Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Media Studies

Whenever someone complains about a movie adaptation of a novel, telling me how it was “so different”, my response is always the same: it should be different. Some storytelling techniques work really well in one medium but translate badly to others. Role-playing games are just one more medium of storytelling, and there are some narrative devices that they just don't do well.

If you've seen Ocean's Twelve, you probably remember the scene in which the rival thief has to dance his way through the network of motion detector beams. For two minutes, we are transfixed by his every step and motion, appreciating the grace and technique that lets him weave through the room. In an RPG, this moment is almost completely lost:

I want to dodge the lasers,” says the rogue's player.

Cool,” says the GM, “roll Acrobatics.”

37. I am a beautiful animal.”

You certainly are. You're through, no problem.”

Similarly, videogames can capture really satisfying reflex-based adventuring moments- timing a jump perfectly from one platform to another, dodge-rolling under a giant's swing, or finessing a lock with a bobby pin. With the dice separating players' actions from their characters, it's hard to get that same visceral satisfaction.

I can think of plenty of other examples, but there's just one takeaway message that I want this post to have for all of them: if the moment matters, the players (and GM) should think about what medium would do it best, and try to recreate that feeling. Go for the climactic slow motion of the movies or the controller-gripping instinctual button mashing of the console platformer.


Player: I'm gonna try to jump to the airship.

GM: You poor brave fool. I like it! Roll Athletics!

Player: ...three successes?

GM: Nice. You're hanging off one of the struts.


Player: I'm gonna try to jump to the airship.

GM: Alright, so Liam starts running across the roof. The airship is actively getting farther away from the building. Last chance, one more step and you're committed... twelve stories down if it doesn't work... definitely doing it?

Player: gaaaahhhhh! Yes...? Yes.

GM: Your foot's on the edge. And you're rolling publicly, no takebacks, no retcons, with the knowledge that character death is permanent.

Player: Yep.

GM: And he launches! He clears eight feet out no problem, but starts falling with four left to go... roll your Athletics, sir.

Player: ...three successes?

GM: you get it with one arm. Your legs are flailing around through the air, but you're hanging off one of the struts.

And conversely:

GM: The door slams shut and something in the wall clicks. Reflex save.

Player: I don't have time to wedge something in the door? What's the save for?

GM: No time for wedging, no. You want to sit and make a Perception or trust your reflexes?

Player: Reflexes. Rolled a 16.

GM: Cool. Your spidey sense tells you there's a massive arrow trap behind the wall gearing up to shoot you. You can move forward into the corridor or stand here and try to dodge the arrows.

Player: Nope. I'll take a careful step forward. Perception?

GM: No time.

Player: Well I can't imagine this going wrong. I step forward.

GM: And another reflex save!

Player: What, really? More arrows?

GM: Nope, this time the floor's falling out from under you.

Player: I am the worst rogue... 8.

GM: Congratulations, you found a pit! 7 damage and you have a spike through your calf. Everything is terrible.


GM: The door slams shut and something in the wall clicks. Reflex.

Player: What?

GM: You have 4 seconds. There's a LOT of clicking now. Give me a reflex save.

Player: buh... 16.

GM: The square you're in is about to be filled with arrows. Move forward or take them. 2 seconds.

Player: I move!

GM: Reflex save. 2 seconds.

Player: 8...?

GM: AND INTO THE HIDDEN PIT! 7 damage and you have a spike through your calf. Everything is terrible.

In the first example, the GM waits to call for the dice roll until the absolute last possible moment. In the second, she forces the player to act quickly to simulate what his character is experiencing.

Players can do this too. If you're doing something cinematic, describe every part of your action before you roll the dice. The buildup will either make you look incredibly cool, or will fail spectacularly. Either way, that action meant something to you, and now it's now more memorable for the whole group.

I feel like I should put this disclaimer: I am not just advocating more verbose and poetic roleplaying. The difference between “you hit it” and “you slice through its guts, spraying blood and goblin screams through the air” is pretty obvious and pretty well known, and if used overmuch, gets stale fast. 

I'm advocating specifically speeding up or slowing down your narrative to fit the kind of scene you're trying to create. If you find yourself wishing your game were a movie (or a book, or a manga, or a videogame) isolate the elements you want from that medium and bring them to the table. 

No comments:

Post a Comment