In this exclusive interview, we discuss how playing Dungeons & Dragons influenced how he runs the shows he’s created, and how his time as a showrunner has influenced how he plays tabletop RPGs. He offers advice on how to play paladins without enforcing morality on the rest of the group, what writing TV characters taught him about character backstory and why even the most basic thug should quote Elvish poetry from time to time.
Geek & Sundry: Tell us about your favorite character.
John Rogers: Jan Kormick, the character I’ve been playing for years now in a 4e D&D game. He’s essentially a cynical, borderline criminal paladin from a country that’s just transitioned from kleptocracy to “legitimate” monarchy. He’s had a great arc as he’s gone from “paladin(?)” to “no, actually, a PALADIN who cares and fights for justice and stuff.” As the one cynic in a group of earnest adventurers (and plainly more of a sidekick) he provides lots of room for play.
What’s the secret for playing a Paladin that doesn’t annoy the crap out of the rest of the group?
John Rogers: Considering Jan’s a lot more ethically flexible than most of the other PCs–the game is very much about him becoming a Paladin–I didn’t run into too many “enemy of fun” moments. That said, the Paladin should be part of the group because it makes sense for her to be part of the group, like any other character in an ensemble. If there’s insurmountable conflict, it’s because the character relationships are out of whack. Characters are together for a greater goal, if they can’t compromise and there are no consequences for that, then in any realistic story the character would leave, as in real life.
Basically, spend as much time on party building as you do character building. I ruthlessly steal a lot of the “relationship map” mechanics from other games, like the Cortex System. We actually used a version to design the character relationships on The Librarians.
What is the most fun you’ve had as a player?
John Rogers: Well, the best session we’ve had recently was when we realized that we were in the Kobayashi Maru of the campaign, and the only way out was to kill a beloved NPC. Not fun, but moving and effective. The most fun session was recently, where we had one of those simple “interlude in an inn” sessions. All character-y goodness.
What is the most fun you’ve had as a DM?
John Rogers: Tie. Running a Modern d20 Dark Matter game where the team went up against a cannibalistic version of ET, or a tremulus game where the pleasant weekend in wine country led to murderous priests, riots, blood-soaked vineyard soil and James Woods’ lost sex dungeon.
Do you prefer to be a player or a Dungeon Master?
John Rogers: I like being surprised as a player, but I like the improv nature of DMing more. It’s a more disruptive role, in that you can spin the whole game into a cool direction.
What has gaming taught you about producing?
John Rogers: Creative flow. Listening to the group of people around you trying to be creative, to form a story spontaneously is not that different from the writers room. Managing that by throwing the spotlight, “yes, and”, asking questions… being a showrunner in the room is a lot like being a DM.
Does that mean there are TV writers that hog the spotlight or write special snowflake stories?
John Rogers: I think in any group, there are focus issues. It’s more about a creative person digging in–often for good reasons–and not taking into account that the people around them are also smart and committed, just with a different viewpoint. It’s different in that in a TV room, I’m the showrunner, and your job kind of depends on moving on when I say “moving on.” A DM doesn’t have that authority.
Fewer “special snowflake” stories because there’s not as much identification with characters, but all writers have their quirks. Including the showrunner. I often say “your mistakes are your style.” So you need to balance that against ideas that violate the greater spirit of the show.
What has gaming taught you about writing?
John Rogers: Everything comes from character. Build your characters properly, invest them with desires, conflicts, rivalries, [and] failures, then drop them into an interesting situation. Story will naturally follow.
How fleshed out should a character backstory be when it first hits the table?
John Rogers: Keith Giffen, when he was teaching me to write comics, used to say “Consistency, not continuity.” On my TV shows I specifically avoid backstory because I think it’s a trap. You want to be able to fill it in to make stories you’re telling NOW more interesting.
I like the pick three representative moments from the character’s life, explore them to show how the character deals with stress, obstacles, how they feel about X or Y. Everything else is “here’s a rough biographical sketch of a paragraph.” The name of every single monk the character trained with in whatever duchy doesn’t matter as much as knowing what makes them angry or sad.
Honestly, start here: “What does the character want. Why can’t they get it? Why is that emotionally significant?” Congratulations, you just built a character with more depth than 90% of TV and movie characters.
What has being a professional creative taught you about gaming?
John Rogers: Working in a visual medium means I tend to focus more on developing the visual background of a sequence. I cast my NPC’s vividly, as if they’re the side characters in a show, and they tend to recur. In a Savage Worlds campaign, the players became ridiculously invested in the romantic entanglement of two NPCs. They were as wrapped up in those two characters surviving the final battle as they were the survival of their own PCs.
What are good tips for [crafting] vivid NPCs that play like good recurring characters on TV?
John Rogers: Lives and ambitions outside the PC’s. They have kids, they have loved ones, they want something better for themselves. Don’t be afraid to make an NPC a strong ally–your characters can have friends outside the group. We too often forget that. I also, for their player buttons (I use wooden discs instead of minis) grab an actor’s face and paste the image. Makes a difference.
Oh, and one weird hobby or quirk having nothing to do with their primary purpose in the game. That thug with a penchant for Elvish poetry is going to hang in the players’ heads.
Often, you hear about actors whose casting changes a character based on their portrayal. Have players affected your NPCs like that?
John Rogers: Yes, often a PC will start to lean on an NPC, and as a DM you should follow that. It’s the player saying “This part of the game speaks to me and is useful.” A great TV example was Drew Powell on Leverage. He was meant to play a one-off sad sack. He not only elevated the role, the actors and writers wound up liking him so much as a person we all tweaked our relationship to the character. He turned into a beloved guest character.
What television techniques do you incorporate into your games? Let us know below!
Image credit: Wizards of the Coast, Geek & Sundry