I haven’t written one of these since 2016. Good lord. But hey, why not. I enjoyed the run and it made me think about what made it good. Note: there are some light spoilers here for series one. Nothing major.
1 Always Leave Them Crying For More
The Good Place was not the first sitcom of the binge-TV age but it is arguably the first to be most adjusted to the format. Gone are the days of must-see TV because now it comes direct to you in large binge-able chunks and to encourage you to keep on binging, the Good Place ends almost every single episode with a gigantic cliffhanger. Or if not this, then a clear and obvious hint to some new and exciting step of the journey coming next. It was like Lost, only not annoying.
Too often in RPGs we finish at what feels like a nice finishing point. Now that makes sense because we aren’t binging RPGs, and we can forget stuff. But it’s actually easier to remember things when you stop in the middle of the action with things still in mid-air, or with things just about to being in a new scene. Because this creates a sense of urgency and you carry that urgency with you when you leave. Don’t just say “Coming up next week” and offer hints, wait until the players have made a plan, walk into the tavern, and announce that the big bad is sitting next to the wizard that hired them and THEN end your session.
2. World Building is For Suckers
The world building of The Good Place isn’t particularly robust, but like as-aforementioned Lost, what is more important is it was done on the fly, only without being annoying. Although each series was written as a block, nothing was really nailed down when the first series began, and things were added and developed as needed. And when they seemed fun, they stuck around.
I like worldbuilding in RPGs and I like pre-writing plots, but both of these things are overrated in terms of their necessity and both of these things are overvalued when it comes to fidelity. A good GM has a skeleton of plot that he adjusts as needed; the same can be true of your world building. Have a rough idea of what you need for act one, and let how that plays out tell you about act two. And don’t worry too much about cohesion because..
3. You Can Always Just Reboot It
Okay, so you can’t quite erase memories and invent entirely new universes from scratch. You are a Janet of sorts but your worlds have consequences and your NPCs aren’t paid actors and if you wipe out the world and rebuild it then people are going to die. On the other hand, your world is very much like the neighbourhoods of the Bad Place, in that they are fictional, they are full of actors who don’t matter and the whole thing is really about the real humans at the core of it. And like a Janet you have a fair amount of ability to reboot things.
If you like, you can cut to weird dream sequences about trolley problems. Your players CAN just wind things back and blank people’s memories and start the scene over again with people knowing what they should know (or forgetting what they were supposed to forget). If you break a few rules of logic or the lake is full of popcorn you can just reboot the scene and fast forward back to where we left off. It can get crazy up in there for a while, and that’s part of the fun, it’s how we explore things and try out characters. And like the minds of the humans, we almost kind of remember those other versions and they can inform the “real” ones. So yes, talk about which of your D&D characters would be which desperate housewives and act out that scene in game. Randomly switch one week to running the whole campaign with Skyrealms of Jorune and everyone wearing a cowboy hat. It can always be rebooted. And when it is, you’ll know your characters better for it.
4 It’s the Characters, Stupid
You can get away with all this because of the biggest secret in all writing: nobody really cares that much about world building. They don’t even care that much about plot. Mostly, people read books for the emotions and the feels and above all, the characters. And with TV and RPGs (but I repeat myself), this goes triple. TV shows and RPG groups are proxy-families that we love because they are familiar and all we want to do is come back to them over and over again. It doesn’t matter if one time we’re all Janets or suddenly we all live in Australia for poorly explained reasons or now we’re back in hell: we want our heroes and we don’t care one tiny bit how we get them. Indeed, The Good Place is at its weakest when there are three new mortals in the mix. Nobody cares because they’re not the mortals we’ve become addicted to.
It’s an old saw with RPGs but it really is all about the characters. Good players use their characters to tell stories but for the most part, all any player wants to do is use the toys they’re given. And NPCs and settings aren’t really toys to play with much unless you do a LOT of player narration. Rather, the toys players get are the powers on their character sheet and the personality blurb they’ve settled on. That’s what they think about between sessions, that’s what they are itching to get back to. If you’re very lucky they want to see the other characters as well and a few popular NPCs. They’re not there for the plot or the world. Sorry. But that means you can make that shit as wobbly as you want. And there is one thing they ARE there for that GMs can be best at and that’s:
5. Theme is King So Put It On a Throne
What makes The Good Place so special is apart from being weird as balls and often unexpected, it is a show with a very strong theme. It’s not just about moral philosophy, but about exploring the fundamental questions therein. What is goodness, and why are people good and bad at being good, and how might we change them for the better? And it doesn’t just lean into that in the plot or world building, see, because nobody cares about that. It leans into that with theme. Chidi is what we call a theme-insert, the character who runs entirely on the theme, who has the super power of explaining the theme. Meanwhile he’s also an example of how even smart people can’t untangle moral philosophy. The other three characters are embodiments of the three principles of moral philosophy: Jason is consequentialism, Tehani is virtue ethics and Eleanor is deontology, weirdly enough.
This isn’t impossible in RPGs. You can ask players to do it directly but with strong theme communication in your games they’ll do it anyway. I was in a game of Brave New World, a supers game where superheroes are forced to work with the an oppressive fascist US government, and we just ended up making two foreigners and two Americans, two old people who remembered the past and two young people who didn’t know what had been lost. In my Buffy game about Watchers at Oxford we got two rich kids and two poor kids; two British kids and two non-British kids; two people with backgrounds in the occult and two people who had the occult thrust upon them. This just naturally happened because players like to make characters that interact with the themes of your world if you make those themes strong – and good RPGs and good worlds do that for you. Put your themes forward and players will follow suit and bring them even further into the light. Not sure what your themes are? Look at who they make, and you’ll know.
And then all you have to do is make up a neighbourhood for them to explore, fill it full of made up people and see if they can learn to be better people along the way, while you make up the world as you go and reboot it when needed and keep on hinting at the next terrible and/or awesome thing to come. That catches their energy – then they do the rest. And in the end, you fall in love with them and you become the better person along the way.