Do you ever step back from being the Game Master for a second, look at what is going on in the game, and imagine the action at the table as if it were a TV show or a movie. Even the most boring combat I recently ran has been brought up by the players in their stories because of the cinematic qualities it had. Role-playing games, movies, and TV shows can have a lot in common. Movies and TV shows make a good metaphor for gaming. The more I realized the cinematic qualities of the games I’ve been running, the more I started to think about what caused them and tried to improve on that feel.
You’re The Director, The Players Are The Actors, And Everyone Is The Audience
The first step in codifying this metaphor was casting the roles with appropriate industry names. Every role-playing game has a name for the person running the show. If your game were a movie or TV show, then the Game Master would be the Director, incorporating the actors, organizing the particulars before getting to the set, and controlling what gets shot. The director takes charge and makes sure things come together in the right way. The major difference between a director and a Game Master is the support staff. A director has a slew of people helping him or her complete the project. Aside from the Assistant Directors there are Stage Managers, Props Managers, Directors of Photography, Effects Managers, etc. Each one of those people has a support staff and they all answer to the director. The Game Master, however, is it. Luckily the scale of the project (the Game) doesn’t require the support staff, but in order to have the game go successfully, the Game Master has to fulfill a multitude of roles.
If the Game Master is the director and all his or her support staff, then the players fulfill the roles of the main actors and their characters are the main cast. While it is the director’s job to set everything up for them to interact with, it is their job to perform the major lines, interact with the NPCs, and push the story along.
In a movie or TV show there is always an intended audience that the production is being made for. Who fulfills that role in a game? Everyone at the table! The Game Master and the players are the audience. Everyone is performing for each other and for themselves. Keep that in mind. The classic stereotype in tabletop role-playing is that the Game Master is out to get the players, and the player are there to overcome the Game Master’s plans. That doesn’t need to be the case. Set up like a movie or TV show, the game is about everyone working towards an end goal and presenting a great story full of challenge and character development for the audience to enjoy.
Be More Dramatic By Refusing To Be Constrained By Things Like Plot Or Script
Ok. I’m going to break the metaphor already. There is one increidbly major way that movies and TV show differ from a role-playing game. The movie/TV show is scripted and thought out from end to end; as Game Master you have no control over the PCs actions, nor should you. So throw out any concept of characters following a pre-defined plot. Use one, but be ready for re-writes on the fly. I promise you it happens on EVERY PRODUCTION EVER.
Once on a set you begin to realize new things about the dynamics between the actors, and thus their characters, and you get a better feel for how certain later scenes are going to play out. So think of your story as one that is constantly open to re-writing. You know the NPCs (Supporting Actors), you know the adventure locations (Sets), and you know some of the plot twists and story paths, just be ready to re-write as need be.
Shine The Spotlight On The Players
The number one thing that draws any audience to a movie or TV show is the main cast, and thus the actors. The story and plot might be excellent, but the main cast is what brings that story to life. Just a few episodes into a great TV show you are waiting to see what happens to the characters. Part of the way into a movie you are invested into the characters and the situation they face. It isn’t so much about the villains or the story as it is how that affects the main characters. So take every chance you can to make the PCs, and thus the players, the spotlight of any scene. While you may spend time to make an NPC detailed or a villain menacing, it is the interaction with one of the main cast that makes that NPC important or the defeat of the villain that gives it relevance.
Movies and TV shows are full of dramatic moments in dialogue, character development, and action scenes. Games are no different. The dramatic moments in movies and TV shows have a definite ending, but the same moments in games are usually up to chance. While the odds are usually in the PCs favor, the chance still exists and can build dramatic tension. When you look at both situations, there isn’t actually that much difference. The audience (the players & Game Master) don’t know for sure if the characters (the PCs) are going to succeed or fail at an action. The audience are fairly sure the characters will win but won’t know for sure until they do.
Chance of success or failure are only one factor of drama. Dramatic moments have a certain progression to them. There is a buildup, a challenge, a climax, and a resolution to every dramatic moment. Take for example sneaking into a club. The characters approach and get ready to make their attempt. The audience has the situation set up for them. The characters have some dialogue about how tough this will be and how necessary it is to get in, or the use of creative camera shots and music emphasize the showdown that is about to come. The climax occurs in the actual attempt. The characters try to talk their way past, bribe the guard, or sneak in. The climax is in that one short moment where the attempt is successful or unsuccessful, usually the roll of the dice in a game, and the resolution is showing the characters thrown out or successfully inside.
What really makes the dramatic moment? Is it the climax, that one moment when things go for or against the characters? Yes, but not without the buildup. Concentrate on the buildup to dramatic actions. Without that buildup, the climax is just rolling dice and bypassing an obstacle. The buildup makes the challenge and climax mean something. Announce beforehand that the guard is tough and the PCs likely have only one chance. Emphasize some element of the challenge and what failure will mean before the actual roll is made. Have a small scene with an NPC getting kicked out and roughed up a bit. Whatever you do, find ways to emphasize the buildup.
Kirk never fails unless it is for plot purposes. Many players never think about failure in these terms. Failure always seems like a bad thing. Generally it is. However, many movies and TV shows have failure written into the story progression. How will the hero ever get the villain monologueing if they aren’t captured and tied up.
This is something that is hard to do in a game. If failure occurs, make sure the PCs are legitimately defeated but know that it is for plot purposes. If the PCs are captured, then tell them out of game that they will have chances to escape at a later point, they just have to come up with a good enough way.
Play Effects Manager and Photo Director
Something blows up in every action movie. Sci-fi & fantasy movies have tons of CGI to represent the things that don’t really exist. Incredible stunts are performed with wire rigging. You and your players have something better. Imagination and storytelling that can far exceed any special effects, you just have to think of them as being on par and beef up the right segments of your description. It isn’t necessarily the detail, but the one detail that helps the audience visualize it.
Try this: Imagine an explosion scene from any movie. Start describing it as if it happened in a game you were running. Ask yourself if the description met up to what the audience would have seen on the screen at the movie theater. Try again. Use hand gestures, props, whatever you can get your hands on to engage the audience with your storytelling. Stop mid-way through and ask a player to describe what happens to their character. Give them free reign and tell them to ignore physics and penalties. Imagine the 1812 overture in your head as you describe it.
More than just effects, think about what your game looks like as if it were viewed through a movie screen or TV. Think of what angle would best capture a certain moment or scene. The more you think about the action at the table in this way, the more you ramp up the level on your descriptions.
Some Moments Don’t Need Conflict
There is a maxim in role-playing that many of us have heard. Say yes or roll the dice. It comes from Dogs In The Vineyard and it refers to the fact that if something is cool let it happen without using the mechanics to challenge it. I’ve noticed this kind of thing occurring in a few TV shows, and I can think of countless times in game. One of the main characters does something that is so cool that it bypasses the climax and moves straight into the resolution. The audience is so surprised by the awesomeness that occurred in the buildup that the climax just slips on past. A witty line of dialogue disarms the bouncer and the group just waltzes into the club, a threat is delivered so well by the player that the Game Master says sure and lets the action be successful.
With the TV/Movie metaphor this is the emphasis on improv and role-playing. If the PCs actions logically overcome an obstacle and garners a response from the audience, let it happen without justifying it with a dice roll.
The number one rule that I took away from this little metaphor is that the story going on at the table trumps anything that was pre-written or scripted. The story going on at the table is a mix of many different things: the player’s actions, the emphasis on the PCs’ success and failure, the Game Master’s setting up and tweaking of the events to provide challenge and conflict that the PCs can overcome, and everyone’s investment in the enjoyment of the audience, which is everyone at the table. This story is the equivalent of what an audience would see from the movie or TV show when it is aired and has changed dramatically from what the production set out as. Making the events of the story at the table play out in a fun way for the audience trumps pretty much anything else you can come up with.
Are there better metaphors for this, such as plays or improv shows? What suggestions do you have for improving the story that goes on at the table? What moments in your games remind you of movies/TV shows?