This past week, the players in my Battlestar Galactica campaign managed to gain some very important intelligence on their quest for Kobol and Earth, but more striking, they got just enough of a hint of the metaplot — that the Cycle of Time, which we’ve referred to time and again as “a story told over and over”, is leading them to re-enact the same basic themes that have befallen other civilizations — most notably the Lord of Kobol/Olympians, and their “parents”, the Titans. I introduced something called the “Aurelian Heresies” — an apocrypha of the Sacred Scrolls that supposedly long predates the Exodus from Kobol, and possibly Kobol itself. This was originally a bit of “fan service” to the players who had been in the last iteration of the BSG campaign, but over time, it has developed to be a central bit of background noise that now has become obviously important.
So why start a post on pacing with this anecdote? One of the hardest elements for a GM is pacing a campaign. Sometimes, you plan on a game running a few sessions and ending, only to have it run six years — like my Star Trek campaign from the early oughties. Other times, you have a plan for three or four “seasons” that will lead to some epic end. Any gamer who has played long enough knows how hard it is to achieve the endpoint of a game campaign. People move away and the game collapses; schedules change and the game collapses; something new and shiny is released and you dabble in it only to wind up playing that game for years, instead; or sometimes, you just don’t want the ride to end and you start throwing filler in to stave off the inevitable.
With the Battlestar Galactica game, the “season 1″ pacing started slow — mostly character-driven episodes to realize the world and NPCs for the players, so that when the Cylon attacks occurred, they would feel the loss to some small effect as their character would. It was slow paced with lots of hints about the Cycle of Time and previous “Colonies” that had existed on the 12 Worlds long before the Exodus from Kobol should have happened. A few archeological digs in space found more evidence of similar human settlements long before there should have been any. Cylon infiltration was discovered. I had sold the game on the premise that they might even be able to stop the attacks and save the Colonies; I had no intention of honoring that. The total time was a bit over a year of game time with other games being played in a rotation.
“Season 2″ was almost exclusively focused on hunting Cylon infiltrators and conspiracies in the Colonies. The episodes were no longer stand-alone or random, and the pace picked up considerably as they hunted the bad guys. Game time was only a few months, but it played over about six months. Toward the end, I made the decision to put the players’ charactes into some of the lead slots, instead of characters from the show. The Cylon attacks happen pretty much as they do onscreen in the Miniseries.
“Season 3″ has been going about six months and is nearing the end. Total game time: two months. The players survive the attacks, fight Cylons, had a few “fleet episodes” to show the crime, bad conditions, and development of the political system. Then we started to find remains from the Kobol Exodus, evidence the Lord of Kobol and the humanoid Cylons share DNA and technology. The Blaze — a toss off line cut from the Kobol’s Last Gleaming episode became the main guide for the direction of the game: the Colonials fled the war between the Lords of Kobol and humans that followed this “god” in its shining diamond-like spacecraft. Then they found the directions to Kobol. Now they are on their way and through a few toss-off lines from an interrogation of Boomer, think the Blaze may have destroyed the Colonies to bring Man back to Kobol for one last chance at submission and redemption.
Now I find myself faced with the classic problem of a campaign sliding into the third act fast — do it string it out, as the show did, and enjoy some gaming with these characters we love and a universe that is now very much our own? That was my immediate reaction. But sometimes, it’s better to throw it in fifth and punch it. Embrace the direction the game is going and the pacing.
One reason for this is the impending move of one of the players who has only been with us for a year or so, but has really livened up play. He’s been with us through the end of “season 2″ and all of the “season 3″ stuff playing one of the most important characters, our fighter pilot who is secretly an oracle. I want him to see the end of the game. So, it’s time to floor it.
I had an idea of what i wanted to do with Kobol this time around — in the first game, Kobol was “dead” as in the show, but there were things left from the Gods: Hephaestus’ Forge, the Tomb of Athena. This time, if the humanoid “Cylons” are some kind of apostate version of mankind that has been modified to work with the Colonial built centurions, it would suggest that Kobol is inhabited and at least mostly healthy. So what does that do for the characters trying to get to the Tomb of Athena? How do they pull it off?
One of the characters, the commander, talked about how, if the Blaze is waiting for them, perhaps they might be well served by at least hearing the god/thing/whatever out. This opened a new line of direction that I hadn’t anticipated. Essentially, there are now two main plot directions the game could take — they discover the path to Earth and lead the Cylons a merry chase; or they submit to the will of this “god” and head to Earth, perhaps as his emissaries.
That leaves me with two main lines and a few variations on a theme to be ready to work with, and ultimately, only four real “endgames” for Earth. This “season 4″ will be at a faster pace and more tightly plotted than the others. I anticipate the campaign — the first and longest lasting of my “new life” that started in 2010, will come to an end in April.
I aim to make it shine.
The takeaway from the piece is this: for campaigns with an overarching plot — much like a movie or TV show — each of your Acts or Seasons should have it’s own unique flavor and pace, but always moving more swiftly toward the denouement of the season/act, and the overall course of the game. This allows the players to feel like they are making progress in their goals, and revealing any mysteries that might have been set in front of them. Because, in the end, people need a story to have an ending.