CUT TO: Stealing the Language of Film for Tabletop Gaming

Roleplaying games are distributed in book format (until someone invents an all podcast-and-YouTube-video distribution method), and has as its reference points prominent literary progenitors: Lord of the Rings, Dune, Neuromancer, Starship Troopers. But just as common, we talk about games in terms of film tropes and our games draw from film and television: the Matrix, Firefly, Star Wars, and Star Trek. A lot of jokes and memes have been written lately about “what if X was an rpg campaign?” What if the reverse was true?

Let’s face it, most players spend more time around streaming media than print material. I include myself in that and I was quite the avid reader once upon a time. The language of film and TV is second nature now. By embracing camera angles, background music, and talking (and thinking!) about your game explicitly as a TV show or movie, you can get some extra mileage out of how you set your scenes.

Protocol helps by having rules for breaking your game into scenes, which a director frames to set things up for the characters. Fiasco also calls for players to act as their own director, either setting up scenes or reacting to the prompt from other players. However, just because these games are broken into discrete mechanical “scenes” doesn’t mean this language doesn’t apply elsewhere. A lot of games employ the idea of scenes loosely in the “once per scene” powers or judging how long an effect lasts.

Changing locations in any RPG is a good time to employ this sort of language. One of the ways I do it is by talking about scenes in terms of establishing shots. Instead of jumping into box text of what your characters are experiencing, I do it from a meta camera that puts the players as observers of the show. “We open up on a shot of the castle, lightning behind and the rain hammering down. Up at the top tower, firelight beckons in the dark. We slowly pan down and close in on tiny figures, hunched against the rain, dwarfed by the massive structure in front of them. Lightning flashes, and we cut tight in on the PCs, looking half drowned except the elf, who looks fresh as ever. What do you do?”

I’ll cue them when ominous music starts playing (assuming that the game doesn’t have a soundtrack, which I rarely have prepared), or when an NPC is played by a prominent character actor so they get the hint that they’ll be relevant later. (Even when I don’t specify who it is, I’ll just say things like “He normally plays the wisecracking heavy. Can’t place his name, but you’d recognize him.” My players enjoy debating the casting of my games) During split party, multi-scene sequences I’ll announce the end of a segment and jump to the next with a head snap and gesture. “As the bullets rip into the warehouse crates, you realize your slide is all the way back: You’re out of ammo. Cut to: the decker and rigger scrambling out of the stolen police van. The cops are right behind you. What now?” Keep the pace up and learn when to leave them hanging so you have something to come back to. Plus, it lets them plan their next move while the other scene is playing out.

Thinking about your games as a show helps with the overall pacing and structure as well. I open some sessions with a procedural-style narration that hints at the game to come. I have even designed some ideas for throw-away characters (performed by the players!) who die in the first scene to set up the threat and show off the monster without getting too specific about their capabilities. I can then open the session proper with investigators at the crime scene, or the team contacted by worried family members when they haven’t heard from one of the victims. Sessions have ended with a cut away to a minion NPC from the session with the main villain, shooting over their shoulder and still not revealing their face. The minion confesses how the session has played into the Big Bad’s goals and they get to gloat a little before I turn to the players and say “That’s the session. Go ahead and spend your character points before next time.” The players-as-audience has information their characters don’t, but those sorts of revelations help in collaborative story stuff, in my experience.

Similarly, using a “Previously, on Steelheart Skies…” intro that comes complete with theme music gets the players to do some quick thinking on the last session and remind each other of the highlights of the previous game. The Shadowrun game I described last time had a tradition where the big season finale had an epic recounting of highlights from previous year’s adventures as a way of helping the players grasp who they were gonna see again and which parts of the story were going to be featured, described as quick cuts of dialogue, flashes of action sequences, and montages of info the audience has had and the player characters haven’t yet experienced. Planning a couple months of games loosely as a season of TV means you pace your major revelations during the finale or Sweeps Week and opens the door up for some interesting ways to change the cast of the game.

We all know shows change up their casts on a regular basis, usually as you change seasons. We did this explicitly, giving new players and characters the chance to jump in at a season break. Second season added an elven art smuggler as a PC who we retconned as having been at the major museum attack at the end of the last season’s big arc. Our final season had an ally NPC bumped up to full cast member as one of the players retired his mercenary and took over the mysterious decker who had been working with us for the last few years. We justified these changes as occurring within the TV series as “fans” clamored for more information on the mysterious hacker Grimjack.

This kind of broader narrative view may help you break your game into more readily digestible chunks of story. Rather than “A quest that starts at Lvl 1 and ends at Lvl 20, with a prophecy” this could provide a way to regulate your big reveals when you are building toward something. If you have other ways that film and television tricks have influenced your game style, let me know.