The Three Rocketeers has many influences, something I call out specifically in the design document with a movie night, TV binge, and reading list of inspirations and genre defining works. One of those influences is Babylon 5, the “novel for television” created and helmed by J. Michael Straczynski. I put it there because The Three Rocketeers is my attempt to mash together the grand romance of swashbuckling France and the immense, starhopping majesty of space opera. B5 is most definitely space opera. I began revisiting the series a few weeks ago as I look at what I like in space opera and what I can bring to the table.
Aside from being good space opera, B5 was a landmark television series in many ways. Its most prominent legacy is how tightly plotted it was across the five years on air. The show was developed as a maxi series with a definite beginning and end. This allowed Straczynski to tell tales that television had never before attempted by going for the long play. A season one episode, Babylon Squared, introduces time travel and hints at huge events in the show that aren’t resolved or even revisited for another two seasons with a two-part episode called War Without End. Long play, indeed.
The long form nature of the series also let Straczynski really explore character development and give the cast chewy motivations. Compare this to Star Trek: The Next Generation where the majority of the crew was essentially the same in the finale as they were in the premier seven seasons earlier.
One of Straczynski’s most publicized tricks for the series is that each major character had a trap door built into their arc. If an actor left the series for whatever reason there was a story justification already written for the character’s departure that got put into motion. We saw this with a few characters, most memorably with Michael O’Hare departing after the first season and being replaced with Bruce Boxleitner’s Captain John Sheridan. The story reason is that Sinclair was suddenly and unexpectedly named the first human ambassador to the Minbari. This fits what we know of the character and the developments in the first season. It doesn’t feel jarring, aside from the hints of a mutual attraction between Sinclair and Delenn never being revisited as a full on romance develops between Sheridan and Delenn.
All in all, this worked well. Michael O’Hare was even able to briefly reprise his role as Sinclair in War Without End to finish out the character arc. It leads me to think that Straczynski’s other trap doors were equally well crafted and got me thinking about what would happen if Babylon 5 were remade today. Fans have come to accept certain events and actions as canon. Sinclair becomes the ambassador and Sheridan takes over Babylon 5 for the next four years. Change that event and you change the entire series. Sheridan, arguably the main character for 80% of the show, may well never exist in a reboot.
And why stop there? We could take Londo out of the picture when he refuses some of Morden’s requests in season 2. This would lead to Vir being promoted to the role of ambassador and really growing up. Or maybe Delenn’s chrysalis transformation goes horribly awry and Lennier takes her place as the Minbari ambassador and love interest of the B5 commander. Maybe Garibaldi doesn’t return to work or Ivanova gets nabbed by the Psycorps. With Straczynski’s series bible the series could have infinite variations. Think of it as a long form examination of Run Lola Run or a television version of the Mass Effect trilogy. Different choices have different effects down the line.
Naturally, shotgunning B5 has me thinking about story structure and how it can play into my own writing or game design.
Looking ahead at the future of the story you’re telling can be tremendously useful, especially if it’s in abstract ways like this. I’m learning adventure design right now. My Firefly RPG work at the moment is as an assistant developer for a campaign book and The Three Rocketeers is going to include an adventure as well as being a setting and having new mechanical fiddly bits for Fate.
One of the most exciting things about RPGs is the unpredictability. No one knows exactly what is going to happen. This can also be a great frustration when players do things completely unexpected.
We are building trap doors into the Firefly book by giving recurring GMCs understudies. Should the players be completely bloodthirsty and kill off a character who has a role yet to play in the story there is another character waiting in the wings with their own motivations to fill that role. It’s a neat technique to use in developing the book that we are only able to use because there is an overarching narrative to the adventures within.
The Three Rocketeers will likely have something similar, at least from the perspective of conspiracies. The conspiracies I write about for that will be of an older, less esoteric variety. They’ll be more murder-of-Caesar than chemtrails. A conspiracy will be a cabal of powerful, influential, people with a particular aim not sanctioned by their government. But that doesn’t mean a good conspiracy can’t have layers of truth and hidden, shadowy agents. When one conspirator is taken down, a larger, more dangerous one is revealed. That sort of thing.
As I GM for my own groups, I should be more cognizant of the understudies and replacements. They’re powerful tools. (Sadly, I’m a very, very improvizational GM and don’t tend to prep much which having understudies and replacements certainly requires.)
PC Trap Doors
My last thought is about player characters. Is it possible to write up trap doors for characters at character creation in case of emergency? Would this be of benefit in a game? I’m not sure but it’s an interesting question. What do you think?