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RPGs – Cinematic Style!

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.

Cinematic Terminology

There’s a few phrases and concepts needed to run a cinematic game.

Film Shots

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”.

Camera movements

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!

Montage

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

Plot points are like milestone or achievement markers used to move the plot along.

Screen Time

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.

Creating scenes

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.

Opening Credits

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

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?

Special FX

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.

Other Suggestions

These are all suggestions for how to improve your game when running it cinematically.

Cinematic Music

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

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.

Summary

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.