Running Episodic Games

by Mike Shea on 20 January 2020

I'm a huge fan of serials. Shows like True Detective put a limit on the overall story but give that story enough room to breathe and fill out across many episodes. The game Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert Schwalb builds itself around this episodic structure as the core of the game. Characters are intended to level each session across eleven sessions that make up an entire Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. This builds a strict structure around the campaign. Some may find it too restrictive but others, like myself, enjoy having this fixed structure to build around.

We can take this same episodic approach with our Dungeons & Dragons games. Often, when running large hardback adventures, we let the game go however it goes. It begins where it left off previously and it ends wherever it ends as time allows. This can be a fine and relaxing way to play, one that doesn't push a lot of adventure time management onto the DM's already long list of required activities. When running a campaign adventure like Tomb of Annihilation, we can let it go as long as it needs to go.

There can be some fun in building a more focused episodic structure to our campaigns, one in which the each session has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Such a campaign might have a fixed number of "episodes" until the end of the campaign. It works well if you know that your group has a limited number of sessions already. It also works well if your game is somewhat irregular but each session is still long enough to fit in a whole adventure. Four hours is a good benchmark.

Planning Out the Serial Campaign

When following the concepts in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we focus our attention on the next session and have, at best, a loose outline for the rest of a campaign. This works well if we have no real time limits on each session or on the campaign as a whole. When we're running a focused episodic campaign, like an eleven-session Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, we'll need more structure than that.

It doesn't have to be much more structure, however. If we look at the level 1 to 20 gnoll campaign outline we only need a one-line description for each session beyond the next one and a general idea how the story is going to go. We still focus our attention on the next game but we have a more fixed and focused outline to work from.

Here's an example for my Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it can work just as easily for a D&D game. The overall goal of this campaign is to stop the coming of the Demon Lord by destroying the four anchors that pull him into the world. Each anchor is an object or being of great power and requires a single item to destroy it (known as a "breaker"). Here's the eleven session campaign outline:

You can see the clear structure of this campaign. Because it breaks out into two groups of four objectives, the characters can accomplish each of these four objectives in whatever order they want. I only flesh out these individual adventures when I'm getting ready to run the session. It's enough to have the outline to work off of and know I have a clear direction for the campaign.

Sometimes it behooves us to expose this structure to the players. In the outline above, the players learned the general structure for the campaign in session three. They know they'll need to recover four breakers to destroy four anchors. They know each session will cover one of these events. They'll be as committed as we are to follow the structure of the campaign.

Maybe our campaign doesn't actually end up this way and the outline changes. That's ok. Sometimes the best stories take a hard left turn and become something very different. We can be cool with that and it might actually end up being a better game. It still has to fit within the structure, however, so when that hard left turn happens, it's time to rebuild the outline and not let the story get out of hand.

Building In Flexibility

Because each adventure is intended to fit within a game session and because adventures have a tendency to go off the rails we have to build in a fair bit of flexibility into them. We may have to dramatically shorten our adventure or pad it out to fit within the session depending on how things go. Most of the time we'll need to shorten it up. It's rare when we don't have enough material to fill out a session and much more likely that we have too much.

Our first goal is to have the end in mind always. We need to know what the final conclusion of the adventure will be and be prepared to push the adventure to that conclusion as fast as possible if needed. If we're running an adventure based on the rescue of Father Gregory from the Black Vault, we have to be ready to get the characters to the Black Vault, find Father Gregory, and face the harvester that's carving him up within the last 30 to 45 minutes of the game. We can use our tricks to time and pace each adventure with moving keys and moving MacGuffins.

Managing time becomes crucial in such short episodic adventures so we need to be thinking about that conclusion every thirty minutes ensuring that its headed towards that conclusion quickly. Clues become much easier to discover later in a game. Dungeons become smaller. Piles of monsters in the way suddenly disappear. The very next room the characters enter just so happens to be the Black Vault.

There are a few ways we can build in this flexibility into our games. Here are two:

First, we can shrink the dungeon. If we're using a map for our dungeon, say the catacombs map from the Lazy DM's Workbook, we can collapse hallways and cut off rooms until a twelve-room dungeon becomes a five-room dungeon.

Second, we can cut encounters. Scenes, particularly combat scenes, all take up a lot of time in our games. When we're building out our single-session adventure we can build-in flexibility by being ready to cut scenes when we need. Maybe those wights never burst out of the sarcophagi as the characters make their way to the dead general's crypt. Maybe instead of having to negotiate with a ghost to get into the lower tomb, the characters learn some interesting lore from a fresco on the wall and find the door already open. We always want enough encounters to fill out the game but we should be ready to cut whatever we need to cut to get to the ending on time.

Character Montages Between Sessions

Because each of our games is a self-contained story, we can throw in some downtime in between each session. At the beginning of each session we can go around the table and ask what each character has been up to for this period of downtime. We can shrink or extend this downtime as it fits the story. Maybe it's only one day. Maybe it's a tenday. Maybe it's a month. A lot of interesting things can happen to the characters in this downtime and some of it may move the story into new and interesting directions. Players can have clear ideas of what their character did and learned during the downtime which is a great way to drop in some secrets and clues. Other players might not have anything particular in mind so maybe they roll on the carousing table from Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Let your players know that you'll be asking about their downtime and they may come up with some interesting ideas between sessions. This is a fun way to play D&D away from the table as well as on it.

Leveling Every Session

In an episode of the DM's Deep Dive, Mike Mearls mentioned that he felt that characters typically leveled too slowly. He went so far as to recommend leveling characters every session to see how it felt. Many DMs didn't like that idea, often describing that they felt players wouldn't have enough time to understand their characters' new abilities.

A short-run episodic campaign, however, might be just the time to try out faster leveling. Experienced players won't have much trouble understanding the new abilities of their characters and as long as as each episode happens close to the others, say weekly, players will watch their characters grow level by level each session.

A six-session, ten-session, or even twenty-session episodic campaign might be just the way to enjoy the feeling of a full D&D campaign without having to play for two years to complete it.

One Alternative Style of Play

Episodic D&D games isn't a new wonderful way to play D&D. It is one possible way we can run our games when the story and situation is right. I very much enjoyed my eleven episode Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it isn't likely to be my preferred style. The relaxed nature of an ongoing campaign means I don't have to worry about tying up every loose end at the end of a session. I don't have to have an eleven-episode outline for the whole campaign. I can run multiple villains, multiple stories, and multiple hooks and see where the characters want to go.

If you see a short focused campaign in your future, however, the episodic campaign may be just the fit. Add it to your DMing toolkit.

Related Articles

If you enjoyed this article please take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

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