How to Make Your Games More Cinematic

by Travis W. Herring

Many role-players enjoy evenings with their friends, sitting around the table or living room, eating pizza and drinking soda. For most, this is enough. For others, however, a traditional evening about the table isn’t. They want MORE. For those people, this article is the answer you have been looking for.

How many times have you thought of your game as a movie? A television series? How many times has it occurred to you and your players that what you are playing would be just as entertaining as the shows you see on the TV, were it to be made into a series? Is it funny? Does it have it’s own style and continuity? Do your characters have lives that others might find fun to watch and follow?

If so, then why not approach your game as the writers for a television series?

The group I play with has turned our 7th Sea swashbuckling game based in Castille (the game’s version of Spain) into a television soap opera called “La Rosa.” How have we done that? Glad you asked.

  1. We have an opening sequence that we start each game with, complete with imagery that we change, based on whether we believe it is a new season or not. Occasionally, we revisit this, describing the introduction, especially after a long time separates the current game from the last. It helps to set the tone for the evening’s game. Try this by imagining sequences involving your characters, popular scenes, famous NPCs and/or villains, and try to view them from the camera’s eye, as you would see them in the introductory montage of images you get at the beginning of any television show.
  2. We have starting music (Spanish guitar) picked for its sound to match the feel of our game, and determines when we go from welcoming chatter to game-time. Pack the CD-player with several disks full of music that matches the feel of the game you’re playing. This will provide the musical tracks against which the show is played. Enough has been said about this that there is no point in explaining further.
  3. Choose actors that you believe would be perfect to play the characters were it a TV Show. Oddly, doing this and then watching those particular actors’ events in the real world can be hysterically funny, especially when the actor for your “Paladin of Light” is caught in a drunken stupor or has to go in for rehab. What will the party think of him THEN?
  4. Every game has tangents. They are a natural outcome of gamers being friends. Our group has turned these tangents into yet another way of incorporating the television show mentality and fun. No matter how long the conversation strays from the game, eventually it will return, usually forced by the GM. How best to maintain the integrity of the TV/game concept? “This part of La Rosa is brought to you by…” and the name or company the group was last speaking of. Someone goes to the restroom? Name a toilet paper. Someone wants a soda? Name the soda!Good television shows have large numbers of advertisers. Your game is a good television show, right? Name your advertisers! It adds a certain amount of silliness to the game, continues the television show “feel” to the game, and usually serves as a polite way to get back to the game itself.
  5. Most fun shows, at least those that do not take themselves entirely seriously (Xena, Hercules, or any series starring Bruce Campbell, for instance) have their main actors frequently speak to the screen, in what is called “an aside.” This adds a certain “fourth-wall” element to a game, where any player can, as the character in the game, address the audience as if he knows they are there, usually as a wisecrack about something just seen or said in-game. When used in proper doses (no more than once an “episode”, if that frequently), it adds a certain fun that cannot be explained. It makes you laugh when you see it. Why not incorporate it into your game?
  6. As with all good television series, your game has fans and you must take them into account! Many hardcore fans (and you have to know that you will have them) will create and maintain websites, newsgroups, and discussion boards throughout the web. Any time something particularly fun or weird is done by a character, my group makes reference to how the Internet fans will react, complete with overreactions (“Antonio is Gay! Daniella is a flirt!”) etc. This little sidebar to the game adds a flavor to the game that lets the players expose their true feelings about what is going on in a non-confrontational manner, so long as everyone sees it for the humorous side. Frequently, the players will state negative or strange things going up on the ‘net about their OWN character. After all, every actor and every character has fans and detractors. Make the most of this. Point out the oddities the web allows, and have fun with it. So long as it makes you laugh, it’s a good thing.
  7. If your game is ever dragging because someone doesn’t know what to do, or you’re just generally burned out, take care of the situation with an evening of out-takes! Refer to sequences everyone remembers and make fun of them by referring to the situation as a cast and crew would on-scene. Outtakes happen in real television series. Actors play jokes on one another, props fail at inopportune times… Make reference to this, let your players do the same, and watch a dull evening turn into a humor-filled one as everyone learns to laugh at themselves.
    With these steps and the proper amount of humility and willingness to poke fun at your game and the television industry at the same time, you will find yourselves enjoying yourselves that much more than you normally would. After all, the people who write television series do the same thing we as gamers do, only they get paid for it and get fired if their shows don’t fly!