NCIS as a model for an adventuring group

We just finished watching NCIS. That show is still pretty good years after it started and still a very enjoyable watch. But why? It’s basically just a procedural crime drama – like all of the others, a staple for TV for decades. What makes this particular show interesting, different, and fresh, in what should be a crowded market?

If you’re guessing it’s because it focuses on a little known federal agency that only deals with crime related to the Navy and the US Marines – you’d be wrong. There are only a few plot lines involving “he’s a spy” or “she’s involved with terrorists” – the rest are right out of the procedural crime drama playbook (serial killers, crimes of passion, insurance fraud, elaborate revenge schemes, etc.) and would fit in just fine on any of the three (!) CSI’s.

No, the “special something” that makes NCIS stand out is its unique and quirky characters. Gibbs isn’t just the team leader, he has a “hick” name – Leroy Jethro Gibbs, and besides being a Marine (one is NEVER an ex-Marine, just a Marine not on active duty), he also has several ex-wives and other closely guarded secrets in his storied past. Abby isn’t just another lab tech in a white lab coat – she’s a super quirky goth grrl with a caffeine addiction and a penchant for Super Big Gulps. This goes on and on: for each main character there is something unique, fun, and memorable. They are not only different from each other (very important in an ensemble cast) but from other, similar crime shows.

Furthermore, they are more than a team. They are a family, and this isn’t even displayed in some subtle way. They come right out and say it. When three team members were reassigned and (temporarily) replaced, Abby demanded of Gibbs, “Bring them back!” They are a family, and her family was splitting up. In fact, each main cast member fits into the family template.

  • Gibbs is the gruff but fair father
  • Ziva is like his eldest daughter
  • Abby is the younger daughter he dotes over, and who pals with Ziva like the big sister she never had
  • DiNozzo and McGee are like a pair of squabbling brothers, vying for their fathers approval
  • Even Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is much like a kindly, and eccentric uncle

In fact, on closer analysis, NCIS is actually a family drama wrapped in a crime drama and disguised as a federal agency!

What can we, RPG’ers, learn from this? First, PC’s should be unique! Not just unique in the “race / class” sort of way, but unique in their quirks and mannerisms. Unique in their varied back-stories. Unique in their weaknesses and in their strengths and in the way they relate to one another. They should not only be different from each other – but from other adventuring groups!

Most of the groups I play with are all male, and the characters are all male. The only relationships the PCs tend to have is friend / ally / frenemy / rival. (“Frenemy” is a horrible portmanteau, but it serves a purpose. “You’re my friend, we fight side by side, and we share the spoils! But, I don’t trust you not to stab me in the back and steal my stuff when I sleep at night – so I always keep one eye open.” Of the four relationships listed, this is the most complex.) But, in a successful show like NCIS, the relationships are more complex and varied than that; beyond just a “found family” there is the complex back issues each character has that they bring into this “family.”

So, if you want to increase the drama and the uniqueness of your gaming party, you may have to look somewhere other then the dungeon or starship or which secret cabal you all belong to. Look to the group itself and how unique and interesting each character is, and how they relate to each other in complex and complimentary ways. Go ahead, be brave ‚ form a ‘family’, even a dysfunctional one, and play the hell out of it! You may make it to your seventh season, too.

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