Lessons from a TV series bible. #5: premise

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

Item 5 on the checklist is “premise”, which encompasses so much that I was tempted to make six separate posts of Ury’s main paragraphs.

5 . Statement of your show’s premise. That is, what is your show about? For example, Chris Carter’s 1993 classic The X-Files was about “Two federal agents — one a ‘believer’ the other a ‘skeptic’ — who investigate cases of paranormal phenomenon (sic) that may or may not linked to an decades-long government/alien conspiracy.” HBO’s Game of Thrones could be described as being about “A half-dozen powerful families who use cunning, treachery, magic, and military might to vie for control of the fabled ‘Iron Throne’ that will allow them to rule their continent-sized kingdom.” Back in the mid-1960s, producer Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek to NBC by simply describing it as Wagon Train to the stars.”

If you are an established producer, you may be able to get away with proposing a generic genre series. (Honestly, is the premise of New Amsterdam really all that different from The Resident or The Good Doctor or Grey’s Anatomy ?) But as a new writer/creator, you need to bring something new to the table. You need an idea that distinguishes it from the pack. Usually this comes down to one or more of these four elements:

Setting . As stated above, having an unusual setting — including unusual time periods — can help make your series uniquely interesting. Examples of this approach include Silicon Valley (a workplace comedy set in a 21st century tech “incubator”) “MERCY STREET” (a hospital drama set during the Civil War), and Peaky Blinders (a ganger epic set in 1919 Birmingham, England).

A “Wow” Factor. Many series sell based primarily on a core idea that might otherwise be termed “high-concept.” This means that there is a strong twist or fantasy factor that figures into the plotting of every episode. Some 21st century series that contain an obvious “Wow” factor include Big Love (about a fundamentalist Mormon with three wives), Once Upon a Time (about a town inhabited by fairy tale characters), American Gods (about a pantheon of modern “gods” determined to rule the earth) and The Umbrella Academy (about a dysfunctional family of superheroes). Virtually all sci-fi, fantasy, and horror shows are based on some kind of “Wow” factor.

Lead Character. It is very common for a show to be built around a single, particularly compelling lead character. Comedies are often built around established comedians (e.g., Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carry, Tim Allen, Roseanne Barr, Larry David, etc.) who bring with them a known personality. Others, like Kimmy Schmitt ( The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt ), Sheldon Cooper ( The Big Bang Theory ) and Michael Scott (The Office) must be built from scratch. Examples of unique characters who are synonymous with contemporary dramatic shows include Dr. Shaun Murphy, the autistic savant in The Good Doctor , Elliot Alderson, the brilliant but psychotic hacker in Mr. Robot , Carrie Matheson, the bipolar intelligence agent in Homeland , and Jimmy McGill, the morally challenged attorney in Better Call Saul .

Irony. Many great series are predicated on strong ironic twists. For example, The Shield , one of the shows that helped kick off the era of Peak TV back in 2002, featured, as its protagonist, a crooked cop. The Sopranos was about a brutal mob boss suffering from a crisis of self-confidence and life-long mommy issues. House M.D. was about a brilliant doctor who lived to cure disease but was openly contemptuous of his patients. Breaking Bad was about a mild-manned high school chemistry teacher who evolved into a ruthless drug kingpin. (Or as creator Vince Gilligan famously put it, “It’s Mr. Chips becomes Scarface .) The Americans was about an all-American couple who were actually Soviet spies. Veep is about public servants who are all out for themselves. Since the beginning of broadcast television, many comedy series have been based on irony, forcing together characters who, by their nature, just don’t belong together (e.g., The Beverly Hillbillies , Gilligan’s Island , The Odd Couple , Two and a Half Men , etc.)

All of the information above needs to be condensed and expressed in a few simple introductory paragraphs. Be as descriptive as possible without being hyperbolic. Avoid comparing your show to other successful (or worse yet, unsuccessful) series, or setting your concept up as being somehow unique or trail-blazing. (The vast majority of shows that get on their air — and succeed — are shows that put a new or interesting twist on established tropes and genres.) Don’t describe why you created this show or why you think/believe/are so sure people will want to watch it. Just give the facts in as entertaining and engaging way as possible.

I have pretty much settled on the conclusion that the premise for an RPG campaign has to cover all the ground in “the PCs are X who do Y in setting Z”. “Wagon Train to the stars!” might impress studio execs well enough to get the budget with which you make Star Trek instead, but it doesn’t do the work that the premise of an RPG has to get done. I wouldn’t say that the premise has to be stated in all that specificity by the GM in the initial proposal for the campaign. The alternative of working out a campaign premise together in a discussion among the whole group or collective brainstorming session is certainly viable. But until the whole group, GM and character-players together, share an understanding of what the characters are, what they will do on adventures, and what the setting is you don’t actually have a campaign idea, and the thing that you have that you think is a campaign idea may well have fatal flaws baked in. Ury says that a TV-series’ premise needs “one or more” of setting, “wow” factor, lead character, and irony. I would say that you definitely need the X shared by all the PCs, the Z of setting, and some definite idea of the activity Y that will constitute the matter of adventures.

Ury suggests that established writers and producers can attract money and viewers to generic series with the promise of their personal brands, but that newbies need a striking original premise to attract attention. I don’t think that that translates to RPG campaigns, where most GMs cut their teeth on conventional campaigns and adventures, perhaps even relying on published materials from trusted designers, and only if you are Bill Stoddard can you recruit five players on a promise to run the San Diego phone book. Am I right? Is there some other pro tip on premise for new GMs?

“Setting” puts in a second appearance here. Is there more to say? The fact that a really cool setting is not enough premise to support an RPG campaign is demonstrated by multiple GM’s inability to work out how to run a campaign in Transhuman Space.

It strikes me that “[v]irtually all sci-fi, fantasy, and horror shows are based on some kind of ‘Wow’ factor” may be a reasonable standard for TV, but that that is setting the bar very low for RPGs. “Sci-fi, fantasy, or horror” is pretty much the ante for RPG campaigns (and I’m not sure why). To get a “wow” you need something more. A licensed or unlicensed setting in some popular or beloved franchise, for instance. Or an innovative choice of X or Y in a familiar Z, such as “Street operators investigate Cthulhu mythos phenomena in a CyberPunk 2020 setting”. Or, you know, a really big concept.

In a clear reversal of what Ury says about TV series, it is very uncommon for an RPG campaign to be built around a single, particularly compelling lead character. That might simply be because one-on-one campaigns aren’t common, and because few players want to play the foils around one particularly compelling character in a party of also-rans. For a campaign to be built around a particularly compelling duo, trio, or team seems more sustainable, but I don’t think it is often done that way. More often (at least as far as I am aware) character-players conceive of and design their characters in response to a campaign’s premise and after it is agreed upon, and try to make them compelling (but, ideally, not to singularly compelling). What tends to happen is more that a campaign tends to coalesce around the compelling peculiarities of the PCs in the course of the early adventures, or at least as the GM’s ideas develop in response to character generation. I think campaign premises require “X” categories of characters, and that the compelling individuals develop in those categories after the premise is settled.

Strong ironic twists are all very well in RPGs, and excellent if you can pull them off. But I think perhaps they work better in forms in which authors reveal an irony to an audience than in extemporary collaboration. One thing that I do have to say about these ironical twists is that you have to beware of character-players trying to apply such a twist on an agreed premise by playing an off-model character. I have had prospective players assert their right to do so, e.g. by saying that I have no right to specify the “X” of my campaign as “honest cops” because that abrogates their freedom to “go all Vic Mackey” if they want. I could not accept that any one player had the right to unilaterally impose such a shift on the other players — nor on the GM.

The premise needs to be condensed and succinctly stated. I’d even say that Ury’s “a few paragraphs” is a bit too expansive. Comparing to TV series, books, movies, and movie series seems to work well for RPGs, though Ury disparages it as a way of specifying a TV series. I’ve even known the like of “Star Trek done right” to work for an RPG campaign. Trail-blazing originality also seems to sell well and work well in RPG campaigns, though perhaps Ury is saying to be original but not crow about it. Though Ury says that it is not wise to state in your TV-show premise what audience you are aiming at, I think there is something to be said for telling prospective players at some point that “you might like this campaign if you enjoy…”.

This post has been too long. Any comments?

A lot of linear fiction has one or two main characters; RPGs usually have more. So it needs a bit of bodging to make it work. I’ve never heard of an RPG setup that defined the characters as more than vague job roles; in the divisions I feel comfortable with, the X-Files RPG pitch would be “modern-day federal agents investigating the paranormal”, and then the players would come up with “one a believer, one a sceptic”.

(And yeah, glad someone else has noticed that the core gimmick of Wagon Train was entirely ignored for Trek, the rotating cast of primary characters with only minor appearances from the regulars. I suspect the actual message of that pitch was “like the successful dramatic show that you feel comfortable with, but in space”.)

To us jaded roleplayers, “in space” or “with magic and monsters” isn’t a wow factor; the one in Umbrella wouldn’t be “superheroes” but “dysfunctional family”.

Ury talks about “a few simple introductory paragraphs”, which is more than I’ve usually seen written about a campaign until the players have started to commit themselves. He’s talking about a series bible after all, which is something like a published setting – writers should be able to read it and write episodes using it as reference.

I think people who’ve played with me a bit probably have some idea of the common factors of games I run; for a while it seemed that everything I did was investigation-first with some kind of weird power (shared by investigators and opposition but mostly not the outside world) at some point in the 20th century. I try to avoid getting into a rut but that’s something I know I can do well.

I think Transhuman Space suffers in larger form from the same affliction that many GURPS 3e books shared: 120 pages on what the world is like, four on what you might do in it, probably spread among several incompatible campaign premises. The style of the time separated sourcebooks and books of adventures, and SJGames mostly didn’t produce the books of adventures; I assume the ones they did produce didn’t sell well. (Looking at TS specifically, for a long time the only full-on adventure was Orbital Decay, which is just a Cyberpunk adventure that someone patched onto TS without hooking it into the world; Polyhymnia and Singapore Sling came later, but by then the idea that “TS is too big and you don’t know what to do with it” had taken hold.)

My experience is that a campaign restriction like “you are all basically honest law enforcers” if stated up front doesn’t generate a lot of negative reaction, and when it does it’s usually from a player I won’t particularly miss anyway. The players I like best are also flexible.

“You might like this campaign if you enjoy” blends in with the recommended reading/watching list I talked about earlier. “I’m being inspired by book X” is very handy if your players have read book X. (I read 100-200 books a year so I don’t regard it as hard work to read a book that might be relevant; people who regard a book a month as a reading challenge and post about how proud they are to have done it may reasonably feel differently.)

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So far as length goes, the prospectus that I circulated to my Kansas players has five potential campaigns described in 697 words, which is about 140 words each. That seems to be enough for players to make up their minds, though one of them gave me a short essay on other information that could be useful. It rather fits my comment when I first learned of the existence of Twitter that “I need 144 words to say anything interesting!”

In the formula “the PCs are X who do Y in setting Z,” the element I’ve found somewhat dispensible is who do Y. I do often include what I call a “mission statement” in a campaign sketch (or, to borrow a term from art history, a cartoon); I did that for all four of the campaigns on my recent list. But I’ve run campaigns where I didn’t specify “who do Y” in advance, but invited the players to discuss it during the pre-session: Gods and Monsters (where the X was “people with concealed superhuman abilities”) and Vor (where the X was “children of the upper classes on Barrayar”) and my current Tapestry (where it was the players who came up with the concept of “merchants pioneering in intercontinental trade”).

On the other hand, that exact formula has worked well; for example, I almost sold Heartland, which was “Mafiosi and their allies who fight the vampires of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s Mississippi Valley.” (Checking back, I see that it narrowly lost out to Boca del Infierno, which was a Buffyverse campaign set in Spanish Alta California during the Napoleonic Wars.)

I agree that it’s hard to make a campaign work with a single lead character, but the system in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the White Hats get double the drama points, seems to avoid most of the potential problems.

It seems to me that in my prospectuses, the “wow factor” and the “irony” are not really disjoint categories; rather, irony is one type of wow factor. For example, when I offered Fixers, which was a campaign of consulting criminals, the concept of “consulting criminals” was an ironic reversal of Sherlock Holmes’s self-definition as a “consulting detective.” I’m less sure that Under the Shadow’s “Sauron has conquered Middle-Earth and you’re in the Resistance” qualifies as ironic, but it’s certainly a reversal. I’m going to say that a large share of my campaign offerings, probably about half, include some kind of twist on typical expectations, and that for what my players called the “Stoddard gaming circle,” that’s one of the big attractors: vampire slayers in Spanish California, superheroes in a world where high-end supers are legally sovereign states, students in the Faculty of Magic at a medieval university. On the other hand, the least popular offering in my prospectus for players in Kansas was the one that embodied a twist: adventurers in an alternate history where servants of a global Chinese maritime empire confront exotic European kingdoms and martial arts such as capa y espada—but then the most popular was a Buffyverse campaign set in 1830s Manchester, so go figure.

It seems to me that RPGs offer an option that the standard “elevator pitch” doesn’t: the series that isn’t merely compared to a book, movie, TV series, comic book, or the like, but an adaptation of an existing one to the medium of RPGs. That obviously does happen with television shows, but they start out either as spinoffs or from someone having the franchise to adapt a known work, such as (recently) The Queen’s Gambit or (less recently) Game of Thrones. There are in fact entire RPGs whose standard premise is that you will be playing in a known setting, of which the classic example must be Call of Cthulhu. But even if a published setting doesn’t have an official adaptation, there’s no legal barrier to coming up with one, using whatever rules set seems handy: I’ve done that for the Rick Brant boys’ books, Atlas Shrugged, and Zimiamvia, none of which had a published adaptation, and for The Lord of the Rings, the Discworld, and Barrayar, using a system other than that of the published gaming adaptation in each case. On the other hand, I’ve never described a proposal in terms such as “Star Trek done right”—though I suppose listing “source material” is sort of analogous to this. But if I’m going to do a campaign that doesn’t borrow an existing setting, I prefer to describe the original setting and make that the point of emphasis.

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It has always seemed to me that Star Trek was actually “Horatio Hornblower in space.”

Yeah, “superheroes” isn’t a wow factor but a genre. I’ve done “nonpowered mystery men in 1920s San Francisco,” “superheroes in the Age of Steam,” “DC superheroes with realistic time passage,” “covert supers in post-Great War England,” “second tier superheroes in a world where the first tier are legally sovereign,” and “superpowered agents of the Australian analog of the Laundry.” I’d say my least successful effort was one whose premise amounted to “you’re the first superheroes in the world,” which produced what amounted to three or four disparate campaign models for six players—not a specific enough wow factor.

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It certainly is for me. I’m quite open to different kinds of twist, but I like there to be one, so that there’s a new challenge in playing the game and/or the character.

The obvious difference between those two is in the scale of the twist. Being servants of a Chinese empire in such a different history presents a problem of where to start with your character’s ideas and attitudes, as well as the social structure they live within. An 1830s Manchester with some secret history is much easier to relate to, and allows ideas about characters to form immediately.

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