Building your own custom game will require that you decide what its structure is going to be. In previous CaSE posts I briefly mentioned the question of a long- or short-duration game. Let’s now ask, is your game going to be plot-based or episodic ?
“Plot-based” means there’s an over-arcing story (the full extent of which, the players may not yet know) that plays out in each successive gaming session. Within this plot-based structure you may also have subplots and mini-arcs that tell smaller stories within the context of the larger one. And of course you will still have random encounters or situations unrelated to the central story, but these events are not the focus or critical points of the adventure.
“Episodic” means that each gaming session involves a different situation (most likely with the same characters) which does not tie into a greater story. The episodic structure may be constructed such that all characters are members of a Guild or are in the service of a powerful patron, and each game session starts off with the party receiving a new “mission” to accomplish. What the characters do in their world between the end of one mission and the start of the next mission is not relevant to your episodic-structured game. When your game session starts, the characters have all assembled and are ready to go. It could also be that there is some advancement in their outside-of-adventure progression (they get better housing, more renown and prestige, side businesses flourish) that gives a sense of evolution without necessitating a central plot.
How you choose which way to go will really depend on your story ideas and your players and their group dynamic. Whether you have a grand vision for a sweeping epic, or just a regular beginning-middle-end storyline, next look at your group. A smaller group, dedicated to the game and able to attend every game session will be the ideal core for a continuous storyline. It gets annoying having to review the “story so far” at the start of every session for the benefit of occasional players.
On the other hand… If you have a large group and/or occasional players not big on the whole “following a plot” thing, you might do best with drop-in encounters in the episodic format.
My group’s RPG adventuring twenty years ago was typically episodic. Almost every adventure would start with the GM saying, “Okay, you guys are in a bar, and…” and usually end up with some wildly implausible melee in which several characters were found to have been dressed in Class 4 Hard Armor (AR= 17, SDC = 280) on a casual visit to a local bar and everyone seems to be carrying a half-dozen assault rifles. Concealed, mind you. Logic aside, it was still a fun 4-6 hours and odds were we’d never use those characters again anyways. And it worked with however many people were there to play, and didn’t require knowledge of a back story.
In conclusion, to make the decision regarding plot-based or episodic, think about :
- Your story. Is it complex and elaborate, with arcs and subplot; or is it going to be “the encounter of the week” ?
- The players. Can the players commit to a plotted story, or are they just looking for quick-fix adventuring ?
- The adventure night. Which structure will work with the group dynamic, given attendance and player disposition ?
It’s open to debate if there is a logical correlation between your game’s duration and whether your adventure(s) “should be” plot-based or episodic. I am inclined to believe that if your abilities as DM are good enough, and your story or stories are compelling, it shouldn’t matter if you run years of one-off adventures for your players or if you do six game sessions that tell one story. Any way you mix and match the options, if your skill and your story are up to the challenge, it’ll work.