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Cutscenes: One Simple Approach

Cutscenes are poweful tool in other media, so why not use them in roleplaying games? I’ve heard of GMs employing cutscenes in the way I’m about to describe, but never tried this myself; it sounds reasonable, though.

Just like a movie, an RPG cutscene would work like this: At a suitable stopping point, you cut away from the party — and the PCs — and the whole group plays out a scene with completely different characters. When the scene is over, you cut back.

To do this well, it seems like you’d need to sketch out the cutscene characters (focusing more on roleplaying elements than stats, but including stats as needed), and quickly brief each player on their character’s goals in the scene. Keep things simple, too.

In terms of the outcome, you could go two routes: let it be fluid, with your players’ actions as the sole determining factor (and then adjust the main story — the one with the PCs — accordingly), or stack the deck in favor of or against the cutscene characters (the ogre raiding party sacks a village, for example).

There’d also be the consideration that your players would need to compartmentalize the metagame knowledge they gained through playing out the cutscene, but with mature groups I don’t see that being too much of an issue.

What do you think — are those the basic elements you’d need to address to make this quick and dirty approach to using cutscenes work in your game? Have you tried this in your campaign? How did it go?

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#1 Comment By Andrew On July 24, 2007 @ 5:47 am

I’ve been able to do this successfully by actually writing a script as if it were a play and assigning parts to the players at the table. It is a little more work, but it can be worth it. This technique helps players to actually focus on what’s going on since they are actively portraying the scene rather than passively listening. Also their characterizations often provide inspirational fodder for me for when they actually meet the NPCs that they had portrayed in the cutscene.

#2 Comment By Cody Jones On July 24, 2007 @ 6:26 am

I’ve always been a fan of pulling one player aside and having them receive a vision, flash of insight, whatever you want to call it. That way, that player can relay the information to the group, and the group usually pays more attention since it’s coming from another PC.

#3 Comment By robustyoungsoul On July 24, 2007 @ 6:41 am

In our BE game, we’ve used cut scenes and flashbacks as way to establish stuff that would be cool but may not have been introduced yet. As long as it isn’t completely outrageous to the theme, it works great.

An example: The players were significantly short of ships against the evil Matriarch who had taken over the planetary government and exiled her opponents. She had way more guns and ships then they did.

So one of the players, the son of the Matriarch, spent a “color scene” (a part of the Burning Empires scene economy) to introduce a flashback of his father, showing him a family secret stash of ships and weapons, old prototypes that weren’t in fully operational order, but upon which their current technology was based. The scene even included a life lesson to the effect of “Never forget where what you have today came from.”

So basically he introduced in that flashback an awesome scene with his dad AND a way to combat the Matriarch (his mother).

It also provided me with great fodder for my own flashback with the Matriarch later!

#4 Comment By Heather On July 24, 2007 @ 7:02 am

robustyoungsoul: oooh, I like the idea of using cutscenes as ways of introducing game elements on-the-fly. very nice—it becomes a way to significantly reward good player creativity and roleplaying with something other than experience points.

#5 Comment By robustyoungsoul On July 24, 2007 @ 7:14 am

Heather: Yeah, it really worked out nicely. One cool thing just as a system note, BE has some rules for helping with this kind of thing as well.

What was neat about it was the entire idea was player created and drove the story forward. I was able to build on it using my own color scene for the Matriarch: I used a flashback to a time when she was first married off to the Forged Lord (the PC’s father), and even though their marriage was political and largely loveless, at one time he tried to introduce some love by showing her this place, decorating it with water lillies that grow on rare spots of the planet’s surface (the planet is completely covered in poisonous water, except for rare freshwater springs on which floating cities are usually built).

She was thinking of this memory, pondering how the situation had devolved so far… when the players failed their roll to infiltrate that secret hangar silently… the alarm went off, and even that last bit of happiness, that last secret place, became a battleground.

The battle ended with the secret hangar being blown up by the PCs as they made their escape with some of the tech, most of it not in very good working order (they would make rolls later to repair it). The whole thing ended with pieces of that hangar crashing into the water, sending a wave that pushed the few remaining lillies into the poisonous water, killing them.

It was an awesome scene, and the whole thing was made possible by the players being able to introduce the existence of the hangar out of essentially thin air.

#6 Comment By ScottM On July 24, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

I’ve heard of doing it both ways (full play and scripted), but have only tried it scripted. It worked out but felt strange… but I was with a group that didn’t enjoy OOC knowledge.

#7 Comment By Cirwell On July 24, 2007 @ 9:33 pm

I have used flashback scenes in my Serenity game. Flashback scenes were drawn from the characters off-screen histories with the whole thing held together with by a basic plot (think “Out Of Gas” for those familiar with Firefly).

I had wanted to do something like this for quite sometime, but wasn’t sure how it would work out. I found the easiest (and best) thing to do was to tell the PC where the flashback scene ends and let them direct the action up to that point.

One of my best sessions ever.

#8 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2007 @ 8:02 am

robustyoungsoul, your comment makes me want to run Burning Empires even more than I already do, if that’s possible. Damn, but that sounds hot!

Aluion: I’m glad you de-lurked — it’s always good to see longtime readers hitting the comments for the first time.

It sounds like you have this technique down — any interest in writing a guest post about cutscenes for TT? Drop me an email if that sounds like fun.

Cirwell: Your tip about telling your players where the scene needs to wind up sounds spot-on — that’s an excellent idea!

#9 Comment By Corrosive Rabbit On July 25, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

I’ve done this a fair bit, usually to give the PCs an “alternate” look at the world around them, or to increase the magnitude of their responses.

For example (from a D&D game I ran about three years ago):

The PCs have been hired to deliver a message to a nearby legion fort. It’s a minor task, but they’re going in that direction anyway, and it never hurts to have legion officers look favourably on you …

As the PCs are leaving the city en route to the fort, I stop play and hand out new character sheets. I explain that the PCs are going to play a brief cutscene as legion soldiers and officers at the fort which is the PCs’ destination. The players are intrigued, as they sense something of import coming.

Over the next half an hour of play, the temporary characters are wiped out by … something. The attackers are concealed by a grey swirling fog, and nobody gets a good look at what might be in the mists. Furthermore, there are no bodies left behind — the mists swirl over a PC, there’s a scream, and then nothing, as the mists move on …

Cut back to the PCs. Suddenly the simple messenger mission to the fort is clearly much more dangerous. The players try hard to keep their out-of-character knowledge from affecting their actions, but there’s a lot of “casual” preparation that they’re hoping I don’t call them on. Fine by me, I want them scared.

When they finally reach the fort and find it lifeless, short of a scrawled message of terror (bonus points to the player who thought of doing that), they’re already terrified, even though they haven’t encountered anything. The look on their face, when they opened a door and allowed air to flow back to a nearly extinguished fire (thus causing grey smoke to billow out the door) is one I’ll treasure for as long as I GM.

As many successful writers say, “Don’t tell them, show them.” Cutscenes allow you to immerse the PCs in a situation to a far greater effect than simply showing them the aftermath. It’s also therapeutic for GMs, as it gives you a chance to be to really take the gloves off, without derailing the main campaign.


#10 Comment By outrider On July 25, 2007 @ 8:23 pm

to Corrosive Rabbit;

Nice touch, really brings home that things are not as they seem. Im going to have to do that to my groups.

#11 Pingback By RPG Cutscenes and Cutaways – Treasure Tables On July 28, 2007 @ 6:57 am

[…] This guest post is by Aluion, whose insightful comments on Cutscenes: One Simple Approach suggested that he knew a lot more about this topic. […]

#12 Comment By TMan On August 1, 2007 @ 1:11 pm

I do something like this, but a bit different than described above.

My players killed a pesky evil necromancer cleric a while back. The goddess of that cleric, Shar, decided to retaliate. So, one day between games, I email all the players a little story about some assassins getting a mission to kill the PCs and several NPCs from another cleric. Short, sweet, only 4 paragraphs, written novel style.

Several game sessions later, another email. An NPC who helped them is killed while travelling overland. Again, written like a scene from a novel.

More sessions later, 2 more NPCs are killed. This time, right in a town I know the PCs are about to arrive at. The next session was all about the PCs ‘learning’ about the murders (which of course, the players already knew about!). They face the band of assassins and ‘solve’ the murders.

I also use this method to fill in conversations with NPCs or other info and such that drag on too long at the table when we play. Find a journal owned by the evil sorcerer you just killed? I’ll send the highlights in email where I have time to write and they can read without interrupting my important background info with last week’s Battlestar Galactica trivia. And I have all those messages in email to refer back to (prevents mistakes, etc).