Friday, April 22, 2011

Directing the Game (Part One)

Ready for the Close Up
So finally back on this particular blog track- taking a look at Geeklists (either mine or someone else's) to expand or comment on those ideas. My hand has finally healed up to the point where I can type regularly without too much pain. This week, I present a list by one of my favorite RPG Geek contributors, Hida Mann (Jaime Lawrence):

Hida's Top Ten: Directors You Wish Were Running A Game For You

In which he considers many directors and how their style might look at the table. It's a nice chance to comment on great directors as well as link the two mediums. His list illustrates another great approach to Geeklist creation and what makes that one of my favorite tools on the site. I have a lot to ramble about, so I'm going to split this into two parts.

Jaime brings to bear some serious knowledge about the directors. I consider myself a film buff- with some odd areas of interest, but definitively not an expert on film. I agree with a number of his choices (especially his #1) but at first I disagreed with some others- for example Zach Snyder. But the more I thought about it, in the context of directors you'd want to have actually running a game for you, the more the choices that at first seemed incongruous to me actually did fit. It also made me think about a number of issues related to the intersection of cinema and rpg gaming. So here are some of those thoughts- or at least part one of those thoughts.

Seeing the Game
I don't want to lay claim to a universal, but in my experience movies influence our visualization. They can help us shape how we picture stories told to us and can serve as a touchstone for experience at the table. We might reference a particular scene from a film directly to provide the players with a sense of the scene. But indirectly I think we build quite a bit of our imaginary landscape from films- or any other visual media. But among all the different types of visual arts, I think cinema builds a more profound impact on our senses (through the darkened space of the theater, a complete story told in a short time, the screen size and eye movements, etc).

A Trilogy
More objectively, three areas can impact our conscious play at the table: visuals, characterization and drama. One way to look at a game is that a GM is describing a film, with the players able to participate and interact with it. A good film can provide the GM with a set of tools for that description: we start a scene close up, we pan around to see something approach, the shot opens wider and we realize just how large the chamber is. These are all terms and concepts borrowed from film. I picked up an interesting book on this called Cinematic Storytelling which goes through and looks at how shots, movement, sound and other details get used to effect by directors. Its a nice book to give a GM ideas for presenting a scene if they feel like they've fallen into a rut.

There's one approach to reading an rpg which looks at it as an interactive radio-play. I'm not sure I agree with that-- or at least, as an analogy, it doesn't work. Instead I like the idea that its someone describing a movie to you- complete with the slow down to provide visual details. I never cared for radio dramas. However my dad would sometimes retell me the plots to movies he'd seen which were too old for me. I still remember clearly walking along and him spelling out the details of The Shining to me. That stuck in my head for months- creating images far worse than the movie ended up being. A GM usually provides more description than "in voice" discussion, in my experience. The irony being that the GM has to seem like a natural storyteller- for my money there's fewer worse things than a GM clearly reading from boxed text at the table.

Movies can also serve as guideposts for characterization in a couple of ways. They can demonstrate how certain directors foreshadow or reveal traits through actions or reactions. There's an education to be had in framing and body language- since usually movies and rpg games don't give us the internal monologue of non-protagonists. That can be subtle. Of course one of the potential problems of this approach lies in the attention one gives to it. In a film, everything's taking place in a larger frame with continuous movement. Directors who heavy-handedly draw attention to what ought to be a quieter and more hidden signal insult the audience's attention. On the other hand, the GM has a smaller pool of information they're working with (verbal, body language, perhaps handouts, maybe lighting and music) and when the GM makes a point of mentioning something, that's usually a flag for a player- 'he wouldn't have mentioned it if it wasn't important..." Good GMs can, of course, turn that against the players but in general there's the difference of bandwidth between the inputs of a movie screen and that of a GM's presentation.

But another simple way in which GMs can use films as a basis for characterization is simply referencing characters by name or through action or manner. If the GM bears himself like The Dude from The Big Lebowski, that sends a pretty clear signal to the players. Likewise, echoing other iconic characters like Han Solo or Rooster Cogburn can paint a pretty clear initial figure: that the character looks and/or acts like that character. The GM can also use that as a false trail, but too much of that can throw players out of the story. Movies aren't the only source GMs can riff on for these things, but I'd argue they have the most vivid and most stable presentations of characters to play from.

Finally, I think the most important thing GMs can take is a sense of drama and pacing. Not that any session or arc has to follow your standard dramatic progression, but it can be a useful thing to have an appreciation for. Understanding how a first act has to push things uphill, how the second builds and challenges and how the third introduces complications and resolves plots can be great. Even if you're sandboxing a game, you can consider how movies switch from fast to slow or ratchet up the tension. Dramatic structures can be built into each piece: scene, session, arc, campaign in larger and larger forms. Mind you, I'm a person who really thinks pacing is vital to a good game and that it complements drama. I've talked a little bit about that idea before. Consider how the various directors Hida mentions control the pacing dial. Probably the best example of this would be the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to the screen. If you've read the book, you know there's a lot of bloat. Interesting material, but bloat (tangents, extra information, rules discussions...). The screenplay manages to cut the right things to keep the drama and the tension going. I'm not saying it is a great film, but it does manage to take tough material and make it into something with real energy.

Changing Descriptive Languages
I have a little theory about description in games, and I'm not sure how much water it holds but bear with me. I believe there's been an evolution in the visual language of gaming: particularly in how combat's described and how players envision their actions. In the old days, the description of a combat tended to be more mechanical, even if the system wasn't particularly mechanistic. We had some flourishes in descriptions of actions but they tended to draw from a few cinematic/visual sources: Bond's films and like brawlers, some sword and sorcery epics (like Dragonslayer, the Sinbad films), and swashbuckling films. However the increased accessibility of HK cinema, wushu movies, and anime has changed the way in which players and GMs describe what's happening. Even before the "Stunting" mechanics of Exalted, we had Feng Shui really integrating those poetics of violence into the system itself. Now the default is to think of combats, chases, and action sequences in those terms. Systems which go for a more realistic and less cinematic approach are the exception. Even more 'realistic' modern films, like Bourne and Casino Royale still have crazy physical sequences which borrow more than a little from these ideas. I read a recent review of the movie Hanna which pointed out that now martial arts for characters is the default rather than the exception. I don't think that's a bad thing, but one worth being aware of. I know in our group it would be hard to roll back to a less cinematic approach to action.

to be continued...