where the protagonists follow clues, chase shadows and whatever it is that they do, and in the final fourth is the end game. If you’ve ever seen a Bond movie, you know exactly how this works. First, there’s a half an hour of extended action scene that’s there to bring the viewer in the world and gives a starting point for the story, which leads into the second act, where Bond travels around the world gambling, having sex, being tortured, participating in car chases and whatever it is that they do, and finally, in the last half an hour, he confronts the bad guy.

Now, there’s a reason why these acts are of this length. It keeps the climax from being, well, anticlimactic. There should be some sort of big win or loss for the players every once in a while. Long ramps into something mean that the expectations for the finale will be overwhelming and the actual finale can’t ever beat them. So, use one session to set up the situation, two sessions to run through the story and the fourth session to let something happen which really changes things. Just keeping things basically the same is not fun for anyone over long periods.

Next time I’ll move into player mistakes. I think.

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