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TV Case Study: Life

This is the second TV case study.  Previously we reviewed Lost [1] . This week we leave the Island and head to LA, to look at a Life.  We will look at a few elements that make this police drama stand out from its peers, and we will talk about how you can use those same elements in your own games.


Detective Charlie Crews has spent years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Now Crews must face the world that he left behind and that left him behind. Dealing with the changes that occurred while he was away, and while trying to put the past behind him, Charlie returns to the job he loves. But it’s not going to be an easy return as Charlie is partnered up with a jaded detective, Dani Reese. With Charlie’s new take on life, and his new insight into the little things, Charlie gains a new view on crime as he strives to get back the life he once led.

TVRage.com [2]

Life Rule #1—A great subplot will make any genera feel new.

The police drama is a pretty well established TV format.  It is fair to say that the police drama is to TV what the fantasy setting is to RPG’s. That said, in order to make it on TV, Life has to have something that separates it from all the other police drama’s that are TV.  Life does that by using a subplot, where Charlie searches for who framed him for the crimes that landed him into prison.  From episode to episode Charlie gains small clues about the conspiracy. The show does a good job of pacing this subplot, interspersing pieces of the subplot in the middle and endings of most episodes.  While the crimes in the show are solved by the end of each episode, the conspiracy gives the viewer a compelling story that spans across episodes, and creates a continuous storyline that compels viewers to tune in, week to week.

When you are setting up your campaign, take some time to think up of a subplot (or two) that the players can advance between your main plotline.  You want a subplot that is going to take a long time to solve, and one that while important, is not so important, that your players will not want to engage the main plotline in favor of the subplot.   You can then advance the subplot between your main sessions, you can also tie parts of your subplot to your main plotline as well.

For Example: In a Fantasy setting, the main plotline is focused on the struggle of a land between the Human kingdom and the Orc Hordes.  As a subplot, the players, attempt to discover a Royal prophesy, that tells of the rise of a new king.   Between missions to defeat the Orc Hordes, the players attempt to track down clues to the meaning of the Prophesy, one of which is with a sage that has been enslaved by the Orcs.

Life Rule #2—Good quirks make characters distinct and interesting.

Charlie Crews is not your average police detective.  Among his many quirks is his love of fresh fruit, which comes from the fact that he could not get any while in prison, for 12 years.  When we first are introduced to Crews, he is eating fruit at a crime scene. That love of fruit is a central character quirk to Charlie, and you see him eating fruit in every episode, be it a crime scene, in the police station, or even in his house. It is not a major character feature, but it is just memorable enough, to be a defining part of the character.

As a GM you need to encourage your players to develop those memorable traits for their characters, and then help them play them out during the game.  These character traits are what change a Fighter into Roarth the Orcslayer. To encourage players to come up with those traits, a technique that I use is adapted from the Amber:Diceless game; the 20 Questions [3].  Create a list of 20 questions for your players to answer about their character.  As you make up these questions, Include a question or two about character traits.

For Example: Some sample 20 questions for any type of game:  Name your favorite possession you have, and why?  Name your favorite food and drink?  What kind of music do you listen to?

Life Rule #3—Frame an important scenes using an appropriate song.

One of the things that I really like about Life, is their use of music.  The show typically opens with the detectives on the crime scene, and as the camera pans around the crime scene, moving towards the body, there is always a very cool song playing in the background.  The song selected has the words often match the crime scene.  In a recent episode Hit Me Baby (S2E16) the show opens with a beaten body impaled on a wall, with a broom handle.  As the scene unfolds, a remake of Hit Me Baby, performed by Travis [4] plays in the background.

Music is powerful tool that can be used to set mood and tone in a game.  Many GM’s employ background music, using movie scores.  You can emphasize a specific scene by using a single song, complete with lyrics.  While lyrics in background music can often throw off game play, lyrics used to emphasize a specific scene can add depth to the scene. There is no set method for picking the right song for a scene, just as there is not a set way to pick the right wine for dinner.  But with some reflection on the scene and what you are trying to convey, the right song will appear.

For Example: In an Xcrawl game I once ran, the team entered a dark cave. On the far end of the cave, out of range of their vision, was an underground river, and across the river, were a group of Orcs with javelins.  As the team moved closer, the Orcs threw their javelins.  As the first javelins struck the players, I started playing Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower. As the players started calling out what they wanted to do, you could hear the lyrics:

There must be some kind of way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion…

Now go forth…

If you are not watching Life and are a fan of police shows, this is one that is worth catching up on.  It is available on Hulu [5] so you can watch them all from the comfort of your computer.   As for the elements, are these things that you could incorporate into your campaign, or have you done some of these already?

1 Comment (Open | Close)

1 Comment To "TV Case Study: Life"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On March 23, 2009 @ 8:44 am

Nice Article. I like rule 1 and 2. I’d never given too much thought to subplots, as my players usually get focused on the main plot, or draw out the subplots themselves. In my games subplots tend to become mainplots, tend to leave room for new subplots, which tend to become mainplots, etc.

Quirks are also great when trying to define characters. I find them hard to fit in mechanically though, and usually try to make them thematic elements.

Can’t wait till you do the Burn Notice TV Case Study.