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.

Dramatic Moments
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.

Second Chances
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?

13 replies
  1. ToddBradley
    ToddBradley says:

    I went through a similar thought exercise once – comparing a RPG with a film. But even though I found lots of similarities on the surface, there are enough differences I eventually abandoned the metaphor.

    For example, one of the key elements of any good film or TV show is the writer. There is only one, and even if parts of the script change during shooting, he’s the one who maps out the plot arc. Films written by a committee generally suck. However, in an RPG, the best games are collaboratively written by all the players simultaneously.

    Also, good film scripts follow a time tested and true three act structure. And many of the things that make a great movie (or any story based on the “hero’s journey” monomyth) just aren’t used in RPGs. For example, in an RPG there’s not a refusal of the call to adventure. Nobody says, “You know, King Zaphod, your plight sounds really important, but we can’t go save your daughter from the dragon right now. It’s harvest season on the potato farm, and without those potatoes my family is going to starve. Sorry.”

    Finally – and most fundamentally – every good movie or TV episode or myth has exactly one hero. In film, if all the characters are equal, as they are in most RPGs, then you’ve got a problem. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker was in the center of the movie poster while Chewbacca was in the background. It’s his story. Sure, there are important supporting roles, but there can only be one hero. Just try that with your D&D group, though!

  2. TwoShedsJackson
    TwoShedsJackson says:

    Sadly, what this article makes me think is “That campaign we just ended with a TPK? That was the pathetic gurgling sound of Firefly not being renewed for a second season.”

    I’m still a little bitter about both.

  3. deadlytoque
    deadlytoque says:

    Your point about second chances reminds me of a post I read once, I think it was by Robin D. Laws, about how to create a Kirk-like experience at the game table. Basically, the player declares intent (I punch out the alien!) then rolls the dice. On success, then the player succeeds, but on a failure, rather than _failing_ the narration is that such an act never happened (he points the gun at you, and you think better of it. “Come along,” he says.)

    That way, every time a character _acts_, it’s to succeed, just like Kirk.

    Similarly, a character should never just “not know” something on a knowledge-type check. Rather, a failed knowledge check should be an excuse to add twists and new adventures (“You can’t translate the mystic scroll, but you know someone who can: your old mentor, Arawn. The only problem is that he hasn’t been heard from in 10 years, and the last time you saw him, he was headed east into the Giant’s Graveyard.)

  4. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Didn’t you get the memo? The GM is the producer. 😉

    Seriously, good post. My realization was that GI Joe would have been an excellent RPG adventure, but is a mediocre-at-best movie. There are some significant differences between the two, mainly dealing with emotional drama and scripting, but there are a lot of similarities as well.

  5. manodogs
    manodogs says:

    I think the metaphor apt but, like most, only to a point. The GM is the director, writer, production crew, – the storyteller – and should seize every opportunity to do exactly that: tell the story. The GM should use all of the materials – dialogue, success rolls, etc. – to tell the story; sometimes, he has to interpret data to make a story emerge, while other times, he uses it to “force” encounters and other situations, but his handling of these things is what is important. The metaphor is good and I agree with the idea, but you have to think about the “show” as though you were watching it and had no idea what it took to make it happen.

    A single combat round in D&D takes one full minute (used to, anyway) and the die roll can represent either that single, fantastic opportunity or a series of smaller ones. The amount by which the combatants succeed or fail assists you in describing the outcome – if the PC barely succeeds, but does max. dmg., the action wasn’t graceful, but was certainly powerful, for instance: “You lose your footing and your swing misses the orc’s head wildly, but your axe comes to rest on his foot, splitting it into!” If he did so-so dmg., then, “The orc deflects your blows with his shield, but it’s a flimsy thing and he bellows with every hit.” Notice that the second description is more “realistic,” and that is what PCs notice and that is what sets the pace, tone, and more. How much attention you pay to every, single thing determines how important PCs think it is and how well it will be remembered. These things are what “the audience” notices and that’s what’s important.

    Every moment is an opportunity to control the flow, pacing, focus, tone, reinforce the theme(s) – everything – and you must remain aware of this at all times, and make sure everything either furthers the story or does not. How much attention you pay things is directly proportionate to how important the “audience” thinks it is.

    That’s the biggest difference between scripted stories and RPG: in a story, everything matters (“you can’t show a gun in Act I if it doesn’t get fired by Act III”); in RPG, not everything matters. Laws’ advice (it certainly sounds like Laws, regardless) goes a long way toward reinforcing this concept, as does the 1-minute combat round: a failure does not always indicate a failure of action or character, but can be a missed opportunity, an oversight, a “second-guessing” (as in the example in the post), etc. It’s up to you to handle all of these things as they best contribute to the story and you have great leeway in doing so.

    One thing to remember is not to overdo it; leave plenty of room for players to interject, specifically where their characters are concerned. Sometimes, a “10” is exactly that – “You succeed.” But every roll, every NPC, every feature (“feature” in the game – room, terrain, roll, encounter, is a chance to tighten the reins or increase the fantasy, slow things down so the players think more or amp-up the action so they’re more likely to act without thinking, etc.

    Like the post says, mention ONE, VISUAL trait for every feature – NPC, encounter, skill check, – that’s the most powerful storytelling trick in a GM’s arsenal, as that single, visual element will be present in every player’s imaginative interpretation of that feature (while almost everything else will be slightly different from everyone else’s).

    As for the GM vs. the PCs scenario, this is relatively new to me, but I know it exists. Pick new players; people like that have IRL issues and they’re only going to make problems. If you are this kind of GM, you’re a jerk and you should immediately rethink your entire life. GMs have absolute control of the game and they are to be as impartial as possible, but also have restrictions they must overcome (forced encounters in written adventures, for example); RPG are storytelling games, not “win/lose” games, and anyone who plays them that way is a clod. If you want to pit your wits against those of the players, play a game designed for this, like chess, Magic: The Gathering, or a wargame (like BattleTech).

  6. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I agree that, in the raw, the metaphor’s not a great one. With your specific comments and attention to detail, I think that thinking of it like a movie as you describe would help anyone’s game.

    I need to spend more time thinking through how things look– and making sure they’re well described.

    @deadlytoque – Click on the link right under “Second Chances” in the article. I bet that’s the post you were thinking of.

  7. Stormgaard
    Stormgaard says:

    Quote: “One of the main characters does something that is so cool that it bypasses the climax and moves straight into the resolution.”

    Heh! Indy with the gun versus the street thug in Raiders…

  8. itliaf
    itliaf says:

    @stormgaard You’ve reminded me that Raiders might be one of the best models for the sort of nonstop action that comes up a lot in D&D, but many movies seem to have trouble pulling off.
    @toddbradley TV shows only have one writer? Not in America they don’t(not being Jingoistic, I am just allowing for the fact that you might be more familiar with the British TV model). A lot of the best tv these days, the stuff that outstrips 90% of contemporary movies, is a group effort. These sorts of series tend ot go hand in hand with an ensemble cast. You are probably right about the “Refusal of Duty” thing not really applying to RPGs. It is too bad players aren’t trained to do that sort of thing. Everyone knows the best cinema comes in the form of the showdown or scene that convinces the heroes to fight. The ‘Shit just got real’ moment, for lack of a better term.
    That said, I agree that it isn’t the most useful metaphor
    What was I on about again?

  9. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @ToddBradley – “ It’s not a perfect metaphor.” It really isn’t. It is one that I’ve come back to time and again though.

    The single hero conundrum is one place the metaphor breaks down. TV shows and movies focus on a single “everyman” hero who the majority of the audience can identify with. Around him or her are supporting cast. RPGs strive for an equal playing field and sometimes reach it.

    @TwoShedsJackson – You make my heart weep for the awesomeness that is whedonverse ala sci-fi. Lo how I miss firefly.

    @deadlytoque -If you are thinking of the one I’m thinking of, it was Jonathon tweet.
    I’ve referenced the article once or twice before. It is one of those things that makes you think about games differently. I’m always a fan of having players describe the means of their failures. I like your idea of giving branching paths off of failures. It is a great way to keep the game moving forward.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I remembered your post and looked it up as I was writing this. I have problems seeing the GM as the producer though. I’ve been around too many sets to think of most producers as hands on people.

    You’re right, very few good movies would make good RPGs. The trend works in reverse. Few games get translated well into good movies. There are enough elements that can be grabbed from the metaphor that I think it is worthwhile. I think it can break traditional thinking about RPGs. I know game systems like feng shui and the cortex system, which are based on grander movie stylings changed some of the ways I thought about RPGs.

    @manodogs – The single minute combat round in older versions of D&D always seemed silly to me. The concept behind it was great. The action could be grand and visually appealing. It could have a broad array of options. Based on the minute combat round and how many rounds a combat usually took, you’ve got 10 and 12 minute combats going on. That isn’t realistic at all. I like the concept that the actual actions are not necessarily one attack, but a result and a cinematic action that has no bearing on the mechanical results, just not that a whole minute passed.

    @Scott Martin – That is definitely a major benefit of the metaphor. I think the other major benefit is that everyone at the table is the audience. It’s very hard to make direct connections, but linking the various roles changes the way you think about the people at the table.

    I forget about description a lot too. I get wrapped up in the events and have to think about how to grab that sew that little bit of awesome into the players minds. It usually takes me a few seconds to pull a great visual into mine on the fly and I’m often at a loss for the proper descriptive words.

    @Stormgaard – Exactly!

  10. Swordgleam
    Swordgleam says:

    I don’t think I ever DON’T think about my game as if it were a novel or a movie. My players all seem to be the same way. If there’s a way to make a moment more dramatic or epic, they’ll go for it, even if it’s mechanically or personally a horrifically bad decision.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Think About Your Game As If It Were A Movie Or TV Show ( […]

  2. […] Next, we have an article from the gnomes at Gnome Stew. John Arcadian suggests you “Think About Your Game As If It Were a Movie or TV Show.” I have to say, though this isn’t the first article on this theme, it’s one of the best I’ve seen to summarize the various aspects of TV show production that lend themselves to being a GM. I’ve tried this mindset myself from time to time (in the distant past), but never really got the hang of it. With John’s suggestions, maybe I’ll try it again! You can read the article here. […]

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