A Network of Amorality

April 26, 2011

I don't think there are any spoilers for Dexter, Weeds, or Californication, but be warned anyway.

I find deciphering the mission statement for particular networks, in this case, Showtime, very interesting. Sometimes I wonder how shows get picked, ie. if a specific set of individuals like a certain format or if simply "just happens" because people pitch shows like "It's like Dexter, only a comedy!"

From a small sampling of their shows, Dexter, Weeds, and Californication, I surmise that Showtime likes shows that portray an exemplary but morally repugnant character. (Although their likeability lies on a completely different axes.)

Dexter remains, by far, my favorite (although I hated Season 2, the opening episode of Season 5 left me a little cold, and I haven't had a chance to see the rest of Season 5). In Dexter, you have a high-functioning psychopath, Dexter Morgan, a serial killer that kills other serial killers. His morality is terrible, but his ethics are laudable. And to top it off, he treats his friends and family well, so he gains an amazing amount of likeability.

The show (again except for Season 2) remains strong in its theme; can a monster become a man through acts of evil even if they serve a good purpose? Can a monster with no moral sense but a strong ethical sense be a good man? Dexter's delicate balancing act between being a killer and a provider (to his friends, family, and girlfriend) creates a lot of compelling drama, and each season even has another serial killer that represents Dexter's dark side. This seasonal serial killer possesses no ethics or a desire to be normal, and so Dexter must confront that possibility within himself. The plot reflects the character and the theme and vice versa. That's incredible television.

Weeds, on the other hand, started off really compelling and carried that compulsion through to the end of Season 2. Season 5 seemed to bring the show back on track by increasing the stakes and conflict, but the show remains problematic because the main character, while being a middling-functioning psychopath, also has terrible morals and ethics. The main character, a widow, Nancy Botwin, chooses to sell marijuana in order to provide an upper-middle-class lifestyle for her two troubled children. But to maintain that lifestyle, she has to choose to go deeper and deeper into the drug trade.

While struggling to balance her drug dealing business with her raising her family, Nancy continues to choose dealing drugs, allowing her family to fall apart. And she never seems to learn to be a better/harder/smarter drug dealer, and instead bumbles and sleeps her way through most situations. This is a character who accidentally succeeds despite herself, and while it might be comedic and satirical, it does not make her good at anything, it does not make her likeable, and because her choices are destroying her family, it doesn't make her very ethical or moral. Nancy Botwin continues to make bad choices and refuses to take responsibility for her actions, whereas Dexter Morgan is constantly weighed down by the responsibility of his actions.

Also, it is obvious the writers don't know what to do with all the secondary characters in Weeds. You have some great comic talent, but they have pulled out every nonsensical MacGuffin and deus ex machina to keep the characters together, making them inconsistent, stupid (why live with the very person you swore to destroy a season earlier? This goes for both the Celia and Isabelle Hodes characters!), and the plotting very, very arbitrary. (Dexter has similar problems utilizing their secondary characters, but I actually like them, so it's less of an issue for me.)

The last show that I've seen is Californication, and I have only seen Season 1. From the get go, this show can't seem to figure out what it wants to say.

It's obvious that the creators of the show want the audience to think that the main character, a writer, named Hank Moody, is a jerk. The very first scene has Hank walking into his bedroom with his daughter to find a naked woman there. He tries to break up with the woman, and she calls him a jerk. However, the woman broke into his house, has appeared naked in front of his daughter, and has cheated on her husband, so right away, I find myself siding with Hank Moody (not that he deserves it either). Scenes like this textually tell us that Hank is a jerk, but the context tells us that he just attracts jerky people. But the show continues to mix up their message in the same way. Hank will actually act like a jerk, but get rewarded. He will act ethically and get punished.

On second thought, perhaps the creators of the show want us to think that everyone in Southern California and Los Angeles are jerks because they are all arbitrary, random, and judgmental. And I guess we are supposed to like Hank Moody because in comparison, he's really a nice guy. I don't buy it. It feels like the creators of the show want to eat their cake and to have sex with it too.

He's supposed to be a witty writer but instead comes across as whiny. He's supposed to be the hottest thing in town, but he doesn't do much to garner that attention, which really makes it look like Los Angeles women will sleep with any random stranger at any time. And his lost love, Karen, is supposed to recognize that he's a nice guy, but he doesn't really do anything to win her over other than complain that his competition, Karen's fiance, is kind of a douche. And he is, but is Hank really any better?

So, in short, Showtime likes high-functioning psychopaths. However, a strong theme statement and an understanding of the flawed humanity within their characters will make them likeable to the audience. It's an irony that amongst these three shows, only an amoral serial killer comes across as likeable and ethical, and that's because the creators of the show have a strong vision of what Dexter is about.

War of Two "Worlds"

April 9, 2011

I've decided to put a lot on my plate. I'm participating in Script Frenzy, the scriptwriting version of NaNoWriMo. That's not too hard. I had a pre-treatment already written up, and turning a treatment into a script is a piece of cake for me. (Whether or not the script is any good has nothing to do with cake!)

I decided to put my lack of money where my mouth was and run a couple of role-playing events in May at Kublacon, the San Francisco Bay Area's big gaming convention. You go there to play role-playing games, board games, card games, and the like for Memorial Day weekend.

And as "practice", I decided to run a single event at Endgame, Oakland's premier gaming store and gaming location. (By the way, that's today. Yikes!).

In preparing these two events, I've come across an interesting game design divide that sharply illustrates the differing intentions of Apocalypse World, D. Vincent Baker's indie RPG of post-apocalyptic awesomeness, and Gamma World, Wizards of the Coast's RPG of post-apocalyptic wackiness.

I've blogged about these games separately, but in comparison their differences really stand out from a practical viewpoint. Apocalypse World pretty much eschews preparation. There is a theoretical methodology the game calls "Fronts", which are lists of things that threaten the players in a long-term way. They should have, at most, five lines of text describing them, and a majority of those lines should be "which NPCs are threatening", "which NPCs are caught up in the threat", and "which players could be caught up in the threat". But aside from that, all play occurs on the table. A bad roll may turn a friend to an enemy, or vice versa, thus creating or eliminating a threat right then and there.

Gamma World (and the 4th edition ruleset) has no hard rules to do what Apocalypse World does. There is a lot of GM advice about the "say yes or say no with a but" philosophy. There is a lot of GM advice about pacing, structure, and about how failure shouldn't stymie players, but provide additional obstacles to overcome or additional story to tell, but it doesn't give any advice about "how".

Take Apocalypse World and its social conflict mechanics. If you want to convince, say, the leader of a group of bandits to work for you, you could roll to "Read a Person" and get a set of questions to ask the MC, and the MC has to tell the truth. Then, once you figure out what the bandit leader wants, you can roll to "Seduce or Manipulate" in order to convince her to join your side. If you succeed, then success! If you marginally succeed, then the bandit leader could ask you to assassinate someone first and then she'll join up. (And the game strongly tells you that the bandit leader should not back out on the deal. There are, however, plenty of things she could do to make your life more unpredictable later!) If you fail the roll, there is a list of "moves" an MC could make that conflict with the player. She could offer a hard choice, such as the assassination of a fellow player or a favorite NPC. She could decide to hold the player for ransom.

The Gamma World/4th edition ruleset doesn't do this. There is a straight up Interaction roll with a short text block about what it is used for. It doesn't even quite explain what you do with a success or failure. Does the NPC become your friend? Does the agreement last until the GM decides he's bored with it? What happens with a failure, does he attack you?

And let's take the fighting mechanics as another example. Say you failed to convince the bandit leader to join you, and she decides to take you as a captive. You could start blasting away, with the knowledge that you'd probably get very dead, or you could run for it, with the possibility that you'll get cornered. The fun is that this takes a minimum of one roll to resolve.

Meanwhile, over in Gamma World, the moment you say that the bandit leader tries to hold you captive, the players will decide to fight, and bring the whole 4th edition combat ruleset to bear. Now you have to lay out a battle map, stat out enemies, grab all that dice, and roll for about 1-2 hours (depending on how fast you and your players can add). Or worse yet, the players might ask to try and convince the bandit leader over again with the exact same argument, and if you're not careful, you'd think that it's ok by the rules, because it is ok by the rules.

What this long-winded wall of text comes down to is that from my experience preparing for these two events, both games do very different things. If you want to prepare an Apocalypse World convention event, you need to set up a tense, conflict-ridden situation with no real end-point (except for an idea of what will happen if the players do nothing). If you want to prepare a Gamma World convention event, you need to create a slew of combat encounters, complete with battle maps and monster stats, and do your best to string them together into a narrative, because the game assumes you know all this already.

It's that old saying that "A good GM can make a good game out of anything" but why not have a game with a strong narrative support structure to begin with?