We game because it’s a social interaction with friends. Many of us find our own stories better than what we’d find on a TV. However, as a dominant social medium for more than 60 years, we cannot deny that television has had a lasting effect on the way stories are told, and once or twice they’ve gotten it right and even told some awesome tales. We’re going to look at TV tropes and how you can use them to draw your players into your plots.
Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. This year we’ve decided that every article will provide our readers with new adventure hooks. Today “T” is for television as Joe Lastowski looks at how we can borrow common TV tropes and use them to inspire adventure hooks for our D&D adventures.
There are a lot of shows out there that have drawn at least some inspiration from D&D. There are fantasy shows like Hercules, Xena, and even the D&D cartoon itself (which, if you buy the DVD set, comes with 3.5e stats for the main characters). Many supernatural shows had writers who likely rolled a few dice in their day… like Buffy, Angel, Hemlock Grove, Being Human, Vampire Diaries, and even Dexter. Some shows (like Community) have done D&D tribute episodes. And my favorite is Leverage, which is actually based on a D&D group the writer was in that consisted of all thieves of different types.
Here are some common TV tools and tropes that you might consider using in your games.
Adventure Hooks: Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Television
1. The Forced Group Dynamic
Many great shows have brought their teams together almost by default or accident. A bunch of kids get on the same roller-coaster, and suddenly they’re fighting monsters (D&D cartoon). A scientist’s job requires that she partner with an alien-minded weirdo (X-Files). A variety of people get stuck on the same ship dealing with whatever comes their way (Firefly). A city gets accidentally teleported into space along with a huge military vessel (Robotech). Everyone is in training/school together (Space: Above & Beyond, Buffy) or happened to survive the apocalypse together (Walking Dead, Revolution). Heck, you could even use a group that happened to be on the same boat that got shipwrecked (Gilligan’s Island). If you can take some powerful action, circumstance, or event and force the characters to react to it together, you can often skip the ubiquitous tavern meet-up and get your party working together much faster.
2. The Shadowy Cutaway
I do this a lot in my games, where I’ll show a scene that the party has no way of seeing, just to raise tension. The Lich stares down at the crystal ball smiling while the party sleeps, or a dark soldier suits up with vengeance in his eyes, or a distant town hears a roar coming from the mountain. That way the players know that even if they have to sit through some less exciting build-up, there’ll be a big bad thing waiting at the end. You can also use this for added mystery. When a whispered voice hands a bag of cash to the assassin while saying “Whatever happens, they must not learn who has betrayed them”, and you then run them past several presumably trusted NPCs who may or may not have reason to dislike them before the assassin strikes, the players will know more than their characters will, but they’ll still enjoy the mystery.
3. The Character Spotlight Episode
If you run your games like episodes in a long-running TV show, then every once in a while you’ll have one focused on a single character. Be open with your players and tell them that you’ll be doing this, and oftentimes the others will jump on-board, knowing that their characters will each get spotlight episodes in the future. This is a great time to pull in some aspect of the character’s backstory (or theme, background, feat choices, etc).
4. Time Jumps (part 1) – Old Stories
Time jumps can be tricky, and if done poorly, will end up like a bad episode of LOST. If done well, though, your players will applaud your cleverness. The first method steals from How I Met Your Mother, and involves an older version one of the PCs (or an older version of an NPC) and have them talking about something long after the fact. Start the session off with old Ted talking to the village children, saying something like “Those heroes never could have known that saving me would cause so much trouble, or so much loss. But the did it, because that’s what heroes do. If only they had known…” Much like the shadowy cutaway, this sets the stage in your players’ minds, while their characters are blissfully unaware of the impending doom.
5. Time Jumps (part 2) – Crazy Openings
This one uses a bit more audience participation, and is very sandboxy, but can be tons of fun. Start off with a zany scene of some sort… your fighter getting up, bruised, after clearly getting his butt kicked… or your brash leader running from a cohort of soldiers while dressed in very little, or your entire party posing for a portrait while dressed like Orcs… something CRAZY. Then ask your players to help you get to that point. Numerous shows have done a little of this, though NCIS does it every commercial break. This kind of collaborative storytelling can be a fun way for your party to participate in the story in a different way. Also, if your players help to put themselves in a bad situation, it won’t feel like you’re pounding on them as a DM. Ask leading questions to get there. For instance… “Someone misinterprets what you’re doing in the bar… describe that for me” or “You take a turn and enter a situation you’re not expecting. What is it?” or “There’s an obscure law in this town that your characters don’t know about. Explain how you accidentally break it.” or “One of your characters old friends from Wizard school was kind of quirky and needs a favor… let’s decide who he was and what he wants.”
6. Time Jumps (part 3) – Prequels
I use this a lot when I feel like my players are in a “rut” with their characters, or when we’re in the middle of a level and plot isn’t propelling people immediately towards something. The party comes across the site of an old battle, or they discover a weird artifact, or maybe they happen upon Pompeii-like ruins destroyed by a cataclysm. I’ll do up pre-generated NPCs and run a session where we go back in time 100 years to see what happened. This works really well if a higher-level party has a past-viewing ritual they can use to watch what happened, but you don’t need it. Also, because the main outcome is predetermined, you don’t have to feel bad about killing characters or using hugely over-powered enemies.
7. Time Jumps (part 4) – Record of Lodoss War
This one is a neat way to skip introductions with a new group. The anime Record of Lodoss War (which, if you haven’t seen, you totally should. It’s the D&D cartoon you’ve always been looking for… but I digress). The first episode had the party already assembled and hunting a dragon. It wasn’t until episode 2 that we saw everyone beforehand, joining together and deciding to fight the forces of evil together. I did this with my current home party, and I just asked them to trust me. We had a throw-down fight with a bunch of Orcs, which got everyone familiar with their combat stats and powers… and then we jumped back in time to see how they’d all met.
8. Season Finales
Many shows will have a build-up to a season finale, where there’s a huge battle with an enemy who’s been causing problems for many previous episodes. This is, perhaps, the most D&D-like television trope you can steal. Especially if you play with a group who needs to take breaks occasionally (for the holidays, over summer vacation if you’re at school, over tax season if your players are accountants, etc). Having a big fight against a massive foe not only feels like a great accomplishment, but it also gives everyone a chance to feel okay with stopping for a little while, because it makes sense that their characters would rest after such a battle as well. If you’re in 4e or a system that has tier shifts, it can be a great thing to have your season-end boss somehow relate to the changes the characters will undergo as they take on their paragon identities or prestige classes or whatnot.
This one steals from a variety of learning-related shows, MythBusters being a prime example. In our world, there are all sorts of people willing to experiment in (often crazy) ways to test things, learn things, disprove things, or otherwise just find out what would happen (Top Gear does this a lot… Hey, what if we put a rocket on a car?). In a world where there are numerous types of magics and supernatural powers intersecting, you KNOW that somebody is going to want to see what happens when you mix arcane magic & psionics and point it at an Owlbear. This becomes even more likely if you have a God of Knowledge in your world who wants followers to always learn new things. Having the players walk in on one of these experiments, or the results after one of these experiments has gone wrong, could be a really fun way to introduce a new monster, or just to throw a weird environmental effect at your players. Maybe that’s how gunpowder enters your world, or maybe that’s where the Warforged originally came from. The possibilities are endless.
10. Plot Elements
Sometimes a show is so cool that you just want to work part of it into your game. This can be dangerous, because your players might feel railroaded if you don’t deviate from the show’s plot… especially if they realize what show you’re drawing from. But if you pick and choose, you can come up with some awesome combinations. What if your party ends up on a mysterious island (LOST) where the humans live in walled cities to avoid the massive giants (Attack on Titan)? What if your characters are vigilantes (Arrow), but zombies overtake the city (Walking Dead), and at the same time long-dead people start appearing alive again with no memories of the time in-between (Resurrection)? What if your law-keeping team (Law & Order, NCIS, Any Other Cop Show) has to deal with a major mob boss (The Sopranos) who also happens to hold a position of power in the local church (The Borgias)? Pick and choose, and your players will find themselves connecting with the references to shows they’ve seen.