Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Borgia: Triumph and Oblivion

The non-Showtime version of the Italian familia, Borgia, has just hit Netflix with a Netflix Original season three, Triumph and Oblivion. For those confused that there are two cable series with similiar names, this article does a good job of breaking down some of the differences.

While there were a lot of liberties taken with historical means and events, and some things not followed up on from previous seasons as I'd hoped, overall it was a very satisfying season and brought a nice close to a strong series.

I'll be hitting some specific spoilers below that relate to how my brain looks at a series like this and associates it with the various role playing games I run or play in.

1. Alliances: The man who would be Cesar, Cesare Borgia, loses his power towards the end of the series. In so doing, he finds himself at the mercy of others and it rapidly goes to show that without having his own power base, he must ally himself wherever the winds blow. But such waters are filled with...

2. Treachery: When you are approached by multiple nobles and rulers who wish to make use of your unique abilities, how do you trust any of them to do right by you once you've performed whatever deed they wanted in the first place?

3. Secrets: During his imprisonment, one of Cesare's fellows is a priest. Turns out that priest was a former Jew who gave up the faith to save his life. Cesare noting the pain and terror that the man knew, is able to convince the now priest to help Cesare escape, even though it costs the Jew his life. Secrets have a powerful role in Italy and it's the wise characters who fetter them out.

4. Shifting Sands: While the series doesn't try to go strictly by historical records or events, there are two parts that dovetail nicely into other material I've read. One of those is that Cesare didn't' have any plan for if he was near death at the same time his own father died. By not being in power or in command at full strength, this allows others to take a larger role in the world to come. In helping to elect a Pope that was a former enemy, Cesare makes what is probably his last 'big' mistake in that it's all downhill for the former Prince at that time. Being able to navigate among the many powers, even in a smaller country comprising of City States like Rome was surrounded by at the time, as opposed to the 'countries' of Spain and France, without the right backing, it's easy for even the mightiest to fall.

5. Disease: One of the interesting bits about the series, is it doesn't shy away from disease as a cause of death. The 'bad winds' that hit Rome thanks to its proximity to water and the insects that tend to love such an environment, were the end of the Pope and almost the end of Cesare himself. When looking at the role disease plays in a campaign, in any setting, is it a seasonal thing? Is it localized to a specific country? Look at 'The French Disease', brought home to France from the New World. Look around in today's environment and the fear of Ebola. The fear that diseases cause can be greater than the disease itself. Keep those elements, both historical and current, in mind when deciding how much power disease has.

6. The Dead Speak! One of the things I was curious about, was what would they do when the Pope died? Instead, Cesare, when facing doubt or failure, imagines himself seeing his father and the conversations they would have were his father still alive. It works well in this instance as they don't have the opportunity to overdue it.

7. Turn the Page: One of the things they did quite a bit differently, is how Cesare's story ends. Historically, it doesn't turn out well. Killed in an almost random brawl against some knights and stripped bear as they didn't know who he was, but here, Cesera leaves everything behind and instead heads to those newly discovered 'Americas' to start life anew. It's an interesting twist on things and I say 'Turn the Page' because I know even in completely fictitious campaign settings like Star Wars and Forgotten Realms, you may get some 'scholars' who are bound and determined to have a setting adhere to canon as close as possible. When it suits your campaign and your game and everyone else is having a good time? Let canon die.

8. Your Think Your Family is Bad: The only character of the Borgia family to not be cast as a monstrous creature, is the Pope's daughter, Lucrezia Borgia. She is instead, on her third marriage, striving to bring the light of God into her new family's ways. Turns out that the Boriga's weren't the only family filled with back stabbers, filled with murders, filled with those who would commit any one of the seven dead sins. And that follows in the footsteps of the Pope that came after the Borgia pope!

9. Complex Characters: One of the things I enjoyed about 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons was the simplification of alignment leaving the 'extreme' ends almost to the supernatural entities. People are complex. We're not ants with the ability to only perform one function. While some of the deeds done by these individuals are truly monstrous, they also helped fund and expand the Renaissance itself. Some of the greatests artists still admired five hundred years later, came to prominence at this time. Find something that is 'normal' about the bad guys. Do they feed the hungry because they grew up poor? Do they have a fondness for children because they grew up without parents? Do they enjoy a certain type of music and fund a college of bards to play that music? Giving bad guys something that the players can relate to doesn't void the vile things such characters may commit, but it does make them more rounded and less super villainy.

Borgia: Triumph and Oblivion isn't perfect but it's a fun ride to a series that I feared would not have the opportunity to have it's swan song.