A few days back I wrote a post on the five games that influenced my style of play. Now here’s a similar list of television series that influenced my play style and game choices:

1. Star Trek: No so much for the content, as for being the show that really got me into science fiction. I was four or five when the son of one of my mother’s friends showed my a couple of reruns. Around the same time, another favorite was Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlett. Even today, I’m less a fantasy guy than I am a science fiction fan; most of the games I run are science fiction settings.

2. Miami Vice: I was a teen/early 20 something when this hit. It might look cheesy now, but it’s hard to explain to a modern audience exactly how groundbreaking the series’ first few seasons were. Instead of the usual look, sound, and feel of cop shows (or any show, really) — which were best described as western/gunslinger themes transposed to modern day — Miami Vice brought a combination of the music video era’s would-be auteurism and use of actual tracks, rather than poor covers (and the covers of ’70s and ’80s music in television were terrible), and combined it with the cinematography style of movies.

The effect on my games, especially in the late 1980s was that I started experimenting with soundtracks for the games being run — tracks that would either set the feel, or were specific to an action or transition sequence. These were the days of having to make a tape mix to make this happen — hours, sometimes, of work. Today, you can queue up a series of tracks on the laptop or iPad and fire them off at the appropriate time without the obviousness of hitting the play button on your boombox. (“Oh, oh! He’s starting music — get your guns out!”)

3. Hill Street Blues: Hill Street Blues was wrapping about the same time as Vice hit was this tremendous series. It was one of the first cop shows that felt “real” — from the exterior filming someplace other than New York or Los Angeles (it’s never said, but it’s pretty obviously supposed to be Chicago.) There was a steady progression of character development, ongoing plot lines, and most of all, a feeling of realism that I wanted to capture in my games. It’s one of the origins of my fascination with verisimilitude in the campaigns I run…no matter how fictional the stuff might be, it should feel real.

4. The Sandbaggers: About the same time as HSB was running, there was a British spy show from the late 1970s running on PBS that was unlike anything before or since. The Sandbaggers has almost no action — everything is subtext and politics, with the show revolving around Burnside, the chief of the Sandbaggers (essentially the 00 section of the Bond movies.) They are perpetually undermanned, underfunded, and subject to the whims of the politicians, leaving Burnside to cut deals with the CIA and play one politician off the other.

Like Hill Street Blues, this show was very bright in my gaming eye when I started running espionage settings in the mid ’80s. HSB might have become a little less influential over the years, but The Sandbaggers is still an influence on my games (and my taste in spy-fi.)

5. Babylon 5: I’d seen shows with story acs before — Star Blazers from my youth (or Space Battleship Yamato, for your purists…), but B5 was the first time I really started to incorporate them into my campaigns. Prior to this show, I’d used story arcs, but they were short and usually the missions were more episodic. Now I added overarching stories and metastory — bigger events and trends that the characters had little to do with, but were still effected by. Characters started to get their own arcs, based on the concept and the consequences of their actions, especially those unforeseen ones — where those actions you thought would do well for you and your people/team/whatever would backfire on you.

Even more importantly, I had always seen the characters failing as a negative, something that would detract from their enjoyment of the game. They would fail, or periodically not do as well as they would like, but I rarely was gunning for them. (I’ve never been a fan of the GM as adversary technique I’ve seen in a lot of D&D campaigns. “Yeah, our DM was really trying to kill us off this week…”) After B5, the idea that failure could serve the story and character development made me focus more on the weaknesses of characters, rather than their strengths. It also liberated me to have failure be not just an option, but central to the story arc.

Another thing B5 dealt with fairly that, until that time, most TV science fiction (primarily the various Star Trek shows) did not was religion. Remember the almost sneering disdain Picard had for the superstition they had outgrown..? Not so in B5. Religion was central to almost every character’s make-up, from the Minbari, to Ivanova’s Judaism, to Molari’s casual observances, etc. people believe in things beyond science and the observable world. Like most people do. And they never talked down to faith, but they also never chose a side on who was right. The unknowable stayed that way, despite a strong streak of predestination.

I’m not a religious person, myself, and when I was young I had that same patronizing attitude toward religious faith you see in a lot of atheists, these days. Somewhere along the way I realized that faith is something to be envious of, when you don’t have it; I’m a skeptic, but I would love to have the certainty of faith others have. Science is not certain by any means — hell, current cosmology of astrophysicists have about 80% of the universe an unobservable matter and energy (“dark” matter and energy.) That’s a hell of a fudge factor…you might as well just call it magic or God.

Babylon 5 also freed up science-fiction to accept religion. Deep Space Nine was a pretty blatant rip-job of B5 (Straczynski shopped it to Paramount first…and lo and behold, a new Star Trek series set on a space station!) right down to the religiosity of the Bajorans. But even then, they had to explain the unknowable. The Prophets were extra-dimensional aliens of great power — sure — but they were, ultimately, a quantifiable/qualifiable part of the universe. Firefly didn’t shy away from people have (different) faiths. Battlestar Galactica‘s entire premise is that of the Mormon exodus in space — God is extant and involved. I felt the series would have been better with an air of mystery — not given us that button on the show that confirmed divine intervention, but left it open to interpretation. (And kicked whoever’s ass in the writer’s room thought All along the Watchtower needed to be used…)

As you can see, if I were ranking these by level of effect, B5 would be the top slot, hands down.

Honorable Mention: It’s a fairly recent show, so it hasn’t had a lot of time to influence my games, but The Shield‘s combination of gritty realism, the action/consequence, and flawed characters has been having a decided effect on my most recent Bond campaign, where the heroes are using laws like asset forfeiture, PATRIOT Act, and other terror war  acts to make their lives easier, bend laws, and do good by occasionally doing bad.

Advertisements