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Followup of this answer to a question about short-stories lasting about one 4h play session or two max.

I master a game of Vampire: The Masquerade, and I would like to find (and modify) or write scenarios that do three things:

  • Are short enough to be completed in one to two play sessions by a group of 4 vampire PCs
  • Often contain (or are completely made of) clues or metaplot-advancement scenes
  • Provide a "TV series episode"-style of storytelling, with a oneshot baddie, complete with plot hook, plot advancement and plot resolution (or sometimes maybe not competely resolved)

This is a choice aimed at trying to solve three other things:

  • One of my player (as stated in the linked answer's question) has a short attention span, and prefers one-shot style scenarios with a story that stands alone and is not a long commitment to playing each week
  • Sometimes a player is absent, this would bring the Absentee actor trope in some scenarios
  • This would, I think, greatly fit in Vampire's storytelling style, as everything in the book is described as scenes or stories and so on.

Thus, I would like to have scenarios that are written with one plot, well-defined and well-isolated scenes containing clues about said plot, a "baddie", and a conclusion.

How would one write such scenarios ?

I think I'd go with first finding an overarching plot convenient with PCs' backgrounds and stories. One of my player's character has grudge with a part of the Follower's of Seth from right before his embrace, so maybe I'll start there.
Then I think I'd have to define the plot-advancing, "important" scenarios first.
And then finally I'd write "filler" scenarios, less important for the main plot.

For the scenario themselves, I'd do the same: Find the main plot first, with a baddie, then decide on what clues players would get, and write scenes around that. I'd say one or two scenes with some exposition, a number of scenes containing clues (a number of which are "optionnal" and would maybe result in better XP at the end?) and a way for players to navigate between this scenes.

This is where I'm not sure how. I think having n scenes, n-k of which are needed for the plot to advance and for the players to finish the story, is not so bad, but I think writing them all would be hard, or time-consuming, and I fear the end result would not be as qualitative as I'd wish it to be. I'm ambitious and eager, but I'm no hollywood scenarist that's for sure ...

If you know some scenario library available somewhere that fits this, feel free to tell also, as it would -at least- provide me with examples.

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It sounds like you have two problems - writing a story each week, and connecting them into an overarching plotline. Let's separate these out.

Writing Individual Episodic Stories

Specifically, since you're already going with a TV-show style of storytelling, why not gather inspiration from Vampire-themed TV shows?

There's already a wealth of vampiric TV shows out there that you can draw from - some more serious (True Blood) others much less so (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer) and they don't always strictly feature Vampires - but what they do feature is a wealth of lore to draw upon.

The challenge here would be that Vampire the setting already has a very large wealth of lore in itself - so you can't simply port over everything from a TV show and expect it to fit perfectly. You have to play by the campaign rules.

But you can still take the scenarios from TV shows, modified to fit the rules, in order to create your "Episode" sessions. That, at least, will help keep you inspired for the long-run while you work up an overarching plotline.

Connecting Episodes Into An Overarching Plotline

This is going to be a little harder, and should be considered as you're gathering inspiration for individual storylines. You're going to want to have a common thread among all the 'episodes' you run - perhaps all of the "monsters of the week" could be employed by a single villain, like The Followers of Seth that you mentioned. In that way, each individual battle can be a small victory over the group.

You could also have the villainous group carry out a plot behind the scenes, hinted at in each encounter. Try to be subtle at first, so that the players can have a sense of real achievement when they put the clues together. For a Vampire campaign, it could be an ancient resurrection ritual, a drawing of power from ancient blood, or simply a plot to take over the town.

Not every encounter has to be with the Followers though - your one-shot "Filler" episodes, for example, could exclude direct ties to the Followers, so that players interested in the main story arc don't miss vital clues.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. When you say "have the group carry out a plot behind the scenes", what do you mean? I'm having trouble with the meaning of "carrying out a plot", it sounds like you mean the players are meant to be the ones plotting in the darkness (and they totally can/will, but I don't think that's what's meant to be understood here...) (English is not my mother tongue) \$\endgroup\$ – Eregrith Apr 27 '15 at 13:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eregrith I meant the villainous group - the Followers of Seth - and have clarified this with an edit. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Apr 27 '15 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Episodic VtM you say? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindred:_The_Embraced \$\endgroup\$ – Wesley Obenshain Apr 28 '15 at 5:18
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I would not try to write all scenarios before – not even all non filler scenarios – go in the other direction:

  • have a vague idea about your intended overarching plot (along the way you will probably discover that thing go into completely different direction);
  • prepare (i.e. find, create, or otherwise acquire) material for a single session/scenario/episode in advance, you may only later discover whether a session was a key part in the overarching storyline, a filler, or a different perspective on the main storyline;
  • have some filler* scenarios ready for when you are out of ideas or when the evening feels more like one for playing something random than one for playing key parts of the main storyline;
  • see how the overarching storyline emerges from these loose sessions, the players' actions and desires;
  • sometimes alter existing scenarios to fit into the overarching storyline; and
  • sometimes alter scenarios to bring back characters/places/events from earlier (or possible future) episodes.

Often you see similar things with television series**: the series starts with a (more or less) original background story/theme; the first few episodes are relatively independent of each other only relating to the background story; and later episodes are more closely related.

Connecting various independent episodes

To alter independent stories so that they fit within an overarching storyline you should:

  • Keep an inventory of characters, places, and events that occur in each episode.

    You can use index cards, text file(s), a mind map, a wiki, or a database to keep track. Make sure that you can distinguish between revealed information versus ideas/possibilities. I use mind mapping software, vym, at the initial stages; and when the mind map becomes to complex, I switch to text files formatted with markdown.

  • Keep track of relations among these characters, places, and events that you have revealed to the players.

When reading/preparing a new scenario ask these questions for every character, place, and event in the new scenario to find possible connections to your overarching storyline:

  1. Can the character (unwittingly) be a pawn in the schemes of an existing character –or, even better, of several characters– or vice verse can existing characters be pawns of the new characters?

    An event might be a tool in the scheme of an existing character. An existing character may have inadvertently or intentionally caused the event.

    Will the player characters definitely find this relation? Might the player characters find this information with the right actions, with luck, or by knowing the right people? Will only the most paranoid, clever, or lucky players or player characters find this relation? When do you intend the player characters to find this information?***

    Chosen as the first option, since it adds to the schemes behind schemes atmosphere of world of darkness.

  2. Can an existing character, event, or place from your inventory replace the one in the new scenario?

    Does an existing character fit the role of the new character? Is the new character's role completely atypical for an existing character?

    The latter might be interesting as well: Your typical damsel in distress**** for once a source of trustworthy information. The derelict church, that is always the setting for mysterious meetings, is for once providing refuge to innocent sincere persons.

    Choosing to replace fresh characters, events, and places by existing ones reduces the amount of information you and the players have to keep track of.

  3. Is a fresh character/event/place related to an existing character, event, or place?

    It feels a bit cheap and contrived to just make every new character a brother of some existing character and every new place the favourite hangout of an other character. The relations should be deepened and used sparingly.

Alternatively, you can occasionally –not too often– have existing characters or places appear as extra in the fresh scenario.


* ) Keep your mind open to the possibility that what at first appeared a filler episode might become something related to the main storyline either because the main storyline changes itself or because you or the players altered the filler scenario.

** ) At least this was how older television series in the 90'ies and zeroes where. I'm not sure whether this holds for series like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, etc.

*** ) The players will probably discover the information at the wrong moment either when you are not prepared for the consequences of them knowing or when it is of little use to them any more.

**** ) Do they occur in your world or are they sucked dry and forgotten?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answer, but I'd like to have a bit of insight on how to actually create such scenarios; some that would be opened to an overarching plot emerging? I see how player's actions are unpredictable and will alter drastically whatever I have prepared, but I don't see how every totally different character would impact the environment in a way that I can manage as a single big connected plot :( \$\endgroup\$ – Eregrith Apr 27 '15 at 13:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ "but I don't see how every totally different character would impact the environment in a way that I can manage as a single big connected plot" - Every DM \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Apr 27 '15 at 13:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz Yeah well that's why I aim at creating 'options' for the players and manage the outcome of those, while railroading a bit the story. \$\endgroup\$ – Eregrith Apr 27 '15 at 13:54
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I've run a lot of episodic games, but there's major differences in how I've run them well vs. what you're looking to do. Many of the things you're asking to do are pretty easy, but running it "clue to clue" actually makes it hard.

Episodic Games and what works well with them

I've run episodic games as combat encounter focused play, in which case, it's pretty easy to figure out what will fit in the time expected, the players know what they're supposed to do, and I only have to generate a very limited number of prepared materials ("There will be 3 encounters, these will definitely happen") instead of potentially having to think of alternate material ("But if they miss clue B, I need to have clue C and clue D as well...").

I've also run episodice games as primarily character drama focused play, but not having a prepared plan of what will happen, but instead improvising and simply using the NPCs' motivations as the way for me to figure out how they will act and react and build scenes around that. In this case, I can easily make the events and time contract or expand by improvising in the moment.

Scrambling to make Clue to Clue work

When you look at media that does clue based investigations, it's usually a very highly structured story with a lot of planning, carefully placed "lucky finds" or "lucky insights" and so on. RPGs are not edited, planned affairs, and so clue to clue has always been a troubled path.

There's basically two ways to use clue-based play.

The most common way involves prepping clues ahead, and then setting it up so that the party or players can only find them by engaging with certain activities, and that the clues lead to other clues, which means it's very easy to get stuck or stop the adventure if clues get missed or misinterpreted. So you spend a lot of time as a GM doing several, difficult things:

  • artificially trying to steer the players into the clues

  • trying to steer the players away from misinterpreting the clues or jumping on non-clues ("No, guys, wait... that's just a history book... no... ack.")

  • trying to make sure the players don't get clues too easily ("Oh, I'll use my magic super senses to see if the scent is the same person" "Damn, I didn't think of that!")

  • trying to make sure the players don't give up on clues which would require just a bit more work ("C'mon, look in the drawers! Look in the drawers!")

So clue to clue play can become really a pain in the butt both in prep, in play, and time-wise, as a lot of the time players are basically trying to guess what they should be looking at and how.

The OTHER way to use clue to clue play is to treat all of the clues as you would areas in a sandbox type game - the information is out there and players can use whatever means to find it, in whichever order, and the drawback to this is that you can't really predict whether the players will put enough together to deal with the problem quite early, or if they'll be getting entangled with other problems - it's not particularly episodic in play. Usually in this type of game the information is often held by NPCs and the real point of play is the character drama (negotiations, alliances, deal brokering, appeals to humanity, etc.) that the players use to have their characters navigate the situation - it's really more politics than just investigation.

Going for it anyway!

So... assuming with all of that, you still want to go for it? My best bets with the hard road is the following:

  • Make sure your players are ok with the preplanned style of play. Players who think they have full range of choices of their characters, when they don't, will be frustrated and unhappy, and you will spend a lot of time trying to railroad them.

  • Guess on 3-4 "steps" for your investigation. Assume there is a baseline clue which will lead to the next step, and dice rolls, choices, etc. can give BETTER or more information but nothing that is absolutely necessary is something that can be missed. This is critical to making the pacing of a single session resolution work.

  • Larger plot clue is part of whatever the last discovery is at the end and cannot be missed. The larger plot falls apart if there's too many gaps in the clue trail over the game, so you want to make sure it's non-optional.

  • Accept potentially short sessions once in awhile. Don't artificially press to make clues harder to find, or steer players away from good investigative choices. I had a GM once who consistently did this - it made us simply stop bothering to investigate because we realized we only got clues when he felt like the game was moving too slowly.

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First thing: I'm sure you're already aware, but it is always a good idea to point out, the players should have some amount of control over the plot. The decisions they make should affect the narrative, so that it isn't you running your players through a story. Like I said, I'm sure you already know this. Now on to...

Episodic Gaming

The other answers have given some great advice. The idea here is to start out, like you suggest in your question, with a broad, over-arching idea. The Thing That the Players Want to Stop. This could be the Follower completing some type of ritual, to some mad scientist type capturing and experimenting on Vampires. Who knows? But it should be something that the PCs don't or can't know about early on, and will only uncover through the "episodes" that you present to them.

Alright, great. We have our big picture. Now it's time to get down to sessions. Each session that we are connecting to the main storyline (and not all of them have to connect, that's your call to make) should have x number of things.

  1. The feel of a "mission".
  2. Clues that point to the main plot
  3. A definable resolution.

We'll go over each.

Missions

The easiest way to think of these "episodes" is as missions. Each episode should be a mission that the players undergo, and at the end of each mission, the players should have a slightly better understanding of how these seemingly different events are actually connected.

Now, missions can be more than one "episode" long. You could have one mission that is a 2 part Episode (where each part is one play session). The trick is to leave the halfway point with some new revelation, so that the end of part 1, the players have been given some revelation that there is a different problem to be solved in part 2. Example: My investigators were looking to uncover why there was a sudden outbreak of seizures in a small town. They had a pretty good handle on the investigation, until the end of Part 1, where they discovered the mangled corpse of a woman. Part 2 was the players stopping whatever caused that unpleasantness.

So the first episode of your campaign, similarly, should be some small problem that the players can track and take care of in one play session. Then, they should probably get some information that will later point them to the overall plot. My example will be a bad guy called Bob.

Your players are trying to find out why people are disappearing in episode 1, and find out that lunatics have been kidnapping them and sacrificing them for whatever reason. They stop the crazies, but also find out that Bob has been funding them and helping them out behind the scenes. This leads us to point 2.

Clues to a bigger plot

The next missions don't have to, on the surface, connect to what the players did last time. You can even jump forward several months if you want, because at the end of every "mission", the timeline becomes something you can easily play around with. So the next mission the players undertake can be dealing with a Werewolf tribe that has been putting pressure on some Vampires that are friendly to your players (I'm not overly familiar with the WoD universe, forgive me.)

The players can later learn that the Werewolves were paid to do this by, you guessed it, Bob. Now we have the players interest. Who is Bob? Why is he doing all this stuff?

In the fullness of time, the players can uncover that Bob is a part of the Followers of Seth! Now things are starting to come together, and all of those little missions are actually connected- the players have been indirectly opposing the Followers of Seth this entire time. Just remember to make your players' choices matter, and have them actually affect what the Followers of Seth can and cannot do going forward. If the players kill the Werewolves (somehow), maybe the Followers can instigate a turf war. If, however, the players convince the Werewolves that they were being used, perhaps they have gained an ally going forward.

A definable resolution

This is important to keep the missions feeling distinct from one another. Each missions should have a clear objective to it that is resolvable in one to two sessions. After which, the characters get some time off to do whatever. We skip that part, and fast forward time to the start of the next missions the next time we play.

Filler

As you like, you can put in more of these missions that have nothing to do with the overarching plot using the same guidelines above. Maybe some of them can even point to another plot coming later down the road, or not. It all depends on you, at that point.

Wrap Up

Episodic gaming can be a lot of fun. It is basically running little mini-campaigns in the time of one play session, and linking them up to a larger plot. If you think about it in those terms, it might help.

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