Is Your TTRPG a Film or a Series?
At the same time all of us tabletop roleplaying game nerds enjoy the renaissance of gaming we’re currently in there’s an equally exciting renewal in the entertainment world when it comes to storytelling. Ongoing and limited series on TV and the growing number of streaming services give audiences — and creators — opportunities to develop rich worlds and deeply complex characters. The best recent example is WandaVision, the Disney+ miniseries continuing the story of Wanda Maximoff and Vision established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This incredible series crystalized some ideas I’ve been exploring about how and when character development during a TTRPG campaign. So let’s get into it.
Make the most of the TTRPG character time you’ve got
Since her proper debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron Wanda’s movie screen time comes to about 33 minutes while her synthezoid partner Vision clocks in 23 minutes on screen from his Age of Ultron origin to his encounter with Thanos at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. In TTRPG terms this amounts to basically about the same time in the spotlight as a character during a one shot adventure of three to five hours. The characters make use of this time to establish themselves, their identities and maybe the broad strokes of their individual narrative arcs while sharing the screen with lots of other characters. They’ve got agency and impact on the larger story and make terrific use of their shared 56 minutes of screen time. It’s a testament to the writers and actors to accomplish such development within this amount of time.
In contrast these two characters receive a tremendous amount of screen time relative to WandaVision’s roughly three hour and 50 minute runtime with Wanda on screen for two hours and 50 minutes and Vision for one hour and 38 minutes. True, the series is designed to deepen and expand on these two characters’ story and without an ensemble team to manage they’ve got a lot more time to do so but this is essentially the point I’m making. When the rubber hits the road for a TTRPG experience it’s important for players to have some idea how long the campaign intends to run for several reasons — not the least of these as a guidepost for roleplaying and character development.
Drawing on film and television for roleplaying inspiration runs deep and considering a bit of structure to individual players’ characters can greatly benefit a group’s emergent story. Over at Nerdarchy Live our Tuesday night group plays 12 session campaigns before passing the Game Master duties onto another player. The specifics may vary for each group but the key features are two hours per session and 12 sessions per campaign. Players work within a time frame of 24 hours total run time. Unlike a film of TV series a TTRPG session breaks state from whatever’s taking place whenever mechanics become involved. Whether it’s when a GM calls for a check or a six second turn in combat takes several minutes of real time to hash out it adds up and impacts character time.
So far I’ve thrown out quite a few numbers and figures and believe me I could go pretty deep into calculations and structural patterns and designs but the larger point is time is a resource when it comes to roleplaying. Players can get a lot more mileage from their character development by considering this in advance. Before examining this idea further another example from entertainment illustrates the paradigm remarkably well.
When Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon begins the now iconic serial killer Hannibal Lecter is in custody, caught by FBI profiler Will Graham. Like in the movie adaptation Graham consults Lecter on another case while the latter is held at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The two share a strange bond due primarily to Graham’s ability to empathize with psychopaths, which Lecter sees as a sign the two are alike — both equally capable of understanding and accepting their own murderous impulses. Their relationship prior to the start of the novel comes through references from other characters, memories and after the fact accounts. In contrast the television series Hannibal, which reimagines many of the circumstances from the Harris novels, begins long before the titular character’s capture. The show explores Lecter and Graham’s connection with much more complexity and implication than the novels. A brief passage from the book might span an entire episode of the show or even be drawn out in small parts over a whole season — in some cases through Hannibal’s entire three season run.
What does Avengers films compared to WandaVision or Hannibal compared to Red Dragon have to do with characters in a TTRPG? In both cases the people behind the characters began with at least a rough idea how much time they’d have to explore and develop individual characters and introduced elements at the appropriate times. The difference for a TTRPG is there’s no omniscient person or people removed from direct interaction yet in control of each character. Executive producers, studios and writers steer the direction of film and television while editors and authors do the same for print literature but none of those people are present in the same way players are for a TTRPG.
This means it’s incumbent on TTRPG players to initiate their own character development. Actors Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen may contribute to development of the characters they play in their respective projects but they’re still beholden to a script. TTRPG players don’t have these same restrictions. Players begin a campaign with characters they’ve created themselves and all this entails. Their life events before the game starts, personalities, motivations, supporting cast and any other aspects either internal or directly related is for the most part the purview of individual players. During a campaign it’s up to the players to develop their own characters how they see fit.
All of this seems obvious especially considering the premium the TTRPG hobby places on player agency but it’s worth putting some thought into particularly as regards campaign length. Not a day goes by when I don’t come across a GM asking in the wider community for advice on incorporating individual character narrative arcs or engaging players more and so forth. If I’m honest I feel strongly most of these sorts of situations depend on the players — not the GMs. I’ve got news for players who crave story beats and campaign twists and turns predicated on their characters. In large part it’s on you.
In each of the three campaigns we’ve played at Nerdarchy Live so far I put a lot more thought and effort into who my characters are and what they hope to do than any of the mechanical choices. Since our campaigns are each 12 sessions long I know how much time I’ve got to work with too. Just the other night the warlock I’m currently playing revealed to the rest of the party they’re a revenant returned from the dead with no memory of their former life. The other characters (and players!) were shocked and the revelation came somewhat out of left field but this is a core part of the character. Since we were already in session seven I wanted to see how the character and their interactions would develop after sharing this.
The same perspective works for one shots too. Sticking with the film vs. series theme think of a one shot as a pilot episode. There’s just this one chance to put all the cards on the table so make it count! One of my favorite characters ever only got played in a one shot and this Twilight Cleric’s fear of the dark was the idea from which the whole character emerged so I definitely made sure to work it into my roleplaying experience.
On the extreme opposite end a campaign with no definitive length might suggest players have all the time in the world to work on character develop and maybe they do. The deepest and darkest secret might feel like something to keep guarded for as long as possible and I’m here to encourage these players to just let it out. What’s the point of imagining a rich and complex character if you never share it with the other players in the group? There’s always more development to occur on top of what a player considers before the game starts.
No matter what style of TTRPG experience you enjoy from kick in the door and slay monsters for treasure to the most intense psychodrama stories, with finely tuned characters boasting precision mechanics or slapdash heroes failing upward the development they undergo through their choices and roleplaying carry tremendous weight. The characters are the protagonists, affecting the world around them which in turn affects them. It’s what makes all the action and adventure have meaning, not just for the imaginary world and characters within but the players around the table too. With some fulfilling and rewarding roleplaying driven by the characters and their development who knows, your epic film quality campaign may find vibrant extended life as a rich series.
*Featured image — Wanda Maximoff and Vision used their screen time for terrific character beats in the Marvel Studios films and developed into deeply complex characters in the WandaVision series.