From TV to RPG – How Our Favourite Shows Can Enhance Our Roleplaying Experience – Part 1: Plot

This article was written for us by Diego Herrera from the Star Trek game Outpost Eden.

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We’re living in a world where science fiction, for most people, is defined by television series.

Sure, we’re lucky enough to be able to dip into the world of books and films, but speak to someone who you roleplay with and they’ll most likely have a list of shows that they’re hooked on. They’re probably the reason why they joined your group, especially if it’s based in or on a particular franchise. The same can also be said for the fantasy and superhero genres, and most anything else – there’s more compelling TV out there than you could shake a stick at and, aside from providing us with the enthusiasm to write in our chosen genre, it’s a wonderful resource for GMs everywhere.

In this article, I’ll be taking a look at the way in which TV episodes from your favourite series can provide you with a great starting point for writing missions or adventures for your group. You have an amazing resource just waiting to be exploited – all you need to do is peel back the layers a little bit and dig down to the bare bones of the plot. Things like setting and character interaction will be important parts of your game eventually but first you need a framework for them to sit on. Ask yourself this question – what are the stimuli that the show’s cast are reacting to? What kind of situations do they find themselves in? Those are the starting points that will help you to spin out a great adventure, worthy of a TV episode of its own.

So how do we go about it?

Captain Janeway from Voyager in the episode EquinoxFirst, choose yourself an episode or two to study. And when I say study, I mean watch, because it’s unlikely to be a chore. If you’re like me, you may need to do it twice, because the first time you’ll get caught up in the fact that you haven’t seen the episode for a while and forget to make notes! If you have something specific in mind for a setting, you could look for episodes that fit your theme. If not, you could just randomly choose an episode from a show you like and see which parts of it you like best. For the purposes of walking through the process, I’m going to assume that I’m about to get plotting for a sci-fi RPG based aboard a ship. I want some kind of thriller-style aspect to my mission. I’m going to choose two episodes, in this case from different series, that I happen to know have that kind of a feel – Equinox from Star Trek Voyager, and 33 from Battlestar Galactica.

The foundations

This is the hard part. Get your analytical head on and prepare to chew the lid of your ballpoint pen. This is where you look past the details to find the underlying concepts. You can also ignore the setting. Just because you’re writing a Babylon 5 adventure doesn’t mean you can’t use a Doctor Who episode for inspiration. What’s important are the events that happen and, probably but not necessarily, the order that they happen in. There’ll be something that acts as a trigger in your episode (which may have happened in a previous episode but, if so, that will be in the “last time on [name of show]” part of the intro). There will be a resolution. Those, and the barest of bones of what happens in between are what you can use to build your episode. So let’s do it.

33’s trigger is a nuclear apocalypse and a terrifying enemy in possession of weapons far in advance of those possessed by the heroes. Equinox’s trigger is the discovery of extra-dimensional aliens that can appear anywhere, at any time, and brutally assault any of the heroes, wherever they may be. If you’ve seen Equinox, you’ll know that to get to that trigger, we go through a whole bunch of fluff first. All of it is irrelevant for my plot construction – it’s character development, which you can leave in the hands of your players. The common theme here is something that can attack your players from out of nowhere, and there is a real element of threat to them – they have the power to do serious damage to, or even kill, any one of them.

Adama from BattlestarBoth episodes have a logical conclusion – the nasty aliens stop attacking the ship, either temporarily or permanently. That makes things nice and easy for an RPG – your players aren’t going to want to write the next fourteen or fifteen missions while still dealing with these attacks – they would almost certainly get bored! That brings us nicely to the ‘middle’ of our story, which is the part that takes the most planning.

Along the way, there are various events that I can use from either episode. In the most basic terms, I can just pick a number of attacks. The problem, of course, is that each successive one will have less impact, unless I can find a way to make it fresh from the crew. Equinox has an idea for me here – it shoots with variations on a theme. Initially, the crew of Voyager just wants to defend itself and its new found friends from harm. The first attack is just an attack. There’s a lull to explore how it affected the characters. By the time we’re reaching the end of the episode (spoiler alert incoming) the crew has found out that the creatures that are attacking them are actually victims of the barbaric actions of the Equinox crew, which changes the whole complexion of the attack. Yes, it’s still critters leaping through a portal with the sole intention of chewing off someone’s face, but now the heroes are morally obliged not to hurt them in return. Before it was a simple as squeezing the trigger on a gun and claiming self defence!

Cat Knights of ni
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33 has less to offer in terms of variation of attacks, but what it does do is explore the consequences of those attacks – we see people getting fatigued, and less and less able to cope with attacks that are relentlessly regular as clockwork. You could encourage your writers to explore a theme like that, or let them do it themselves by stipulating that the crew have been up for X number of hours in a piece of narrative or out of character message. An additional element is added to 33 as the crew of Galactica tries to puzzle out how they are being followed so accurately by the Cylons and it has its own bombshell twist in the form of the mother of all moral dilemmas – should an entire passenger liner be destroyed on the suspicion that it’s the cause?

In your game it could be a passenger liner, or it could be an NPC that you cunningly started writing a few months before. It could be anything that’s going to present people with a difficult decision. Let them argue about it – you’ve bought yourself 5 days of responses, a month or two of fall-out and two to three years or more of people remembering the event and having their characters do the same!

Meat on the Bones

So, I’ve got myself a trigger point to kick things off, a resolution in mind and a series of events that will help me to keep the game pacey and engaging. What do I do now? Well, I GM a Star Trek RPG, so the first thing I’m going to do is try real hard not to let people know I’ve taken ideas from Equinox – I want this to be my own mission. So I’m going to go ahead and do away with the starship aspect of this all together. My players are all on a planet. I need a setting. I need a reason why they can’t just beam up. I need parameters for my game that will allow me to introduce the trigger. So, they’ve found a planet with a friendly warp-capable civilization that’s surrounded by a partial energy barrier that prevents beaming for 12 hours out of every 24. The whole crew has been invited for a diplomatic reception and the captain can’t see any reason why everyone shouldn’t go (because I’m writing that character and I have the power to control that!). Scene set!

So how about the resolution? Well, there’s one built in here. After 12 hours, we can beam out. So all I have to do is make sure no-one runs away with things and starts their post with “the next day…” – I can do this by making sure the action is compelling and everyone always has something to do (which I should be doing anyway!) or letting everyone know what the score is. I could be really unsubtle and tell everyone “Hey guys, this mission is called 12 hours.” Go with whatever works!

Data from TNG crying
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And now the events. We need regular jeopardy. It turns out that Starfleet aren’t the only ones who have an interest in the planet. Our ‘attack from nowhere’ plot device is a political faction that loves having alien visitors… because it gives them something to dissect in their labs. The hosts seem not to have known about this, as the faction has been dormant for a while, but sure enough there’s an attack, an NPC is taken and voila, your thriller mission is underway.

So there it is – we’ve taken our TV episode and stripped away every possible detail to find the bare bones of the plot. We’ve then thrown away anything that doesn’t work in our setting, made sure we have a trigger, a series of events and a resolution point before fleshing out or skeleton with brand new details to make a brand new adventure. This technique will work for any type of episode, whatever genre of adventure you want to write and whatever setting your group uses, so get the notepad, your snack of choice and get your feet up – it’s time for a TV marathon!

This article was written for us by Diego Herrera from the Star Trek game Outpost Eden.

Published by

David Ball

David is a web developer, and the creator of OngoingWorlds