Jan 29, 2012

The Long Narrative

The roleplaying campaign has the potential to be the longest continuous narrative that a person will ever experience. Most movies last under 2 hours, and it takes maybe 16 hours of continuous reading to get through War and Peace. Only a handful of television shows will breach 200 hours of broadcasting (400 half-hour episodes across 18+ seasons, not counting commercials). On the other hand, the 50 or so 8-hour sessions of that Iron Heroes game I played constitute 400 hours of narrative. And the entire campaign was less than a year and a half instead of spread out over decades. It was written by the three PCs and one DM, as opposed to the large creative team and consultants and so on that are brought into popular and long-running shows.

This length is one of the reasons that I am extremely suspicious (though not completely opposed to) the transferal of narrative techniques and patterns from other media to games, or at least their uncritical transfer. I think this uncritical transfer is the reason behind the existence of so many Forge microgames, which strive to compress the experience of gaming into the length of a long movie. I think that as a unique feature of roleplaying games vs. other media, we should not seek to reduce the length of our stories, to compress them into movie-length chunks, but rather to expand and broaden them to adequately fill this time.

Expanding them adequately involves preparation and planning to handle changes in tone, in detail, in the cast (both in game and out of game), in the sets and environments PCs encounter, many of which are similar to what creators in other media deal with, and are far more worthy ways to spend your time than figuring out how to mix up a bunch of tropes and cliches to avoid writing a backstory or setting (which is 90% of all "cinematic" techniques that I've ever seen anyone talk about for games).

I'm pretty hungover right now, so I'm just gonna let my readership know that over the next little while I'm planning to write some articles on a similar theme to the "Abolishing Parties" pieces but with specific emphasis on allowing you to run long, continuous games in consistent settings, regardless of changing membership of the group, the itch for "something different" etc. 


  1. I wonder if the idiom of the serialized for DVD TV series might be a better way to think of GMing a long campaign than that of film. Or perhaps the sprawling, never-ending, door-stopper of a fantasy series.

    1. Both have things to teach us, but I'm leery of simple imitation of either, which is what I find most gaming advice on the subject resolves into.