Since TV writing and gaming are different types of episodic storytelling there are natural overlaps between the two, but I have never seen a roleplaying game better suited for the TV drama-show structure, than 4th edition D&D.
I am not the first to make the gaming and television comparison, but I really started thinking about it after watching an interview with Ron Moore about the writing of Battlestar Galactica. He made it sound like the writers on Battlestar were throwing all these surprises out (eg. so-and-so is a cylon!) having only a vague idea of where most of it would lead. They left it open-ended enough, that they could use the framework of the established world to pull it all together in the end (or as needed). I thought this was a very clever way of writing any kind of series, and immediately made the connection to campaign structure.
A 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign is structured in three tiers of 10 levels each. The Heroic, Paragon and Epic tiers each represent a new chapter in the characters’ adventuring career. If we go by how it’s laid out in the rulebooks, you could describe the three tiers as epic, epic’er and epic’est. As DMs, our job is to give the players this feeling of Progressive Epicness (not a real word, but it should be). Above all, it is the DMs responsibility to ensure everyone has fun by being fair, and providing challenges and adventures. And fun for the players ties into expectation and surprise. I will get back to those in a minute. For now, just bear with me.
The structural parallels between TV shows and D&D campaigns are many. Each game tier has a number of adventures, not unlike episodes in a season. And just like on a season of Dexter, Mad Men, Weeds or most other drama series, we want character development along the way, and individually enjoyable episodes that tie into a season-long story or theme. And because there are exactly three tiers in a D&D campaign, it’s possible to plan for an even grander storyline, spanning across all three tiers. Just like Battlestar Galactica, where the ragtag fleet of survivors seek to escape the cylons, and in the last season this – the entire premise of the show – is concluded.
When structuring my campaign I think of individual adventures as episodes, each tier as a season and the campaign as the show in its entirety. As the DM, I act as the executive producer, director and writer. The players are the stars of the show; and writers too, when they contribute to cooperative world building and add ideas for me to use somewhere in the story. However, I also consider the players to be the audience.
This is where expectation and surprise comes in. For any campaign (or TV show) to work, the players must believe in it. At least to the point where the basic assumptions are understood by all, such as magic is real, dragons breathe fire etc. If the game world has normal gravity, we need to have a good reason for suddenly suspending that. If we suddenly make everything zero G with no explanation, the players will know you cut corners and left big holes in your story. And that sucks.
Sharing an understanding of the game setting and storyline makes it easier to suspend disbelief. Unlike the TV show, a D&D game has to create similar mental pictures in the mind of each participant. For that to happen, we take certain things for granted and make basic assumptions, typically based off the rulebook descriptions and the DM’s presentation. In terms of cooperative campaign design and world building, a shared frame of reference also makes it easier for the players to contribute material that fits with the overall mood and style.
Surprise is the second element needed to make your campaign work. Once we’ve given the players a sense of comfort, where they feel in control and relaxed, it’s time to throw them for a loop. The beginning and the half-way point of each tier are perfect times to do this. Just like TV show seasons often present new circumstances for the main characters at the beginning and half-way point of a season.
Effective surprises include killing off important non-player characters without warning (just make sure there’s a good explanation for the heroes to uncover), natural disasters, loss – whether it’s the beloved unicorn mount or the party’s favorite inn that burns down – or any major events that directly affect the characters. Things that keep the players on the edge of their seats, wanting more. Just like in a TV show, it’s important to space these events out and introduce them at just the right time. Use each idea only once per campaign, because it won’t have the same effect the second time around.
During one season of most drama shows, any number of world-shaking events might happen, but main characters rarely die off more than once or twice per season. Romances and other individual storylines develop over the course of an entire season, and focus shifts between the main characters, allowing everyone to share the spotlight. You can split adventures into game sessions, and think of those like individual blocks of a show, split by waiting for next session instead of commercial interruptions. Notice how often those leave off on a cliffhanger, by the way? Or foreshadowing of what’s to come after the break? Steal this trick.
Dramatic structure in a D&D game is not hard to add, if you use the TV approach. When I told my players that this was how I intended to structure our campaign, the immediate reaction was: “Ooh, I hope I’m not the one who gets killed off in the first season!”. The suspense is half the fun for me. Also, it’s a great excuse to watch some cool shows and call it research.