World Building 101 - Avoiding “Filler”

When telling any kind of story it is important to consider the medium for which you are writing and tailor your techniques to fit. The general structure of a story—beginning, middle, end—may remain in roughly the same shape, but the methodology of communicating the details is necessarily different from format to format. One would use a different style if writing for television than one would for a novel, or for a serialized comic book compared to a single motion picture. The same holds true of gaming—as a DM you need to consider carefully what techniques you will apply to tell the story of your campaign. How you decide to do so will impact the emphasis you place on other aspects of world building and campaign structure.

The basics of structure, as has already been mentioned, will generally stay the same throughout. Your campaign should have a beginning, a middle, and an end in mind. Depending on the style of campaign you’re running and the duration, this might be clear before you begin, or—in the case of a longer campaign focusing on player character backgrounds—you might have only a hazy idea of what will happen in the end, relying heavily on your players to help shape the narrative. For a shorter campaign, or even a one-shot adventure, however, you can generally expect to have a basic outline of the beginning, middle, and end of your story from the outset.

The length of your campaign will help you determine how to proceed. If you want to run a single, brief story arc of three to five adventures, you will use different methods to set up your narrative and exposition than you would if you had in mind a broader long-term campaign with multiple story arcs spanning the full range of character levels. The former, short campaign might apply something similar to a novel or novel trilogy, in which each adventure moves decisively towards the climax, ending the earlier chapters on cliffhangers. The longer campaign style would do better to adopt a style more akin to a television serial, with each story being somewhat self contained, but also introducing new characters and elements each time, sometimes well in advance of their ultimate importance to the story.

As each campaign has an arc, each adventure within the campaign should also have a purpose. Again, beginning, middle, and end must be considered, both in terms of the adventure and in the campaign as a whole. It’s fine in a longer campaign to have an adventure or two that may not advance the storyline, at least directly, but for a short campaign it becomes more important that each adventure have some relevance to the overall storyline. Even in a longer campaign, it’s best to minimize the number of “filler” adventures—think of a favourite television serial, if you will, and consider how often, or how rarely, it is worth revisiting those episodes over the episodes more closely tied to the main plot.

Neither does the breakdown of structure end there. For each adventure, one might consider each scene or each encounter on its own—each should progress the adventure or character development, and each should have a purpose, a beginning, middle, and end, just like adventures in a story arc or story arcs in a campaign. This level of structure is sometimes neglected, leading to encounters being placed in an adventure simply to pad out the duration. Here, the “filler” question becomes even more important, and is ignored at the detriment of the overall quality of the whole work.

You can tell whether an encounter or story is “filler” by asking a few simple questions:

  • Does this scene/adventure provide meaningful development of the current story?
  • Does this scene/adventure provide meaningful development of the overall story?
  • Does this scene/adventure develop an important character in a meaningful way?
  • Would a player or observer who missed this scene/adventure be confused or lost to the status of the story when the next adventure or scene began?
  • If this scene/adventure were skipped would it reduce the level of fun in the game?

The first four questions are important because they help determine whether the content is essential in some way to the story or development of characters. The final question addresses a point that may not be evident from the structural standpoint, but does matter in the ultimate judgement—is it fun. After all, the point of D&D is to enjoy yourself, and if cutting something removes an opportunity to do so, whether or not the scene is vital to the plot or character development, it deserves to remain in place.

Comments (4)

wrathofzombie (May 6th, 2010)

Good post! Something I try to use when writing my games. As you said you must be structured in your writing or ideas, but also maxamize fun as much as possible.

I’m currently running a campaign (on hold while we play-test Clockworks for Shawn Gaston and playtest my own Wrath of Zombie) but largely I have an outline of what I WOULD LIKE to happen, but I constantly shift things with the players actions and have tried to make it so the players directly effect the world around them.

Andy (May 7th, 2010)

Very good! Definitely something that needs to be emphasized in RPGs.

anmveers (May 12th, 2010)

Found a funny article with a little mix of Dungeons and Dragons history combined with Dragon Age (not D&D I know, but close enough, haha)

Kayumi (May 13th, 2010)

Both funny and relevant anmveers how wonderful of you to share that

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