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.

The Hierarchy

The Barksdale enterprise is of a familiar type to a gaming audience. It is a hierarchical criminal organization, with levels of membership, responsibility, and influence, much like you'd find in the court of a evil wizard or guild of interstellar bounty hunters or cult of vampire-worshipers. There are tiers to the organization, and to the sophistication and strength of the members at each level. In fact, D'Angelo even explains the game of chess to a couple of his direct reports using the organization as an illustration.

At the bottom of the pile, we find the street-level players. These are lookouts, runners, and dealers for the Barksdale organization. They are the pawns on the chessboard, ready to perform a role and be discarded, but with high hopes of making it to the other end of the board to be promoted. They relate to the common fodder in a typical gaming campaign, be they human henchmen or orc soldiers or goblin underlings.

Above the common thuggery, we have the upper echelon of the men in the street. These are the trusted lieutenants, the muscle, and the money-handlers. They are the rooks, bishops, and knights. In gaming terms we might consider these to be the heroes, not in the sense of the moral right, but in the sense that they are the more detailed leaders of the opposition, with their own special talents and skills. They operate in groups among themselves, and lead groups of pawns when the situation calls for it.

Above the heroes we have the person who may actually be the most important in the structure in the narrative and design sense: the right hand man. This is the queen on the chessboard, who is closest to the king and almost as important. This character's job is to both protect the primary antagonist, but also to carry out his or her whim and run the operations. This is Darth Vader, Saruman, Rochefort, Baron Harkonnen, and Lucius Malfoy - an agent with whom our heroes clash regularly, but represents the long arm of a larger villain.

Finally, we have the true antagonist, who is at the top of the food chain, the king both of the organization and on the board. This villain is isolated from the consequences of the world by others, whose small or large roles revolve around the king's protection. He or she is the top dog, and ultimately the instigator of the events that involve the characters in the campaign. The king is represented by the likes of Emperor Palpatine, Sauron, Cardinal Richelieu, Emperor Shaddam IV, and Voldemort.


In GM prep for a typical game, we often don't bother with naming stormtroopers and grunts, as they will just be fodder anyway. But, remember that per our last discussion, we are making our world one with consequences. In a world with relative law and order (even if the order is maintained by parties decidedly outside the law in the traditional sense), our heroes aren't going to be able to run wild through the lower ranks of the enemy's organization, murdering and slaying. Altercations happen, but typically end with bruises and broken bones instead of body bags. This means repeated run-ins with low-level opposition, rather than waves of mopes. Repeated encounters with at least some of these characters benefit greatly from them having names and personalities.

The series has some great street-level characters who stand in opposition to the protagonists, who tell a number of different types of stories. We see kind-hearted characters like Wallace grow until they can't handle being in the game anymore. We see dumb kids like Poot live in the world as it becomes more and more ingrained in them. But, the example I want to focus on in particular is the character of Bodie.

Preston "Bodie" Broadus

Bodie illustrates the narrative power of having some of these low-level players be named individuals with full histories and personalities. We meet Bodie when he is a low-end pusher with some promise. Our protagonists have a number of run-ins with him over the series, which illustrate all three of our points from the last post, which in review are: relationship consequences, extreme actions, and purpose and plan.

Bodie's first real run-in with the Baltimore PD is when his distribution location is raided and he strikes a police officer. Here we have a clear case of extreme actions getting extreme reactions, as Bodie is badly beaten by a number of police officers for hitting a cop.

Two detectives, Herc and Carver, set out to interview Bodie at the juvenile detention center where he is being held, only to discover that he has managed to affect his own escape from the facility (Bodie's own self-determination independent of the protagonists' plans). This interaction, or in this case really the missed connection, goes on to play an important developmental role in the story.

Herc and Carver catch up with Bodie and arrest him again, roughing him up in the process. When the juvenile intake officer is not available, they are forced to wait with him and end up playing pool. The officers see Bodie in an environment other than the street, and vice versa, and they begin to develop something of a rapport, though it remains competitive.

When Bodie manages to achieve his parole without the officers' knowledge, they again attempt to arrest him, only to learn that he's legitimately a free man. The confrontation starts out physical, as the previous ones did, but ends with Bodie cracking wise about the poor state of the juvenile justice system and the officers grudgingly giving him a ride to his grandmother's house as recompense for their incorrect assumptions about his legal status.

Encounter by encounter, this relationship builds. There's no silver lining. They never become friends. Bodie doesn't give up his criminal life. The two parties continue to try and win at the expense of each other.

This is all a long description to point out one fact about the narrative. None of this story or development would be possible if the first encounter on the raid ended as so many gaming sessions do, with blood-soaked player characters standing over the bodies of a dozen nameless pawns. Bodie is just "a guy." He's a secondary character, at best, but even his limited development adds incredible depth to the story, just as such characters can to your game.

Other Pieces

Next time, we'll get into similar discussions about the remaining organizational tiers and how The Wire portrays them in ways that we can incorporate into our games.

Watching The Wire

The Wire is available to watch on any HBO platform, of course, and also Amazon Prime Video.


Images are screenshots from The Wire Season 1, property of HBO, provided in accordance with fair use.


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