This weekend I got to begin a 2-shot 7th Sea game. It's my second attempt at running 7th Sea, so I'm pretty excited for the chance. The thing is, I didn't have a lot of time to prepare. I knew I'd be running something this Saturday, but which game wasn't clear until Saturday itself. Because of that I went to a more structured setup with a simple phasing in how the adventure would work. Only, when I pulled a step back I realized how well this structure worked for 7th Sea, and how it also works for other games. Today, I want to talk about that.
Episodic Gameplay is when each session of the game works out like an episode of a TV show. Sometimes you have 2 and 3 part episodes, but for the most part each episode is a self contained story, that may or may not also push forward the meta story for the season. In other words, each session has a concrete beginning, middle, and end to it, and when you end the session there is some sense of a return to normalcy, even if the characters/world has changed from the events of the story.
Know Your Session Length
The first part of giving your game an episodic structure is to know how long your game session is. Do you play for 4 hours? 6 hours? 3? 2? 12? If it varies, this is going to be very hard to do because you don't have a set length. Most games I've been in of late have either 4 hour sessions or 6 hour sessions. You may have longer or shorter, and that's fine. As long as you know how long you have.
What Do you Want To Do?
Unsurprisingly, you need to know what you want to do. What is the plan for the session? Are the PCs going to be exploring a haunted house? Are they having their first encounter with a new villain? Are they attending a state dinner? What is the content for the session? This is no different than planning for any other session, and you don't need a lot of detail here. That will come later. You just need to have a general idea of what is going on and what the main 'thing' is for the session.
What Do Your PCs Want To Do?
This takes some GMs by surprise, but what do the PCs in your game want to do? By this I don't mean "move through the meta arc" but what personal plots, goals, and aspirations do they have? Is one of them looking to get better at swordfighting? Is one looking for their sister? Which of these personal goals can you work into the session?
Start At The End
You have the list of things you want to do in the session. That's good. Now to start getting it all prepared. Where do you want the session to end? What is the ending point for this adventure? This can be as simple as "the PCs defeat the villain, Mercuvio" or more in depth and complex. For example, my plan for my 7th Sea game was to end the first session either after the PCs took down the first of 2-3 villains I had planned, or after the first meeting. I wasn't sure which we'd get to, but I was confident I could make a solid session ending at either point.
Figure Out Your Beginning
Once you have the end in sight, you can start working on the beginning. What is going to get the PCs into this adventure? What is going to set them on the path towards this event? How can you build off where you ended last session, and string it into what is going on in this session?
Beginnings are hard for everyone - especially me - but having one in mind, set down, and written out is the best way to get your session off the ground and going.
The Messy Middle
The middle is the messy part. Once you get the PCs into the adventure there is no telling what they're going to do. You can guide them to the end point, but how they get there is going to be unique to every group. Because of this I worry less about planning my middle with an order, and more just plan the necessary pieces of the puzzle around and figure out how they interact. Then just let your players hit them as they want.
Keep An Eye On The Clock
You planned your beginning, planned your ending, and are ready to run the session. Now that the session is going, you want to keep an eye on the clock. You know when your session ends, and now your job is to pace the content so that your players are reaching the ending actions as you hit the end of the session.
Are you ahead of schedule? Pump the breaks. Throw in some random encounters (note: random encounters does not necessarily mean combat, it can just as easily be a chance meeting on the road) or other obstacles for the PCs to overcome as they're going through. If they're traveling hit them with a storm. That sort of thing.
Are you behind schedule? Hit the gas. Clear out some obstacles. Give the PCs a faster track through. Remove some of the encounters that aren't vital to the story you are telling.
Keep it on point.