What is an "arc"?
Most storytellers will be aware of the concept of a story-arc, a series of episodes which are linked by an underlying theme and plotline. Although each episode might focus on very different interactions between the characters and their environment at least a good chunk of each episode takes the underlying theme and plot forward.
For example, in a supernatural-type game the heroes might be tracking one specific antagonist in their roles as hunters. Along the way they will encounter many and varied situations but, in each episode, they will come one step closer to their over-arching goal: tracking and killing the antagonist.
My idea has been to run an ongoing campaign not as one long campaign arc but rather as a series of really short campaign arcs, perhaps not even necessarily all set within the same time period or with the same heroes. To be honest, however, for my first outing I am fairly sold on the idea of keeping it simple and narrowing the parameters a fair bit just to see how it runs and how players react.
I have two specific problems as a GM: lack of time/will for prep, a totally butterfly-mindset.
Arcs potentially solve these problems in quite interesting ways:
- Once I set up the basic theme and plot of the arc, with a few key points, it becomes easier to focus down to minimal prep for each game session.
- If we use short arcs, perhaps as short as 3-episodes, we reduce the risk of the GM skipping off before the story is ended.
Additionally, assuming an arc proves entertaining and engaging for all, it's easy to begin a new arc with the characters and/or setting and keep the campaign rolling. If, however, the arc flops then we simply move to another arc and liberate ourselves from the sense that we "have to keep this going" because the story has no defined start and end.
Starts and Ends
Roleplayers are pretty good at middles. All stories have a start, a middle and an end... and roleplayers excel at that middle part. Most are ok with starts too. The problem comes with ends.
Ending a roleplaying game is a painful decision almost all of the time. Players want to keep developing their heroes and GMs feel like they are letting down the players if they stop. The long-desired ongoing campaign which lasts for years is, in reality, rare and not a little bit mythical.
Recent innovation and development in RPG circles reveals the trend: systems that are lighter, looser and flexible are ever more popular. Any game that requires lots of GM set-up time, however well-designed, tends to get read and not played. GM time is tight in a busy society where everyone is under pressure.
Arcs offer a potential solution: a quick start, a clear end and just enough time to enjoy the middle. If you enjoyed that arc then you just set up another... and another... until you fancy a change.
My largest mistake in all of my GMing over the past 15 years has been to begin a campaign without any clear idea of how it will end... or when... of even, shockingly, if...
Arcs tackle this issue up front.
At least... that's my theory. I'm off to see if I can test it.