The TVGame

So, I finally started watching Person of Interest, which is what got me thinking about this.So, I have an ur-RPG-system in my head that I have referenced occasionally and that I apply to almost every TV show I watch, which is composed of domains and ranks. Let’s call it TVGame for ease of reference, though really it works equally well for most fiction.

Domains are areas of expertise, like fighting or computers. Every show has a different set of domains, since they reflect what the show is about. Something that might be a very broad domain in one show might be sliced finely in another. For example, Academics might be a fine domain in one show, but in something like The Librarians it might get broken out into Math, History, Biology or other fields (since most of the characters are academics of some stripe). Alternately, a lot of stories might offer finer gradations of fighting, to distinguish the sniper and the martial artist. Domains get very fiddly in the specific (and I could write several posts about them), but the idea is straightforward enough.

Ranks are a measure of how good the character is in the domain, broken down as follows:

Terrible – The character is not merely unskilled, they are actively terrible at this. Should they try to engage in this activity, it will almost certainly go horribly wrong in a manner suiting the tone of the show. Usually used for comic relief or to reflect full on barriers, like Professor X’s athletics.

Unskilled – The character has no particular training or aptitude in this field, but neither are they particularly bad. In most circumstances, they are unexceptional. A good example is driving – most people just drive without trouble, but are not actually trained drivers.

Capable – The character is good at this, usually good enough to be a professional. The majority of characters in any show are Capable at one or two things, and Unskilled at everthing else (Heroes and villains being the exceptions). Examples include cops, gangsters, teachers and really anyone.

Exceptional (or, as I say in conversation, Badass) – The character is super awesome at this particular thing. They’re the super hacker, the special forces assassin, the billionaire and so on. The protagonists (and villains) are probably exceptional at one or more things.

Transcendent – Like Exceptional, but more so. As with Terrible, this sees only limited use, since it usually exists for plot purposes, so there’s a place to put old masters and sentient AIs. Show that skew towards very wide competence porn may make use of this tier as a distinguisher, but that’s something to be careful about, because it can turn into an arms race.

The base mechanic is simple and diceless – higher rank wins. The bigger the margin, the more the higher tier dominates. If it’s more than one step, the higher ranked character does not just win, but effectively controls how the situation spools out. With this in mind, one of the “tactical” avenues of play is to leverage a situational rank boost. This is not easy, but it can be done to reflect things like overwhelming force. A mob of Capable cops can be a threat to an Exceptional soldier unless he can change the situation somehow. This is also incentive to try to move a conflict to a different domain.

If a conflict happens within a tier, that’s when you switch over to a more fiddly system. The actual fiddly system is kind of irrelevant, and can absolutely be tuned to your taste. It may seem kind of handwavey to describe it so briefly, but as with domains, the decision for how you handle conflicts is based on how you want your specific play to go. If you need it to be something, assume it’s Risus.

There are other bits. Adding aspects as a meta-wrapper is easy enough – in the main game, an invoke can increase your rank within limits. It can either let you bypass something with no particular opposition or can let you get up to a fair fight against opposition. Within the subgame for conflict, their utility depends on how the specific subgame works. Because of the granularity of this, it tends to work well for the “Few, but potent” model of aspects rather than the “language of narrative” approach, but I’m sure that can be tweaked.

Anyway, I want to share the TVGame because it gives me a decent way to talk about things I see on TV and how I’d game them up, which will be fodder for future posts.

9 thoughts on “The TVGame

  1. Rob Donoghue Post author

    An interesting thing about advancement – It is rare to go from unskilled to capable – usually you must go from *Terrible* to Capable. That is to say, a certain amount of time must be spent playing up how much the character needs to learn before they can actually learn it. For an excellent example of this, look at Parker learning how to grift in Leverage – she eventually gets good at it, but to get there, she must first stab a guy with a fork and otherwise flip out.

  2. Jesse

    I tend to be especially fond of scenes where someone spends an invoke to face — and ultimately defeat — a Competend challenge in a domain they’re Terrible at.

    1. Jesse

      Ok, picking this apart a little:

      Anthy in Revolutionary Girl Utena is _bad_ at cooking. Entire episodes revolve around the absurd and admittedly impossible results of her antics in the kitchen. She’s also terrible at self-direction: the struggle to get her to embrace independence is a major theme and a phenomenal struggle. These two are in stark contrast — how to stat? Is she under the thumb of Transcendent pliability?

      Jar Jar is an obvious example from otherwise dramatic media, but cartoons and comedies are rife with characters who are clumsy screw ups who nonetheless take out multiple badasses over the course of the show.

      In Kung Fu Panda, the major villain (name escaping me right now) is transcendently destructive and quite possibly a transcendent martial artist, but lacking entirely at enlightenment and humor. He hands the superior martial artists of the setting their asses, and is seriously scary to their master. Po the panda eventually becomes a capable martial artist (never as good as the five) but his mastery of humor and discovery of enlightenment seem to render him immune to the Big Bad’s most terrifying attacks (pressure point strike is not supposed to tickle!)

      How would you frame these in this TVGame system?

      1. Rob Donoghue Post author

        So, the first thing to call out is that as we move beyond what I think of as “TV” (largely live action) and into other genres, the ladder gets a little wonkier. The easiest example is supers, which at the very least has more ranks, and which also may have stronger subjectivity. A lot of anime has a similar problem and solution (and may in some cases supplant ranks with entirely new arenas with no overlap, such as a separation of regular and giant robot activities, though admittedly many stories maintain an overlap with them).

        But Anthy is a special case, and definitely something where it is genre appropriate for the character to have narratively powerful terribleness (that is probably going to need its own post) because when handled that way, the line between terrible and transcendent is razor thin.

        The trickster/fool is definitely an oddball case. I was actually chewing on Jar Jar in this regard because in the Clone Wars cartoon, his ability to destroy enemy opposition through dumb luck (or secret drunken mastery, if you believe some theories) is off the chart. The guy takes out multiple tanks. Now, there’s a clear genre choice to be made here, but it would be easy enough to just make him an exceptional stumbling fool, and so long as the table buys into the drunken master style stuff, he becomes as badass as any jedi.

        Kung Fu Panda is kind of interesting and actually showcases something about the importance of how you split domains. Since it’s a martial arts story, there is no one “Fighting” domain, but rather it is sliced up thinner, so there is maybe “Speed”, “Cunning” “Strength” and so on – probably mapping one for one for the five. The bad guy surpasses each of them in their area of strength, and so whups them all. But in finding a new style (so to speak) Po has implicitly created a weakness in the bad guy’s style – he has no humor, and the fight now moves to *that* domain, and Po is victorious because of his fuller understanding.

        It’s a little forced (but so it the movie) and it highlights a bit part of why deciding on domains is such a big deal, but I think it holds up.

  3. Sandra

    Typically, in conflicts, I’ve noticed that they tend to alternate winning and losing. E.g. the hero will be defeated but will then win the rematch.

    1. Jake

      If you wanted to make this more robust you might tie advancement into accepting a narrative defeat in that domain. This might be too much for this overview, given that there’s not a lot of granularity between tiers, in which case you might provide a bonus later for the narrative defeat now (similar to a compel but with a higher immediate cost, since compels are generally complications, at least in FATE parlance, rather than outright losses).

      1. Mike Timonin

        As in Mouse Guard, where in order to advance a skill, you need to have obtained a certain number of successes AND failures in the skill.

  4. Pingback: Power Ranks – combining absolute and variable resolution mechanics | The Dice Mechanic

  5. Jesse

    An idea too silly not to share:

    There’s a sixth skill level, Incomprehensible.

    Incomprehensible is below Terrible, but this whole thing is a loop — terrible beats Transcendent (how often does the screw-up disrupt the careful calculations of the mighty?)

    You fail to the two skill tiers above and beat the two skill tiers below, domination occurring if it’s the bigger margin.

    You face off, using some resolution mechanic, against your own skill tier, and something unexpected happens when you face you opposite (capable v. incomprehensible, badass v. terrible, ordinary v. transcendent).

    Anthy’s cooking, Jar Jar’s…whatever, and Po’s physical prowess aren’t terrible…they’re Incomprehensible.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *