There are a number of valuable lessons for any RPG that can be observed in the looking at how Terry Pratchett achieved the success of the Discworld series of novels.
Introduce the Key Concepts Early
In the first entry in the series, he introduced the Discworld itself, established its basic physical and conceptual parameters, and began to explore what made the world unique. He introduced the basic rules of the world – everyone, no matter how trivial or mundane they might be within the society is a larger-than-life personality, for example (even the luggage)– and he tolled a rollicking story that was greatly entertaining. This story ended on a cliffhanger, which is always a great way for a first adventure to end.
Make sure you tie up loose ends quickly
When you have a world shaped like a disk, it logically begs the question of what happens at the edges, and that was a key part of the focus of the sequel, which also picked up on the incomplete plot threads from the first novel, and brought them to a satisfactory conclusion. None of the many other novels would end that way, each would henceforth be self-contained.
Heighten the ‘Magic’ at the beginning
You see this all the time with new TV shows these days – the first episode is a “double-length blockbuster”. So ubiquitous has this practice become that when Marvel’s “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premiered on Australian Television, the network responsible back-to-backed the first two episodes and promoted them as – you’ve guessed it!
“Sapient Pearwood” hardly appears in the series at all beyond the first two novels, which feature The Luggage, but that’s all right – it was just a plot device to justify the over-the-top character of The Luggage. For that matter, The Luggage doesn’t reappear that often either, and neither does the initial star of the Show, Rincewind, though he does rate a mention from time to time.
Have an anchor
In the third novel, Pratchett either introduces or begins to focus on one of the central characters around which almost all the remaining novels will pivot, in one way or another – the all-too-human Death. Even when Death is not central to the story, he remains a focal point.
Death is the anchor which grounds the rest of the series in the somewhat-tilted reality of the Discworld for many reasons. First, he’s a fun and interesting character. Second, his position within the Plenum makes him the perfect exposition delivery vehicle, one who understands almost everything about the nature of reality or who can set out to investigate whatever key aspect is central to the story. Thirdly, he himself is, by his nature, an instigator of change, enabling him to become the driving force behind many subsequent novels, starting with Mort. And finally, he us someone who can be expected to interact with just about anyone who is anyone, or who is doing something interesting – even if it is simply by being the victim, as at the start of Hogfather.
As the anthropormorphic representation, symbolic of the entire Discworld Universe, Death makes the perfect character to anchor all the subsequent stories to that universe, creating a unification that would otherwise be far less substantial.
Build On Your Beginnings
Virtually every story thereafter adds something new to the equation, a new ingredient that can be drawn upon time and time again as fits the needs of the story. Each and every one of them adds something imaginative to the mix, building up the world narrative brick by narrative brick.
Continuity Ties It All Together
Even though the stories stand alone, many are outright sequels to a previous story. In fact, virtually all the stories beyond that initial trilogy can be extracted into one of three ongoing plot-threads: the Three Witches (especially Granny Weatherwax), The Watch (especially Captain Vimes and the eventual-Captain Carrot), and the Death Family story (especially Death, Albert, Mort, and Susan.) Ingredients from any of these can appear, when relevant, in any other story – a role often reserved for the Wizards of the Unseen University – without being the central focus of the story. There are a few stories that stand independent of these three plot threads, but they are isolated exceptions.
Characters Remain Consistent
No matter how much they may learn and grow, the personalities of the characters remains the same. The situations they encounter may differ, but this consistency of personality makes them somewhat predictable in response – the key is always the “X factor” of how these plot elements will come together to solve whatever the basic problem may be, this time round.
When you stop and think about it, this is exactly the way PCs should be in an RPG. No matter what they learn to do, no matter how powerful they become, their central personalities should remain fixed and consistent; each adventure is the story of how the ingredients of their capacities and personalities combine with the circumstances and opportunities provided by the GM to resolve or advance the plot. This is true whether we’re talking about a strongly-interwoven style of campaign with strong continuity, or a more episodic structure such as that of the Discworld series.
Take these principles to heart
These hallmarks are shared by just about every successful RPG campaign that I can bring to mind. The implication is that if they are not true of your campaign, you may be missing a bet – something to improve the campaign still further, to take it to the next level – whatever that may be.
Until we meet again, give that some thought…
A relatively short article today, largely due to the fact that I am still working to resolve my computer-related dramas, and trying to get used to an altogether too-”helpful” laptop, which likes to jump up and down lines in the middle of words, making typing excruciatingly difficult… Hopefully, those problems will be resolved soon, but in the meantime, I hope this is of value!