Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff
  
  
  
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Running RPGs

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Getting gamers in

(Revised January 2015)

I’ve been gaming in various venues as part of ORC Edinburgh,  and what follows maybe something of personal observations. It’s basically about the places I’ve gamed and some of my experiences at these places, and what I’d prefer to have in a venue. I’m pretty certain that some folk will empathise with what I’m talking about. If you run a venue and want to get a society or group in, then you might want to think about what I mention here (not just gamers).

Having a gaming group play in a venue makes financial sense, considering that you have six or more people clustered around a table (in the case of RPG groups). They’re likely to be there for a few hours, often during quiet times if a venue serves food or drink. There’s a better-than-average chance they’ll buy a lot of food and drink too – playing RPGs (and running them) is hungry and thirsty work! A game in session also gives the place a busier vibe than just a few folk sitting around.

This is not exactly a “code of conduct”, but could be construed as a foundation for a “best practice” agreement between a group and a venue.

Space. Space to play is essential.  It is all very well getting large tables (wargamers and board gamers especially need these) but if there’s very little space between each group it can become impossible to hear what folk are saying, and can become a shouting match with the other group(s) – not ideal if you’re running an RPG. The seats need to be comfortable, and not hard wooden benches, as they will be used for a long period. Being able to rearrange the furniture shouldn’t be a problem. There should also be enough tables to play on and still have non-gamer customers too. Ideally, RPG sessions need their own space away from loud music or live sport (worth bearing in mind for pubs).

Cleanliness. If you want folk to feel comfortable in a venue, make sure it is clean. Seriously. I shouldn’t have to say this. At the very least the toilets should be cleaned regularly (both Male and Female) and be functional – at least one Edinburgh venue didn’t do this, and it turned into a manky hole. If food is served, the serving area should be spotless, or at least the area that prepares/serves food. At the very least some ventilation is necessary, especially in the summer. It’d be nice if gamers also made sure they bathed regularly and used deodorant, but sadly there’s often one who doesn’t.

Food. Gamers traditionally don’t eat healthily, but that’s no reason to feed them poor quality food. Yes, they do eat chips and burgers, not “fine dining”. Gamers have a preference for certain kinds of food – soup, nachos, chilli fries, gourmet burgers, pizza. Desserts like cheesecake or hot puddings are popular too. Make them good quality; you’ll sell more – and word gets around. As gamers often tend to order food at the same time it is worth having some kind of numbering system for orders (e.g. a number-on-a-stick or plastic number you sometimes see in pubs). A venue that sells hot food needs to be meticulous about hygiene, and need to make sure food is heated properly (see Cleanliness above). At least two venues I know of in the past have given folk food poisoning (one of those suffering was myself), possibly because all they did was reheat the food. Not eating there again, and I make a point of telling folk why. It’s also a good idea to make clear the policy on cleanup. I always ask my groups to clean up after themselves (including empty wrappers and plates etc.), but it helps to make it clear from the outset.

Drink. If you’re serving alcohol, it’s always a good idea to check if any of the gaming group are under 18 (or 21 in some places). Try and set some clear guidelines for a group in these cases (e.g. under-18s cannot sit in the bar area, but can order food). Will bar staff come and collect empty glasses, or should the group themselves do it? As with Food above, it’s usually best if groups clean up after themselves but it is a good idea to make this clear. Also, many gamers have a liking for cask beers or similar other than the usual brewery fare so it may be worth a a thought (and may get other custom such as real-ale drinkers). Cocktails are pretty much a no-no, but soft drinks are also good (many gamers will drink these rather than alcohol).

Communication. Vital on both sides. Make sure the venue and group have a Group Contact. Someone the venue can deal with personally, either by phone, email, or PM (or all the above). It’s IMMENSELY frustrating for a group to turn up to find that they can’t use a venue. If a venue has an event going that might impact a group’s attendance (e.g. use of a function room), make sure you let the Group Contact know well in advance. It’s also worth pointing out that if gamers are in another part of the building, some event managers may not like to share a venue they may have paid to use. It never hurts to let the venue staff know, and be aware of any potential problems (e.g. room use, music concert, etc.). If the venue is likely to be unavailable (such as during the Edinburgh Festival, for a wedding, or corporate event), let the Group Contact know – likewise if a room is needed earlier/later than normal.

Customer relations. Customers are customers, and there’s no reason to treat gamers any different. All too often gamers are treated as second-class citizens. We’re paying customers – often regular paying customers -and should be treated accordingly. I’ve had staff be openly rude to us in one venue – bang out of order, particularly since we had to pay to play. The fact that gaming groups can get loud and boisterous should be seen as adding character to the place: if it’s too loud, let the group know. If gamers have a block booking, honour it and let them get on with it, rather than badgering folk during the time they’ve booked. If you’re selling food make it clear to the groups that they can’t bring in food (or drink) from outside. Gamers can make for the best customers in smaller venues, and there’s no reason to treat them like crap. We may get the venue for free, but that’s no reason to run roughshod over gamers if there’s something else on.

One final thought: it’s a bad idea to rely purely on gamers for business, especially as they can be fickle at the best times. All too often groups are kicked out because they’re not buying food or drink in a venue. There’s a simple answer to this: flag this up with the Group Contact.

Ultimately, getting gamers in is no different to any other special crowd – real ale drinkers, live music, etc. – all it needs is a bit of forethought, and possibly some ground rules.

Time Management – the modern GM

Time management for me has become a huge priority. Being  a GM running two campaigns and an RPG community website is a lot of work, even if you’re using prepared materials of established frameworks. I’m not someone who finds boredom easily as a result. Being a GM is a serious time commitment as you get older, too. I’d actually planned to try to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and had hoped to get started on my Oath of Shadows novel. No such luck. I got 3,500 words then thought about redrafting it, or doing some Cthulhuiana like Arunstoun instead. Plus I’d spent a fair amount of time debugging the various modules that make up the ORC Edinburgh website after the hosting provider moved to a new cloud server setup (with newer PHP and mySQL).

Add to this my normal work day. I leave for work in the morning at 7:30am, and usually get home at 6:15pm. It’s a fairly long day: the job I do is pretty process-intensive and requires a certain amount of thought, plus a hugely varied workload. Lunch is pretty much spent de-cluttering my head outside. This leaves me with the evening – if I had kids, I suspect nothing else would get done then either – but then I’ve got to eat. Not to mention the whole housekeeping stuff, like laundry too. It’s usually about 9pm before I’ve got any free time.

On average I spend a few hours preparing my weekly session over the week, and I’ve actually begun to ration my time as a result. As I’m often pretty knackered, I’ve found the best way to plan for my games is to apply a time slot to them, but time management isn’t always easy. I’m currently running two games: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s Enemy Within Campaign, and D&D 5e’s Tyranny of Dragons, and they run on alternate weeks. So time is at a premium. The question is: how to spend it? So I thought about things earlier and thought this may be of use for someone like me.

Keep it simple

Choose a system that is easy for you to run, either in terms of organisation or plotting. FATE is great for this, where you rely on players providing the input. On the other hand, Star Wars D6 is far easier to run, with its simple dice mechanics and rules.

Plot milestones

Allocate XP (Experience Points) as a milestone, not individually. When your PCs reach a certain significant point they level up – it may be in campaign downtime or a dramatically appropriate point. In Tyranny of Dragons this happens at the end of seven of the eight episodes. There’s no number-crunching of individual XP and you can plan ahead for the necessary levelling up the party will do as a single event, rather than wading through a rulebook each session as one player or another level up.

Give yourself plenty of time

This doesn’t make sense does it? Well, actually it does: if you have the time to get stuff done, get it done. At that point it’s out the way and you can mess about with other stuff, or improve on what you’ve done. Skim ahead in the adventure if you can.

Read ahead

It’ll save you some time on the day, plus you can get some decent ideas together beforehand. It may also help point out any problems. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a dungeon bash or a high falutin’ political intrigue game, don’t be the GM reading out the plot piece by piece. Also, read up on the day: leave it to the last-minute as a refresher.

Post-it notes are your friend

If you need to flick back and forth through a rulebook or plot points, mark the page with a post-it note. It also works for any creature stats or similar.

Attendance management & contingency plans

If you’re running short of players or your group has an erratic attendance, think about running a game featuring the Other Guys or a one-off game. There’s always board games you can fall back on if there’s not enough players. Side quests or solo games can also be a quick fix for a group lacking bodies.

“Preflight” bag.

Keep your dice, rulebooks and adventure/campaign notes together. If you’re also supplying handouts and stationery, keep them all in the same bag. That way you don’t need to worry about cramming everything in together or forgetting stuff.

Ideas book

I’ve mentioned these before in other posts – they’re incredibly useful for GMs when you’re out and about, or even when you’re gaming. Sometimes the players will say (or do) the darnedest things and might give you something to work with later.

Nick images

Within reason. There’s a huge amount of content out there on the internet – ancient maps, paintings, floor-plans – even estate agent brochures are handy for a quick house or floor-plan that you can hand to the players.

I’m sure folk out there have a few more ideas, and I’d love to hear them!

D&D 5e Demo Games: Edinburgh

D&D 5e (Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition) came out in July with both the Starter Pack and the Player’s Handbook (PHB) released at the same time. The D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual (MM) will shortly follow over the next couple of months. This probably isn’t news to most RPG fans, but what isn’t necessarily known is this: there are an amazing amount of new folk taking up the hobby as a result. D&D 5e is doing the same as 3rd and 4th editions of the popular game. Love it or hate it, D&D is by far the most popular point of entry. I suspect Dragon Age is a close second as its very accessible to video gamers – the third part of the RPG is due out soon. Compared to maybe twenty years ago, it’s probably a lot easier to understand RPGs and to get into the hobby. Video games have made RPGs popular (if not cool in some cases) and social media have opened up the hobby to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this. Games fill up quickly and not everyone gets the chance to play regularly. Nor are they sure they can play or run a game. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to team up with Edinburgh’s Black Lion Games to run some demo games of the D&D 5e Starter Set. Previous demo games, like Star Wars: Edge of Empire, were popular. It’ll probably be two slots of three hours length: 11am-2pm, 3pm-6pm. It would be running in Black Lion Games shop and it’s likely to fill up quickly. There’s a certain symbiosis to running a demo game: it brings more people into the hobby, Black Lion gain some sales, and ORC Edinburgh may gain a few new members. It will give people the chance to see the game in play even if they’re only interested in watching a game in session. As such, it should be an interesting experiment and could turn into a regular event for new RPGs. It’s a win all round.

To summarise:

  • What: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, The Lost Mines of Phandelver
  • Who: 4-6 players, first come first served – audience participation may be permitted!
  • When: Two separate sessions – 11am-2pm, 3-6pm. 20th September 2014
  • Where: Black Lion Games, 90 Buccleuch Street, EH8 9NH, Edinburgh.

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The Void RPG: Running the Game

The Void RPG from Wildfire is one of those games that appears to have snuck past the radar of most RPG groups. It’s a pity, because the mechanics are very easy (and basic) to pick up and the game is one of those that lends itself well to someone looking to spook the hell out of their players. If you’ve not run a horror game before, it can be tricky to get right – practice is the key. Technically, these could be used for just about any horror RPG, but I’m going to focus on The Void RPG.

Tone

OK, the Void is a game of survival horror. It’s not the kind of game that fosters heroism. Yes, your PCs may all work together towards an end but it’s their JOB. They signed up to do this. They’re not bemoaning the tragedy of their existence. They go in, get the job done and get out. Not everyone will make it. The best way to treat the Wardens is as a Men-in-Black group meets SWAT team. If you’ve watched the TV show Primeval, then that’s what you’re aiming for a mix of soldiers and experts – obviously with it being a darker and grittier version that’s not suitable for prime-time viewing:) . Alternatively, if the group has no investigator or researcher, make them more like the Colonial Marines in Aliens. Loads of heavy-duty equipment and fire-power that ultimately proves of little value!

It worth remembering that there’s a pervading sense of isolation that a GM needs to create. Help is days – if not weeks – away. That’s provided the signal gets out. On the smaller colonies and space stations, everything is held together by spit and baling wire. The air smells of oil, grease and sweat. There’s a tin-like smell to the air that the oxygen re-scrubbers don’t remove. Everyone wears the same suits for days at a time, often stained by coffee or grease. There’s little water on most worlds so showers and baths are rare – everyone looks grubby, and their hair is lank and greasy. Parts of the colony are constantly being repaired, and jury-rigged or cannibalised parts are common.The lighting is harsh and bright inside most structures, and most are prefabricated. The furnishings are often white or bare metal, although the white may have been scored, marked, or pitted over time. Lighting works on most of the colony, but some flicker constantly, or are shut down as part of  a night/day cycle. Heating/aircon is kept to a minimum on the poorer colonies – Warden’s will either find it uncomfortably chilly or very warm.

On worlds far from the Sun, the people look pale, their skin pasty. Closer to the Sun, people are tanned and weathered-looking – their skin aged prematurely from exposure to the sun. Unless they have hydroponics or a regular supply run, fresh food and produce is hugely expensive. Most food is some for freeze-dried paste/powder. Alcohol is brewed in illicit stills that the local Law Enforcement cannot find or close down, they’re understaffed and under-equipped in every way. Many may also be on the take from local criminals as they smuggle in illegal drugs, booze, pornography, and worse. There’s unlikely to be any animals, although there may be holographic/virtual pets – food and air are at a premium, so any pets are likely to the property of the super-rich.

The bigger colonies/cities are all about a certain amount of decadence – food, drugs, music, sex – and are crowded. The heat generated by the masses of humanity creates a humid atmosphere. There’s constant noise from the crowds, the bars and clubs, and of course atmosphere processors constant whine as they labour under the strain. Sleep is difficult in these places with little or no silence. The bedroom colonies are largely empty. Every corridor looks the same. Every apartment looks the same aside from some individual touches. Everyone keeps to themselves, the corridors silent for much of the time. Children are home-schooled or attend some daily school, where it’s often the only chance for parents to meet other people other than at mealtimes. There’s likely a “behind closed doors” mentality: marital affairs, vices, violence, cults, swinger parties all take place or are whispered about by neighbours. Many residents are away for weeks at a time – it’s only when someone notices the smell that the local authorities become aware of a death in apartment 25c, for example. Law enforcement does what it can, but on the busier worlds there’s just so much going on.

And finally, it always should be clear to the Players that they’re pretty much on their own. Nuke the site from orbit isn’t an option – the installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it! Remember the Wardens are trying to patch over the cracks and cover up the awakening Mythos races as the Cththonian Star approaches. If you’re expecting your players to use heavy firepower to surmount every obstacle then its ceased to be a game of survival horror. The Wardens may have the guns, but they’re often way out of their depth – what appears to be a simple investigation can quickly escalate (see The Void RPG’s Stygian Cycle series for how this works)!

Staging Games

Alright, if you (or your players) have played Call of Cthulhu you’ll probably well aware of how these thing turns out. PCs lead into the adventure with a mysterious occurrence/disappearance. Players head to a new (often unfamiliar) location. They interview local NPCs. Those with research skills head to the local library and newspaper to look up local legends. There’s a big showdown, either with a cult or some Big Bad that manages to incapacitate some of the group. If it’s the end of the campaign, nearly all the PCs die and those left are insane.

That’s how the Void should work, right? Wrong. In-oh-some-many-ways. If your players have played Call of Cthulhu, they’ll pull the same thing. Their researcher will put high stats to their library use and crypto-zoolology skills, soldiers will be able to withstand horrors better, investigators will be streetwise, etc. That’s 1920’s America for you. However, humanity has gone to the stars. English may be the universal language (or Chinese depending on your campaign), but there’s still a lot of local colour. Keyboards and text may be in a foreign language – the locals may speak a bizarre patois of English and a local dialect (Cockney in space!). There’s also the fact that unless the Wardens have a decent cover story then they either need to get local law enforcement on their side, they’ll not be able to discover much beyond a basic clearance. Not to mention jurisdiction, if they do pull the Warden card. The best way to run the Void is with the slow reveal, and “layers of the onion”, building to scenes of intense action. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in the old article of “Writing a Script” the best way is to think of a plot (and sub-plots) following a M-shape (build-up, climatic scene, quiet, disaster/twist, build-up, etc). If you’re starting in the middle of the action (“in media res“) follow a W-shape. These represent build-ups to major action sequences and give the players a chance to take their breath. Note that this isn’t always the best option! So here’s a few themes, that when combined together, will really give some zing!

Brooding evil

There’s something not quite right where the adventure is set. The colonists all make a strange symbol when the plateau is mentioned. No one uses transport tube 15 after 9pm EST (Earth Standard Time). There’s a rich mineral vein in the mountains but no one’s ever filed a claim. Ten years of the colony’s history is encrypted in the memory banks. All the locals must have been inbreeding because they’re really ugly and they all have those big googly eyes. What happened to the previous sheriff? Why are 524 colonists listed when there’s only 200 resident? It’s little details like these that can unsettle your players. Some may be mere local superstition or unrelated, but it’s always a good idea to give the PCs the impression that there’s something going on underneath the surface (sometimes literally!).

Imminent Peril

I’ve talked about imminent peril before. It’s a great tool for getting those groups who over-think everything. Get them moving from encounter to encounter in such a way that they don’t have a chance to stop, rest, and/or mess about. The best movie example of this is Aliens, where the marines exit Ops through the ducts. There’s encounter after encounter with the Xenomorphs. Even though some of the Marines are injured, some of them make it out because they keep going, or are kept going by their team-mates. It’s this kind of unrelenting pace that will capture your players’ imaginations. It can also lead to moments where those players who haven’t been paying attention suddenly realise that they’re on their own, and the airlock is cycling open… Also some great last stands. Hopefully you players won’t get too attached to their PCs: The Void RPG can be quite lethal. It’s one of survival horror, remember!

“What the hell’s going on?”

One of my favourite moments in any game. One of the players will ask this question (possibly phrased in slightly more colourful language). In character or not, it’s best to pause and let the players brainstorm. For a while, at least. It’s a good chance for them to consider whether or how to use Tension Points (see below). And also for the GM to use them to make things very interesting – remember the PCs use them to get a buff, which the GM can then flip around on them: “Okay. I’ve hacked into the system. Oh hell, they’ve tracked us! They know where we are!”. Just remember to grin when you take the Tension Point from them. Then hit ’em with the next disaster/encounter! There’s nothing like complications to make things interesting. Always try and build in a few red herrings to your sessions: they may possibly be of use in later games; or it’ll give you a chance to blow up something when the players aren’t there.

Clichés

Your players will likely run the gamut of all the survival horror/sci-fi clichés. The “Don’t split the party!” cliché  is lot of fun for The Void GM – just because a PC is on their doesn’t mean they should be picked off. Perhaps the rest of the group notice that there’s two signals coming from the air duct as one of the PCs try to fix a fault. Or if the party is split into two, the ones in the control room get a full view of what the others are running away from! Also, open doors and the dark are bad. Your players know this: so when the PCs decide to start closing all the doors, one will jam obviously. This’ll need a PC to go and cycle the power to the airlock manually. So, of course, half the group will pitch up with their weapons trained on the dark area behind the door. At that point the floor gives way, or there’s a soft thump as something(s) big lands behind the PCs. You don’t have to have a clichéd moment – sometime you can build up the tension just by getting them to do the necessary task over several rounds – especially if they’re on their own.

Lighting & Colour

Lighting – both in-game and where you’re playing can have a significant influence. If you’re playing in a brightly lit room, you may want to consider dimming the lights -within reason. Make sure your players can see what they are doing and that they can read their character sheets, perhaps with spots or local light sources! In-game, lighting can be used to convey mood and also horror in itself. The stark white of the medical bay is strewn with ribbons of red flesh and blood splashed across the walls in an oddly significant pattern. The strobe of emergency lighting flickering between red and black; as something gets closer and closer, barely glimpsed in stop-motion. The torch rolling across the cargo bay, where the shadows could hide anything. It’s also worth listening to your players in such instances, and playing upon their fears to a certain extent.

Tension Points

Oh, I love these. If anything is going to give you a good game it’s these. Players stymied for ideas? Tension point. “We’re all gonna die!” Tension point. And the best thing about them is the group have to agree on it. If you’ve a munchkin player in the group who’s basically built the kind of PC that only exists for their benefit, then you can give them a really, really bad day. Especially if they are Rules Lawyers. You need to be careful not to penalise players for their good ideas though. Just remember when they think everything is going great, that’s the time to spring the Tension Point. Don’t be vindictive about it though, just work it into the storyline – it works especially well with imminent peril (countdowns, reactor leaks, bombs, etc.). Look upon it as the chance to give an enhanced experience to your players, rather than hamstringing their idea.

Play aids

Play aids are a must. By these, I’m not just talking about floor plans or maps. For some reason, you’ll not find many maps in much of The Void’s material. It’s immensely frustrating. It’s the first thing players will ask for during a game so make sure you’ve got something to show your players when they ask. The chances are you’ll have to do it yourself. There’s probably a few on-line resources out there you can use, but I’ve not found any of use so far (let me know in the comments if there is such a thing!). Floorplans or maps of ships are the same. I’m hoping that the Ships of The Void supplement, when it comes out, has something. Even basic line-graphics readouts would work. One thing I did do was create some Tension point counters which can be handed out to players for use during the game. They have movie quotes upon them which should make your players smile at least.

Cinematic Play

The Void RPG lends itself to a restrained or understated method of cinematic play (see here if you’re wondering what I’m talking about). Your PCs are essentially dealing with the unknown, and you shouldn’t use cut-scenes unless they spend a Tension point. It can be exceptionally useful for the Clichés moments I talked about earlier. While the PCs are watching something else, the second motion detector signal arrives or there’s a power loss… Again you need to keep things restrained and remember to keep the pace of the game going. For this reason make sure that your players are comfortable with this style of play. As I’ve stated elsewhere, if your group is comfortable with cinematic style, go for it.

Music/Audio

There’s actually a Spotify playlist that Wildfire set up for the express reason of adding ambient music to The Void RPG. I’ve a small Bluetooth wireless speaker that I placed in the room when I ran the game. It worked really well. Ambient sounds work best, but film soundtracks such as the Aliens one are also good. Games like the Half-Life: Black Mesa soundtrack are also good.  Someone else has already gone to the effort of creating a soundtrack designed to manipulate the listener’s emotional states. If your group are hitting the city or another colony, go for pounding dark Techno or Industrial tunes. It’s best to pick and choose though. The wrong music blaring through a speaker can be a distraction if it is suddenly terribly upbeat. Also, turn the volume down really low – just enough for your players to hear, but so that its on the edge of hearing. Alternatively, don’t even tell them that there’s music playing. 🙂 Just remember that music can be a distraction for the GM too. Don’t focus too much upon getting it right at the costs of the game. If you’re faffing about with music play-lists and your players are getting bored, remember that you are a GM not a DJ!

Inspirational Media/Films

OK, there’s a lot of films you may want to watch to get some ideas about how to keep the pace going and to make sure that none of the players are bored . There’s some computer games you can play to get some staging/pacing ideas (these days they’re often plotted like movies). If you’re feeling really adventurous, have them playing on mute in the background, perhaps cutting some of them together into a montage. Here’s a few suggestions (some are listed in The Void RPG rulebook) you may want to check out (there’s probably more – feel free to suggest them in the comments below).

Films: Alien Quadrilogy, The Thing (John Carpenter’s one, and prequel), Event Horizon, Escape from New York, Deep Rising, Leviathan, Outland, Pandorum, Ghosts of Mars, Total Recall (original), Deepstar 6, The Descent, Split Second, The Abyss.

Computer Games: Doom 3, Dead Space, Resident Evil, Silent Hill.

Summary

Hopefully this has given the reader a few ideas as how to stage their games. Everybody’s style is different, but this may have been of use. Just remember that it is a case of preparation and practice.

Void RPG Downloads

The Void RPG Tension Point Cards
The Void RPG Tension Point Cards
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The Void: Map of the Town of Presidia
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The Void RPG

The Void RPG

More about The Void RPG

2159 AD. It is a good time to be alive. The nations of Earth still exist, but they have become more civilized, and humanity has expanded into the rest of our solar system. But, alas, it is not to be our time. Something approaches, a thing on an orbit from far away. Seemingly a mysterious shard of dark matter, this object is known in obscure prophecy as the Chthonian Star. It is awakening things long thought lost or dead, things that have slumbered awaiting its return. The Unified World Council sends out special teams of sanctioned Wardens, whose job it is to ascertain the new threats to human life, to learn everything they can about them, and fight them wherever they are found.

The Void is an original Lovecraftian hard sci-fi horror setting.

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.

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