Thursday, February 26, 2015

Breaking Bad, Characters, and RPG's

Lady Blacksteel and I finished watching Breaking Bad from beginning to end this week. We skipped it when it was on because we were watching other stuff and because I wasn't that interested in the concept. I was wrong on that count. That was a great show, with some great characters, and a great finale. Landing the dismount is something a lot of shows fail at completely, and those that don't often do a mediocre job at best. Breaking Bad is in my top 3 for finales - not just the episode, but the whole final season was so well done.

While watching it the gamer point of view popped up a couple of times - mainly flashbacks to some similar escapade in a game. That happens a ton with The Walking Dead, mainly flashing back to old Twilight 2000 or Gamma World campaigns. With this show it was less frequent but it was mainly Shadowrun and Traveller that linked in at various points.

Some games have Advantages and Disadvantages or Edges and Flaws or Qualities or some other way to add interesting traits to a character. Some of those games have a "dying" or "terminally ill" choice among those downside options. I always wondered how that would play out - Breaking Bad gives us a great example of what that would look like with Walt. Addiction is another fairly common option in such systems and Jesse deals with that through much of the show as well. Both are central to the premise of the show, and both have their ups and downs, but we don't have to feature them in every episode - just often enough to keep it in view.

Another thing I see looking back on the show: It illustrates the difference between a character with a bunch of pre-game written background vs. a character who is almost totally developed in play. Consider this:

  • Walter White starts out with a regular job, a family, a definite area of expertise, a past event that involved a falling out with some fellow science types and possibly a failed romance, and in the first episode finds out that he has cancer.
  • Jesse Pinkman enters episode 1 as basically "just a guy" with no defined skillset, no real job, no close family, no notes about his past. At most I'd say he starts with a low level of  streetwise skill and some kind of high charisma. Everything significant to his character happens during the show - we have no real Jesse flashbacks and there is nothing notable about him at the beginning. 
This is so extreme it almost feels like Walt is a character created for an entirely different campaign than what actually happens. His chemistry skills could be damned useful in the Walking Dead or a cop or superhero show. His complete lack of streetwise, lockpick, hacking, or combat ability seems to make him a liability in a show or campaign about criminal activity - but he is not. 

One other thing I noticed is that the show really only revolves around 2 main characters - they would likely be the two PC's, and everyone else is an NPC - some great NPC's. Mike, Saul, Hank, Gus - there are some very memorable characters there. To me it serves as a reminder that quality can trump quantity even at this level. You don't need a cast of thousands with different voices or mannerisms for every town your player characters visit. You just need a few that stand out.

Putting it into practice:  Sure, Breaking Bad was a cool show and all, but it doesn't seem to have much that translates to a D&D game does it? Ah, but it does! What if "adventuring" as portrayed in most D&D type games was outlawed? Maybe it's for a good reason - last time we barely managed to push those monsters back underground and we don't want anyone down there stirring them up again Maybe it's a religious thing - the local temple of Kelemvor/Morr/The Emperor teaches that disturbing tombs is wrong, or the main religion forbids disturbing old places of worship, especially of the evil gods that seem to have so many lost shrines in D&D worlds. Maybe it's an economic thing - the local merchants know there's gold buried in those holes and don;t want someone else getting without them. Maybe it's political - we have a peace treaty with the elves as long as none of their old ruins are disturbed, but if the ruins are disrupted the elves will kill everyone here.

Suddenly the "trip back to town" becomes a much more significant part of the adventure than it typically is because it must be kept secret. In fact, one session might be typical dungeon delving then the next is getting into town and stashing/fencing the loot without being discovered. 

Character example: Whit the Alchemist had a lot of skill when he was young but circumstances conspired to keep him in the dull job of making love potions and herbal remedies for the local townsfolk. One day he finds out he has a terrible wasting disease but can't afford the magical cure to get rid of it. Desperate for some options, he remembers the legends of the old tombs in the hills being filled to the brim with gold and decides that might be a way out.  He can't tell his family because they're all loyal followers of the local religion that forbids disturbing the resting places of the dead, and his brother by marriage happens to be part of the church hierarchy. Add in the local kid who has managed to develop some woodcraft despite his laziness who also has a need for some gold and things could take a very familiar path. How do they get in and out of the tombs without being seen? How do they disperse the gold and loot from the tombs once they're in and out? How do they recruit help for the bigger tasks? What happens when even after acquiring enough funds they realize they enjoy the lifestyle? 

It doesn't have to be an exact mimic of the show but there are a lot of elements there that could change things up in any game, even an otherwise traditional D&D game. It works really well in a superhero game too, and Shadowrun and Traveller of course. Themes could include:
  • A normal average person slowly drawn into a life of unapproved activity through desperate circumstances
  • What will a man do to provide for his family when pushed to his limits?
  • Family vs. work
  • Maintaining normal relationships and appearances in a very abnormal life
  • Secrets, lies, and useful truths
  • What is the real self and what is just a persona?
That last one especially fits the show and can be carried over into other games. I'd say Walter White/Heisenberg is the best opposite of Bruce Wayne/Batman I've ever seen. Both are forced into a different kind of life by fate but that's where it ends:
  • One is wealthy, one is just barely getting by
  • One is young when fate intervenes, one is older
  • One loses their family right off and tries to gain one over time, one begins with a family and slowly loses it over time
  • One chooses to fight crime, one chooses to become a criminal
  • One is driven by justice, one is driven by greed
About the only other similarity between them is that both have a hard time pulling out of their secret life, even when it would be the prudent thing to do. They're also both smarter than most of the people around them and both develop a sort of heir/sidekick as well. 

Anyway I just wanted to share some of these thoughts and I'll see what I can do with them over time myself.

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