Friday, February 3, 2012

Breaking Bad on AMC

"therefore it seems to be that our best course of action would be chemical disencorporation. Disolving in strong acid...."

"Ah man, that's messed up."

And that pretty much sums up Breaking Bad for me.

There are some great elements to the show that can be added to any role playing game. Below will be spoilers from at least the first season so if you are interested in the series, haven't watched it and hate spoilers, read no further.

In terms of player motivation, our main hero is thrust into the spotlight by a life changing alteration to his standard day to day ritual habit. In this case, a life threatening disease. Once the daily routine is shattered, things have to change one way or the other. In this case, Walter decides that best way to make money is through the creation of Crystal Meth for the purpose of selling it in order to have a nest egg for his growing family.

But its not just motivation. Its opportunity. Walter is in a situation where he is able to use his contacts with his brother in law in order to view an actual raid on a meth house. The idea might not be fully formed in his mind at this point, but when he sees an old student of his whose actually responsible for the drugs? Well, there's the opportunity.

To encourage certain types of behavior in players, if they already have the motivation, if they've come through to some ideas they'd like to pursue if only they have the means, its up to the GM to move those means into place. This doesn't necessarily have to be some easy push over thing, it can have complications that create tension and conflict in the game.

For diseases in role playing games, its important to look at whats actually happening here. At least in the first few season I've watched, Walter's disease is something that advances on its own pace. Its something that doesn't impact him in most situations.It's there to add depth. It's there to add pathos. It's there to be an excuse for Walter's actions.

In a combat situation? In a skill check situation?  For role playing purposes, this should probably be true here as well. If a character, in a short term campaign, shouldn't have any gaming effects of the disease as its a flavor element. In longer term campaigns that don't provide a solution or cure, then things may get a little... grimer.

In terms of character outlook, well, when you're a chemist, all things tend to follow that pattern. For example, while there are probably many ways of dispoing of a dead body, but who a chemist would think its time to disolve the body in acid? Well, many gamers would but their characters? Another instance involves his encounter with a drug czar named Tuco. After his partner is put in the hospital by Tuco, Walter decides to pay Tuco a little visit and brings in a crystaline substance that appears to be more meth. Surprise, in this case, it's actually an explosive. Another instance involves water creating a method to melt through a powerful metal lock. When all you have is a hammer, all problems start to look like nails.

But in RPG terms? Well, he's an effective character. Don't need to worry about a thief in terms of cutting through locks or doors. Don't need to worry about a wizard in terms of creating the explosions. Don't need to worry about bodies being animated into the undead because there will be no bodies left. In some ways, it paints a somewhat plausible reason for alchemists to have some level of surviability in gaming. Without the horrid side effects, the enchanced physical qualities those who take drugs might be another method of boosting such a concept.

The 'alchemist' as a player is an old one and I can remember the old purple 'the Compleat Alchemist' from Bard Games in line with their Compleat Adventurer and Compleat Spellcaster that were wink wink for use with any fantasy role playing game that just so happened to be Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Other companies have taken the concept and made it into something that works in the game. Others have used it in their fiction line such as Elaine Cunningham's latest  fantasy series where it partially takes the place of magic.
Lastly, let's not forget about misunderstandings. At the end of the first episode, Walter is ready to kill himself in order to avoid going to jail. He's ready to fire a gun unto what he thinks are oncoming police. Not only is he ready to kill himself, with gun under his chin, he pulls the trigger. But it doesn't work.

The fates are smiling though because its not the police but a fire department and they aren't even coming to put out a fire Walter started but something completely unrelated. It creates a sense of tension with things happening that the characters have no control over. With things that look like they're raining doom. With things that look to put the characters in a crucible that will break them. Only its none of those things.

This is something that happens a few times. Apparent opportunities arise and fall. Threats that spell absolute doom and entrapment, turn out to be red herrings. These elements build the suspense and the sense of danger.

Another potential use for a series like Breaking Bad is the family unit. Even the lowly former student turned mule for Walter, has a family. In that family, the parents love their oldest son very much despite his low life status. His younger brother is a prodigy who apparently masters everything he does. But he's also a drug user and from his persepctive, his parents love the oldest brother more because he's all they ever talk about and from the older brother's perspective, the yougest is best loved because of his vast potential.

Family is a great way to add role playing to a campiagn. When looking at Walter, he hides his disease from his family until essentially forced to give up the secret as a means of saving his status in the family or leaving the family. When he does so though, he doesn't let his own mother know. Or at least, not in the first season. This larger net allows the setting to be bigger, to have room to expand. It allows the viewer to ask questions.

Now mind you, these opportunites to push the role playing boundies have to be appropriate. If all the character do is dungeon crawl, they might not be concerned with one of the character's sisters being a master thief unless she's stealing either for the characters or from the characters. NPCs are not an essentially part of the game if the majority of the game consist of dungeon crawling. There is nothing wrong with either option. For every hour spent unraveling the rivalry between Walter and his brother in law, that's an hour not spent killing orcs. Every group will have their preference.

Another interesting thing about Breaking Bad, is the framing device. A normal season for many shows is twenty three. A normal season for an HBO show is usually eleven or twelve. The first season for Breaking Bad is seven episodes. These aren't even an hour long. By having such a tight focus though, it puts the entire operation under a microscope that has to be on all cylinders at a time. If there are several bad episodes or several where nothing happens to move the plot forward, then the whole season could be considered lost. When looking at your own games and planning them out, how long is that game going to last? Is it going to go past it's prime like the TV show Lost? Is it going to be derailed due to timing issues that continuously hamper it? The strength of shorter arc stories is that they can end in a way that feels organic.

Breaking Bad is an entertaining show but is probably not for the faint hearted.