Hello, and welcome to the first TV Case Study. In this new series of articles, I will focus on a single TV show and pick out some elements that are key parts of the TV show, and show you how you can apply them to your campaigns. Our first case study will be on the show Lost.
After a mysterious and bloody airplane crash, 48 survivors are left stranded on a Pacific Island… miles off course. It soon becomes apparent that they will not have to cope only with the forces of nature, but with the island’s secrets, including the Dharma Initiative, the ‘Lost Numbers’, the “others” (or hostiles) and the strange black smoke- to name a few. There is also much more than meets the eye, as it becomes apparent that everyone is connected in some way and that everyone has a purpose to live on the island… and for some, to die.– IMDB
Lost Rule #1: The juxtaposition of elements can be used to shake up expectations.
In one of the first episodes, Sawyer is being chased in the jungle by an unseen creature. He draws a pistol and opens fire, killing the beast. When Sawyer goes and checks to see what he has killed, he finds that it is a polar bear. A polar bear in the middle of a tropical jungle. At that moment, viewers were sure that this was no ordinary tropical island.
This same technique can be applied to your campaign. Take something that is very rare, something that would not normally be part of the region, and place it into the scene. As you narrate the scene, reveal the element very nonchalantly; contain any amusement or excitement when you describe it. If you show too much excitement when you reveal the item, you will draw too much emphasis to the object, and you will diminish the jarring effect for your players.
For example: In a fantasy setting, the heroes have been fighting against the Orc hordes. On visiting a new town, they pass by the blacksmith shop, and see that the blacksmith is an Orc. They quickly question the townspeople, but all of them, shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s just Grok, he has been the blacksmith, for years.” The players now scratch their heads and start to question what they really know of Human/Orc relations.
Lost Rule #2: Interesting Backgrounds are more interesting when linked to one another.
Over the seasons, the the backgrounds of all the main characters of the show have been detailed. We learn of the strained relationship between Jack and his Father, we learn of how Sayid falls in love with a prisoner he is put in charge of torturing, and we learn why Kate killed her father. While each of these backgrounds are interesting, the more interesting parts, are how each of their backgrounds are intertwined. We see that Jack runs into Desmond while running steps at the stadium, or that the con man that swindles Sawyer’s parents was Locke’s Father, or that Jack and Claire are half-siblings.
By taking the backgrounds and interweaving them, you create a sense of fate or destiny that gives a sense of a divine plan or a sinister conspiracy. If you are a serious planner, you can plan out the interconnections between players backgrounds before the campaign begins. More than likely what you will want to do is to create the connections using some backstory (and the occasional RetCon). One way to do this is to take an NPC that the character is interacting with, and have that NPC be part of the background of that character, or even better of another character in the group.
For example: In a superhero game, Captain Justice has been tracking an new villain around the city for weeks. Off and on they battle, until the super hero enlists help from his fellow hero,Silverblade. They battle the villain and subdue him. Once subdued they unmask him, and suddenly Silverblade gasps, the Villain is no other than Eddie, Silverblade’s sidekick, who was thought to have died in a Warehouse fire, years ago.
Lost Rule #3: Secrets are like onions: they have many layers and they make you cry.
Lost is all about secrets. From the purpose of the Hatch, to the origins of the Dharma initiative, to who the Others are, Lost has many secrets. What it does well, is that it creates a secret, and then slowly (and sometimes too slowly) it reveals the secret, but the reveal is followed by the revelation of another secret that is larger than the one that was discovered. One example of this in Lost was the Hatch. For almost a season, Locke and the others attempt to discover what the nature of the Hatch. Eventually they locate it, open it up, and enter, discovering Desmond, food, and a shot shower. After exploring the Hatch they discover that the Hatch is one of several stations on the island, which are part of something called the Dharma Initiative.
In your campaign, the best secrets are the ones that build slowly and are revealed in a timely fashion. Pacing is the hardest part of using secrets in a campaign. Take too long to reveal and you frustrate your players. Reveal them too early and it is anti-climatic. There is no set formula for when to reveal a secret, you need to pay attention to the the mood of your players. They will let you know when they are ready for the reveal by their mood at the table and away from the table. When it is time to do the reveal, have the reveal unmask a new and deeper secret, to take its place. Your players will have the satisfaction of discovering a secret, and they will jump on your next secret.
For example: In a Horror campaign, the heroes are being stalked by killer for several sessions. Time and time again, they escape from the killer, until they are cornered and take him down, just escaping with their lives. When they inspect the body, they discover a tattoo on the body, one that they have seen before on the arm of the Sheriff’s mistress. The questions begin: Is the Sheriff’s mistress behind the plot to kill them? Is she a pawn of someone else? What is the nature of this tattoo? Who else has one? Who can they trust?
Now go forth…
There are actually many more Lost rules that I could detail, but I will save them for a future article. For now, enjoy these three Lost rules, and think of how you might apply them to your campaign.
I have a PC who is keeping a journal, and in each entry I’m coming up with a backstory element that’s relevant to what’s happening now. That’s all Lost’s fault.
The show’s cliffhanger endings also merit study for any GM who’s partial to, or interested in, the technique.
Lost was a major influence on my Cold Blood campaign, and none of my players watched it, so I got away with a lot. 😉
Another technique that Lost exploits is only showing us snippets of what’s going on. A traditional mystery relies on the protagonists to figure out what happened in the past. This technique has events unfolding concurrently with the action that we (as the audience or the PCs) see.
When I’ve used this technique, I start off by outlining the events that are separate from the PCs actions. So let’s say that the President’s daughter is kidnapped by the mafia with help from the Vice President. Then the Yakuza, who are rivals of the mafia, kidnap the VP because they want to ransom the first daughter for their own ends.
Then add in the PCs. So in this case, the party is brought in to rescue the President’s daughter. They have a few leads, but before they can do anything, the VP disappears. Is he guilty? Is he another victim? What do they do when a few Yakuza turn up dead and a mob war starts?
It keeps the players on edge, because they don’t know what will happen next. It also draws them into the game more. Not only is the mystery heightened, but it’s clear that people other than their characters are taking action (which is how things operate in the real world).
Great article. I was actually going to suggest that you do a series like this! I just finished watching all the current episodes of the series Supernatural. It follows a very distinct formula, and I have started a campaign with my friends based in part on the formula that this show uses.
I’d also like to prop up this article. Great stuff and it really got me thinking.
In my current game the plot seems to have become a bit muddied and that muddiness seems to have stagnated the action a bit by inducing a certain hesitance in the players. Using some of what you mention here, that muddiness may actually serve as a great platform for a greater mystery to be revealed.