You’ve seen Gladiator, right? Remember the scene just before the opening battle, where Maximus is letting the grass brush his palm, alone in his own world, thinking about home and family?

That scene says a lot about Maximus, the world of the movie — and Gladiator’s themes.

Wouln’t it be cool if you could do that in your game?

In movies, shots like that have several characteristics:

  • They’re carefully crafted.
  • They give you insight into an aspect of the movie (theme, character motivations, etc.).
  • They’re short — often just a few seconds, a single shot.
  • They can be incredibly evocative.

My girlfriend and I watched Capote on Wednesday night, and the opening shots planted this idea on one of my mental back burners. It’s a very spare movie, and it accomplishes a lot with short shots that (for me, at least) convey loneliness, isolation, coldness and the insular nature of small communities — some of the movie’s central themes.

I knew almost nothing about Truman Capote before I saw Capote, and I had only a vague idea of what it was about. So I didn’t see the opening shot and immediately think, “Ah, this is meant to convey loneliness, isolation, etc.” — I just soaked it in, and as the movie progressed I saw how shots like that tied into the plot, characters and other elements of the film.

This is one of my favorite things about movies — the power of brief, apparently unrelated “in between” shots to evoke emotion and convey information — and it seems like it could translate very well to RPGs.

If your campaign has a theme (or several themes), there will plenty of big building blocks that communicate that theme — scenes, major NPCs, whole adventures, etc. This idea — using single “shots” to convey themes in your game — would fill in the gaps, round off the edges and suffuse your game with little snippets that reinforce those building blocks.

I’d handle this by coming up with a few of these movie moments before each session (or writing them down whenever they came to me). I’d jot them down — just a sentence or two, nothing major — and then insert them into the game during play.

That covers two of the four characteristics I described earlier — careful crafting and brevity. To tackle the other two (providing insight and being evocative), we’ll need an example.

For instance, say the theme I’m trying to get across is betrayal (and my game is already full of overt examples of betrayal — backstabbing NPCs, court intrigues, etc.):

As you round a bend in the road, you see a solitary, half-dead tree atop a nearby hill. One side of the tree is alive and healthy, thick with leaves; the other is being consumed by rot, and the wood is gray and dead.

Depending on your group, that would either be much too subtle, or much too obvious — but hopefully it gives you an idea of what I’m getting at. Tabletop Adventures publishes PDFs full of descriptions like this — flavorful, but without any direct impact on your game (i.e., there’s no treasure to be found, MIBs waiting to ambush the PCs, etc.). This one just spins that flavor to fit the theme.

Using several of these moments in each session sounds like an interesting way to enhance the storytelling aspects of your game without railroading, and it shouldn’t require too much work to pull off.

I’ve written about movies as sources of inspiration for your game and ways to make your game more movie-like, but this post comes at the movie-RPG connection from a different angle. What do you think of this idea?