Monday, November 23, 2020

The Mandalorian's Narrative Loop Works For Campaigns Too

 Over the weekend I saw some people on twitter talking about the Mandalorian's narrative loop. No one was saying they disliked the show, just that the story telling in it is not very complex. In a world full of serialized shows with serialized plots, the Mandalorian is a big old breath of nostalgia with the majority of episodes being standalone while the over-arcing plot moves slowly and ponderously in the background until it builds up to where it needs to do something towards mid-season or end of season.

It is, in my limited experience, not an uncommon format for science fiction shows. You have the concept of the show, the world, and so you primarily focus on building the world using standalone episodes to show different aspects of what is going on. If you go back and watch the early episodes of Supernatural, a lot of them are phenomenal stand up movies. I really love Season 1 where you have ~20 mini 1 hour horror movies, that just happen to go off the normal horror movie plot because Sam and Dean show up and they have a bag of tricks and a book of obscure knowledge to help them solve the supernatural horror thing before it gets too out of hand. Meanwhile, in the background, is the overarcing plot of them looking for their father, and the yellow eyed Demon that killed their mother.

What happened in Supernatural - and other shows - and I expect will happen in the Mandalorian is as the show goes on season to season more and more will be built up, more will happen with the characters, and then without really realizing it we'll hit a point where standalone - or 'filler' - episodes are the rarity while most episodes deal with the overarching narrative of what is going on. Too much stuff is established and moving to really not give it screen time, and that takes over the show.

But I brought you here to talk about table top RPGs, not television shows. So what is the Mandalorian's loop and how does it work for game?

The Loop
The loop itself is simple. The Mandalorian arrives at a planet looking for something - most often information. When he arrives he finds the source of the information, but they have a price. The price is help doing a job. The job is then the content of the episode. At the end of the episode, the job is done and the Mandalorian collects his payment - which shoots him off to the next bit of information/thing he is looking for in the next episode.

The Loop In Game
This can work for a lot of games. The PCs need information. Someone will give them the information - or where they can get the information - but they need help with X/Y/Z. The PCs help with X/Y/Z and get the information and move along. It is an established loop and it works. Though it needs some prep from you, or buy in from the PCs.

Breaking the Loop
PCs may try to break the loop. The most common way for this is to try and pressure the NPC for the information or to try and steal it. Stealing the information can be an adventure in and of itself, so maybe allow for that sometimes. It sounds like fun. Pressuring the NPC for information can be in the form of bribes, threats, or flat out torture like actions.

In the Mandalorian he goes on the adventures because it is a scripted show. In character the reason is because despite the grit, the Mandalorian is a heroic character. He helps people because his code holds him to it, and because in his core he wants to help people.

Setting Up To Protect The Loop
You know your PCs, but you can also set up to protect the loop. And you can do so along the means the show does too. Reasonable NPCs with reasonable requests - if dangerous - or in situations where it is clear they need help and is either 1) the right thing to do (heroic PCs) or 2) could lead to its own independent source of profits for the PCs.

Background Meta Elements
The tricky part then is the background meta elements. However, in a TTRPG you don't need an overarcing story planned. You can do just fine bringing up elements of the PCs backstories and connections to their pasts for episodes. And you can weave stories with those NPCs in the future. A villain who was defeated but not killed coming back. An ally who needs help again. A rival wanting to take something the PCs have rightfully stolen. All hooks that can tie back and show building arcs.

You just got to have fun with it!

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