I’m not a big fan of trying to ape other media in RPGs, especially to the extent that some games do by appropriating terminology like scenes and episodes. I’m not saying that there is nothing to be learned from other art forms, but tabletop RPGs are really their own thing, and have their own different potential. An RPG can’t do everything that a novel can do, and the reverse is also true: a tabletop RPG can do things that a novel or movie can’t.
That being said, other media can be amazingly inspirational for tabletop RPGs (hence the proliferation of “Appendix N” style lists). They can serve as examples for settings or characters. They can provide a common language. There are not that many movies, TV shows, or even books, that really capture the dynamics of a D&D party though. Even The Fellowship of the Ring, which was probably the most direct inspiration for the D&D adventuring party, doesn’t really capture it.
There are a few TV shows that come pretty close though. The ones that come immediately to mind are Lost and The Walking Dead. These two shows both feature a group of disparate characters that don’t necessarily share a common purpose, but that are thrown together and forced to cooperate in order to survive a hostile environment. Much of the story revolves around exploration, survival, and resource management. Another thing these shows share with D&D is (mostly) a lack of dependence on any single character. Characters can and do die, and the story continues.
Lost, of course, follows in a long tradition of castaway and lost world stories (Robinson Crusoe, The Lost World, Land of the Lost, etc) and I think this tradition is worth revisiting for tabletop RPG inspiration because of how well it fits structurally. I might even include the post-apocalyptic genre within the lost world genre. Can anyone think of other TV shows that fit the experience of a D&D party well?
There are two other common TV show structures which are often copied for tabletop RPGs, but usually to poor effect in my experience. The first is the “ship crew” approach (Star Trek, Farscape, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, SeaQuest DSV, Stargate, Firefly, etc). The second is the “department” (or police procedural) approach (X-Files, Fringe, Law & Order, any legal or police drama you can name). These setups are commonly used for genre shows, and so are often inspiration for fantasy and sci-fi games. The department structure works particularly well for episodic presentation because each show can be a self-contained case with beginning, middle, and end. Thus, people can follow the characters over episodes if they want, but don’t really need to start from the beginning of the series to follow an individual episode.
The dependence of the ship crew approach on specific characters makes it an awkward fit with open-ended scenarios. Such a show can’t really survive the loss of too many characters, as generally the meat of the show is the soap opera interaction of the characters, not the plot or setting (some people might disagree with me here, but I stand by the point, even for shows like Star Trek). How long would any Star Trek (or clone show) last if the characters started to drop like flies? One thing that can be profitably learned from the department approach though is starting and ending at the same place, thus making shows (sessions) self-contained. This is very similar to the “start and end at the tavern” trope of much traditional play.
This reminds me of a post I was planning to do but never got around to it. I was just going to post lots of pictures from TV/movies of “adventuring groups” with brief notes on whether I thought they would work in a game or not (or what sort of game they would work in). Maybe I’ll get back to that idea…
I would be really interested in reading such a post, because I was not able to think of that many good examples of adventuring parties on TV. Probably just my lack of experience though; I’m sure there are more out there.
Check out the “Robin of Sherwood” series. It’s available on Hulu+ currently. I really should do a whole post on it, as it’s probably my favorite example of the fantasy genre on film or TV. The “7 Swords of Wayland” story is epic.
Is this the BBC series that aired from 2006 – 2009? I don’t have access to Hulu since I am in Canada, but netflix.ca does have this BBC series.
Or is it this older one?
I never thought of The Walking Dead as being basically analogous to a D&D party, but now that you’ve shone the light on it for me, it makes perfect sense!
The ship crew approach is most apt.
How long would any Star Trek (or clone show) last if the characters started to drop like flies?
A TV show wouldn’t, but if it was an RPG the missing positions would be filled in by recruitment. The ship goes on. Firefly is called Firefly, after all, not, The Adventures of Malcolm Reynolds & Co.
To span gaming genres, the D&D Party is analgous to the Ship. I would guess that a majority of players have even referred to hirelings or men-at-arms as “redshirts”.
That’s kind of my point though. If players start with a ship crew approach, and they play D&D with it, it’s not going to end up feeling much like Star Trek. People who expect a story like Star Trek are going to be disappointed. In my experience, it will end up feeling much more like The Walking Dead (perhaps with bigger vehicles).
I have actually thought it would be fun to start a D&D party with an airship before, but the challenges to doing a successful sandbox game with such freedom available at the beginning would be significant.