TV Tropes informs me that the “monster of the week” concept goes back to The Twilight Zone in the 1960s. I first heard of it as opposed to the “mytharc” episodes in the original run of The X-Files.
From the start of The X-Files, I was a “monster of the week” fan. This was in sharp contrast to most of my X-Files fan friends, who invested very heavily in following the mytharc episodes, and puzzled over them with the same intensity that is by now familiar from Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Westworld, and so on. At the time, it was a fairly fresh phenomenon, at least in that kind of show – but I wasn’t having it. Even though the MOTW episodes usually left a dangling question mark at the end, each one was a complete story that wrapped up satisfactorily. In contrast, it only took about three mytharc episodes for me to decide that the overarching plot was going nowhere fast (this would later turn out to be prophetic). Bottom line, I didn’t give a crap about Deep Throat or Mulder’s sister or the alien conspiracy. I wanted to watch Mulder and Scully do their thing tackling ghosts and psychics and cryptids and inbreeders, and I wanted some damn closure.
This preference has shaped a lot of my subsequent TV consumption. Even in shows where there is a central problem or mystery to be solved, like Veronica Mars, Person of Interest, or even Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – probably my three favorite shows of all time – I tend to enjoy the “mystery of the week” episodes more. If a show evolves from MOTW to more serialized storytelling, I often jump ship. I’m naturally drawn to picaresques, and I don’t particularly like the feeling that the show has me locked into a big commitment. It’s a strong testament to the quality of Person of Interest that I stuck with it as it evolved from almost entirely MOTW to almost entirely serialized over its five seasons.
It only recently dawned on me that this entertainment preference might have implications for my roleplaying.
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The campaign that has taught me the most about all aspects of being a GM is, unsurprisingly, the one that has been running the longest. I’ve been running a Star Wars campaign with my brothers since the late 90s. None of us know the precise point when we started playing our three regular characters exclusively together and in a serialized fashion, but I know when I started keeping a detailed log of our evolving campaign: January, 1998. By that point I was in grad school, Todd was in college, Ryan was in high school, and it was getting sufficiently tricky to coordinate our schedules that we basically could only play at the holidays. Twenty years later, the campaign is still going, with the occasional missed year made up for by the years in which we could get in both a winter and a summer session. My log now runs to almost 100 single-spaced pages.
The big lightbulb from that campaign went off over my head about a decade ago. By that point I had a bunch of factions in play: the Rebellion, the Empire, the Hutts, a rogue Dark Side warlord, some ancient Sith (thank you, carbonite time machine), and the PCs and their allies in the fringe. With so many factions and shifting alliances, the story was basically self-generating. I could introduce a single new element – a person, device, location, event, whatever – and then watch the pinball bounce off of all of the in-game elements. It wasn’t hard to run as a GM, because each faction could behave fairly stereotypically, and yet with so many pieces in play, results would often emerge that were unforeseen even by me and that posed new challenges for the PCs. Like the Hutts teaming up with the Sith against both the Imperial remnant and the New Republic after the Battle of Endor, to pick just one of many examples.
My brothers and I have gotten so much memorable roleplaying out of that campaign that it became my mental model not just for a successful campaign, but increasingly for successful roleplaying full stop. It’s why I started the Dinosaur Island campaign with geography and with 10 sorcerors, all of whom wanted somewhat different things. All I had to do was drop the PCs into the mix, and whammo, insta-plot. I’ve done similar things in other D&D and Star Wars campaigns.
Now I’m not so sure that was a good idea.
The problem is that London and I have lots of characters that we like, but almost all of them are locked up in one campaign or another, embroiled in momentous events, in a way that has become an impediment to further play. Our interests and enthusiasms naturally wax and wane and now if we come back to Star Wars, the option is not “dust off our Dark Empire characters for a quick one-shot” but “try to remember and get re-invested in a massively complicated ongoing story that we’re squarely in the middle of”. Those are two different Saturday afternoons, with two different activation energies.
The result is that we don’t finish campaigns, we start new ones. This is not all bad! It allows us to try out new characters, settings, and kinds of play. But inevitably, each campaign accretes enough stuff – NPCs, events, ongoing chains of consequences – that those particular PCs can no longer escape the gravitational pull, and we just abandon them, endlessly orbiting the event horizon of their respective black hole, theoretically playable at any time, realistically doomed to spiral into oblivion.
Just this week, London and I have been discussing this phenomenon and we finally asked ourselves, “What if we just didn’t let that happen?” We’re good at getting campaigns up and running – maybe too good for our own good. What if we ran a group of characters through a series of one-shot adventures instead? Without an overarching plot to keep track of (and not screw up), we could trade off GMing duties, which would help us play more when one person is all in but the other is at maybe 75%. And we’d try to end each session with as little leftover baggage as possible for the next person to deal with – just like most of the roleplaying I did back in high school and college, before scheduling constraints forced me to narrow down to a couple of long-running campaigns, and eventually to just one.
So we’re giving it a shot. Solo: A Star Wars Story got us in the mood for some Star Wars in the low-powered, “wrong place at the wrong time” mode. So we made up some characters and we’re three sessions in. Hopefully we’ll keep this group lean, mean, and unencumbered by any overarching plots. Fingers firmly crossed.