Robin Laws likes to Blow Up Hollywood, but I’m more of a small-screen kind of guy, so here we go for part two in a hopefully long series. Obviously, if you like Leverage you should also get the roleplaying game but here are some writing lessons from the show that apply everywhere:
- Show Us The Bad Guy First
So many RPG adventures have a problem with motivation. They start with Mr Johnson or a wizard hiring you, or something odd going on, and when the proverbial shit goes down those aren’t enough reason to stick around and fight something with too many teeth or tentacles. Some games build it into the setting, many people remember to put these things into their characters but a reason like that will only go so far, not least because it doesn’t hit the players. Think about Star Wars: Luke’s character sheet says he wants to join the Empire to be cool like Biggs, and his character history starts with his adopted parents being murdered and a mysterious inheritance but the first thing the audience sees is the big evil wizard murder the guards and kidnap the princess. It’s not just something the characters can’t ignore, it’s something a lot stronger: if you do it right, you’ll piss off your players. And once you do that they will buy into your game with a fury you may not be able to handle. They will lose their minds, their weapons and their XP points to get their hands on someone who made them angry, and the emotional funpark ride of Leverage knows this and that’s why it hooks you in with this big kick. Obviously most RPGs thrive on some kind of mystery and you don’t want your opening scene to give away clues you need to hold back, but Leverage shows every episode that the actual perpetrator may be hidden among others, or be only half the story, or require a several stage plan to access. Leverage often just shows the damage left behind, too, which is a trope of fantasy we often forget. We start our games with the village hiring you to fight the orcs, and skip the scene where we impotently watch the orcs rape and murder everybody (or the long walk through town afterwards, seeing the haggard faces and the tiny tiny graves). No more starting in a tavern, it just doesn’t work.
2. Niche Matters
Yes, we hate classes, and for good reason: they feel boxy, like you can’t make a character your own, and doubly so when they’re paired with levels and you have to follow the fighter train to fighter town and nothing else. But Leverage loves classes so much it name-checks them in the opening credits, and here’s why: it WORKS. In plot-based fiction, niche works like a charm, and it also produces natural drama and comedy when niches clash or have to be transcended. John Wick has some kind of insane hate-on for balanced game but for me a balanced game is one where everyone has a niche that nobody else steals. That way everyone feels like they bring something unique to the table, which makes them feel special and needed and lets them shine, and everyone gets equal time to do that shining. Whether your system is “balanced” or not or class-based or not, early on in your campaign, maybe even before any play at all, sit down and work out who is in charge of what. It might take a little while to emerge, of course, but if you at least note to look out for it, you’ll move faster into the niches when you see them. And remember you can have different types of niches; Leverage has the Hacker as the Comic Relief and the Hitter as the Cranky One and the Thief as the Outsider, but you can easily have your Thief be the Cranky One and your Fighter be the Love Interest – and both of them, again, work wonders when they are reversed, challenged, swapped or transcended. As long as the fighter usually does the most damage, it’s awesome that one time you rolled a 20 and the cleric took off that guy’s head. Archetypes make for a strong story, jiggling with archetypes makes for an interesting story, and you can have both.
3. Earbuds are Code For “Metagame Everything”
There’s a problem with niche characters, and it is summed up in the statement “everyone make a stealth roll”. If the whole party doesn’t take sneak, some clumsy guy (or just a bad roll) is going to turn a silent recon into a physical comedy scene. But you have to take everyone everywhere, says the common wisdom, because others people feel left out of the conversation (“YOU’RE NOT THERE!”) or stuck with limited information they then have to not use because some GODDAMN IDIOT decided that this was ‘metagaming’ and thus bad. If Eric the Cleric didn’t tell you there’s a lever, you can’t reach for the lever. Seriously, this is the single worst idea in roleplaying and needs to be killed with a spade. And you’ll notice that in Leverage, these situations almost never come up. Everybody gets to comment on every single scene, because everybody is connected by earbuds. Now, you could do this with whisper-magic or blood-bond telepathy or scurrying messenger voles, whatever transparently bogus in-world device you like, but you don’t even need to do that. You can just pretend that for whatever reason, everyone is allowed to know everything everyone else does, and can always talk about it. Because then everyone is always involved, AND not everyone has to go everywhere, finally. Your charisma character can talk to the king while the thief crawls through the sewers and everyone can talk to each other the whole time, without the thief failing his charisma roll and calling the king a jerk or the charisma guy failing his climb and drowning in sewage. Your niches get stronger, your interaction never stops and everyone benefits. And yes, sometimes it might be too unbelievable or needed for a plot, but Leverage loves those moments when they can’t get somebody on the coms – it means the stakes just rose.
4. You Can Has Flashbacks
Immediacy matters. That’s why you want your players talking to each other. Which is why we want to get into those scenes where people stop thinking about everything carefully and just act, stop wondering what their character would say and just saying it, stop joking around and react to the world as if it were real. But we also recognize that we’re not geniuses and taking a moment to think of the coolest or cleverest or funniest thing to do is perfectly fine. The fight with the lich can pause and roll back a round if Jane forgot to add her modifier, the conversation with the king can roll back because you probably wouldn’t have told him elves weren’t real if you knew there were elves in the setting, we can stop and cut that bit where you forgot the president was still in his limo when you threw it at the helicopter full of terrorists. But the further back in time we go, the more we tend to get antsy about a believable simulation and respecting planning and not using the Bill-and-Ted-Trick to get out of trouble. Which means plots and plans are written like computer programs. We want to climb the wall of the castle so we’ll need rope so step one we go buy rope. Or worse, you get to the castle and your characters would probably have thought of rope but the players didn’t, so you have to go back to the village and get some. No. Bad. You just ruined your pacing. Instead, flashback to the time you remembered and bought rope. Or if that feels like a cheat, flashback to the reason why you didn’t bring rope (you used it for something, or it was stolen, or it didn’t fit in the bag). The flashback stops you looking like forgetful doofuses and stops your game feeling like an exercise in careful shopping. You can even be a doofus if you like, flashing back to you throwing out the rope from your pack and putting in your teddy bear. All of those options are more interesting than Detailed Inventory Management Class. And don’t worry if the timing is weird, you’re already messing with time the moment you start telling a story, and some of the best flashback moments in films make no sense at all: Chekov seems to recognize Khan on sight despite not being on the Enterprise in the original series episode that featured the villain; Indiana Jones’ lack of a gun in Temple is a reference to the shooting scene in Raiders which hasn’t happened yet in his life. We, the audience, don’t care.
5. Anticipate the Twist and It Can Make You Awesome
Leverage twists aren’t always what we would call twists in that they don’t always spin things completely around. A better word is the tilt – where things suddenly swing from one way to another, or the original picture changes its aspect or zooms out to reveal a different or larger problem. The tilt in fiction is a pacing mechanic, a fun way to play on your expectations while also stopping people going straight from A to B. Good tilts make great stories and they can be used for all sorts of different effects (they can be very scary and disorienting in horror; Psycho for example is built around several unexpected and gigantic tilts) but in Leverage they are used to make the cast seem awesome, because not only are we the audience ready for the tilt, the characters are as well. Sometimes consciously: the audience has no idea that the good guy is really the bad guy but the team DOES know and un-tilt the tilt back after the fact (using flashbacks). Other times, it isn’t a conscious knowledge but the team is used to thinking on its feet and changing plans fast (Nate starts from Plan N and works backwards, he says) and the fact that they can cope with the tilt is why we love them. This does not mean running around your game pulling on every person’s face in case its a mask and trying to break the genre. What it means is understanding that no matter how much you want to, very few games let you go straight from A to B. Some time in the middle, you’re going to roll a 1. And a lot of gamers get sad or mad at that, they feel like they’ve failed somehow (taking personal responsibility for rolling dice is the basic definition of roleplaying) and their character looks weak. But if you’re waiting for the tilt to happen, you can roll into it and use it to give you the spotlight in a situation where you still shine – or where you can throw the ball to someone else whose niche now can take over – your failure isn’t erased, you just reframe it as interesting. Fail that sneak roll? Then the tilt swings to the guards advancing, and now the fighter can run up and have some fun, while you run back screaming. Or even better (although you may need your system to have some way to spend plot points, or wait for the next good roll to tilt the other way), let the guards get their hits but then reveal, via flashback or cut away, that you MEANT to fail so the mage could get behind them, or so the fighter wouldn’t be heard going the other direction. Tilt!
Tilts and flashbacks are classic tropes of the heist genre but heist is just another word for stealing stuff from a well protected dungeon. So once again, as with the Archer rules, you’ll find these rules apply anywhere adventure is found.