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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Medical/Forensic Mysteries

Can police procedurals or medical mysteries be turned into RPGs? If so, why haven't they? This is what a thread on RPGnet asked. Gareth-Michael Skarka responded this way:

You don't see police procedural RPGs for the same reason you don't see medical drama RPGs -- most of the story is driven by expert knowledge (whether police procedure or medical expertise), which is not largely present in the player base -- so would end up being a series of dice-rolls to see if your character can get the expository info-dump from the GM.

Which misses the point of forensic/medical mysteries. Most episodes of House are about someone lying. Most episodes of CSI-type shows, indeed of most crime dramas regardless of era, are about the reason why the crime happened; until this is revealed, most of the clues are false leads.

No, the real reason why these haven't been turned into RPGs is twofold:
  • The people who have tried to create medical or forensic RPGs thought the same way as Gareth-Michael Skarka, but with an optimistic outlook, which means they were doomed to failure.
  • Anything that strays from the adventure genre/format just isn't that popular.
I once planned a medical drama RPG. I wasn't very dedicated to the concept, but I had an idea how to implement it, which I'll include behind a cut.

I'm seeing medical drama situations as being built out of two components: a medical condition, which is highly generic, and a personal complication. I'm talking in terms of tropes repeated in multiple medical dramas, rather than completely accurate medical conditions, so this basic structure could be applied to a broad range of settings, from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman through the Korean War (MASH) to a hypothetical Space Doctor drama. Each play group would decide whether they wanted to be meticulously accurate or just fake medical babble. The important part is the feel of the game as the events unfold.

--- from my LiveJournal, three years ago

Examples of medical condition tropes would be:
  • outbreak: several people contract a threatening illness; in addition to treatment, doctors need to discover the source.
  • emergency: threatening illness or injury, but complete recovery is expected, if treated in time.
  • fatal condition: no recovery possible, but doctors can help patient cope with pain or grief.
  • stigma: complications if untreated, may or may not be chronic, but merely having condition affects a patient's social situation.
  • loss of function: treatment eliminates any health threat, but patient must cope with loss.
  • chronic condition: fatal only if untreated, but patient may have trouble coping even if able to return to a normal life.
Examples of personal complication tropes:
  • phobia: someone won't enter hospital or otherwise receive/assist treatment because of fear.
  • taboo: someone objects on religious or ideological grounds to a procedure.
  • prejudice: someone won't receive or assist treatment because of irrational dislike.
  • alienation: someone can't cope because they feel cut off from emotional support.
Here's how I planned to use the tropes:
Now, each of these tropes needs to be fleshed out with two to four features, like "needs emotional support" for "fatal condition", which would be blocked by something in a personal complication (example: father and son won't talk, even though father is dying.) The idea is that you can mix and match the two halves to create a complete situation, which the doctors (PCs) would try to resolve. The situation can be further complicated during play, either by more medical conditions (patient with stigma attempts suicide, patient with chronic disease skips regular treatment and needs emergency treatment) or by further personal complications (doctor tries to convince son to talk to dying father, but son is prejudiced against doctor.)
I didn't get around to actually fleshing these out, nor did I work out mystery twists (you think it's disease A, then a new symptom proves you wrong.) Really, because there's just no demand for a House RPG, not even for my personal use. If someone begged me to run it, I could just use InSpectres with some help from those preliminary notes. Otherwise, I don't want to.

And I think it's pretty much the same for crime procedurals; they aren't good formats for sustained play. At best, a CSI game would get used once by each of the small number of people who bought it, then forgotten.

Why? Because it's unabashedly episodic. In adventure RPGs, even if one or two sessions deal with an isolated mystery or mission, the characters have ongoing issues to deal with. They, and the world, develops. Realistic crime or medical drama doesn't develop, unless the players are all into narrativist-style emotional drama. Gregory House is going nowhere, for the same reason Gilligan and the Skipper can't get off the island: the show would end.

Players just aren't going to commit to an endless series of one-shots with no overarching development.

(Yes, I know House lost his license and went into rehab -- and quickly returned to the hospital. And the castaways did get off the island -- only to be shipwrecked again. Even then, it all happened in a TV movie years after the end of the series.)

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