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.


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