Thirteen-Week Campaigns (or, How to Write a TV Season)

I like to think that after this long, I have some idea about how to build a 13-session campaign. I ran three campaigns over five semesters in college, and the winter and summer breaks framed 13-session arcs well. Since then, I’ve run two summer campaigns over 13-week breaks, and I’m running another now. So with seven such stories under my belt, I’m starting to get into a storytelling pattern:

  • Before the campaign starts: “Okay, I know roughly what the story is about. But how to I get there? I mean, I have some framework for the middle of the campaign, but what’s the beginning? I have a set piece planned for the end, an epic encounter or fight to serve as the payoff before the final boss, but what if the players do something that makes it impossible? What if the players hate the plot altogether? Panic!
  • Week 1: “Let’s…throw out a short adventure leading obviously to a fight. People like that. And make it an easy fight, so everybody can see how they work together.”
  • Week 2: “They liked it! And with the seeds laid, I can take them to a lighter fight, or an exploration and investigation session.”
  • Week 3: “Alright, I need to start hinting at the general arc of the campaign. I’ll describe the general problem and see what they think about it.”
  • Week 4: “A harder fight, to show them that things are escalating, and a bit more plot progression. Let’s give them a few leads and see what happens.”
  • Week 5: “They figured out the plot too fast! Set piece in danger! Abort! Damage control! Panic!
  • Week 6: “Okay, disaster averted. They’re on some side plot now. It’s a few weeks earlier then I planned, but I can stretch this out, and they’ll probably do something interesting that can take the story in a new direction.”
  • Week 7: “So far so good. May be time for another session without combat, to give the plot more chance to grow.”
  • Week 8: “Side plot completed. Players are going back to main plot with enough information to solve everything three weeks early. Set piece will happen too fast! Panic!
  • Week 9: “I’ve changed the villain and/or master plot enough that the campaign can survive even if they solve everything next week, so I think we’re back on track again. I fully expect things to seem fixed next week, and then I’ll spring the escalation on them.”
  • Week 10: “The players failed to solve the campaign due to crippling failure and/or stupidity. The plot has taken a turn that will avoid the set piece entirely! Panic!
  • Week 11: “After recovery, the players are back where I expected them to be last week. I may have to rush things a little, but only a little, and everything is set up for the rest of the campaign.”
  • Week 12: “Set piece! I’ve been wanting to run this session since I started the campaign. Everything is perfect!”
  • Week 13: “…frick, I forgot that I needed to have an entire session before the final boss. And I’ll probably have to buff the final boss midway through the fight, so I’d better make the early fights a little easier. But what if they blow through them and the final boss? Panic!
  • The next day: “The campaign went great, and everybody seems reasonably happy. Except in going through my notes, I found a plot thread I forgot about it, or one I planned for that the players didn’t hit. That would have been fun. Ooo, I can add it to the set piece for the next campaign…”
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3 Responses to Thirteen-Week Campaigns (or, How to Write a TV Season)

  1. Yanni says:

    At least you plan that far in advance. I usually just figure out the 2-3 things the party is most likely to do, and get half-assed ready for that. Then they do the thing they promised they were going to do the previous session before doing something I prepared for 3 weeks ago and have to spend 20 minutes digging out of my “file”. Then they go off on a brand new tangent which I’m wholly unprepared for, and I end the session early.

    Or better yet, at the end of a session they’re all like “Yeah, we are definitely going to head north and investigate the necromancer’s castle.” and then first thing into the next session they’re like, you know we thought about it over the last week, and the necromancer sounds scary, let’s head in the ONLY direction you didn’t plan for instead.

    My real problem is I am not very “time oriented” so I often have to work very hard, and at the absolute last minute, to get something epic in for the end of a “season”. Always fun realizing you only have 2 more sessions the day before the penultimate one.

  2. Dave Fried says:

    I’m somewhere in the middle; I tend to try to have a three-act structure and some conception of the problem(s) or challenge(s) the PCs will face, but other than about three vague milestones, I try to plan only the things the players are likely to want to do next.

    My three act breakdown works as follows:
    1. Introduce the players to the world and hit them with one or two immediate bangs that they’ll feel obligated to respond to. This will give them something to do for the first few sessions and get a feel for their characters (and the rules, if it’s a new game).
    2. Once they’ve overcome the first set of challenges, hit them with a bunch of bangs and open up the world. This is the part where I get a feel for what sorts of challenges they want/what stories they want to tell/what adversaries they’re most interested in confronting. If it’s a character-driven game, I try to have scenes showcasing each character.
    3. After I’ve escalated things enough and have a clear picture of what the final conflict needs to be, funnel things down by making the threat immediate and unignorable. All the conflicts will lead to the final scene; I’ll often let the players know I’m railroading them because pacing is so important. This is also the part where I’ll tie up personal arcs and give the characters things they’ve wanted.
    3b. About two sessions prior to the final conflict, I’ll actually start planning it, but it’s in flux until it actually happens. The most important thing is timing the events of the last session so that there’s sufficient buildup, climax, and denoument. There are (probably quite transparent) tricks I use to stretch or compress time to get it to work out the way I want.

    This was more or less the structure of both Savannah Greyhawk and the Toronto Dresden Files campaign. For shorter campaigns (Feudal Japan, OKC Supers) I tend to cut out act 2 and even the latter half of act 1; the net result is that way more of the campaign is railroaded but since it’s short that’s typically OK.

    The summer Apocalypse World campaign I’m running will be the exact opposite, since it’s designed as an ongoing, ensemble-cast serial. There will be mostly act 2 and probably no final climax unless the players set it up as a conflict between themselves.

  3. Shortguy457 says:

    Dude, I love this! Maybe you can describe it in more detail?

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