Sunday, February 21, 2010

Borrowing from Fringe

As sad as my movie viewing habits at the theater are, such as seeing Sherlock Holmes just recently as opposed to the months before it was out, my television viewing habits are probably just as bad. While I find reality shows not my thing, and don’t care how much damn talent America has,I do think that shows today tend to be written tightly and have layers to them that break from the older routine of episodic trends to more encompassing overall arcs.

The bad part I find about that though, is I get lost easily when I don’t watch the show on a regular basis. For example, Lost. I was okay the first two seasons but after that, it was all over for me. Other shows changes so quickly due to poor writing like Heroes, that I find it’s easier to just catch up on a series on DVD.

For example, Best Buy had fringe on sale for $9.99. I’ve heard good things about it and my mother is a fan of the show. I figure, for $9.99, I’m willing to make the investment.

As I’ve been watching it, Fringe is filled with good ideas.

Fringe, much like the older show, X-Files, tends to start with a situation that will soon involve the characters. The GM can help set the scene and the potential pace of the session by either handing the players a interlude sheet or telling them of a particular instance in ‘narrative’ format. Letting the players know that it’s not something that they directly know as their characters, but that it’s there for their mood setting.

The first episode for example, starts off with an airplane flying in turbulent weather with the passengers coming down with a case of the melting flesh. Before we’re introduced to the characters or any of their background, we’re introduced to the potential situation.

Oliva Dunham, the professional agent, is in many ways, an adventurer from the get go. Her job is to investigate and bring to a closure things of the unexplained. Much of her work, indeed, the work of all the characters, isn’t necessarily beating down some vile foe in continuous combat, but rather, to find out how these events are happening, to explain them to the audience in a manner that is at least plausible. Her initial team includes FBI and CIA. This is taking what could essentially be considered the best of both worlds.

In a campaign, having a special agency or organization is a solid method of having the players know one another. Paizo, publishers of the Pathfinder Roleplaying game, use the Pathfinder organization. A guild dedicated to bringing new knowledge of exploration and history to others.

One of the clear benefits of such an organization, is it has a chain of command. The players can get their missions straight from the top. Their own personal backgrounds and events in play, can be incorporated into the guild. During the first season, Oliva’s own background comes into the show and she finds herself at odds with her job as technically you’re not allowed to investigate anything involving yourself. Yet she does. As would players.

Another benefit is that it is an easy way to allow the Game Master to prep the session with numerous Non-Player Characters ranging from assistances to superiors to friendly rivalries. Some of these perhaps, not so friendly. An organization may reach out to other organizations, perhaps ones that the players have had direct contact with before, and perhaps not in a friendly way. This could lead to some intense role playing situations where the players are forced to rely on those that may not have their best in terest at heart. This could encourage the players to do their own politicking on their own side or to trust that their own actions will lead to others doing that for them by default.

In terms of the organization, one of the other potential benefits is the inside agent against the players. It makes a change from the external threat as the players must know ponder who to trust. How far does the corruption go. Who is likely to have motivation to betray them? Why? What organization do those traitors work for? These elements can go a long way in bringing the players into the campaign setting as opposed to fighting another kobold tribe.

Organizations do not exist in a vacuum. Often, these organizations must interact with other organizations. In Fringe, the corporation Massive Dynamics continues to come into play, often involved with many of the elements of the ‘fringe’ elements of the show itself. The corporation, in many ways, becomes a go to for the organization that Olivia works for.

The idea of Fringe as a tool for fantasy role playing games though, may initially seem odd to readers. But while much of the setting is pseudo science, fantasy games have magic. There are magical monsters, demons, metals, and of course magical diseases. Several of the iconic monsters of the Dungeons and Dragons game are even the result of wizards playing god with genetics long before such terms were common. Mongoose Publishing even did a 3.5 book on Crossbreeds for wizards who wished to specialize in such methods.

The benefit of such mutants in the campaign, is that it easily allows the Game Master to tailor the campaign menaces to the strengths of the characters. The origins of such creatures can range from deliberate acts of a single source, to one involving the accidental use of magic.

Gates between planes for example, can leak energy and change those who are infected by them.

Magical explosions, such as the one that destroyed a country in the Eberron setting, can also lead to horrors that survive the wastelands. This is a common element to post apocalyptic settings like Gamma World. That the fall out and forced evolution of the natives.

Magical diseases which cause the infected to change as the disease progresses are another staple. One of the most famous being the old Zombie Virus.

For players, Fringe has potential too. Walter of course, brings the most to the table. With his various eccentricities and his mad science background, the viewers discover that much of what goes on in the series is related, in one way or another, to Walter’s former experiments or those he used to know back in the day. Imagine playing a mad wizard, alchemist or cleric whose initial entry into the party is based after years of being out of the game.

What physical actions would such a character have. What nervous ticks? Would they stutter? Tap their fingers constantly. Whisper to themselves?

At first, Walter’s son seems to be somewhat the odd man out. Not a member of the special agent force, not a brilliant man with the same background on his father, he’s there to play intermediary with his father. But he does act as many things. His contacts indeed, become a major focus for helping on the show. He always knows someone. In addition, he’s always willing to challenge his father, leading to some interesting scenes which can be excellent role playing material when dealing with characters that are related.

One of the things that the show starts off with though, is that in order to get things done, you have to make the characters have skin in the game. Olivia for example, is willing to undergo a potentially lethal order in the very first episode on the basis of how much she needs information.

In 4e, this could be something of a skill challenge relating to the event in question. The player, per standard, has to make a series of skill checks against the DC of the ritual. Each failure bringing with it racking pains. With older editions of the game, often the suggested challenge would be in assembling the ingredients in the first place.

In terms of theme, in a 4e Points of Light default setting, that might be a little more difficult. According to the first episode of Fringe, one of the themes is that society has reached a point where technology has come so far, that its past regulation. This type of evolved science, or in the case of Dungeons and Dragons, magic, requires some solid foundations to lay those stones upon.

On the other hand, much of this could be rediscovery of what caused those ancient empires to collapse in the first place and the players are some of the few specialists society has in dealing with those terrors from a bygone era.

Another element that Fringe tends to handle well, is the campaign with episodic components. While many of the episodes are seemingly self contained, there are often references and continuations of previous episodes that manage to give the show an overall arc. Using individual elements in the campaign and occasionally having a larger theme or campaign in the background can lead to a potentially richer campaign if you get player buy in.