Reality Television and DnD: The Deadliest Catch

The Deadliest Catch is a show that’s had multiple seasons, and has drawn on the same formula for each of its 90 some episodes: multiple crews of salty crab fishermen do their job, day after day, in an endless ocean.  The show’s formula is its success – after a few episodes, you have crews that you like, and crews that you can’t stand.  It’s gripping, and it’s worth figuring out how you can adapt your game to use some of those same attention sustaining tricks to keep grind from breaking your back-to-back encounter schedule.

Testimonial
The Set-up
On DC, many scene of the episode start with a voice-over setting the scene, and then the first glimpse of insight we get is when one of the crew gives us their take.  We get an instant hook in the scene, from someone with skin in the game.  It draws you in because you don’t get the truth, you get a perspective filled with all the self-serving bravado which can be mustered. If you were looking to steal from a proven game, this type of mechanic is used in the Ghostbuster’s pastiche InSpectres.

Using it in your game:

  • Tell players what is going on, but don’t give them all the information.
  • Lots of player seem to want to get all the truth with just a few Diplomacy rolls.  Remember that the truth is usually irrelevant – people remember their side and seek to diminish the arguments of the other side.  Make sure that when you are putting the PCs between two warring sides, that you have each side tell the story from their perspective.
  • Make sure that none of your NPCs are necessarily wrong – they just have vast differences of opinion.  It’s very rare that someone knows that they are the bad guy, so you don’t want your NPC confessional to be a list of evil.  You want it to be closer to a justification.  Let the players know WHY you do what you do.
  • The truth of what happens can be complicated by a number of factors: emotions, perspective, experience, gender, ethnicity – No two people will have the same perspective, and no two people will have the same take on things (unless they’re all getting their marching orders from someone else).
  • Choose a spotlight player and give them free rein to describe what they see and feel about the scene.
  • Let them describe, in character, details by giving them leading questions.  Play up the character’s strengths and the obvious roleplay hooks that they     have used.  Follow up with another character’s reaction.  If you structure this correctly, you can end up finding out what your players really want out of the scene.  Remember, a good leading question doesn’t have a waffle option – players need to give you a reasonable answer.  If the player waffles, call them on in character, asking why their character can’t make a decision or why this situation has them so nervous.

EX:

  • “Why does the witness fill you with disgust?”
  • “Why do you have sympathy for the murderer?”
  • “Why are you going to pick sides here?”

New Wrinkles
The Set-up
If you watch DC long enough, you begin to figure out that crab fishing is just a dreary, soul-numbing job.  Bait the pots, toss the pots, wait, hook the pots, dump the pots, reset the pots, rinse, repeat until you’ve caught tons of crabs over the course of weeks and months.  It is literally the same thing over and over again.  So why it is so interesting?  Because there’s always a wrinkle.   It’s not EASY work, even if it’s simple (and I’m not sure it’s actually simple either).  Either the weather is bad, or one of the crew is making mistakes because of fatigue, or two of the crew are having an argument, or the Captain and the crew are arguing, or something else.  The show never gets boring, because the wrinkles are always new, or if they are old wrinkles, they gain more depth as they are re-exposed.

Using it in your game
Keep your creature roster as small as possible, and change everything else
There’s a real temptation to use vastly different creatures in every encounter, or in every adventure, to take advantage of the huge tactical diversity in 4e.  Fight this temptation – use the same creatures in a few encounters, but add wrinkles to each encounter.  The creatures are the toughest part of figuring out how to run a 4e combat.  If you learn one set of creatures backward and forwards, you can run them quickly, efficiently, and tactically, while throwing other tricks at the players.
Add a terrain feature that drastically changes the encounter
Let the creatures have the upper hand on the characters, by using the terrain feature first.
Make killing all the creatures the sub-optimal solution
Add a leader or controller who subtly changes the capability of the creatures

Part II: Profession vs. Personality and Framing What Matters

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