Roleplaying

Five TV Shows That Are Clearly Roleplaying Games

Dean enjoys a good LARP from time to time.

GMs commonly plan out their campaigns the same way writers plan a TV show, scripting out scenes and allocating screen time between the major characters. In television, this is the main cast, while for roleplaying games, they’re the PCs. Some systems explicitly use the TV model, so it’s natural for us to imagine shows and their characters in terms of our favorite roleplaying games. Is Captain Picard going to succeed his Diplomacy check?* Will Jayne ever succeed on an intelligence roll?* But shows rarely line up with the tropes and mechanics of a specific system. Rarely – not never. These shows look like someone set up cameras inside a campaign world and started filming.

Spoiler Warning: Madoka Magica

1. Adventure Time, Dungeons and Dragons

You tell me that's not a PC treasure hoard. You tell me that’s not a PC treasure hoard.

Adventure Time is the story of the last human and his magical shapeshifting dog. At first it looks like an odd choice for Dungeons and Dragons because the surrealist and comedic animation style is a far cry from the gritty artwork in most D&D books. After a few episodes, though, it all starts to click. Adventure Time is what a Dungeons and Dragons world would actually look like.

No one accuses D&D of being overly realistic. High level characters can survive hundred-foot falls with ease and endure damage that would turn normal humans into a fine red mist. Adventure Time has this in spades, as the writers ignore physics whenever they feel like it.

The main characters, Finn and Jake, live like classic adventurers. They go on an endless series of quests, always returning with cool loot. Sometimes the loot is good enough for Finn to equip it, but most of it goes in the giant storeroom of treasure they never do anything with. This is exactly what happens to PCs when there’s no high level item shop around. Their booty builds up, but they always go out and get more because that’s just what you do as an adventurer.

The Candy Kingdom, much like most D&D settings, never seems affected by all the treasure Finn and Jake bring back. Princess Bubblegum is happy to use them for fighting off the occasional monster, but for the most part they don’t figure into her day-to-day administration.

Finn’s abilities also mirror D&D mechanics. Despite the fact that Jake is a magical shapeshifter who can turn into just about anything, Finn the normal human can somehow keep pace with him. The explanation is simple. Finn has more levels than Jake, so his bonuses are higher. This is reminiscent of 3.5’s level penalties for playing monster races. Being a magical shapeshifter gives Jake a lot of powerful abilities, but he pays for it in the XP department.

Of course, the real clincher is that the writers clearly know they’re writing a D&D game. They make numerous jokes about alignment, cursed items, spells per day, and just about any other aspect of dungeon delving you can imagine. There’s even an episode where Finn does nothing but collect an ever growing pile of magical gear, complete with ioun stones! Yeah, the writers have done their homework.

2. Madoka Magica, Mage: The Ascension

Someone's taking serious paradox. Someone’s taking serious paradox.

While Adventure Time is clearly a classic sword and sorcery game, Madoka Magica is one of those new age story driven games all about feelings. Oh boy is it about feelings. However, while the GM and players are clearly working hard to tell their emotionally powerful drama, the system they’re using is none other than classical Mage: The Ascension.

The magical girls are a group of mages who all have the same paradigm. Their power comes from contracts with an otherworldly entity named Kyubey.* By having each character use the same magical paradigm, the GM cleverly avoids any issues of the PCs being unable to interact with each other’s powers.

Each of the main characters has abilities that correspond with one or more of Mage’s spheres of magic. Homura is a master of the Time sphere: pausing, fast forwarding, and rewinding reality at will. Mami focuses on Matter, creating a great stockpile of firearms with bullets that transform into ensaring ribbons on impact. In the sequel movie, she even demonstrates an ability to transform herself into the same ribbons. Sayaka, while clearly the weakest, still has some Life magic, as she withstands hit after hit. Madoka’s abilities focus on the Prime and Spirit spheres, as she creates energy from nothing and alters the entire spiritual framework of the universe. Kyoko is the most difficult to pin down, but she appears to use a combination of Correspondence and Forces, as her spear can somehow be in multiple places at once and also surrounded by lighting.

One important aspect of the Mage system appears to be missing from Madoka: paradox. The girls use magic willy nilly, and the reality consensus never slaps them down for it. That’s because of a special artifact each character gets when her powers are awoken, a soul gem. In the show, the soul gem darkens whenever a magical girl uses her power. Mechanically, that’s because the gem is storing up paradox, keeping it from causing any effect. That seems great, until more paradox builds up than the gem can hold. Then it backlashes all at once, overwhelming the magical girl instantly.

That brings us to witches, the show’s main antagonists. They match up suspiciously well with marauders from Mage. Witches create labyrinths, pockets of reality where only their will rules. Physics and common sense go right out the window. Marauders are the same way, their delusional belief so strong it manifests without any effort on their part.

The kicker is where both marauders and witches come from. They are former mages and magical girls, respectively, transformed from using too much magic. In Mage, when paradox is too much for a mage to handle, there’s a chance they can turn permanently delusional and become a marauder. In Madoka, it’s practically guaranteed. Soul gems store up paradox, and by the time it’s released, the magical girl has no way to resist. The GM for this game has a real mean streak.

3. Lost Girl, Vampire: The Masquerade

PVP, not cool. Not cool with the PVP, Bo.

In Lost Girl, a society of magical creatures are referred to as “fey” but are actually various kinds of vampire. While few of them drink blood, they all feed off of humans in some way, taking something humans need to live. Enter Bo, whom the show calls a succubus. In game terms, she’s a vampire who gets blood points by seducing her victims rather than biting. It has the same effect, making Bo stronger and her meal weaker. If she takes too much, the victim dies. Bo’s method just is cleaner than blood sucking.

Bo goes through a traditional Vampire: The Masquerade arc of agonizing over her need to take from others to live. Just like any PC, she eventually learns to manage it, because feeding gives her cool powers. Like a vampire with the Dominate and Potence Disciplines, Bo can spend her blood points to become super strong or to force others into doing her bidding. She can also spend those points to heal in the same way vampires can, a plot point that comes up over and over again.

Bo’s not the only one. Hale’s siren call follows all rules for the Presence Discipline, and Trick is clearly abusing the Oracular Ability merit along with some kind of house-ruled blood magic Discipline whenever he tells the future. As a werewolf, Dyson doesn’t seem to fit, but think on it for a minute. How many Vampire games have you been in where one player inevitably asks if they can play a werewolf? This is one time when the GM didn’t have the good sense to say no.

Kenzi, on the other hand, is just a regular human. At first she seemed like an NPC, but then it became clear. She’s the PC with all the social skills. Bo is specialized for combat, and really dumb, so she needed an intelligent smooth talker to help her through the more delicate challenges. Kenzi is the finesse character to Bo’s brawn. She also helps keep Bo’s Humanity stat from falling too low, a problem the succubus clearly struggles with.

Lost Girl even has a similar political dynamic to Vampire. One has the Light Fey, the other the Camarilla. Both are jerks. Then there are the Dark Fey and the Sabbat, who are even worse jerks. Bo is effectively Light Fey,* in the same way most PCs are Camarilla. The other guys are too evil to be part of.

4. Supernatural, Hunter: The Vigil

That knife is mad OP. That knife is mad OP.

Every game of Hunter I’ve ever run or played looked a lot like Supernatural. It honestly feels like the show’s creators were sitting around the gaming table one evening and thought, “What if we put this on screen?” Heck, the characters in Supernatural even call themselves hunters!

Supernatural’s protagonists don’t have any special powers; they just drive around with a trunk full of guns, confident they can solve any problem they come across. If that’s not a PC attitude, I don’t know what is. They also take the very PC-like view that when you’re fighting monsters that want to feast on human flesh, crimes like theft and fraud don’t matter. Sam and Dean Winchester finance their hunts with bundles of forged credit cards, something my group will always try to do.

Beyond general play style, you can see Hunter’s specific mechanics embedded in the show. Dean’s pistol is a wonderful example of the Favored Weapon merit. Favored Weapon doesn’t actually make the character better with the weapon in question; it gives them a bonus to morale when they have it. Dean can use any firearm expertly, but he feels better with his trusty Colt 1911 in hand.

The brothers’ skills also mirror the Hunter character sheet. Sam is good at charming people and can find anything through enough research. Dean has more hands-on experience and can usually fast talk his way past a problem. In game terms, Sam has Academics and Persuasion, while Dean has Occult and Subterfuge. There’s even an episode where the two are separated and Dean bemoans his inability to put people at their ease the same way Sam can, exactly what the Persuasion skill does.

Later in the show, Bobby joins the party, and he brings the all-important Empathy skill. That is, he’s there for both Sam and Dean to unload about their problems, which is important for hunters. Even the angelically superpowered Castiel can be explained in roleplaying terminology. His player convinced the GM to let him use some of the special powers that are usually kept out of player reach. In this case, the Benediction power, allowing Castiel to smite his foes with holy fire. Of course, these powers are crazy broken, so Castiel had to eventually lose them or he wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the party.

5. Leverage, Spycraft

All part of a balanced PC breakfast. All part of a balanced PC breakfast.

I honestly thought no TV show could be more like a roleplaying game after Supernatural. I was wrong. Enter Leverage, a delightful show about five modern day Robin Hoods teaming up to take the rich and powerful down a peg or two. It was well received by critics and very popular, because who doesn’t love a premise like that?

What many of the show’s fans probably missed was how closely it resembled the game Spycraft. While the default for Spycraft is to play spies,* it’s also designed for any kind of modern thriller. A group of high tech thieves is right up Spycraft’s alley.

Each character in Leverage corresponds to one of the Spycraft base classes. Nate, the leader, is a Pointman. He organizes the others and can do a little bit of everyone’s jobs. Sophie is the self-explanatory Faceman. Parker is a Fixer, able to break and sneak into just about anywhere. Hardison is the group’s Snoop, a combination hacker and general tech wizard. Finally, Elliot is the Soldier, specced for unarmed combat. The only class they’re missing is a Wheelman, which is fine because they don’t get into a lot of car chases.

If I were constructing a Spycraft group, this is exactly what it would look like. The characters have unusually well defined roles for a TV show, and they stick to them. There’s never an episode where one of the characters can suddenly do another’s job without explanation. That’s a sign that they have character sheets someone is checking.

Like a Spycraft game, the characters on Leverage are always getting new gadgets to help with their jobs. The fight scenes are also exceptionally similar to Spycraft combat. Guns are no match for Elliot’s mighty fists, something you can only get away with in d20 based systems. More specifically, bullets are harmless, except when they’re not. Most of the time any shots fired miraculously miss, but every once in a while one of the characters is hit, and it does serious damage.

Spycraft simulates this effect by splitting its hitpoint system into Vitality and Wounds. Vitality represents a character’s plot armor and is chipped away slowly over time. Wounds are their physical health and can take far less punishment. Critical hits go straight to a character’s wounds, making them much more serious. This is effectively what happens in the show as well. Henchmen always miss, but when a named villain starts shooting, it’s a different story.

Season five even shows the characters multiclassing! Parker and Hardison both have arcs about learning skills from another character. In Parker’s case, she learns a few ways to trick people in social situations from Sophi. In other words, she took a level in Faceman. Hardison works with Nate, learning what it takes to lead the team. In other words, taking a level in Pointman.

While I can’t say for sure what the writer’s intentions were, this certainly looks like a roleplaying game put on television. Of course, it’s possible that Spycraft was really good at simulating tropes of the modern suspense thriller, and that’s why it matches Leverage so well. Still, next time you get together for a gaming session, pay attention to how the system plays. There’s no telling when you’ll see it repeated on screen.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Krssven

    I’d have preferred an article on which shows are clearly RPGs because of the way they are written and acted, rather than which RPGs they specifically resemble.

    For me, Firefly is like a bunch of character archetypes thrown onto a spaceship (in a good way!). The Mal-type anti-hero is quite common in RPGs these days, and in the film he even shoots the Operative immediately after he spreads his arms and says he’s not armed – that is a character action straight out of an RPG if I ever saw one.

    Angel (but not really Buffy) felt more like an RPG as it went on, especially in season 5. The bickering, joking around and even some of the situations were very familiar to me, having ran a Buffy/Angel game for a long time.

  2. K

    What, no True Blood?

    True Blood is a fevered wet dream from an oWoD LARPer. Real talks

  3. Jackson

    I’ll throw in a vote for Teen Wolf being some sort of weird homebrew with a DM who has no idea how not to split the party. All the werewolves/coyotes/jaguars/snakes have a ridiculous variety of superpowers, some of which come out of nowhere, in a way that resembles something you’d see in different Vampire clans, especially given that the Werewolf equivalent of Diablerie is a thing.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh man, you gotta chomp your way to the top. That’s totally something an RPG would do.

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