RPGs: TV Shows as Sourcebooks

I've always felt that the best other-media model for the role-playing session was the television show. Like tv shows, most role-playing sessions are episodic, weekly (when you're lucky, at least) and starring an ensemble of regular characters. So it's perhaps not surprising that a couple of shows I was watching over the last week made me think of RPGs.

Specifically: Of using tv shows as "sourcebooks" for role-playing games. This isn't as obvious as it may seem. Sure, you can grab ideas and a sense of story structure from any program, but a resource truly dedicated to making you understand a world? That's more rare. And while SF and fantasy programs can create some wonderfully detailed worlds, they can't really be used to game outside that universe. Shows like Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Hercules/Xena can't really ever be a sourcebook for anything but themselves. And of course, there are people out there playing Star Trek and Doctor Who and Buffy games, but again that's not what I mean.

What shows can you use as a resource for Your Own Game(TM)? Here are examples that cover different styles of play...

The Complete World (That Is Not Completely Fictional)
What worlds remain generic (so that a tv sourcebook can apply to it), but are also gameable? Well, what about historical settings? The show that made me think to write this post is Rome. There isn't a whole lot of Roman Empire role-play out there, but there are some (GURPS, Fvlminata), but while we always knew the basic clichés of the era (gladiators, decadence, the legion, slaves) from cheesy Roman movies and Asterix, it was never so detailed as it appears in the HBO series. Not only is there is a lot of texture thanks to customs, religions and codes of conduct, but the program presented various strata of society, from the soldier to the merchant to the nobility. Previous "Roman sourcebooks" like I, Claudius didn't really give you something gameable (emperors and senators? sheesh!). With Rome, a GM and players can get a real sense of what living in that period felt like AND through the characters of Pullo and Vorenus, have good examples of player characters who get into all manner of trouble on the fringes of recorded history.

The only other shows of the type I can think of are westerns, though that period in history seems a whole lot more tangible to us today. I'm not sure I'd need a Deadwood or Gunsmoke to run a proper western RPG.

Genre Resource
There are many tv shows that plunge you into a world that exists (or has existed), but not all of them are gameable. Shows like ER, the West Wing and Traders make you believe you're experiencing what it really would be like to work in a hospital, the White House of the stock market (respectively). But I haven't seen a lot of medical, political or financial RPGs on the shelves. Have you?

One show I was especially fond of was The Unit. Any military RPG could draw from this one, and its focus on a small elite group is perfect for handling similarly-sized role-playing "parties". The Unit showed a wide range of mission types, from straight military (like defending an outpost on the border of Afghanistan) to spy jobs (posing as dignitaries at an embassy) to counter-terrorism (preventing a bridge from being bombed). Across its four seasons, it also played with just how real you care to make it. Season 1 was quite procedural and gritty, and Season 3 got into the Jason Bourne action a lot more. A show like this uses the "real world" that we all know about, but really gives you a sense of how "adventures" should work in that genre. Invaluable. Your favorite cop show might serve a similar purpose.

Campaign in a Box
Some shows provide a premise you can take and run away with. By now, there have been enough Fight the Supernatural shows (Kolchak, X-Files, Relic Hunter, Torchwood, Buffy, Fringe, Supernatural and tons of others) that any basic scheme (FBI, secret society, regular Joes stumbling into the dark) can be borrowed and mixed with monsters from that show and any game, but it would nice to have a sourcebook of monsters that fit the premise, yet won't all be recognizable to the show's fans.

My suggestion is another show I've been watching lately - Primeval. The premise is simple: Scientists with guns deal with temporal anomalies through which prehistoric creatures enter our world and cause havoc. Who doesn't love a little dinosaur hunting, right? The show manages to use different scenarios each episode and also have a conspiracy subplot it plays with. Whatever you 'port into the game, each season offers a slightly different scheme (through cast and timeline changes): scientists stumble on anomalies, scientists with guns in top secret organization, and scientists and action heroes with guns.

But here's the clincher. Primeval comes with its own set of tv sourcebooks: The Walking with... series. The same guys responsible for Primeval also made this series of faux-nature documentaries about life in prehistory. And it's not just dinosaurs. There are prehistoric mammals you never imagined existed, creatures from the pre-dinosaur days, "cavemen" from the Australopithecus on, and for extra fun, throw in The Future Is Wild and three crazy eras of Earth's future where man is no more. Perfect for animated visual reveals of the creatures coming out of those anomalies!

Those would be my ideas for tv-assisted RPGs, perhaps you have other favorites?

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