Friday, May 6, 2011

Directing the Game (Part Three: fini)

The Third Act!
In a the last couple of posts (here and here), I've talked about linkages- echoes of some of Hida Mann's great comments on what games run by certain directors might look like (his list again: Hida's Top Ten: Directors You Wish Were Running A Game For You). And I find the language of cinema useful in describing a scene or coming up with a structural idea. However, some things don't carry over as well between the two mediums.

POV and Hidden Knowledge
For example, RPGs are at heart, a first person presentation. The GM describes the scene, situations and events for the players and they react to them. The players have the odd role of being both the audience and the protagonists of the events. On the other hand, cinema can show us what's happening away from the protagonists. We see the development of the threat- know what they're facing, know what they're walking into, get the revelation of the existence of a traitor, know that's there's a bomb in the house. All of these things ratchet up the tension. That's more difficult to do at the table. I've seen GMs cut away to scenes or vignettes happening away from the players. They often provide some nice atmosphere- but actually create more confusion. I've used them as prologue breaks between chapters of games, often writing up little stories. But this technique puts the player in a bind, creates confusion. Do they actually know that's going on? If not, then how are these supposed to act on the information? Again, the inherent signal/noise problem of the gaming table makes this worse. I'm not sure how to do this well except through scrying, visions, or the like- which do give the players information. But that becomes an entirely different kind of method instead of just an emotive one.

As a result certain kinds of plots- like traitors, hidden bombs, allies surprisingly in peril- have to be handled from the point of where the players actually learn the information. I think in many ways that changes the weight of those moments.

And Then The Cat Leapt Out!
As a parallel, I'd point out the classic technique of cinema: objects of import in frame briefly, things passing through the frame outside the protagonist's view and even things sneaking up on them. You can't really do that in a game. In a movie, those things create tension because we see something the hero doesn't- we want to warn them, we jumped, we feel the dread of the moment. On the tabletop, once a player's been told something, they react to it- you can't tell them to wait or get to get caught unless you want an irritated player. A good player will, from time to time, go along with a loss of autonomy in favor of drama- but it isn't something a GM ought to count on or abuse. So you have to do other slow build methods, mention they hear or see something indistinct or else have the things leap out at them. The classic is to describe something in normal terms, but when they get up close reveal that it is in fact more horrible than the commonplace thing they thought it was- so something looks blurry, but then comes into awful, mind-blasting focus.

Related to this is the question of pointing at something in frame. As I mentioned earlier, most players understand the economy of GM descriptions: generally things which get mentioned specifically most often have weight. A great GM can maintain a level of rich detail so that the important details thrown in for the future don't immediately stand out like a sore thumb. I'm only rarely a great GM- most of the time I'm a good GM, and I can see the players eye light up when they've caught what I was trying to slip by them in passing. Subtle foreshadowing at the table can be hard.

Cinema, and all media have different levels of replicability or "permanence." An rpg session is fairly impermanent, even with extensive note-taking. Leaving aside those who record and pod-cast their sessions, most of the time a particular moment of a game will only live on in recalled details and oft-told tales. On the other hand, mediums with greater permanency can provide layers of detail within each frame which can be rewatched, caught and appreciated. It's part of what makes watching a great movie rewarding- and I'm not just talking about spectacle, but catching how the director has set things up and provided second stories. I think comic books and graphic novels provide one of the best medium for this: static images which can be examined, but combined with a forward moving plot or story. The comics I most enjoy have a couple of layers of ideas (visual or textual) which happen throughout. I stole that point a little from my friend Gene Ha, the artist. We had an editor suggest not bothering with references and the like as they got in the way. We might have been talking about different things- but I think good and meaningful visual devices reward rereading. But I'm hard-pressed to imagine a tool like that for a role-playing game- without invoking another medium. A good prop or handout could reward such examination- but those things present a solitary reader-viewer experience.

It Goes to Eleven
Yes, you have an unlimited FX budget in rpgs. However that doesn't mean you have to use it. I enjoy going epic, but sometimes being restainted can be a nice contrast. In regards to Hida's list, I mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of Zack Snyder. I think he's illustrative of a new kind of approach to cinema: spectacle and flash without substance. Or there may be substance, but there's no real escalation of the emotional stakes. How do you show the build up- how do you show development? How do you ratchet up the tension and move to bigger and better things. That isn't an issue of quality or quantity: but content of the event. I think that's part of what bothers me about the limitations of Challenge Ratings, mechanics heavy and point systems so much. I want to see players face overwhelming things and defeat them. That's not a balance question, so much as a drama one. However, I also need some break time, I need a rising arc of challenges and so on. If every moment and scene is an absolute blow-out extravaganza boss-fight super-excellent-sweet-ninja-fun-time sequence, how do you top that?

Moment to Moment

"Chris Wisniewski expands on a quote from Sergei Eisenstein ("Cinema is, first and foremost, montage."), and makes a pretty spot-on expansion of the importance of cuts and editing: "For Eisenstein, it's not just that the juxtaposition of two images or shots can be meaningful in the hands of the right filmmaker; it's that cinema is images, sounds, and moments of time colliding with each other to produce new meanings. The cut is not simply one cinematic tool among many; it is the essential characteristic of cinema." -Monika Bartyzel
Cinema places an emphasis on transitions and cuts. Jump Cuts, Smash Cuts, Split Screen, Montage, Visual Match Cuts, Audio Match Cuts, Dissolves- mu first instinct had been to say that rpgs can't use those. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if those could be put into play by the GM when describing the events. Most of the time, I expect we're showing everything in the frame (mise-en-scene to use that term badly). I mentioned the earlier the creating unity of experience in a combat scene. But that could be contrasted with a chaotic and fast approach- where you describe smash cutting from one player to the next, leaving them with little idea of the grand scheme of things. Divided parties could be, I think, with difficulty described with split-screen. An audio link could be created- perhaps the falling to death of a bad guy in one scene fades into a scream for joy at the celebration which follows. I'm not saying it would be easy, and it might be a little too artificial, but it might be worth it.

Too Many Cooks
Most rpgs have multiple protagonists, working together. Movie films focus on single protagonists- or if you have multiple protagonists, they have unequal weight or they're dealt with mostly in separate scenes. Novels usually follow that lead depiction of groups: usually Main + "sidekick" or if the characters are of relatively equal weight, then usually get separated or else handled with changing perspective. I think that's one of the keys and difficulties to rpgs- considering who the protagonists are and how you handle multiple hero quests.

Three More Directors
Finally, three directors not on Hida's list and their games:

Sam Peckinpah: Only runs Wild West games or else D&D 4e, but without "all those fruity non-humans and magic fairy crap." When a player suggests they might talk instead of starting a fight, Peckinpah reaches across the table and slaps him for being girly. All the PCs die in the final session of every campaign.

Yasujirō Ozu: Group spends several session buying equipment, talking with the local towns-people, coming to an understand of their role and place in the world. When the group goes to leave any town, one PC invariably ends up choosing to remain there to join their simple life.

Luis Buñuel: You don't know from session to session what genre or system you're going to be playing. You suspect that the premise of the game is that you're playing out the dreams of a dog dying in the gutters of Al Amarja.



  1. Movies, text stories, and tabletop RPGs are linear forms of storytelling, a sequence of hopefully surprising events. Cuts are inherent in RPGs and in text stories. They use linear montage of scenes too, but it's less jarring than movies because you have no image discontinuity. GM says something. Player 1 goes. Player 2. Etc. Each will talk about something different, and the GM will jump from one NPC to another, describe different objects and places, or may suddenly declare it's the next morning.

    Say the PCs are fighting orcs in a dungeon hallway. Between actions, the GM says there are lights at one end of the hall. As the fight progresses, he says they're getting closer. Then he says at the other end of the hallway, from which the GMs entered the dungeon, they can hear the door slam shut... Cuts are inherent in any such RPG scene.

  2. True- so I guess the question is how to be aware of those cut- are there opportunities for tabletop narration which the Gm can better seize on? Are there some techniques of using cuts from films which could be brought over to the tabletop in an interesting way?

  3. Duhhhr, "from which the the PCs entered the dungeon." Though I suspect the trapped PCs would enjoy hacking up a crew of GMs at that point.

  4. From a cinema point of view, the odd thing is that the Players/Audience are also directors. It's like the problem in "The Icicle Thief", where the characters from "The Bicycle Thief" wander into modern TV commercials when the movie is broadcast on Italian commercial television. If RPGs were a totally passive medium like cinema or epic recited poetry, the tricks you're discussing would be easier. But everyone at the table gets a turn behind the camera.

    I'm curious how you'd translate the Godfather "Baptism and Murder" scene.

    It's been said before, but RPGs are closest to theater. You can jump/smash cut by changing the topic of conversation, or you can literally cut by forcing everyone to look in a new direction. The tabletop, props in your hand or passed around, wandering the audience, or even appointing vice-GMs to act out specific roles or duties (important NPCs, SFX, etc). I think great things could be accomplished by having a GM roleplay an NPC against a vice-GM. I've mentioned before the idea of giving NPCs to Players to act out when their PCs aren't active.

    My favorite trick was the knock knock knock in the Knights Templar RPG you loaned me...

  5. Absolutely- the strange positioning of the players as audience and characters affects this. I think cinema has some things which we don't normally used which might be borrowed- but in a measured way, so that you don't end up with strange devices that throw the players out of the experience more. Though, rpgs do have a greater artificiality of experience than other mediums? Do they? Not sure.

    Something I forgot to mention is the question of length as well- especially given attention spans. I've heard Fiasco criticized for being too fast an rpg, but in some ways it best replicates that cinematic experience.

    best example I can imagine for characters commenting on protagonists would be the "Below Decks" episode of Star Trek: Next Generation which had the NPC crew members talking about their experiences with the main crew. I wonder if, in a long term campaign, you could pull something like that off with the PCs playing established NPCs talking about the PCs and what they thought of them. In today's post on Changeling, you'll see I did have two of the players play NPCs interacting with a PC. That had some nice results and benefits. I recall I ran a side-story in a long fantasy campaign where, when the PCs were off on a mission, the players played all of their NPCs defending the base against a mystical assault. It was a two or three part session and people enjoyed the break and the opportunity.

  6. There's the seed of something brilliant in card games like Munchkin, where essentially you have on PC at a time, and everyone else is the GM unless someone volunteers to help. I think the concept could be used in true RPGs.

    It's just a matter of getting rid of the "screw your friends" incentives from Munchkin, and changing into the standard GM tactic of throwing just a little more than the PC thinks he can handle.

  7. Fiasco (and to a lesser extent Time & Temp) have a kind of shared power for scene/event resolution which might be usable for something like this- in Fiasco you either get to set the scene & the stakes OR you get to narrate the actual resolution- the other player(s) pick up whatever you chose not to take up.