Your Favourite Sucks (As an RPG, Anyway) – A Cardboard Manifesto

25 March 2022
Anna Blackwell argues that your favourite TV shows shouldn’t be asked to make the leap to roleplaying games

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“Ah, dear Watson, you see but you do not observe. You should multiclass into detective after this adventure so that you can get a bonus to Deduction.”

Recently I’ve been running an Avatar campaign with the idea of structuring it in seasons or ‘books’ like the show. Fuelling up the main villain of the season with juicy wisdom and metaphors and providing lots of opportunities for the players to engage with the themes of that season in a way that would all coalesce into a life-changing lesson for their characters. The more experienced (or cynical) GMs may already see where this is going but for once, I’m not going to place the blame at the feet of those jabbering mind vampires we call players.

“Roll to make it so”

Then what’s the problem? Well, there are a few parts, the first being that unlike film and television, RPGs are written linearly as the characters experience them which means they can’t know what’s going to come next and every action has the potential for failure. This makes it incredibly difficult to play characters like Sherlock Holmes as the whole searching for clues and making brilliant deductions becomes “roll a dice and repeat what the GM tells you but not really because everyone heard the GM say it and can’t be bothered to listen to you repeat it.”

A solution is, of course, to use a pre-written adventure and lead the players through, directing them on the right path and producing pre-written information for them to read out as it comes to light but that can feel too scripted and stifling for some groups.

“The Avatar must master the four elements which will take till at least level 16.”

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Then there’s the second issue, one that many RPGs based on established shows must face – who gets to be the main character? Who gets to play The Doctor, Sherlock, The Avatar, Captain Kirk (or Picard if you’re boring)? The Doctor Who RPG has a system in place wherein everyone gets control of The Doctor in a nice form of psychological-communism that sort of mimics the writing of the show where different writers write each episode.

The Doctor Who RPG also suggests playing without the eponymous Doctor which could work for some… if they wanted to play Torchwood. But then who gets to play Captain Jack?

“You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!”

“Okay, roll for Intimidation.”

Lastly, unlike Critical Role, most players are not actors. The improvisational single-take nature of RPGs means that epic and impactful dialogue like Walter White’s quote above are incredibly rare and can sometimes be completely undermined by the mechanics of the game. And that’s alright cause when the dice fall just right after a bit of wonderful roleplaying it can feel more electrifying than any other medium. Just don’t hold out for it to happen at the right moment or in the right way as trying to pin down the story of an RPG is like wrestling a firehose in a snake pit.

When you watch a TV show, you are the audience. When you play an RPG, you are the writers and the actors, heck the whole studio creating a story together as you play and there’s no way of knowing where it’s going to go or even where it should go. So, embrace that and don’t worry about trying to perfectly recreate Sherlock’s deductions or The Sopranos cut-to-black total party kill. 


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