Naming Games (part 2), Episode Titles

In my superhero campaign I name each episode. I tell the players the name at the start of the game session, sometimes even days in advance. I write it on the white board in big letters so everyone can see it throughout the game.

There are pros and cons to doing this.

The primary advantage is that the players have an idea of what the concept or theme of the session will be. Like the comic book reader turning to page one (or even just looking at the cover) they get to see the title in big bold letters, getting everyone metaphorically on the same page. And because they are informed, they can cooperate to make it happen, playing up aspects that fit the concept and focusing less on things that don't. It's metagaming power used for good. If the title is “Till Death Do Us Part,” the players can be sure that the planned wedding between two secondary characters that has been simmering in the background is going to come to the fore. They know that any otherwise innocuous scene where they are chatting with the would-be bride is probably central to the immediate plot, not just a background role-playing interlude. They know it is appropriate to take their time and talk, get into minutia, etc. It doesn't drastically change the players' behavior, but it lets them weigh where the focus should be. No game is a realistic depiction of every moment of the day, one minute equals one minute — important things are focused and played out, unimportant things are glossed over or skipped. Knowing the title reveals something about what is important.

Good players can do this kind of metagaming without changing their characters' expectations for trouble. Bad players will have their characters start to case the church for a bomb. Of course the good players will _expect_ the bomb, they'll just have the good graces to not mention it and play out their character being surprised.

If the title is “Revenge of Mephisto” (a major nemesis of one of the characters) the player of that character knows what is coming and has some time to “gear up” in their head for the vitriolic exchange that will ensue when the two meet again. Other players also know that it's an excellent time to coincidentally drop comments about how the current warm-up fight was hard but not as hard as that time they fought Mephisto and his demon hordes — sure glad he's gone for good! Less is better in this case, since too much prophetic exposition starts to get too tongue-in-cheek.

Just because the title tells you a lot about the game doesn't mean there can't be surprises. The players may know that “Til Death Do Us Part” is about a wedding, but will still be shocked to find out Mephisto is behind the plot to ruin it. You could have called the same game “Revenge of Mephisto,” in which case they would expect Mephisto, but not a wedding. You can intentionally give away some things but not others in the title.

We'll Get To It Next Time

One downside of naming an episode is that sometimes you won't even get to the part of the game you got the title from. It might be pushed into a second session (fine, we run Till Death Do Us Part, Part 2 next week) or things might go differently than you expected and the foreshadowed theme never gets brought in. As Jem will tell you, Train On My Parade was supposed to have a train at the end.

The pat advice would be to try to make sure the title was a sure thing, or part of the starting premise rather than a big revelation that might or might not happen, but sometimes you'll gamble because the whole foreshadowed/revelation moment where the players' eyes light up and they really _get_ what the title means is just too tempting. That's a risk we all sometimes take. It goes with the GM territory.

What, No Theme?

A bigger problem is that once you start naming every episode it's sets the expectation that each episode has it's own major event or theme, making it harder to tuck in low-key bridging episodes. That kind of background activity is the connective tissue of any campaign, but if you want to have a session with nothing but that kind of housekeeping you are forced by your own pattern to come up with an appropriate name like “A Day In The Life” or some such thing. Even then unless you tell the players outright that it's a bridging session, and that the title should not be examined too closely, they are likely to quietly ponder possible double-entendres and expect a theme to emerge.

Naming episodes is certainly more appropriate in some genres than in others. It works great for superhero games because it matches the original medium.

Be aware that declaring an episode name at the beginning of a game reinforces a sense of plot pre-determinism, not player-determinism — the players can do what they want within the framework, but you are making it clear that you have a plot in mind and you expect them to play it. It doesn't suit games where you want total player initiative or free form exploration (e.g. Promised Land or West Marches).

    Ben Robbins | April 26th, 2006 | game design | show 3 comments