Category Archives: Television

On Continuity and Barney Stinson

So, I watched a TiVO’d episode of How I Met Your Mother yesterday. It’s one of my favorite television shows, and I think it’s one of the best sitcoms on television right now, if not the best. But that’s neither here nor there.

Barney StinsonWhat’s here is that there was a continuity error on the episode “The Bracket“. While that doesn’t seem like much of a deal, it is for a show that makes inordinate use of flash-backs and flash forwards and different retellings of events. (In fact, for those not in the know, the entire show is one giant flashback.)

See, in The Bracket, Barney Stinson mentions that he may have sold a woman for a Mercedes, which he then drove off. He also flashes back to where he stole a date’s truck while camping, and then drives off in it. There’s only one problem with these two scenarios…

Barney can’t drive.

Alas, in the episode “Moving Day,” it is established that Barney is terrified of driving and can’t really do it. (It’s all he can do to get a moving truck around the corner behind a bar.)

Bit of a continuity error. Ah well.

I’m not really going to review the episode, but I do want to talk a bit about continuity in your campaign. I like to think that the succession of all campaigns (when one campaign in a group ends, and another begins with the same players), falls into a few broad and vague categories, summarized by, appropriately enough, television shows.

  1. The Office / Battlestar Galactica – The two campaigns have nothing in common except the basement where they take place. Setting, genre, feel… All are completely different.
  2. House / Grey’s Anatomy – Same feel, same genre, different settings. Crossovers aren’t really possible.
  3. Cheers / Frasier – Same setting, but cameos and crossovers are rare.
  4. Star Trek – It’s the same show. Different characters, but you know what you’re doing and references abound.

Now, in the first two, continuity doesn’t exist and is a non-issue. (In today’s post, I’m dealing with really long term continuity. I’ll address shorter term, between adventure continuity in another post another time.)

In the third one, continuity is present, but is relatively easy. One is in Boston, the other is in Seattle. The only time you really have to think about continuity is when you have an NPC cameo, when there’s a little crossover. It won’t happen often, but it can happen. Otherwise, continuity can safely be ignored, or easily dealt with by any DM worth his salt. Occasionally, you might make a small error, but it can either be explained away as the slip of the tongue. (“Did I say the Eye of Thorgonia? I meant the Hand of Thorgonia. Sorry about that.”)  Others can simply be retconned in. (“I know Lord Salazzar would have been three years old at the Second Battle of Chanapoly, but he was propelled backward through time by a rogue Time Elemental.”)

Of course, these kind of gaffes should be avoided.

The longer a campaign runs, though, these gaffes become harder and harder to avoid.  My Countless World setting has been home to between seventeen and thirty campaigns, depending on how you slice it.  Errors are going to show up.

I’ve got three tips for avoiding these kind of errors.  Each of them work well in the context of role playing, though they might be more difficult to maintain in a more constrained narrative (such as a book or movie).

  • Long Dates – The best way, in my opinion, to handle temporal continuity, is to make everything take forever.  No two hour battles – battles take a minimum of two days, if not weeks or possibly even months.  No month long wars – wars take years and years and years and generations.  This solves the problem that any time you reference two things happening concurrently, it could be the end of one and the beginning of another, giving you a wide window to work with before you commit an NPC to having been in two places at once.
  • Short Dates – On the flip side of the coin, short dates can help, too.  If you refer to an NPC being at the Battle of Tunigia, “from the moment the ships came down from the sky” to the moment “we stormed the walls and raised our flags in victory,” and you’ve stated the battle took eleven weeks, you’re kind of committing your NPC to being their for all eleven weeks, which can preclude him from being involved in other battles of the war.  It would take some awkward backtracking for you to say they were there on the first day, and there on the last, and absent in the middle.
  • No Dates – The final, and easiest, way to address temporal continuity is to simply ignore dates.  Don’t reference when things happened.  Sometimes you have to, either vaguely or specifically, but whenever possible, ignore dates.  (“He fought in the Chriminian War with your father in the year before you were born” should be cut to “He fought in the Chriminian War.”)  Often, this is not possible – Players need to know when things happened, and you never want to cut out the flavor if you can avoid it.

Admittedly, this is somewhat contradictory advice.  That being said, each piece of advice is appropriate at different times.

I also recognize that this advice is all about temporal continuity, which really has nothing to do with the aforementioned Barney Stinson continuity error.  However, it’s the first piece of continuity I want to address, and I started thinking about if after watching “The Bracket.”  Bear with me – I’ll come back to both short term continuity and non-temporal continuity another time.

Until then, there you go.

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He That Believeth In Me

Battlestar Galactica is back!

I know I’m a week late, but that’s what DVR is for! I just want to say that I was floored by last Friday’s Battlestar Galactica episode, the premiere of the fourth season.

Okay, I’m going to be discussing an episode of television. It’s going to involve spoilers. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Consider yourself duly warned.

The Adamas from Battlestar Galactica

Now, the beginning of the third season had my jaw being propped up by my hands. The end of season two, when Baltar puts his head on the table and then picks it back up one year later… I haven’t been that blown away by an episode of television since the end of season six of TNG, when it turns out the Borg are being lead by Lore. So, it was hard for season four of BSG to pick up at the same tempo.

And yet…

Starting the new episode off at the moment season three ended was fantastic. I know it’s a daunting challenge to do that. Most shows like to let a little time pass from the end of one season to the beginning of another, to account for haircuts and other signs of time passing. So when I see a show go from one moment to another over the course of a summer (like Barney Stinson’s summer spanning LEGENNNNDARY), I’m always impressed.

Tyrol and Anders have always been some of my favorite BSG characters, so it was pretty sweet to find out they were cylons. And the scene where Tyrol slaps Anders around and gets him in the cockpit… I was reveling in it.

Starbuck’s temporal displacement? Nyeh. It was fine. She seemed far wiser at the end of the third season, but I’ll get over it.

Baltar’s sex cult? Awesome! And I have to say, the creation of Baltar, of all people, as a Christ figure, nay, a Christ figure slash pimp, well, that was genius. Pure, unadulterated genius. (Unadulterated. Did you see what I did there?) When Charlie Connor attacks Baltar in the bathroom, I loved it. I loved that it was right after Baltar shaved (I love BSGs use of straight blades for so many reasons), with Baltar both shedding the Christ symbolism, aesthetically, and taking up a more active role as a Christ figure by pleading with God to take his life on behalf of the child’s.

The scene with Starbuck and Anders was deft, if not inspiring. Roslin’s inherent distrust for Starbuck seemed a little forced, but I blame that more on Mary McDonnell than on the writers. (Don’t mistake that for a dislike of either McDonnell or Roslin – I’m fond of both.)

I have one chief complaint against the episode, which also functions as a nice segue into how this relates to good Dungeon Mastering. My chief complaint is the episode ending with Starbuck pointing a gun at Roslin. Lame. I hate how shows do this. Unless Starbuck shoots Roslin (and as much as I enjoy the character of Roslin, Starbuck shooting her would be AWESOME!), it’s just unfulfilled hype. It creates an expectation that Starbuck might shoot Roslin, but we know she won’t. I mean, we have precedent with Boomer shooting Adama, but that’s different. Ending an episode with a cliffhanger like that? Uninspired. That kind of cliffhanger only works if there’s a belief that maybe, just maybe, she might pull the trigger. And without that expectation, it’s just seen as a ploy.

Overview – 39,698 out of 50,298 survivors.

So, the segue. How does this apply to role playing and Dungeon Mastering?

You’ve got to pull the trigger. Not always, but sometimes.

Your Players have to believe that you might. If they think that you might, even if only once in a dozen or five dozen times, you can pull off those cliffhangers. You can scare them. If you can’t threaten your Players, if the only thing that scares them is scarier and scarier and yet scarier monsters, you’re failing to really bring the drama to your table.

Most of my established Players know that I tend to kill someone off about once a year. Might not be in their campaign. Might be with another group. But it does happen. And it’s not always with a big, bad monster. I’ve given characters wasting diseases, poisoned them, had them stabbed in their sleep, the whole of it.

Now, I can hear a few DMs and Players saying that this isn’t fair to Players, that they have an investment in their characters and that you should consult them first.

Horse puckey.

I’ve had Players, who were playing a big, strapping warrior character make one or two off hand comments during a session that it would be fun to play a cerebral wizard or a sneaky thief, and then come up to me after the session and try to clarify that they didn’t mean it. Because that’s all the justification I need.

Sometimes I’ll consult with a player, ask if they want to try a new role. Rarely is it totally out of the blue. It’s usually tied to a Players desire to change, even if only indicated by a comment or two. And it’s rarely if ever unavoidable. Diseases and poisons can be cured and assassins can be thwarted. But it’s difficult. I take it seriously. Because, and here’s the clincher, I make sure the character’s downfall is caused by the character’s actions.

A wasting disease caught from an affair with the mayor’s husband. A poison slipped to them in a magic potion they stole from a cleric. An assassination bounty put in place due to their wanton disregard for an annoying merchant prince’s demands. I’m a big fan of hubris – rocks don’t fall out of the sky and kill characters unless the character said he couldn’t be killed by falling rocks.

Let me make this clear – I don’t do this often. I can count the number of times I’ve done non-combat killings of character (combat includes traps and other dungeon disasters) on two hands, for my entire Dungeon Mastering career. But I’ve done it, and my players know it. And when an NPC threatens their family or friends or them, they know that it’s not hollow Evil Overlord ranting – people die.

And I’m not just talking about death. I take away magic items, I destroy towns. I do bad things as a DM. Again, rarely. But it makes all the posturing and threatening I do the rest of the year that much more intimidating.

Do it. You’ll add drama to the table, drama you need.