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RPGs and Film narrative

By Julian Jackson

"Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes? I hate snakes." Raiders of the Lost Ark

When I see a good film, I often file it away in my mind to use in gaming, sometimes directly. "You are archaeology students, and your teacher, Dr Indiana Jones, has sent you off to locate this valuable artifact he needs for some important but unspecified, and rather vague, research."

Hoarse, deep voiceover: What power does the mysterious artifact contain? Why can't Indy go himself? What hasn't he told the players? Da da da daaah!!!

The other option is to steal some part, such as the plot, villain, location, or whatever, and put it into another game. For example, lifting the evil cult from Temple of Doom (which was itself taken partially from Aztec rituals) and putting it into my own game setting, changing names and characters a little.

But film narrative is not the same as RPG narrative, so simply taking a whole film plot and transposing it is a mistake.

Conventional film narrative is normally based upon the Three Act Structure, which is intended to fill 90+ minutes, and end in a resolution. You can read about this in any screenwriting book.

Note that the acts are not of equal length, with Act 2 The Conflict being the longest. Each Act ends with a PP (Plot Point or Turning Point) that sends the action in a new direction.

The Coda is the short, quiet, often humorous tail end to leave the audience happy or to set-up a teaser for the next episode (especially in TV shows). It is optional.

The Inciting Incident sets the ball rolling: You ride into town and the Sheriff's been shot - what are you going to do?

While this structure is perfectly good for films and TV, it has problems and benefits for RPGs. If you know what the drawbacks are, then you can manipulate this to keep your players engaged. One other factor: films do not go on at the same pace all the time - there are sections of intense action, comedic moments (even in action films) and quieter passages; Hitchcock legendarily claimed that he slackened off the suspense for a moment in his films before the climax, so the audience could scuttle to the toilet. Like many of his pronouncements, I'm not sure if this is true or he was just baiting the interviewer.

Most films hit the audience with the Inciting Incident straight off. So do I. If people come round to game, then do you want to start off with accounting?

GM: Mike: your character's owed 1746 experience points. Sir Tugendhat? Do you want to see if you can buy a warhorse in this town?


How about this:

GM: Your characters are due to meet a mysterious patron, Doktor Zee, in the private room above the Inn. A chambermaid shows you up, carrying a tray of delicious snacks and a carafe of wine. As she opens the door you see someone sitting in a chair and you approach. It is a middle-aged, wealthily dressed man with a dagger sticking out of his chest! CRASH! The chambermaid drops her tray and screams. You hear booted feet on the stairs. A bunch of armed, uniformed men race into the room.

Watch Leader: Murderers: you're under arrest!

Player: We didn't do it!

Watch Leader: (Evil sneer) I love it when they resist arrest. Get them men!

The players are forced to fight and flee. Assuming they escape, they have to clear their names and find out why they were set up.

The game's afoot, no messing around. The various kinds of housekeeping tasks associated with gaming are best kept to one side, out of core gaming time, or dealt with by email. Even if it is a new game with fresh characters, I feel that it is best to provide them with all the basics they need and jump-start the adventure, than worry about buying stuff. Indiana Jones goes off around the world without packing so much as a toothbrush. Aragorn displays little interest in iron rations. Nor should you, fellow GM. It seems strange, in a world where dragons are real, to worry about trifles like how many metal spikes the party has. They have enough to do whatever they need to do. Film heroes always, always have the right stuff in their coat pockets to build an improvised bomb or whatever.

However, for games I take a different view of the 3 Act narrative structure:

The basic structure is still the same, but each act builds to a climax, lessens off the tension, then builds up each time to a higher climax. There are Plot Points, but they are of lesser importance. For example, often in films the hero's best friend turns out to be a traitor or terrorist -if your character has been adventuring with some other character for a decade, this just wouldn't wash...unless they had been cursed, or under some form of mind control, so often the sort of plot turning points that you see in films feel artificial to RPG players. However, if they are investigating, then a new clue can be a turning point, sending them in a new direction: Oh, Doktor Zee was blackmailing the Baron Harkonnen. Now we have a suspect!

This diagram is simplistic but I hope you understand what I am aiming at. What I like about imagining plots in terms of acts and climaxes is that you can sense the pace of a game. What learnt early on GMing classic dungeons was that the pace of the game was dictated by the players and geography. I felt this gave a poorer game than more freeflow games that could have incidents happen whenever I felt the game sagging. Note that the straight lines in the diagram above do not indicate a smooth buildup through each act, because you will be continually changing the pace to make the game flow. The Indiana Jones films stand out from their legions of lesser imitators by the way they let the pressure off after ferocious excitement, by letting the audience laugh for a moment, then plunging into them into more stress.

In the above example, after the players above have escaped the murder scene and fled the town, followed hotly by the town watch in pursuit, you could have two choices: to screw up the tension even more by keeping the pursuers on their tails, like the implacable Superposse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or let them evade their enemies.

If you choose the latter, then it is time to sit back so the players can take stock, ask questions, and form plans. We have gone down to the bottom of the diagonal = low excitement. This is where we start Act 2 as the players piece together the puzzle, picking up clues. Who has the motive to murder Zee? Who had the opportunity? Clearly not the chambermaid, but did she know something? And, most importantly, who benefits from the killing?

Your players will be following the trail through Act 2 as they unravel the mystery. Of course, this structure can apply to any adventure, not just an investigation. Various factors, subplots, red herrings can complicate the plot or not. No game should be flow smoothly to the end. Unexpected things must arise.

Films are like life with the boring bits taken out. So are RPGs. In films we never see the hero wasting half an hour finding a parking-space. We just cut to him going from one bit of action to another. The journey is a waste of screen time. Same in RPGs: why would you want to roleplay a dull wilderness journey, wasting game time as you roll for tedious wanderer encounters. I just say: "We cut to the farmhouse of Cuthbert Crookback who you suspect knows something about why Zee was killed. What do you want to do?" If you want to be less overt about the mechanics of the game you can say they reached the farmhouse without untoward incident.

Eventually they will have discovered who the Evil Villain is who had Zee murdered and framed them for it. Then they must plan to capture him and bring him to justice, or players being what they are, terminate him with a tiny little bit of prejudice. This is Act 3.

Being of a classical bent (it's the way I walk), I would have the Evil Villain hide out in his fortress lair, with guards, a monstrous Henchbeast (or robot or renegade Jedi warrior, you know the drill).

I've given some thought to this. One of my weaker points as GM is that I am not as theatrical as some. I find it difficult to act out numbers of different NPCs, so I mostly describe the lesser ones, keeping my limited skills for the few who really need to stand out. Ubervillains, Mad Scientists and Deranged Wizards are a specialty.

A prop works wonders. For example, I've used white gloves and black gloves, something to help me transform from my normally amiable self to someone else, someone...psychotic. It also is clear that when I take the gloves off I'm the GM again.

So a climax really needs to be climax. The players lives need to be in danger. (Or appear to be so - I don't like killing players, but I surely try to put the Fear of Dog into them.) So I will rehearse the Villain so I know how he/she/it will behave. Given that in Real Life I have failed to meet even one homicidal maniac bent on world domination, all I have to go on is films. There these Villains seem to often be excessively polite as well as excessively sadistic: "Ah, the Elven Lady Candirel...your pulchritude and beauty is even greater than the Bards tell. It is a pity that I shall have to have you boiled in oil, but I shall make sure the remains get a proper burial instead of being thrown to the hounds." Players do seem to get a kick out of these banter sessions: "Thank you Baron Harkonnen. You don't happen to have some ridiculously over-complicated but murderous plan you'd like to share with us before you boil us in oil?" "Well, now you ask, the elimination of Doktor Zee was because he knew too much about my plans - where my Loremaster opens the Hellmouth unleashing an army of the undead from the dungeons below, (peeks down a shaft) and he's almost finished the spellcasting, so I shall regrettably have to terminate this conversation...and you...momentarily."

Here we have the old fine Hollywood tradition of Double Jeopardy: the players have to deal with the mad Baron Harkonnen, as well as his guards and Henchbeast, while simultaneously finding some way to stop the Opening of the Hellmouth (or kill some of the Undead and close it quickly). At this point, to ratchet up the tension, I might put on a record of sinister chanting.

Harkonnen: The Final chant begins, when it ends, then THEY WILL COME SWARMING OUT AH HA HA....

Massive fight erupts.

Assuming the players succeed in mashing Harkonnen and the Undead, we come to a Coda. Again following the Hollywood model we can wind down, with a humorous interlude: as the players come staggering out of the ruins of Harkonnen's castle, battered by the Undead onslaught, they find, immaculately dressed, well armed, blocking their way, the Watchmen who chased them earlier.

Players: Oh no, we're in no condition to fight these guys...

(Pause for effect)

Watch Leader: Please accept my humble apologies. I've just been, ah, interrogating a member of the Assassins' Guild. He has confessed and implicated the Baron as the sponsor of this vile crime. Is the Baron at home?

Player: Depends on your point of view. When we last saw him he was falling into the Hellmouth. Don't go there, is my advice. (The players will no doubt make some humorous remarks, in the zinger tradition of James Bond, Indy and Arnie). Good for winding down the adventure.

Of course Baron Harkonnen may not be permanently dead. He could rise from the Hellmouth to seek revenge in a future adventure. From what I gather from Buffy, Hell seems to have a remarkable revolving door policy, people (?) are always coming back.

In conclusion, with games, particularly campaign games the GM does not have to stick to a 3 Act structure, you could have four or five or more, as there is much more time and space to fill. You might regard each 3 act structure as an individual episode in larger whole. This is not to say there are not other ways of plotting an adventure. Simply that this is a useful conceptual tool to keep the game flowing properly so the players will have an immersive experience.

Otto: "Wow! That was intense."

Bud: "Repo Man's always intense." - Repo Man