John Fredericks was making some interesting comments on game continuity over at Gnome Stew, and it spurred a few responses from me, including on one the efficacy and issues of “troupe-style play” As to continuity, however, I have to say: I’m for it.

There are several levels of continuity he addresses, but I think we can ignore a few of the bullet points he uses, and frame this in terms of televisions or novel series. Additionally, however, I want to add the notion of “canon” — that the continuity is also tied to the internal logic and rules of the genre or setting.

Strong Continuity

The game university has an internal logic and history that affects, and is affected by, the actions of the characters. Things that happen are important and can/will be used against you in a future game.

Modern television series tend to follow this model these days, sometimes to abstraction. The characters’ action don’t just impact the universe around them, but drive the personal relationships between the characters. Friendships can be broken, alliances shift, goals change. There is usually some kind of central goal, villain, or motif to be served. There’s a “story arc” that can be a season long (Dr. Who, for instance), or series long (Battlestar Galactica.)

This requires a lot of mental lifting by the GM and the players. Note-taking and record keeping can be a full-time job. In this sort of continuity, I think it’s important to have NPCs changing along with the PCs. Their stats should evolve, if it’s a system with aspects or traits or weaknesses, these should change over time, just as with the players’ characters.

This has been the sort of game I’ve run for quite some time, and I agree with Fredericks that this is the sort of universe most players are interested in — something long-term than allows them to explore a character and feel that they have achieved something.

Ret-continuity

You see this in a lot of modern TV, as well, in shows that were meant to have some kind of central theme or mystery that the writers and executive producers — well — didn’t really have a clue what it was going to be. Shows like X-Files, or Lost are prime examples of this: there’s a conspiracy or mystery, and the characters are working toward figuring it out, but since the writers don’t really know what the hell they’re doing from one season to the net, they have to scramble to put a coherent arc together through seemingly (or obviously) contradictory elements.

I had to do  bit of this with my Battlestar Galactica campaign, which had a few points where I veered in different directions. I had a fairly solid idea of the campaign endpoint, so I was able to tap some of the elements into place, and fortunately (unlike TV) you can go back and rewatch a session to see if all the “facts” are the same as they were three years earlier. You can often get around this bad hand-waving, counting on the players’ faulty memories, or creating some kind of “your perception of the incident was not completely accurate” type out (see Rashamon…different people see an event differently.)

Honestly — this is probably the closest you’ll get to the “strong continuity”.

Loose Continuity

Like ’70s and ’80s TV, the characters tend to be static, or change in personality as the story suits. It’s episodic and each episode is unlikely to be linked; it’s almost like each episode is a reboot of the last episode. Set The A Team, or Starsky & Hutch, or TJ Hooker. Hell, see the original Star Trek…there’s no “canon”, no real continuity beyond the characters and the general flavor of the show. Maybe a character was too good to die in your pilot session, and like Hill Street Blues (which was an early “strong continuity” show) you bring those guys back and just ignore they were shot to death in a stairwell. Certain things that happen might matter — that love interest might be lost to the character, then show up conveniently to cause trouble; the big bad guy might return, or one of his kids; something that happened in “season 1” might suddenly become important for a storyline in “season 4″…but doesn’t really change anything outside of that episode or two.

Yeah, character C disappeared for two sessions of our dungeon crawl (including a bit fight), but he was just off having a pee. Or was there but for some reason never did anything. Doesn’t matter, he didn’t get XPs.

NPCs don’t change. They are there for comedic or supportive effect, or local color. Hell, they might not even have a name. Taking notes on what happened is optional (but the loot is not!) You might be able to ret-con a story arc into the game near the end for a satisfying denouement — all these things were actually under the control of the nameless bartender you guys all liked!

No Continuity

This might be the schtick of the game itself. No matter what you do, you reset to the state of the universe prior to the adventure. Your dungeon crawl? No effect on anything but your character level and stuff. That crime you solved? Hell, maybe the same bad guy is still around; he has a great lawyer. You died? When did that happen?

A campaign like this could be played for laughs, like Paranoia, or it could be — cunningly — the actual metaplot of your campaign. Maybe, all your disconnected adventures were happening while you were in suspended animation on a long space voyage, or holodeck adventures, or some kind of prison you are trapped in.

Canon — or “That Wasn’t in the Show!”

As to “canon” — that word every GM should fear when you are running a licensed universe like Star Trek or Dr. Who — setting ground rules is essential the higher up this scale of continuity you go. When I ran Star Trek, I had a trekkie in the group (it was why I wound up running it.) I was not. So to cover my ass on continuity, we agreed that game continuity trumped the show. Certain things weren’t going to happen. Voyager, for one..

When I ran The Babylon Project in the late ’90s, however, I parked the campaign on the edge of the show’s events so that we could play our own game, but dip our toe into the Babylon 5 continuity as we needed. It worked very well. We ignored certain things from Stargate SG-1 when I ran a short game and kept the good stuff.

Ignore it when it suits the game, don’t when it enhances the game. Your game is a reboot. Go easy on the lens flare.

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