Reality Television and DnD: The Deadliest Catch, pt 2

Professions vs. Personalities

The Set-up

How many different types of crab fishermen are there?  Apparently, there are a lot of different types – professionals, do-it-yourselfers, gruff free spirits – over 30 Captains have been featured on the show over the years.  None of them have been the same, or had the same philosophy, or have dealt with their crews in the same way.  Each one has taken the job and made it their own.

Using it in your game

Identify points of tension and see how the characters are REALLY different

This advice comes from Ben Robbins, of the blog Ars Ludi and the delightful Microscope:

Make the players make choices about issues central to their characters.  No two players are going to have the exact same conception of their role in the world.  So draw it out of them.  You can lead them through the process of discussing these tensions (hello questionnaire!) or you can let them hash it out.  If your players can’t determine a point of tension, you can always tell

Could you run a game with 5 clerics of Ioun?  Of course you can!  You just have to figure out what they have in common and what their points of tension are.  In a group that big, you’d want to start with the whole group and then pair out players based on their answers.  It might play out like this:

Point of Tension: A library is burning and there is a valuable book of secrets inside, along with some people.  You can save the people, or you can save the book, but you cannot save both.  Which do you do?

Cleric 1 + Cleric 2: Save the book.

Cleric 3 + Cleric 4 + Cleric 5: Save the people.

Awesome… now we know something about these clerics, and they are not all the same.  You might draw out more inferences if you simply ask them WHY they would make these choices, or you can keep reducing things by asking 1 and 2 a new question, and a new question of 3, 4, and 5.

Use personality to influence flavor

There’s quite  a lot you could say about the disassociated mechanics of 4e, but one of the highlights to me is that two characters with the exact same powers can use description to separate them in the game’s fiction.  To use the classic ranger power of Double Strike, one ranger might fire two arrows at once, and another might fire one arrow and then move with amazing speed to notch a second arrow in the blink of an eye.  A third might describe both attacks as being mystical in nature, while another could describe himself as a beast master, whose animal minions leapt from the ground or dove from the air to injure the targets.  The flavor doesn’t matter, so long as your mechanics line up correctly, so go to town with creating an explanation of how your character interacts with the world.

Frame What Matters

The Set-up

The Deadliest Catch doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on things that don’t really matter.  This is something that happens in all media (with some notable exceptions): we skip the boring parts.  We don’t ever see the fishermen on the Deadliest Catch sleep unless it matters to the story (he’s not getting enough and it’s affecting his work, or he’s getting too much and everyone else is resentful).

Using it in your game

Framing with Frameworks

A quick point: There are two mechanical frameworks for play in 4e – the skill challenge and combat (if you want to get technical, you could claim that there is a third which is the two of them put together).  The other framework in 4e is the narrative framework: what happens in the game’s fiction.  You use some combination of these frameworks to describe what happens in your game.  Anything that happens outside of this framework is firmly in the real-world metagame.

Now, in game terms, the EMPHASIS of these frameworks is clear: anything in combat takes longer and becomes a focus of play.  If you’re going to have a combat, you’re going to want it to be there for a reason (I have noticed that more than two or three combat encounters ends up taking much too long for a normal session.  Combat can drag, especially when the players THINK the combat matters.

Skill challenges can also take a while, especially if you are still running them by the book, which is a terrible idea anyway.  Narrative can take as long as it needs to, or be as short as it needs to.  We can safely ignore metagame for this particular discussion.

Okay, I told you that so I could tell you this: you can use the power of these frameworks to avoid or focus on ANYTHING.  What you want to do is focus on the actions of the players, and specifically, the actions that have interesting consequences, and more specifically, on the consequences generated by the players through making interesting choices.

If you want to de-emphasize a combat, but you feel like you can’t cut it completely, run it as a skill challenge.  It will happen faster, will allow the players to make choices, and can affect other events in the fiction without overwhelming the play session.  Does it still seem like there’s too much emphasis?  Narrate what happens.  Do this especially if there are no interesting choices to be made.

Is the party walking from town to town?  Do not feel obligated to fill that travel time with anything other than flavor.  Use that random encounter chart not to pad out the session with a meaningless combat, but to provide flavor for the world.  Use that flavor to generate hooks and possibilities for future play.  If you think the players NEED a combat, tie it INTO the story.  That group of (*rolls d12*) owlbears was actually on the road because the villain ruined their habitat.

Put it this way: if the action you’re having the players take will occur only within one session, and it can’t generate story in the future, consider de-emphasizing its frame.


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.

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.


  • “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