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Review - Jump the Shark RPG

Do you remember Happy Days, with Fonzie, Richie Cunningham and all their pals in a nostalgic situation comedy back in the 1970’s? It was fun, exciting and spawned a whole generation of people who knew how to say “Heyyyyy” while showing two thumbs up.

But one day, something went a bit wrong. The writers had been running out of ideas and the show had been running out of steam. So they veered away from their successful 1950’s adolescent formula and had an episode where the Fonz was on water skis, jumping over a shark. Many people look back at that episode as the point where the show really lost it’s way. it struggled on for several additional seasons but I don’t think it ever really got back to it’s glory days. And it spawned the phrase “jumped the shark” which can now be used whenever any show has gone a bit off the rails. You can read more about it on the Wikipedia article here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark

During the pandemic I’ve had the joy of being able to play a wide range of games remotely with friends. One of those is Jump the Shark by Ursdice. It takes it’s premise seriously. First of all the players are the writers who are pitching their fantastic idea for a TV show. Everyone is excited, you agree on the genre (or genres) it covers, and then each player picks the character which they played in the two masterful seasons which have just finished. For each of the characters we see their archetype, understand what their story arc was over those two seasons, and understand how their arc came to a satisfying conclusion.

Then the show was funded for another 8 seasons. The writers are out of ideas and have to start turning to the most hackneyed show ideas imaginable to stumble their way through each season.

Each season your cast are going to be in three shows with a tired old plot device - whether it is ‘the musical episode’ or the ‘mistaken identity’ episode, or the ‘have to be in two places at the same time’ episode.

There is a mechanic for sorting out whether characters are going to be central, B-plot or bit parts in each episode (we modified it a bit for a one-shot to work better for us, since the die roll mechanic meant that one player would have spent our entire game doing bit parts), and then each show has three acts.

At the end of a season with the three ‘jump the shark’ shows, we find out whether the programme was mercifully cancelled or forced to limp on for another season - cancellation becoming increasingly likely as the seasons progress on.

The game is available online here https://ursidice.com/tv/ (that page also has a link to a PDF download and to a PWYW on DriveThruRpg).

We’ve enjoyed this so much, we have played it twice and I’m certain it is going to be coming out again in the future!

Our first game was an Apocalyptic time-travel game, and our second one was a historical epic set with the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs.

Nick of Time

The time travel game was called “Nick of Time” after our main hero, Nick. The characters were all monks from a post-apocalyptic future world who used ancient rituals to travel back in time and attempt to solve problems that had been caused by other time travellers in the time stream. It was conceived as a high-concept show about the nature of loyalty, centred around our dashing British hero “Nick”. It was an HBO high budget, high gloss production. It’s ironic that Nick barely featured in the second season at all.

Characters

These are the characters with the key element of their arc in the successful first seasons:

  • Brother Nick: hidden depths
  • Battleaxe Bridget: hero’s journey
  • Sister Constance: coming of age
  • Brother Harold: redemption
  • Sister Helene: flat (the handbag)
  • Father Leopold: dark & edgy

Adventures

  • Happy Holidays
  • Double Booked (Versailles, the duchess and the assassin both talking to Harold)
  • The Big Show (1950’s rock and roll concert)

In the memorable second episode “Double Booked” where someone has to be in two places at once my character actually was in two places at once by doubling back on his own timestream. So at the same time my character was attempting to charm a dowager duchess and avoid being killed by an assassin sent from another future to do him in. We had a very memorable final scene where I had a simultaneous conversation with the assassin in a dungeon and the duchess in her boudoir! If you can imagine the split-screen TV show, where I was having two conversations where I was saying the same words to both the people, but the context gave them very different meanings! (e.g. “Please try not to hurt me too much, I’ve never been in this situation before”).

It was during this game that we decided to abandon the dice for ‘role in a show’ as poor Nick (for whom the show was named) only ended up as a bit player in every show because he happened to roll very badly! The next time we played everyone got one ‘star’, one ‘B-plot’ and one ‘bit part’ token, and they could decide which of the three episodes in the season they wanted to take each of those roles in. That worked really well for us.

Mesoamerica

This was an ancient history romantic drama. A star-crossed romance between conquistadors and Mayans. it was an Oprah book club favourite, and the writers are on their first big break. They are making it work despite the mayan writers all leaving. They have read the book recently and “want to get to pure drama, create something that matters”. It is their first shot at the big leagues. It was probably written in the 90’s and hadn’t considered representation or a whole raft of issues and was unfortunately rather tone-deaf.

Characters

These are the characters with the key element of their arc in the successful first seasons:

  • Ichtaca: A Mayan high priest - dark and edgy; father of the mother of Juan’s baby, knows the baby will be sacrificed to the gods. Fans love him, he is the determined hard-ass willing to do what is needed to do what he things is right.
  • Hernando: A Spanish woman who has hidden her gender and learned to act with her conscience - hero’s journey. Fans love her, there is a lot of fanfic with Hernando and Juan.
  • Juan: A Spanish man - light and soft; his lover had a baby, he was overcome by the fragility of the child. Fans hate him, he is the blond haired kid on game of thrones. This ending is confusing for them.
  • Coyote: A Mayan man - redemption; led the conquistadors to the city, Zaniyah has been helping make it right. Fans hate him, he was the snivelling traitor who led people in to save his own life.
  • Zaniyah: A Mayan woman - coming of age; killed the diplomat who did wrong to her friend. Fans love her.

Adventures

The season 3 adventures were:

  • How do we get out of here? (Coyote and Zaniyah)
  • About last night: (Ichtaca and Hernando)
  • Genre Swap (time travel): (Juan)

Photo by Gerald Schömbs on Unsplash