Storytelling Arcs: Television…

2008 September 29
by Dante

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the crafting of story arcs and how this is best achieved in a roleplaying environment. Before long I started considering the story telling mechanisms employed by other mediums.

Let’s have a look at the moving picture victrolla first

Before I launch into this too far, I’m going to be totally transparent: I finally got around to watching the season premiere of Heroes and that is where much of this discussion stems from. I will attempt to discuss things at a macro level and will avoid spoiling things. Consider yourself warned.

Some dramatic television shows tend to go for the long story arc that will span an entire season. This was similar to the first season of Heroes, however in tailoring a story this way you set yourself up for either a big payoff or a big let down. Most D&D campaigns I have been in build their storylines in this fashion, for better or worse. I have found that unless something unexpected happens at the end, most of my players fail to remember how the campaign resolved itself but remember more the actions of their characters along the way.

Other shows tend to break things up into parallel storylines, which interweave and wrap around each other from time to time and all aim toward a common endpoint. This is somewhat similar to the second season of Heroes, but the downside to this style of storytelling is confusion and the fact that when you’re focusing on one set of stories the rest of the characters (your players in the RPG world) are left out of the mix unless you involve them in some other fashion.

Since there’s not much data yet on the latest season of Heroes, I would like to look at the sum of the existing parts that we have seen so far. The third season has started out in more of a “pressure cooker” mode. In this method of storytelling, a lot of activity and plot happens in a short time. This is intended to put the familiar (and even not-so-familiar) characters on a path so you can get ready to follow them.

This method is usually best reserved for the start of campaign or restart of campaign sessions, where you must quickly reestablish the plot and create some compelling reasons to stay tuned. This mechanism is also quite useful when you’ve noticed that the interest in your campaign is waning or your player characters have recently gotten into something they are not interested in but had to finish by virtue of the task.

A good real-world example is the time I combined a compelling plot point with a pre-constructed module and the module proved to be much longer than I expected. By the end, all the players wanted to do was get done so they could move on, and the time spent finishing the module was grating on them. Once we got out of the module, I kind’ve hit the fast-forward button in order to get them moving forward along the plot again and the new developments made things more interesting for them again.

Stay tuned for more!

I will periodically be selecting a different medium and trying to find out how we can learn by the way they tell their stories. By standing on the backs of these giants, we might be able to build our own stories in a better way!

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