The Episodic Campaign
Many of the best RPG's are based on fantasy worlds presented in novels or graphic comics. D&D, for example, was predominantly influenced by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Though it took cues from several other such fantasy settings, often times even those were themselves influenced by Tolkien. Although there are certainly plenty of exceptions, just about any RPG setting you can name is based off of someone's written material somewhere.
Over the last couple of years however our rpg group has become interested in the Cortex system, mainly the Serenity and Battlestar Galactica settings. These two are based entirely on television series (although Serenity is technically based on the movie, which itself sprang from the canceled Firefly t.v. series). In the course of our gaming in these two settings we've picked up a peculiar way of looking at our rpg campaigns.
Up until now, having been focused mostly on D&D, we tended to view our campaigns as ongoing stories. Epic adventures, really. With Serenity and BSG we found ourselves adopting the television series mentality in designing, running and playing our campaigns in the Cortex rpg system. Our campaigns were set up like television series, with roughly thirteen "episodes" or so intended to culminate in season finales toward the end, like a good t.v. series. We even tended toward story arcs and character development, at least in theory if not in practice. All told, we found we prefer this approach. We even use terms like "episode", "series" and "season finale" when talking about our campaigns. A lot of our gaming fun comes not only from playing the hero but in creating an entertaining and compelling "show" for the assumed "audience". Which, I suppose, would really be ourselves if you get right down to it.
So when we found ourselves adopting this way of thinking, seeing our gaming campaigns as television series rather than literary epics, we considered ways to enhance that. During the course of which we developed this simple little system, which I'm posting here for anyone interested.
In describing our Episodic Campaign system we're going to make up a campaign and a "cast" of player characters to use as an example. Let's go with a futuristic search and rescue type setting. Our players characters will be specially trained search and rescue operatives for Red Shield, a government subsidized organization employed all across "North Amerika". To give our campaign a little action, we'll give our campaign a post-apocalyptic setting and sprinkle a large amount of chaos and violence all about through which our Red Shield has to navigate. For drama we have the characters themselves of course but let's toss in a not-so-nice, perhaps even slightly totalitarian, government that's subsidizing Red Shield as well as a newly formed rebel faction opposing it, with Red Shield soon to be caught in the middle. We'll arm our player characters and put them in conflict with some criminal and terrorist organizations to be sure we can toss a nice gunfight in there now and then as well. Maybe add some mutants, a dash of psi-powers here and there and we've got a nice setting we can get just about anything we want out of.
For our players we'll just go with some stereotypes. Let's say...five of them. We'll have a Leader, a Brute, a Vixen, Hotshot and...hmm...how about a nice Geek? That sounds pretty good, so let's go with that.
Seasons, Episodes and Pilots
In a series campaign each session represents a single "televised" episode. A "season" is generally composed of 20-25 episodes (although we usually cut that back to 13 for our campaigns). Each campaign begins with a single pilot episode and each season usually ends with a season finale.
Pilot episodes are pretty crucial to a television series and more often than not are two-parters. To reflect this your pilot episode may well be played over two gaming sessions (or only one long session if your players are really excited about the campaign). Nevertheless, there's nothing wrong with a single-episode pilot and I prefer that myself, when I can pull it off. Since the purpose of a pilot episode is to establish the setting of the campaign and introduce the characters, as long as it accomplishes this then it doesn't really matter. Some campaigns require that much time to establish the basics, some don't. To that end a pilot episode should be concerning primarily with establishing the basic canon for the campaign setting and emphasizing the characters themselves. This let's the players get to know the characters and the setting so that they know what to expect in later sessions/episodes.
During the course of each "season" we should have an overall story arc and most episodes will either deal directly with that or at the very least address it. Nevertheless we can toss in other story arcs as we like and even a rare individual episode which hasn't anything to do with any story arc at all. (The X-files, as an example, was well-know for their "critter of the week" episodes that had nothing at all to do with the shadowy government/alien conspiracy. Yet they had just as many episodes that did deal directly with the main conspiracy arc.) Season finales, however, should probably either deal directly with the overall story arc or at the very least tie up a shorter story arc.
So let's get started on laying the foundation we'll be building this campaign upon.
We'll start our pilot episode off with all but one of the characters already having been working together for some time. If our players had rolled up these characters we'd turn to them for insights into those character's personality and background. Since we're making this up as we go along though, we'll just pick and chose whatever we like.
For a little bit of drama right up front, let's say our Leader and the Vixen had themselves a failed romantic relationship of some kind in the recent past. Either the Leader then can be prone to some jealousy or perhaps our Vixen just likes rubbing it in his face a bit. Hmm...let's go with the Leader jealousy thing. Lots more tension there. Just to make things worse (which is always good, I say) we'll make the Hotshot as the brand new member to the team and give him an immediate interest in the Vixen (and vice-versa). Later on we can have some character development and let the Hotshot cool his jets a bit, learn his lesson and maybe even hook him up with the Geek eventually. Maybe the Brute and Vixen will hook up later or something. Our leader...well, sucks to be him. A Leader should stay focused on the job.
Now we'll toss in some background on our characters. Maybe our Leader was chosen for the job because of his experience. And maybe that experience is with the same shadowy government agency that we'll have trying to sink it's hooks into Red Shield later on. This will give our player characters a little insight into the shadowy agency right up front, give them contacts in that agency (through the Leader) and maybe even provide some fertile ground to plant a few moral dilemmas. We'll make our Brute with something of a bad rep for violence in the past, our Geek can be related to someone high up in the Red Shield organization and our Vixen has probably slept with everyone and their brother already, so she can provide drama galore with old boyfriends and romantic rivals. Our Hotshot...well, I got nothin'. We'll let him be a wild card for a while then.
(Now of course we'd normally get all this from the characters themselves. A good GM wouldn't inform the players as to what relationships their characters will form but since I'm wearing both hats for this little exercise, let's just use our imaginations for now.)
Episodes and Acts
Each episode will be represented by a single gaming session and will be broken down into four acts. Technically we're really talking three acts and a wrap-up but let's not quibble. At the beginning of every episode we have our Opening Scene. In a television series this usually occurs away from the main characters in order to provide the audience with some background info that the main characters don't have. Since our audience and our players are one and the same though, we should definately involve the player characters (at least some of them anyway).
Following the short Opening Scene we have our Act I. In this act we're confronted with whatever was eluded to in the Opening Scene and the player characters go about solving whatever problem that represents. As a general rule we'll have a bit of action and/or drama that's resolved and that's about it. Once resolved we move right on to Act II, which tends to be a little longer. Here, again as a very general rule, we'll have some action/drama but we also learn all about the overall theme of the episode. There is usually an opportunity for the player characters to do some research, interrogate prisoners, call up their contacts, etc. In Act III we do much the same and end the act with the whatever the trouble was to begin with being resolved by the end. Then our Wrap Up follows and we deal with the fallout of all this. Sometimes we even replace our Wrap Up with a Cliffhanger instead, tying this episode in with another to follow.
Spotlights and Shines
Now during the course of any particular television show you may have noticed a particular episode tends to focus on a specific character with everyone else playing supporting roles. In some cases, especially in dramas or shows with more than one "main" character, you might even have two or three plotlines going at once. To represent this we have the Spotlights and Shines system, which is the main focus of this little essay. And it's pretty simple. Spotlights and Shines are simply the stated intention of the GM for how much of the story will involve that particular character. It's entirely up to the players themselves how they will utilize this, of course, but it primarily gives the GM something to build the campaign on while allowing the players the chance to influence the process. That's the whole point of this system, getting the players involved in designing the campaign.
To begin with I recommend the 13 episode "season" for your campaign. Even this may seem a bit long so you might want to cut that back to maybe a 7 episode season. Whatever works for you and your group.
In each "season" each player character has a Spotlight episode, in which it's all about them. Here we expect to see some character development, maybe an ongoing plotline or two getting tied up and perhaps even new plotlines presenting themselves. In a Spotlight episode we see not only major changes in the particular player character but maybe in everyone else by extension. Spotlight episodes are important to both the player and the GM because it allows both the opportunity to get that character on track with whatever they each have in mind for them. A GM would use a Spotlight episode to end a particular plotline or story arc involving that character, or they may just as likely introduce whole new ones. A player would use a Spotlight episode for the obvious. It's an opportunity to be top dog for a while. No two player characters can share a Spotlight.
A Shine, meanwhile, is similar to a Spotlight in that some of the focus is on that character but the Spotlight still remains somewhere else. In some cases the Spotlight is on another character and in other cases it's on the story itself. Any number of player characters can have a Shine in an episode. Most of the time your character won't have either a Spotlight or a Shine, they're just along for the ride. This doesn't suggest they're pushed to the rear and it's expected they'll serve whatever role in the gaming session that they normally would, they're just not pushed directly into the light, so to speak. Nevertheless, if a character has a Shine in an episode and someone else has a Spotlight, that character should use their Shine to prop up the other character's Spotlight, not try to steal it.
For each "season" the players have one Spotlight episode each and they get to pick which episode that is ahead of time. Depending on how many episodes you have in your season, they'll have a certain number of Shines as well. For a 13 episode season I'd recommend an amount equal to the number of player characters we have to being with. In a 7 episode season, half that. (In both cases, round up if you have an odd-numbered group of player characters.) The rest of the time they're no more or less important to the story than normal. The GM should then get this "schedule" ahead of time along with character and backgrounds so they can tailor their campaign around all that.
Now let's jump to our example and do this thang.
In our Red Shield example we're dealing with a 13 episode campaign season, so this would give each of the five characters 1 Spotlight episode and 5 Shines per "season". So let's lay out how our imaginary players want this to go.
Let's say our Leader decides they want their Spotlight during the season finale and choses to put most of his shines toward the end as well. This will let him build up his character's "screen time" as the tension builds in the season. It's also a nice opportunity to influence the GM toward building the season finale around him.
Our Hotshot takes a Shine in the pilot episode, making the most of being the new kid on the team and decides on a Spotlight about mid-season in episode 7. After that he takes Shines in episodes 4-6, hoping for a story arc leading up to his Spotlight episode from the GM.
The Vixen decides to take a Shine in the pilot, intending to play up the romantic drama with the Hotshot and the Leader. She takes a Shine in episode 7 as well, banking on the Hotshot getting his story arc, and follows that up with two more Shines of her own hoping for the same to follow right after. Finally, she takes her Spotlight in Episode 12, just prior to the season finale, then takes her last Shine in the season finale itself.
The Geek decides to try for a Geek-specific storyline as well and drops three shines in a row, leading up to her Spotlight in episode 6. She puts a Shine in episode 2 just to keep things interesting and drops her last one on the season finale, not wanting to miss that opportunity.
Our Brute isn't much of a roleplayer so he simply spreads his Shines around a bit, hoping to avoid all that boring plot line stuff. He takes his Spotlight in episode 11.
The Pilot: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Leader, Hotshot, Vixen
Episode 2: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Hotshot, Geek, Brute
Episode 3: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Geek, Brute
Episode 4: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Hotshot, Geek
Episode 5: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Hotshot, Geek
Episode 6: Spotlight - Geek; Shines - Hotshot, Brute
Episode 7: Spotlight - Hotshot; Shines - Leader, Vixen
Episode 8: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Vixen
Episode 9: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Vixen, Brute
Episode 10: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Leader
Episode 11: Spotlight - Brute; Shines - Leader, Brute
Episode 12: Spotlight - Vixen; Shines - Leader
The Finale: Spotlight - Leader; Shines - Vixen, Geek
When the GM decides to sit down and lay out a rough outline for that season, they now have a nice frame to work within and it's one the players had some input in as well. We've decided our overall storyline for the season will revolve around the Leader's old shadowy government agency using Red Shield for it's own ends, so we'll definately involve that in the season finale. Our pilot episode looks as if it will cover introducing the player characters well enough so far. There's some drama between the Leader, Vixen and Hotshot right off the bat but it resolves itself quickly. Our second episode looks as if it jumps track to focus on the Hotshot, Geek and Brute, which I figure is good since this let's us paint a clear picture of all these characters in the first two episodes. For that reason I decide to make the pilot a two-parter and cover all my bases (and we can see how the player's input here has already helped shape the campaign).
In episode 3, however, we see the Geek begin to build up to a Spotlight in episode 6, so we decide to place a story arc here involving the Geek. One of the rough ideas I toyed with in the beginning was Red Shield coming into conflict with a terrorist or criminal organization of some kind. So let's say our Geek used to be a hacker in her youth and made some bad decisions in the past. She did some naughty things on the interwebz a few years ago with what she thought was a small group of fellow hackers. Unknown to her, that little hacker group would later develop into the very same terrorist organization that Red Shield will soon be in conflict with. This allows us not only to have our terrorist story arc but to plug the Geek right into it. Maybe we'll have some blackmail and an episode or two of her trying to keep the other player characters from finding out about it (although that's all up to the Geek of course, we'll just provide the opportunity). With Shines in episode 5 and 6 for the Hotshot, we can give both he and the Geek the opportunity to draw him into the mess and give those two characters an opportunity to develop a relationship as well.
However, the Hotshot has a series of Shines leading up to a Spotlight in episode 7 himself so we may be looking at two overlapping story arcs here. I decide I don't really care for that and (too bad for the Hotshot) I decide he won't be getting his story arc. Instead we'll let his Spotlight in episode 7 be all about his character development and simply plug him into the Geek's plot line.
The Leader's Shines and Spotlight at the end of the season are easy to address, since it's his old agency we're dealing with anyway. The Brute likewise is easy, since he's all about guns and explosions. With no one taking Spotlights in the three episodes leading up to his Spotlight, we can drop another storyline right there with the focus on the story in episodes 8-10 and lots of action in episode 11.
So, let's tie it all together and lay out a rough outline for our Red Shield campaign.
For the Opening Scene of our pilot episode we have the Leader, Vixen, Brute and Geek waiting to meet the new team member, the Hotshot. Since all the character drama (or lack thereof) is all on the players, we'll let them generate that themselves. We already know the Hotshot intends to show up with a cavalier attitude and propensity for risk taking, which will put him in conflict with the Leader right away. The Vixen is still smarting from the abrupt end of her relationship with the Leader, so she has no qualms about jumping in the Hotshot's lap when he shows up. The Leader meanwhile gets to deal with jealousy and a rookie operative who needs to learn to take orders.
Looking that situation over and knowing my campaign's pilot episode requires that I layout the setting here, I decide we'll be dealing with a natural disaster of some sort right after the Hotshot arrives. During this two-part episode I'm going to give the players a taste of the standard fare the campaign will be offering, without tossing terrorists and spies and whatnot in there just yet. This gives them the opportunity to learn what Red Shield is all about and to focus on being heroes right off.
For that reason we don't want anything especially challenging, just exciting. So, no chemical spills or nuclear detonations. Let's go with an earthquake in Kalifornia and...oh, let's say a hospital teetering right there on the fault line.
To address our Leader, Hotshot and Vixen Shines we'll just make sure to offer an opportunity for Hotshot to take risks, the Leader to get ticked off about that and the Vixen the chance to flirt with the Hotshot in front of the Leader. All in all, we'll let the players address the Shines here and do all the roleplaying.
Pilot Episode (part I): Spotlight - (none); Shines - Leader, Hotshot, Vixen
Opening Scene: The Leader, Vixen, Brute and Geek are waiting around for the Hotshot to show up. We'll give them info on the Hotshot (especially a briefing which points out he has a bad habit of disobeying orders and taking risks) then sit back and let the players roleplay for a minute or two. In walks the Hotshot, let the Leader introduce him to everyone and give him the standard orientation. All told, we're looking at maybe five or ten minutes of roleplaying in the Opening Scene. Just then...the Action Light blinks and the Action Alarm goes off! Oh noez! There's an earthquake in Kalifornia and the local authorities are requesting Red Shield! Off we go to Act I.
Act I: Off to Kalifornia the team goes, getting their briefing in flight on their supersonic action-packed rescue jet ...or whatever. They're heading to the state hospital where local authorities just aren't equipped to deal with a whole building full of ill and infirm civilians about to fall off a cliff. We're going to give our player characters a chance to use the cool gadgets we've written up for them. Once the briefing is over they arrive on site and get their first look at the mess.
Here we'll have three or four simple tasks for the team to introduce the team to their duties. Shore up a collapsing roof here, cut through a wall with their super-action cut-through-a-brick-wall gadget, etc. We'll let them rescue a handful of folks that the local firefighters couldn't get to.
Act II: Now comes our big action for the episode. One old man trapped in a deep, dark place, surely facing death at any moment and no one can rescue him but our heroes...but HQ orders them out! The whole place is about to slip right off the cliff and it's too dangerous! Viola, our Hotshot has the opportunity to disobey orders and go on ahead, the Leader has to wrestle with his jealous and decide (hopefully) NOT to let the idjit go in alone and everyone else gets to pitch in to pull off the heroic rescue. In the end the hospital collapses and falls off the cliff, minus any resident victims thanks to those wonderful Red Shield guys. Don't you just love 'em? Camera crews close in for interviews...
Act III: ...but the danger isn't over yet! Tremors hit and the team finds the whole area they're standing on has decided to lurch about sharply and slide off into the ocean! They don't have much time to evacuate everyone and how in the world can they get all these people to safety in time? Now comes our Run Around and Research segment, where the team has to determine the quickest route to get two hundred people out of the immediate area in less than an hour. And most of them are on foot! Can they even find enough vehicles to move everyone quickly? Well, of course they can. They're heroes. By the end of Act III the team has located a dozen or so school buses and found out that broken down, badly damaged bridge nearby is the quickest route out. Now all that remains is to get everyone organized, onto the buses and somehow over that bridge without it collapsing completely...
Wrap Up: Cliffhanger.
Pilot Episode (part II): (none); Shines - Hotshot, Geek, Brute
Opening Scene: With all the drama surrounding the Leader, Hotshot and Vixen now hopefully resolved we can focus on the Geek and Brute. That means we need something geeky for the Geek to do and something brutish for the Brute to beat on. In our Opening Scene we'll let the team deal with getting the civilians and patients on the school buses while our Geek whips up a quick plan for keeping that bridge intact while they cross over.
Act I: With everyone on board and ready to go, less than half an hour before the whole place slides off into the ocean and the Geek's plan of action for the bridge all laid out, all that remains to do is do it. Unfortunately, a small gang of hoodlums have decided they aren't waiting around for anyone else to tell them what to do. They want out of here and right now, so they've hijacked one of the buses, thrown everyone else out and are about to barrel on over the bridge before the team can prepare it. Here's our Brute's opportunity to kick some butt, everyone else to break out their Red Shield standard issue sidearms and anyone else on the team who isn't a big fan of butt-kicking to see to the task of reinforcing that bridge.
Act II: During this Act we test our teams preparations for the bridge to see if they hold up against a small fleet of buses. We can test everyone's (especially the Leader's) ability to control a crowd of panicky civilians as well. Just getting across the bridge is a good use of Act II...but we need more action for our heroes. So, the last bus in the line is naturally the one that overcomes whatever preparations the Geek has made with the bridge (or maybe the driver simply has a heart attack). The team now wraps up Act II with a quick rescue of that last bus from the collapsing bridge. Maybe we even get to test their medical skills as well in addressing those hurt in all the action. We also will give our Hotshot his shine here, too. Either he can play by the Leader's rules or charge ahead and rescue that bus.
Act III: With the hospital successfully(?) evacuated in Part I of the pilot and all the buses(?) on this side of the bridge everything's looking peachy, right? Well, that sucks. We need a little something for our Act III, so let's say they're all stuck where they are until the local authorities can figure out a way to get to all those civilians. That's not a problem, since there's no longer any immediate threat. So let's provide an immediate threat. Let's say the area they're in now was once a Native American reservation and the locals have long since taken it over and seceded during the big apocalypse a decade ago. And they're not happy with busloads of foreigners intruding on their land in the middle of an earthquake. We'll wrap up the pilot with an opportunity for the Red Shield team to either deal diplomatically with this or settle the issues with a nice running gunfight down a long gravel road.
Wrap Up: In the end the team gets whoever is still alive off the reservation and everyone hails them as heroes (or idiots, depending). Roll credits.
There you have it. Out pilot episode. We introduced our players to the campaign setting and addressed everyone's Shines. Let's take a look at the rest of our campaign now to see what we can do with that.
Episode 3: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Geek, Brute
Here we have Shines for the Geek and Brute but no Spotlight. I had decided to start a story arc here involving the Geek but I think we'll simply handle the Shines and start that up next episode instead. Right now I have an idea rattling around in my head and I'm going to go with that instead. Our plot will involve a top government official trapped in a high-tech elevator with a small entourage of personal security guards. Unfortunately, he's trapped inside a high-security facility that's gone haywire and the deadly automated security measures are all active. The brass decides Red Shield are the only ones up to the task, naturally.
The team spends this episode overcoming the facility's security systems. We'll make sure to provide some security bots for the Brute to shoot and we'll need the Geek to show off her technical engineering genius. In the end they reach the government official...and find one of the security officers has killed the others and is holding him hostage! He's demanding news cameras and a hotline to the President's office...but the team hasn't got time for all that. The building's security measures are going to kick into overdrive soon and they have only minutes to get themselves and that official out alive.
Episode 4: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Hotshot, Geek
Now we begin our story arc with the Geek in earnest. I figure the crazy security officer was an infiltrator for our terrorist organization...or better yet, this organization has developed some high-tech hypno-gadget for brainwashing people. The security officer from episode 3 was just the first of many. In this episode, however, the terrorists contact the Geek and try to blackmail her with evidence of her complicity in some internet crime a decade ago. It's up to the player how she plays this so it can go any which way.
Regardless, the terrorist don't want Red Shield rescuing everyone from all the terror they'll be cooking up soon, so that's the direction they're pushing our Geek. They'll start off with a couple of small, very reasonable demands and build up to the point where she's facing the decision whether or not to act against her team's interests. Since we're controlling the hypothetical players in our example, I'll say that the players here have decided that the Geek confides in the Hotshot, since he's still something of an outsider. They can then either work together to keep the terrorists off the Geek's back or he can support her when she admits her criminal past to the rest of the team.
During this episode the main story will involve the first of the terrorist organization's attacks (and let's go ahead and name them the Invisigoths while we're at it). Sending in armed, brainwashed civilians they take control of a dam upriver from a major city, demanding the release of political prisoners (or whatever) or they'll flood the area. To show how serious they are, they suicide bombed the place first (using brainwashed civilians), trapping most of the dam workers and killing all the security guards. Red Shield has to go in, get past the terrorists and rescue the workers. Then they can get to work overriding what the terrorists have done to the dam (with the help of those workers), giving the authorities the opportunity to assault the group directly without them flooding the city downriver in reprisal.
Episode 5: Spotlight - (none); Shines - Hotshot, Geek
Since I left the Shines up to the Hotshot and Geek in the last episode, I'm going to step in as GM and use them myself this time. Not much point in having a Shine if it doesn't shine the light on that character though, right? So I need to have this episode necessarily involve both the Hotshot and the Geek in some way. So in comes the shadowy government agency who'll darken our team's lives for the rest of the season. They're well aware of the Geek's connection to the Invisigoths and are taking steps to stir things up a bit.
For now we'll say this government agency is one that handles domestic terrorism, so they're after the Invisigoths. Since the Shines here are on the Hotshot and Geek but not the Leader, there's no reason for the rest of the team to know about the agency's involvement. In fact, let's not even bring that agency in directly just yet. Instead, we'll have them tap federal law enforcement who swarm in and lock down Red Shield HQ, investigating the Geek's connection to the Invisigoths.
For this episode we'll skip the search and rescue ops altogether. Instead we'll focus on a race to recover evidence to clear the Geek's good name and prevent her being hauled off to a reeducation camp. Or perhaps they intend for Red Shield to be shut down altogether. We'll place that evidence back at the Geek's home and make it clear the feds aren't at all interested in anything that will clear her name. They're very clearly intent on shutting down Red Shield completely. Maybe some political rivalry here?
To make this a matter of some concern we'll make the team aware that the Invisigoths are heading for the Geek's home to secure that evidence so they can keep their hooks in her. Since the feds aren't interested in acting on this, it's up to our team to get out of the HQ, beat the Invisigoths to the Geek's house, grab the file/data disc/whatever and get it into the right hands without being arrested or shot. Here's our Hotshot's chance to shine by outrunning the feds in a hovercar or repelling down the side of the building. Maybe the Geek can whip up a jetpack or something from their rescue gear? Whatever it is, it's something no one else on the team can pull off, so he gets his Shine.
Episode 6: Spotlight - Geek; Shines - Hotshot, Brute
Here we have the Geek's Spotlight. With Shines on the Hotshot and the Brute, we'll make this an action-packed episode.
Now our shadowy agency steps in, since the feds have failed to do much of anything. If the team doesn't already know about the Geek's involvement with the Invisigoths, now they find out. Our Spotlight for the Geek here will be the manner in which the Invisigoths are controlling civilians. Let's say it's some fancy kind of biochip or something. Whatever it is, it's something the Geek (or perhaps her old mentor from back in the day) toyed around with years ago before abandoning but the Invisigoths have managed to make it work.
Now we find out why our shadowy agency wants to get their hands on the Geek. Only she can figure out how to counter this mind control device. Naturally she does and in the second half of the episode she takes the lead and shuts down a group of mind-controlled suicide bombers moments before they blow up the local State Sponsored Senior Citizen's Civic Awards Banquet (or whatever). We'll make sure our Hotshot has some daring-do in getting that delicate gadget the Geek whipped up within range of the bombers at just the right moment, too. We'll wrap things up with an armed assault by a half dozen loyal Invisigoth terrorists who our Brute gets to shoot automatic weapons at and drop explosives on.
Episode 7: Spotlight - Hotshot; Shines - Leader, Vixen
In this episode we have our Spotlight for the Hotshot. Since we denied him a story arc of his own so far, let's ask him what kind of Spotlight he wants here in order to compensate. We find out that our Hotshot's player is ready for some character development. Taking it a step further, let's say we're playing with the Cortex rpg system here and the Hotshot wants to spend some Advancement Points and buy off his Overconfident complication. What we need then is a situation in which the Hotshot can roleplay that. Something in which he's confronted with his recklessness.
Assuming we've settled all this with the player beforehand I've already got something in mind for Episode 7. I'll not only address the Hotshot's complication but I'll keep the dubious anti-terrorist agency involved, too. Our Leader has a Shine here also, in fact, so we'll cover that while we're at it. An old friend of his in the agency contacts him on the sly, warning him to watch his back. The agency considers his team expendable!
As for our Vixen...well, I'll have to pull something out of my ear, I suppose. Come to think of it, she's got three Shines in a row here so I've got an idea for her, too. It's about time to bring in the rebel faction and the Vixen might just be my ticket there. In order to make the team sympathetic to the rebels I'll need an example of how nasty the government is in this setting. I can augment that by given the Vixen some sort of tie to the rebels as well, which gives me a handy way to introduce them.
So here's our rough plot for this episode: the rebel faction has snatched a bioweapon from a government lab and made off with it. Unfortunately the rebel agent carrying it was followed by the feds and they caught up with him in mid-air on a flight across country to the rendezvous with his fellow rebels. A gunfight broke out, several people have been shot and the aircraft is now out of control! Our dubious government agency decides it's time to call in some favors with the Leader here to get Red Shield on board with their plan to take back control of that aircraft (and, of course, retrieve the bioweapon). Hence, our Spotlight on the Hotshot, he gets to repel mid-air from a government stealth aircraft onto the commercial plane. If that isn't enough, we'll make sure to put a family member or ex-girlfriend on board the aircraft to keep him well motivated! This gives him plenty of reason to take what would otherwise be an excellent opportunity for reckless behavior and instead show some real caution.
For our Vixen's Shine, we'll have her contacted by one of the rebels (an old friend of hers, perhaps) who warns her that the agency they're working for doesn't intend for the bioweapon to ever reach the ground. Red Shield is being set up as scapegoats for the whole mess and the agency intends to silence any mention of the bioweapon once they're all blown out of the sky! Red Shield will then be reported as lost in action while bungling the rescue of a passenger plane.
Once we get the Hotshot and probably the rest of the team on board the plane we find that getting that plane on the ground is more difficult than they had assumed. Perhaps the gunplay earlier damaged something critical. Or even more sinister, the aircraft's navigation software is being hacked and someone is trying to fly them into a mountain! Once that issue is dealt with agency informs them that their inability to control the aircraft has forced them to reevaluate. They've decide to incinerate the plane in midair before it crashes and spreads the bioweapon all over the populace. Attack aircraft are already on the way.
Again, our Hotshot gets the Spotlight as he wrangles the aircraft off the flight plan to the nearest city, dodging skyscrapers and landing at the nearest airport (without crashing and releasing a horrible bioweapon all over the populace). Meanwhile our Vixen has a dilemma to deal with, knowing the bioweapon is no weapon at all but designed to control the civilian populace instead. Does she help her team get the plane back on the ground (and the bio-canister back into the hands of the totalitarian government)? Or does she do as her old friend asked and pass it off to the rebels waiting nearby?
Okay, I could go on and on about this campaign but you get the idea. The Episodic Campaign model brings a slightly different "televisiony" excitement to the game which I just have to recommend. Additionally, the Spotlights and Shines element lets the players not only have some input in the campaign (which I've found greatly enhances their enjoyment of the game) but gives the GM some inspiration as well.
All in all, I recommend using both this new perspective and the Spotlights tool in your campaign. It's been a very positive influence in how our games have run so far.
Breaking it down, then:
* Run campaigns in "episodes" and "seasons". This gives the players a common framework to settle into.
* Begin and end with Pilot and Season Finale "episodes" in your campaign model. Pilots are great campaign kick-offs and Season Finales are something everyone looks forward to. * Break individual gaming sessions down into three or four "acts". A common frame for individual sessions works great, too.
* Include Spotlights (1 per character) and Shines (depending on number of characters and season length), giving players input into the campaign.
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