This entry is part 1 in the series Lessons From The West Wing


Confessions Of A Fan: A partisan review

The 7 seasons of The West Wing emerged a couple of years ago from a packed field of contenders to become my all-time favorite TV series.

Early in its life, it wasn’t even a contender. I wasn’t a fan of political shows, just as I wasn’t particularly opinionated about politics; the image of Australian Politics presented through Question Time is not especially flattering, and more often than not, I voted in elections on the basis of who I did NOT want to see in government. It was somewhere in the middle of Season 2 that I started watching it occasionally, and by the end of that season I was a convert.

One of the big factors that made the series stand out for me was the way in which it didn’t dumb itself down for its audiance. It never talked down to them, trusting in them to keep up, and if you missed the occasional beat or nuance because it went by too fast, you could usually pick up the plot threads before too long.

A lot of people seemed to tune out after Rob Lowe left the series, because at much the same time as he was doing his final season, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the series, also left, handing over control to a new producer. The series seemed to shift subtly in relationships after this transition; whereas before, the staff had come together to present a united front against the problems of the week or the series, now they were at odds with each other on occasion. The characters may have become more realistic, but the sense of a team standing united, against the world if need be, was lost. The writing became a little more hit-and-miss, especially in terms of consistancy of characterisation; on occasions, the series was still able to touch the stars, but the average quality dropped a little. And there was the occasional logic gaffe or serious continuity error. By the time the series wrapped at the end of the seventh season, it had rediscovered its footing, and at the end, I found myself wanting more; but not a lot of people stuck around to share that experience.

Even so, it wasn’t until I got the entire series on DVD that it became my favorite, something that I only recognised belatedly when I discovered that I was watching it – all seven seasons – three or four times a year. Other shows that at the time I may have ranked more highly, like Stargate SG-1, or Babylon-5, or Numb3rs, or the CSI franchises, did not stand up so well.

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Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

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Season 5

Season 6

Season 7


What’s more – and this is at the heart of the reasoning behind this series of articles – I found that a number of elements of the plot had seeped into my consciousness, forging unexpected connotations and connections with other ideas, where they began to influance my writing and GMing in meny and interesting ways.

This series of articles is going to seek to extract and explain some of the pearls of wisdom that have been gleaned from the show, and how they relate to Gaming, and how you can integrate them into your own campaigns and GMing styles to improve your own game.

Don’t talk down to your audiance

This principle is at the heart of what I enjoyed about the West Wing, which makes it appropriate as the first lesson to be gleaned from the production.

Almost all TV production compromises it’s distinctive voice in order to appeal to the lowest common denomenator. The result is an inoffensive blandness, a mediocrity that makes almost everything watchable and almost nothing captivating. It is percieved that it is better to have 2 million uncommitted viewers who could care less about what they are watching, than it is to have 200,000 fanatical followers.

The memorable TV series are those that compromise a little less; shows like Buffy, Heroes, even Lost. “Reality TV” such as Survivor and The Amazing Race. I watched the Australian series of Big Brother for many years, observing that the show was at its most interesting when it was all about the psychology of confinement and the transformations in personality that occured as a consequence, and at its least interesting when it compromised to introduce artificially-induced melodrama, becoming a hybrid between reality television and a soap opera. The majority of viewers must have agreed with me, because it immediately began slipping in the ratings; the occasional dramatic twist would entice an audiance back, but viewer loyalty was a thing of the past. And the more the ratings slipped, the more the production began to rely on those gimmicks which occasionally punched up their numbers.

The same phenomenon occurs to a lesser extent with movies, and I would contend that this is the reason why Aliens 3 was less interesting than the earlier installments of the franchise. There was a sense that Ripley had earned credibility and respect and a ‘happily ever after’ in “Aliens,” and the third movie stripped her of everything that she had achieved, and that the audiance had been rooting for her to achieve, in the second. This is also why I enjoyed T3 less than the earlier parts of that franchise, which were all about optimism and hope for the future, no matter how dark things became.

The Uniqueness Of RPGs

If ever there was a medium where these forces should not operate, it’s a roleplaying game, where the “audiance” can actively interrupt and demand an explanation of something they didn’t understand. That level of interaction means that there should be far less pressure to conform to the mediocrity of compromise from one game to the next. Each new campaign is analagous to a TV series without the need to mix the GM’s vision of setting and story with a bland conformity.

This is both a blessing and a burdon. The blessing – the capacity for fresh ideas, new perspectives, and sheer entertainment targetted directly at a select audiance – is fairly self-evident. The burdons are two-fold: first, there is the difficulty in creating such an original vision; and second, because the GM does not have total creative control, he has to compromise his vision to exclude those elements that the PCs do not interact with, and to incorporate their characterisations.

I spent seven years compiling and unifying ideas for my Fumanor campaign (while running other campaigns), the first D&D game that I had GM’d in more than a decade. The fact that it has now been in use for a decade, with at least another decade of life left in the franchise (maybe two), demonstrates the level of reward that came of these efforts.

The Rewards Of Perfection

Perfection is hard to achieve. In a perfect game, the players would not need to be told anything out of character, ever. There would not need to be a campaign briefing of any sort, the world would manifest before their eyes in character interactions and dialogue and the results of skill rolls.

The result would be total integration of characters and world, and a total absence of compromise. Each campaign would be a unique, stand-alone experience for the participants whose only consistant feature would be the entertainment that it brings to those concerned.

Compromising Perfection

But this perfection is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to achieve, simply because there is more than one mind at work, and most of them start off ignorant of where the GM intends things to go, and have their own notions about what they want and what they find entertaining.

Players bring assumptions to the game, formed of past experience, and text in the rule books, and genre conventions. There is a constant temptation on the part of the GM to dismiss these contributions as less valuable than the “pure vision” that he started with, simply because the participants have not put as much thought into the overall picture that he has, or don’t know as much about it. Yielding to that temptation produces plot trains and actually serves to impede the entertainment of the game.

Since perfection is unobtainable in the real world, our very definition of “perfection” has to be compromised in order for it to be a practical goal.

Try this alternative on for size: “Perfection in an RPG is achieved when Player contributions synergise with the original vision to produce a sum that is greater than the sum of its parts”.

That’s certainly a more practical goal to strive for. So how should the GM go about it? I would suggest that there are four elements required: an initial vision; a common foundation; an evolution of vision; and an evolution of character.

In subsequent parts of this article, I’ll explain these terms, how they relate to the synergy that is our goal, and offer strategies and techniques for success in achieving them.

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