Friday, September 8, 2017

RPG lessons from The Wire: Villain Hierarchy (part 1)

The king stay the king. -D'Angelo Barksdale

Last time, we introduced the idea of taking some gaming lessons from the classic HBO series, The Wire. Today, we're going to talk about a very familiar concept for gamers and designers, alike: the villain hierarchy.

Spoilers follow.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

RPG lessons from The Wire: A World View

Saturday I found myself at the house, faced with the dual veg-out motivation of a 37+ weeks-pregnant wife who is on semi-bedrest and being in a town still facing some downtime after Harvey. I tasked myself with cooking and doing dishes and folding laundry and looking after the missus. While engaged in such homemaking, I happened to catch the end of Episode 1, Season 1 of The Wire, which meant that I had no choice but to watch the season in its entirety.

I've seen the whole run of The Wire many, many times. Season 1 is my favorite season of any television show ever, and as far as dramas go, it might hold the top spot in my all-time rankings. For some reason, this time I really got to thinking about the show as it might be portrayed as a role-playing campaign, and took away a lot of great examples that we can all use at our tables.

What is The Wire?

Any fan will tell you that this is a tough question to answer in a few words. In short, it's a police drama about the crime-ridden city of Baltimore, Maryland in the early 2000s. The HBO series ran five seasons from 2002 until 2008. It is best known for its depiction of life in the drug war from multiple perspectives, for its incredibly rich and memorable characters, and for its very very very slow burn.

This is the incredibly memorable opening scene that I think captures the feel of the series very well (NSFW language).

The World of The Wire

You couldn't successfully play an RPG of The Wire, or at least I couldn't. It's far too complex and has far too many strings that come together to really emulate it with a group of free-willed players. It's a scripted series, after all. But, we can look at certain narrative and character design elements and see how they enrich the story, and then see how we can apply them to our game.

Most of what we'll talk about in this series of discussions turns around characters, but in order for these character types to make sense, there are a few assumptions that need to be made about the setting in play (contains some SPOILERS):

1. Relationship consequences. The city of Baltimore, as dramatized in The Wire, is a place where all interpersonal interactions have consequences, both good and bad, intended and unforeseen. Characters dealt with kindly or severely early on, react appropriately in later interactions. Repeated interactions between casual acquaintances become alliances or foils for the player characters.

One of the best examples of this throughout the first season is the relatively minor, but ultimately very important character of Shardene Ennis, a stripper who works at the Barksdale headquarters and front, Orlando's. Shardene enters the story in Episode 1 - The Target, when she begins to encounter D'Angelo Barksdale, the primary character on the criminal side of the season's story. He has a couple of minor encounters with her, and treats her far better than other patrons, which leads her into a relationship with him and thus brings her into the Barksdale world. When D'Angelo's lies and misdeeds catch up to him, Shardene reacts, first by walking out on him, and ultimately by being willing to turn on him and the greater criminal enterprise to deal it a major blow in Episode 12 - Cleaning Up.

A primary character's interactions with a relatively minor player carried what were ultimately world-shattering consequences. Granted, this is more easily orchestrated in a scripted series than an extemporaneous game environment, but is still a great example of how interpersonal connections, especially repeated ones, carry weight over the course of a story.

2. Extreme actions. When something extreme happens, characters in this world take notice. A group of "murder hobos" could never survive in the world of The Wire, because slaying their way through enemies would quickly end the game through incarceration or death. Even very violent characters conduct violence in a very deliberate way so as to attempt to control the consequences.

For example, in Episode 2 - The Detail, three of Baltimore's finest go into the heart of criminal territory to antagonize the local population as a show of authority. As they're leaving, Officer Pryzbylewski does the sort of thing that happens routinely at role-playing tables: he slugs a punk who was smarting off to him. This sort of casual violence in many settings would just set off a nice brawl, but in this case the overt violence triggers a huge response that includes bottles and a TV being hurled from the apartment towers, then shots fired, then ultimately the unmarked police car being torched.

The protagonist made an extreme choice and was met with extreme reaction. The consequences continued, causing the team incredible difficulties, bruising the egos of superiors, and putting Prez's career in jeopardy. By Episode 7 - One Arrest, the young drug dealer, ultimately blinded in one eye by Prez's blow, comes back into play as a reminder of the consequences faced for extreme actions.

3. Purpose and plan. The protagonists aren't the only ones with a plan. The antagonists aren't the only other planners, either. While the primary heroes and villains do their dance, side characters are also active and in motion. They run their own schemes and pursue their own ends in the same world as the Baltimore P.D. and the Barksdale syndicate.

An example of this is the movement and motion of the fan-favorite character, Omar Little, who we'll ultimately talk about in depth in a separate post. Omar's orbit crosses those of the Baltimore PD and the Barksdale organization many times over the course of the season, but his existence isn't limited to those two spheres. This professional drug thief has dealings with unrelated gangs, sticks up some of Barksdale's competition, and he (or his compatriots) gets into scrapes off-camera that we hear about but never see.

He's a living character, in and of himself. His presence is felt even when he is not part of the story. When he does make an appearance, sometimes it's very minor, but sometimes he's the focal point of the entire plot. He lives in and represents the larger world, beyond the "campaign" we see playing out during the season's plot.

All three of the above are good ways to ground a game and make it feel more "real." Whether in a D&D fantasy setting or the post-apocalyptic anything-goes Breachworld, the game benefits when NPCs remember the kindnesses or cruelties of the player characters, when the player characters are properly engaged when taking extreme actions, and when the world around the protagonists moves on its own circles and patterns and doesn't just revolve around the adventures of the player characters.

Next Up

Later this week we'll start strong and talk about the incredible value of villain hierarchy.

Watching The Wire

From here on in, with the posts in this series, we'll get seriously into spoilery territory, particularly on the first season. It's well worth a binge, whether for the first time or the tenth time. The Wire is available to watch on any HBO platform, of course, and also Amazon Prime Video.


Video clip above is from The Wire Season 1, Episode 1 - The Target, property of HBO, provided in accordance with fair use.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Let's Make Some Miniatures

The Big Reveal

I’ve been working on a secret project since April, dropping little hints about it as we go about what it might be, but we’re finally to the point of revelation. So, let’s cut to the chase. Take a look at our first Breachworld Miniatures. Click for larger versions.

I’ll get more into the history and future of this project below, but first, I’d like to lead with a request that you take a moment and fill out THIS ONE-QUESTION SURVEY and let me know what you’re interested in, if anything.

Beyond that, I need comments and questions, opinions and advice. These will allow me to iron out details before the real work begins.

How We Got Here

Working on a folio of characters for Breachworld, akin to 402 that was previously published, my mind started churning, as it’s apt to do. That led to the idle question of, “What would be involved in making some Breachworld miniatures?”

This thought arrived in parallel to another occurrence, which is that I needed to do something with some JRP funds that have been sitting idle. I could take them out and keep them as profit to no great effect, or I could use them to expand Breachworld into a new and very fun facet of gaming.

That is what we call a no-brainer.

So, I looked into getting models done and putting them up on Shapeways to be printed on demand. I put out a request for proposals and hired an incredibly skilled artist, Kevin Cayula Borg. After seeing his work on his first model, it became very obvious that to do Breachworld and its community right, I needed to seek out only the highest quality production possible, which has always been my objective for Breachworld. On Kevin’s recommendation I sought out one manufacturer who uses extremely high detail resin for casting, then three such outfits. And then hired a concept artist, Eric Quigley, whose work you probably know from Breachworld. And then I expanded Kevin’s contract for some extra modeling. And now I’m in the process of hiring a second sculptor to take additional work.

What’s On Deck

What this all means is that, as you can see, I now have two models ready to go, one more 90% there, concept art for six more models (two of which will soon be under contract for sculpting), and extra bits commissioned for all five of those models (alternate hands, weapons, heads, etc.).

The plan is to get these miniatures manufactured via Kickstarter in the near future. The campaign will be for three models (Tusk, Dru, and Grim), with the next two (Elder and Hollow Mage) as Stretch Goals that are effectively ready for production already.

Every Last Penny

For my part, my initial investment for modeling and producing those first three models is my gift to you. I won’t be recovering those costs. I’m every bit as invested as anyone and really want to see this done.

For all future models, this is a break-even proposition. 100% of every pledge dollar, after Kickstarter fees of course, will go to making more miniatures, or making miniatures better, or giving bonuses to artists. I won’t get a penny. I’d rather put that money toward growing Breachworld than take it as profit.

Let’s Talk

So, let’s talk about it. Feel free to comment here or on social media. Send me an email. Share the idea with your gaming group and your online communities. The more involved and invested everyone is, the more we can do with this campaign.

Game on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

New Things Coming Up

My first new blog entry in many, many moons will be a short one. For anyone who stumbles across this page, I just wanted to give a heads up:

New things are happening. Soon. Very soon.

To prepare, I'd just like to encourage everyone to re-up on your follows of Jason Richards Publishing on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. I tend to share different things with each outlet, so it's worth checking in on all three from time to time. And, of course, with new things in the pipeline, I'll be spending some time here on the blog as well.

And, if you're not familiar with the awesome Breachworld RPG, you should run over to DriveThruRPG and CHECK IT OUT. It will be relevant to the upcoming flurry of activity.

Be right back...