Films and TV
Films and TV that I’m watching
Bringing a cinematic feel to an RPG is something I’ve had a measure of success with in the past as a GM. By “cinematic”, I’m not referring to games like Toon or Cliché (although what I’m writing here may be of use in these games), but instead the playing of the game using movie techniques and staging. Playing the game as if the PCs are characters in a movie. Even if you don’t know much about movies the chances are you’ll be familiar with what I’m talking about here. It can take some fine-tuning to get it right and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
So, what is “cinematic style”? Well, as GM you usually follow the plot of an adventure. Consider yourself a movie Director. Now consider breaking that plot up into “scenes”, with PCs (and NPCs) as characters in that movie. From your Players’ point-of-view they’re the ones watching this movie; the audience. When running a cinematic game, you can use phrases like “Cut away to a Long shot of the Evil Genius revealing his plot to his minions”.
Running a game cinematically is best illustrated with my old favourite, the Star Wars RPG, which encourages the GM to use cut-aways, camera angles and the like.In fact their published adventures often featured cut-aways and camera angles to either enhance the story or provide a plot point. Don’t worry too much about the terminology right now – I’m coming to it soon enough!
One thing to point out is that your players may not like this style of game and it may not work out for you – but if you’re new to GMing it can be quite a handy technique to help build up your game skills. Try it for a couple of games, but take feedback from your players – some games may not work well done this way. And the idea is to get your players (your audience) involved with their characters and to be on the edge of their seats. If they’re getting bored, cut it down.
There’s a few phrases and concepts needed to run a cinematic game.
If you’re running a cinematic game, its a good idea to get familiar with how cinematographers frame shots.
- Extreme Close-up Shot (XCU) – the subject (or part thereof) is framed to fit into more than the entire frame. Aside from the obvious Wayne’s World notoriety it can be used to focus in on very small items like a barrel of a gun, or move across the surface of the Batman logo for instance
- Close-up Shot (CU) – usually used to show an actor’s face or object. For example, the “KHAAAAAN!” moment in Star Trek 2: the Wrath of Khan.
- Medium Shot (M) – Usually the actor(s) are shown from the waist up e.g. while they have a conversation.
- Long (L) – The subject is framed to show themselves in their entirety (Head to toe for actors), usually the whole building or similar.
- Extreme Long (XL) – Often used with a zoom, the subjects are some distance away.
- Establishing shot – usually a Long Shot of a building or location to establish a change in scene after a cut-away or scene change.
You can then use phrases like “Cut to a Long Shot of the Star Destroyer Executor. The Imperial March plays ominously in the background”.
As well as camera shots there’s a few other techniques used in cinematic film to describe the camera movements.
- Pan – the camera turn from left to right or vice versa – like looking left or right.
- Tilt – the camera looks up or down – like nodding your head.
- Dolly – the camera physically moves closer or further back from the subject as if its on wheels
- Zoom – the subject appear further away (zoom out) or closer (zoom in).
They can be combined – e.g. the dolly zoom famous in this scene from Jaws. There’s more than these too, see here for more information. An example “Close Up of Gandalf on the roof of Isengard zooms out to Extreme Long shot of the trees being cut down and Orcs burning them).
In Media Res
A narrative technique called in media res (Latin for “in the midst of things) can be used for a variety of purposes, often avoiding the “How do we get here?” questions or “Why did we come here?”. It’s a great way for a new group to get off the ground too, especially if they’re thrown together suddenly against a common foe. It drops the PCs directly into a situation, and can be combined easily with Scripts and Credits!
Montages can be used to compress periods of time like training (cf. those training sequences in Rocky) or fortifying a building, or building something like in the A-Team when they make a tank out of a loo roll and combine harvester. It’s a sequence of (usually) single shots of characters involved in different activities, usually set to music.
Plot points are like milestone or achievement markers used to move the plot along.
Make sure that everyone has an equal amount of “screen time”. Meaning don’t focus upon a single character for the whole game when using cinematic techniques. Don’t get too carried away if the players are getting bored. They don’t need a shot-by-shot description of them setting up camp for the night (you could always use a Montage!).
“Editing” your Game
When running your cinematic game, here’s a few things to help with the staging.
Scenes are usually a single room or location in which the characters interact for a while. If you can, go for big set pieces and locations when you’re staging battles cinematically. Think Michael Bay – think Baysian! – blow stuff up! NPCs are falling left, right, and centre to the Bad Guys. Everything is on an epic scale, and the PCs are at the heart of it (Zulu, Lord of the Rings). Chase scenes are great when they’re done right (The Italian Job – original, the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi).
A long time ago I wrote a bit about Writing a Script. While not happy with the article itself (I wrote it at college), I do recall mentioning the M or W plotting model – you build up to a scene; or everything is normal, until POW! In cinematic terms constructing an adventure is no different if you split it up into scenes.
I’m serious. When the game starts, you can always begin with “Previously on.. “. Or the classic “Once upon a time”. There’s always the Star Wars scrolling credits if you’re playing over the ‘net. Ideally the opening credits should provide some form of summary, a plot point, or to update the players to their PCs situation. They can also be combined with Scripts to get the players straight into the action.
Cut-aways, where the focus shifts elsewhere for a short time is a fantastic way to heighten tension. It can shift the focus away to another scene. A GM can use it to advance a plot point or break tension. Here’s some examples:
- The Big Bad Guy grandstanding about only the fact there’s 60 minutes before Earth is destroyed. Getting the PCs to move faster.
- The party has been split – half are involved in combat while the other half disarm a ticking bomb. Heightening tensions and getting both groups engaged.
- One of the PCs is going mano-a-mano (one 0n one) with a Bad Guy. The GM can shift to the other players as the keep the minions off his back.
- The Bad Guy’s minions report that they are concerned that the shield is fluctuating around the bridge. They’ll be fine as long as no one hits their aft stabilisers. Obviously this can lead to a bit of meta-gaming in the case of the plot, but who cares?
Aside from making things Baysian (BOOM!), there’s a whole slew of film effects tricks you can use in a cinematic game in scene transitions.
- Wipes – another scene moves across the current one replacing it. Often used in caper or kids shows. Usually they move horizontally, but can move vertically. Alternatively an animation is shown (like the 60s Batman TV show)
- Dissolve – the scene washes out slowly into another one. Usually to indicate a location transition. It is rarely used in action movies except in the aftermath of something.
- Slo-mo – the character appears to move very slowly, usually at dramatic moment. Like anime where someone appears suspended in mid air as they leap to attack. Also now famous as the Matrix’s “bullet time” shot.
- Fades – the screen darkens to black or white. In the case of fade-to-black it implies something ominous has happened or the scene is ending. Fade-to-white if often used to illustrate explosions like at atomic bombs exploding.
- Blur – the camera loses focus briefly. Often used in character POV (Point of View). It can be used to lose focus during high speed chases (Reaver ship chases after Firefly in Serenity), or if the character is losing consciousness.
- Lens flare- often used by directors to show how awesome space is or how hot the desert is.
- Split screen – as seen a lot in 24. Multiple scenes are shown at the same time, usually in silence.
These are all suggestions for how to improve your game when running it cinematically.
If you do use background music in your game, keep it confined to specific sequences or vary the selection considerably. The Lord of the Rings OST on a continual play setting will just irritate everyone after a few hours. Music should be used to provide a background only, not to drown out the GM or players.
Be aware that the type of music itself can be an important choice. If you’re playing 1930s Call of Cthulhu, play some old Jazz, not Iron Maiden. Kasabian won’t sound good in a Fantasy RPG. On the other hand, if your PCs walk into a vampire night club and New Order’s Confusion (Pump Panel Reconstruction Mix) or Lucretia My Reflection (by the Sisters of Mercy) is playing… slightly clichéd, but perfect to get players in the mood.
Sometimes you can “cross the streams” a bit: I once played Queen’s Flash (from the movie Flash Gordon) while my AD&D party were attacking a floating castle. They were accompanied by birdmen against flying baboons(!) – the scenario was Dark Clouds Gather (for those interested).
Scripts were a single page insert into the D6 Star Wars adventures. Each player read out a different part as their character at the start of the game (see using Credits). It was a bit of fun. It also was a a great way to provide instant information to the players and drop them straight into the middle of the action in media res.
Obviously if your players are reading the parts as their characters, it pays for the GM to know a little of the PC back story, or their personality. It’s a little extra work for the GM, but does help bring the PC to life.
Keep the script relatively short – less than a page of A4. Each players should have a roughly equal number of lines, possibly with some bantering between them. Keep each line to maybe a couple of sentences. make sure that everyone will have their own copy as a handout too, rather than sharing it!
Bear in mind that not everyone will like this option. Some players may find it silly, and it really depends on your players.
There’s a lot of fun in running an RPG as if it were a movie, but it can take some adjustment for both GM and players. If you do decide to a game cinematically don’t go overboard and make sure it suits your style of play.If your players don’t like it, listen to them.
The Star Wars RPG D6 system is for me one of the best to teach, and easy to learn, game systems out there. Using the films Star Wars IV-VI as a backdrop, it’s largely outside of the Expanded Universe (but see later 🙂 !). II’ve probably used this game to introduce more people to RPGs than any other. Nearly everyone has seen one of the Star Wars films in some shape or form. The background is instantly familiar to most people. It takes only a few minutes to create a character. And, by using Force points, any PC can be a hero.
The Star Wars RPG used a simple D6 dice pool derived from the Ghostbusters RPG. See my previous post for thoughts on that game, but first a brief history of the Star Wars RPG.
The Star Wars RPG – A Brief History
The 1st edition of the Star Wars RPG was published by West End Games in 1987, who had the official license from Lucasfilm to produce both RPGs and boardgames derived from the license. Published in hardback, its a book that’s worn very well over the years I’ve owned it (I bought mine in 1989). A second edition followed in 1993. A number of source books also added to the Star Wars RPGline – all were lavishly illustrated with pictures from the films. As well as some other game aids like a Companion and Campaign pack/GM screen, a number of adventure modules were released. There’s a very loose chronology (no meta-plot) and most can be played on their own, although some NPCs crop up in more than a few adventures.
Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (abbreviated to the Star Wars RPG for the rest of this post!) also won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules in the same year.
In the UK, Grenadier Miniatures UK (closed since 1996) produced a 25mm miniatures line of various characters and villains from the films featuring their Star Wars RPG stats. They were very well cast – I still have a boxed set of the heroes.
When Timothy Zahn was writing the landmark Heir to the Empire series, Lucasfilm sent him Star Wars RPG materials from West End Games, and this pretty much lead to the whole Expanded Universe as result. Every journey starts with a first step. 🙂 – loved those books. I think they’re the only Expanded Universe novels that I really liked.
Sadly, as with a number of games companies of the time, West End Games fell foul of the slump in the RPG market in the late ’90s. They declared their bankruptcy in 1998, and lost the Star Wars license as a result. Ironically, this was the same year Star Wars: the Phantom Menace came out.
Wizards of the Coast picked up the license and produced both the D20 and Saga editions until 2010, as well as a miniatures line (although this was phased out). Fantasy Flight picked up the license in 2011, releasing their own edition.
More information can be found on Wikipedia, on the page for the Star Wars RPG (D6).
Like Ghostbusters before it, the Star Wars RPG system uses a D6 (six-sided dice) dice pool derived from Attributes and Skills. This affects everything from Force Powers and Droid repair to firing a Blaster and piloting a ship. You roll the dice, add them together, and try and beat a difficulty number (3-5 is Very Easy, 6-10 Easy, 11-15 Moderate, 16-20 Difficult, 21+ Heroic!). PCs can take multiple actions but are penalised by a reduced dice pool (-1D for two actions, -2D for three, etc). The six attributes total 18D for every Character Template (including Force Powers). Those seeking to use the Force tend to have lower attributes than others (the default attribute is 2D – 2 Dice). Droids can be created by allocating 18D directly, although they cannot use the Force.
It’s a very intuitive system to learn and combat is fast-paced. Consequently, most folk pick it up quite quickly. Even those that haven’t role-played before will understand the concepts. PCs can combine on actions, but only up to the PC’s Command Skill pool. Remember how Stormtroopers can’t aim straight? Well…
These blast points… too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise – Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Star Wars IV: A New Hope
Stormtroopers can combine their shots in an unlimited fashion. In a room of 10 stormtroopers, they’d add +9 to their dice roll. No wonder Han legged it in this scene:
All PCs have something known as Force Points, and all PCs start with one. A PC can spend a number of Force points per adventure. Spending a Force Point allow them to temporarily double their dice pool for a single round. If they use these heroically, they’ll get it back, plus another one. Save their own skin and it’s spent. However, use it to kill, wound or manipulate will lead to a Dark Side point. They can also spend these in the same way, although there is a chance that a PC becomes consumed by the Dark Side (see below).
Rather than spend ages buying equipment, the gear is kept pretty simple. Given the cinematic style of the Star Wars RPG, the PCs are often up to their neck in it, right from the get-go. It’s not a game for PCs to become attached to equipment- although the Smuggler and Mon Cal Pilot both begin player with spacecraft, the PCs are usually assigned one anyway. The Star Wars RPG isn’t really focussed on gear and wealth anyway.
Character creation is by far the simplest of any RPG. The templates are bare-bones equipment, personality, often humorous quote, and a capsule background. It also suggests links to other PCs. You have 6D to add to Skills. After that you’re ready to go. One of my favourite things about this system it doesn’t care if you’re human or not (although the Mon Calamari, Wookiee, and Ewok each have their own templates). I’ve actually bundled the templates here, if anyone is interested.
For GMs, there’s a huge section on running the Star Wars RPG in a cinematic fashion, complete with terminology. Using cut-scenes, dropping PCs right into the middle of the action (in media res), plotting, scale etc. It’s all covered. Even if you’re not that much up on film terminology there’s some great suggestions for adventures in the book (with a humorous introduction to each), plus a solo adventure to learn the rules. You don’t blow up buildings in Star Wars, you blow up planets – it’s all about being as heroic and bombastic as possible, especially when using/adding Force Points. I love how the system doesn’t focus on one particular class, to the detriment of others. In fact, GMs are encouraged to give all the PCs a chance to shine, and encourages heroic acts if it furthers the storyline or experience. I love running games in a cinematic fashion – it’s not easy with fantasy RPGs, but you EXPECT it in Star Wars! It’s probably the closest I’ll get to film-making despite my HND in Audio-Visual Technology…
Set just after the Battle of Yavin, there are very few Force users in the Empire or Rebellion (after the Jedi Purge). The game system reflects this in the Templates. Force Powers (Control, Sense and Alter) are at the cost of the Template’s Attributes. All the favourite powers are there – including a few Dark Side ones – and would-be Jedi need to adhere to the Jedi code. If you’re Force user, you’re not going to be high-powered except in a few small ways – obviously the Sith are not mentioned with the exception of Vader. There’s possibly a few Dark Jedi out there, but they’re not PCs. The Force skills aren’t over-powered either: if the Jedi is using telekinesis for example, the “size matters not”, but the Force skill roll does… Lightsabers are incredibly powerful damage dealers when used by a Jedi – they add their control bonus to the 5D damage. So Luke just after the Battle of Yavin, with a Control Force Skill of 3D – does 8D damage. Twice that of a Blaster. They’re also illegal, though.
There a number of Wound levels: Stunned, Wounded, Incapacitated, and Mortally Wounded. Obviously this is on separate scale for NPCs – Incapacitated or Mortally Wounded will take them out of combat. For PCs, there’s still a chance they can survive a Mortal Wound if they can get to medical treatment in time. Or alternatively they can heroically stagger to their feet, and yell “I’ll cover you! Get outta here!” or “Run, Sara!”. Another aspect I like is that although Skills can increase, Attributes can’t. You’re average PC has 2D+2 Strength. That won’t change with experience – if you’re hit by a regular blaster, the damage is 4D. Chances are you’ll be Wounded, even if you were Boba Fett (armour reduces the damage by adding up to 2D to Strength for damage purposes though). PCs can also declare that they are Dodging either as a Full Dodge or a Reaction Dodge (DEX skill).
There’s a strong vein of humorous banter in Star Wars and the Star Wars RPG is no different. For example, in the GM section, here’s a quote relating to “An unsuccessful use of the Con skill”.
- Han Solo: Uh, everything’s under control. Situation normal.
- Comm Voice: What happened?
- Han Solo: Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?
- Comm Voice: We’re sending a squad up.
- Han: Uh, negative, negative. We have, uh, a reactor leak here, uh, now. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Uh, large leak, very dangerous.
- Comm Voice: Who is this? What’s your operating number?
- Han: Uh…[FX: ZAP!] Boring conversation, anyway.
- -Star Wars IV: A New Hope
Sounds like something a player would do, doesn’t it? Not to mention the bickering that features so often in the movies appears in module scripts (see below), as well as the adventure suggestions and solo adventure in the book.
There are a few darker adventures for Star Wars (like Domain of Evil), but by and large there’s always time for a one-liner, comic relief moment, or corny dialogue. It actively encourages it. The number of times my players have used quotes from the movies just adds to it. It’s a game of heroes, not villains. You don’t really get to play Dark Jedi or Sith Apprentices. You’re the Good Guys. Ultimately everything should go down to the wire, and the PCs escape with mere seconds to spare. And trust me, your players will get really caught up in it.
Star Wars RPG Adventures
If there was a particular shining gem in West End Games crown, it would be the modules for 1st Ed. Star Wars RPG. Usually a 64-page staple-bound module filled with illustrations. These were not always from the movies either, and most really evoked Star Wars. So much so that I made them into a collage for the GMs screen, or to use as a montage or cut scene. Later modules usually were published as soft-bound books with no extras.
The modules often featured counters for Star Warriors (a companion board game), or another Star Wars board game, but usually had a large A3 colour map of some kind (such as cross-section of a Victory-Class Star Destroyer, a floor-plan of the Mos Eisley cantina). Or even a Sabacc deck and rules. These alone were worth getting the module in most cases.
Every Star Wars RPG adventure started with a script with up to 6 players reading out their part. Although hit-and-miss sometimes, they were great in creating an atmosphere, getting players into the action, and starting banter just like in the movies. Not to mention setting the scene without the GM having to go through a lot of exposition as well. There were usually hand-outs you could photocopy/print out as well as a pull-out section that had the NPC statistics and GM maps.
Most of the plots see the Heroes (they actually call them that) foiling some Imperial Plot or escaping some kind of peril, usually over a number of “Episodes”, featuring cut scenes, chases, and explosions. The plots were designed to be more than just be all shooty – social interactions, flight skills and technical abilities are often required, and usually build up to a climatic scene. SPOILER: There’s a summary of some of the adventures I ran for my group here. Most are published, although the summary for Incident on Iyuta is my own adventure.
So Star Wars RPG over 25 years old. Star Wars is even older, and still has an enduring appeal as Space Opera. Regardless of how I feel about the Prequels and Expanded Universe, the original D6 Star Wars RPG is the game that still faithfully recaptures the spirit of the films, unlike its successors. I know there’s been a tendency in recent years to focus upon darker “edgier” characters . It got darker with the Expanded Universe such as the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, death of Chewbacca, etc. so I’m looking forward to Abrams effort.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” still resonates with me.
Ghostbusters is one of my favourite films. I was saddened to hear of the death of Harold Ramis earlier this year. RIP Mr Ramis. He not only co-wrote it with Dan Ackroyd but also starred in it as Egon Spengler (whom I resemble in certain respects!). I’d originally planned to blog about the Temple of Elemental Evil, but this turned up in my Twitter feed this AM. I’m not usually a fan of standup comedy in general, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. I’ll not miss a chance to see one of my favourite films in a social environment. Plus the Counting House is a gamer friendly environment (although we’re usually in the Attic/Loft).
Ghostbusters isn’t a well-crafted film. It’s not up there with Citizen Kane (or Superman 2!) in cinematic importance. It’s one of those movies where you’re rooting for the good guys – even Venkman – because they’re normal everyday guys. So are the people they deal with in the movie. They’re not buffed up, sanitized movie idols. They smoke, eat take-out and generally have all-too human failings. If they choose to remake Ghostbusters, I suspect they’d have Ryan Reynolds into the Venkman role, and Seth Rogen as Stanz. Urgh. Let’s hope they leave it be – Hollywood should leave well alone. I know there was talk of a Ghostbusters 3, but based on 2’s reception I think it’d lose a lot of the charm. Plus, most of the film wasn’t filmed as scripted – many lines were ad-libbed! See the Ghostbusters IMDB trivia entry for more info.
Ghostbusters is very much a RPG player’s movie. It’s one of those movies that your group will start quoting at any given time, no matter the genre. Also included in this list are: ANY Monty Python (film or sketch!), the Italian Job (original, not remake), Aliens, and the Batman movies (all!) to name a few. Usually this delays the game for about 5 minutes as the players (and GM) try and remember other quotes. For me that’s part of the fun of the game. I suspect that a few GMs would take an exception to this: to them I say: lighten up! So you’re playing a horror game like Cult or Vampire: big deal. It doesn’t have to be unrelentingly grim, dark, and bloody all the time. A game is played for enjoyment.
Which brings us to the Ghostbusters RPG.
The Ghostbusters RPG
The Ghostbusters RPG was one of the first to use a dice pool mechanic. Published in 1986, by West End Games. The RPG used what would later become the d6 system in Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game the following year. You can expect a future post in why the Star Wars RPG is still much-loved by me! Later this dice pool mechanic was adopted in games like Ars Magica, Vampire: the Masquerade (and spin-off WoD games, and notoriously: Shadowrun.
The game is minimalist. The rules are intentionally light, as befits a comedic game. The premise is pretty simple. The original Ghostbusters have now become an international franchise (Ghostbusters International) and the PCs are franchise operatives in a town/city outside of NYC. Often this is the player’s home town (why not?).
What’s interesting is the designers for the Ghostbusters RPG. Two of the designers worked on Call of Cthulhu: Sandy Petersen (who also worked on the Doom PC game) and the late Lynn Willis. The other was Greg Stafford, creator of the Runequest and Pendragon RPGs. So the game has quite a design “pedigree”.
The boxed set (which I own) contained everything you needed to play. These included dice and character sheets. It also includes a guide to ghostly terminology, Ghostbusters International Membership/business cards, a “Release from Damages” form and an EPA permit. Very much in keeping with the movie! It also included a “Ghost dice” that could be used to influence both PCs and NPCs. Very similar, when I think about it, to the dice used in Star Wars: Edge of Empire…
As a game, I’ve only ever run a single session of it. It was fun, but I was dealing with players who’d only played Vampire or D&D, so I think they had less fun. I’d set it during an RPG convention. At some point in the future, I may put the adventure up for download!
More information on the Ghostbusters RPG is on wikipedia.
Such a simple thing really. I love Sunday mornings when I’ve not been out the night before. There’s an inherent tranquillity about town, probably because it’s largely hungover from the night before… Anyway, the sun is out (albeit briefly I expect) and it’s very quiet (apart from some nearby church bells).
After ORC yesterday, I found myself thinking about “defining moments”. These are dramatic moments in films (usually set to a fantastic score), and books. I’ve decided that from now on, my Player-Characters will try and have at least one dramatic defining moment. Here’s some of my favourites:
- In the movie Unbreakable, when David Dunn (Bruce Willis) goes to the train station, having been told, “Go where people are…”
- In Attack of the Clones, where Anakin Skywalker’s (Haydn Christiansen) mother dies. From this point on the Dark Side has him (the Imperial March in a harp refrain at the end, foreshadows what he is to become).
- Again, in Unbreakable the sequence where Dunn emerges from the swimming pool having nearly drowned, saved by the children. For me this is one of the most powerful images I’ve ever seen, coupled with James Newton Howard’s utterly brilliant score, despite the movie’s other flaws.
- In Brotherhood of the Wolf where De Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan) discovers Mani’s (Mark Decascos) fate. From a gentlemen to vengeance personified.
Hmm. Now I think about it, they all have a common vengeance retribution theme..
Also there’s what I call “white-vest” moments, based on those moments in Die Hard where Mclane (Bruce Willis) has been beaten down and the bad guy works away only to hear Mclkane get back up again, drawing on a reserve.