Houdini and Doyle (the Show, Not the People [Well, Kind of the People])

After all the gushing I did about Lucifer I thought it would be fun to compare it to the show that moved into its time slot, Houdini and Doyle. As it turns out, that’s the only fun thing about the show.

I can forgive the writers playing fast and loose with historical accuracy; it seems they’re just about right on with Doyle’s timeline, so they had to make some sacrifices to shoehorn Houdini into it. I can forgive the incredibly unsatisfying explanations for the mystical elements; they had to do something spectacular in the early episodes to hook viewers, even if the answers were a bit of a cheat. I can forgive how it’s fairly terrible at being a mystery series because they don’t give the viewer a fair chance at figuring out the solution; most ostensible mystery series don’t. I can even forgive the bad acting; I liked Painkiller Jane so I don’t really get to complain.

What I can’t forgive is how the advertising pitched the show as a bromance, when as far as I can tell it’s nothing of the sort. Our male leads don’t compliment and respect each other; they bicker relentlessly, denigrate each other’s opinions (and facts), and interact more meaningfully with their police liaison than with each other. It’s exactly the opposite of what I wanted and what was promised. I can understand taking some liberties with advertisement, but if viewers are explicitly told they’ll get one thing and but delivered another, I would expect those viewers to complain about it to anybody who will listen. I have to imagine this is a worse fate than disinterest. It’s the difference between “didn’t get good ratings” and “had one terrible but popular episode, then didn’t get good ratings”. At least you can build an entire career on the former.

The point is that Houdini and Doyle isn’t good, but more than that it’s not what I signed up for. I can tolerate a lot of problems if I’m at least getting what I want out of something, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or a campaign.

Consider the One Piece campaign*. We snarkily called it “the hallway campaign” due to the number of battles that took place in a one- or two-square-wide area, something that has happened maybe twice in the source material. The campaign conflicted with the established setting fairly frequently. Several NPCs erred on the side of “goofy for the sake of goofy”, a recurring issue I have with the DM’s style (re: Slogg Sexipants, half-ton ladies’ man). And none of this takes into account the little problems I had week-to-week, like when the DM decided my character was going to charge down an elevator shaft so he could weld me to the floor so I couldn’t participate in the first stage of an arc-ending battle. It wasn’t perfect.

But the campaign was very good at giving us the feel of One Piece. We had arc villains who would pop up, do something bad just in time for us to arrive to stop them, and fight us on even footing. We had fantastic islands and creatures, including an actual giant enemy crab. We had naval combat as much about our weird powers and teamwork as about grid movement and turning radii. We had shounen abilities and growth arcs and hilarious arguments. And really, when I look back on it, the canon violations weren’t that bad, and they expanded the setting more often than they contradicted it. For the most part, it was exactly as advertised, and I think highly of it for that exact reason.

Contrast The Eight Arms and the Memento Mori. I pitched it to the players as “fight giant monsters”. They built characters to fight giant monsters. I came up with a plot that let them fight giant monsters and a villain who could control giant monsters. But as soon as the campaign started, it changed to a mission of diplomacy where the players wanted to understand and help every enemy they met. At one point we went four straight sessions without a single battle. That’s neat, and the players liked it, but it wasn’t what I signed up for. I wasn’t happy, and I still consider it one of the worst campaigns I’ve ever run.

I’m one of those people who judges something not by how good it is, but by how good it is compared to how good it could have been. If something exceeds my expectations I’m over the moon about it, even if my expectations are very low. If something fails to meet those expectations I don’t like it, even if it’s very popular or objectively good (links intentionally omitted; I’m not starting that fight). When you promise me something, I set an expectation for that thing. If you break that promise, you’ve failed to meet that expectation.

This is why I like having the occasional touchstone for long-running campaigns, where we step back and consider whether the campaign is still doing the job it set out to do. If it is, great, double down. If it’s not, we have to consider if it failed to meet its expectations or if the expectations have changed over time. It’s how we head off that sensation of falling out of love with a campaign and make sure everybody’s still having fun. It’s kind of like having a Session Zero, but between arcs rather than between campaigns, and it hits all the same points. If there’s a disconnect, it’s good for the campaign, the players, and the DM to catch it early.

So yeah, I’m really not a fan of being told I’m getting one thing and instead getting another. The best way to avoid doing that is to make sure your campaigns make promises they can keep, or at least don’t make promises you know they can’t.

* — There are a lot of links in this post. If you’re at work or on mobile, I apologize. If you’re at home and relaxing, you’re welcome.

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