Lessons From The Movies: The Princess Bride
From Matthew Ipock
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #625
The Princess Bride has become a great romantic-comedy cult classic. This is because the film has all the necessary ingredients of a great movie: action, comedy, memorable characters and dialogue, and “true love”. Because the movie has these needed ingredients, The Princess Bride can also serve as a wonderful tutorial on how to run a roleplaying game that includes humor, and also as a treasure trove of basic roleplaying tips for almost any game your group wishes to play.
The Princess Bride offers excellent lessons on how to include humor in roleplaying, without having to resort to horrible puns that gain only nervous chuckles and confused looks (such as the old “your character kicks the bucket” joke).
For example, look at the names used in The Princess Bride. The large man’s name is Fezzik, playing off of the term ‘physique’ because he is big and strong. The lead heroine’s name is Buttercup, not necessarily funny, but not serious. Then, of course, there is Prince Humperdinck, Miracle Max, and a fellow referred to as simply ‘The Albino’.
None of these individuals can be taken seriously because of their name, and using names like this in your campaign will almost certainly bring constant grins to your players’ faces. Of course, character names aren’t the only things that can be humorous: monster names can cause grins, too (Rodents of Unusual Size ring a bell?)
Personality and Speech
For another example of humor which can be taken from The Princess Bride, one need only to look at the characters’ personalities and speech patterns. We have a farm boy named Westley who starts the movie out saying nothing but “as you wish” to conceal his real love for the lead heroine. Then there is a six-fingered count who relishes pain dished out in his secret torture chamber. Let’s not forget the priest who talks with an odd accent which cannot, for some reason, include the letters ‘R’ or ‘L’.
The most memorable is, of course, the Spaniard who seeks only to avenge his father’s death, who has an entire statement ready for the one who killed him. If you include off-the-wall characters such as these in your campaign, your players will be beating down your door from week to week, sitting on the edge of their seat to see who they will meet next.
You can also inject humor through simple dialogue between the characters and NPCs, as well. We will mention again the way Inigo repeats his “You Killed My Father” speech throughout the film. Vizzini uses the term ‘inconceivable’ numerous times, and it is pointed out that he might not be using the term correctly in some situations. Westley suggests that people think the Fire Swamp is not survivable only because “no one has done it before.” Tiny quips like this in NPC conversation will strike your players as masterful game mastering, and will add great enjoyment to your game.
The Princess Bride is full of action – sword fighting, wrestling, chases – and any self-respecting roleplaying game should be, as well. Typically, however, most action during a gaming session turns into nothing but rolling a die and moving a tiny plastic figurine around on a battle mat. This is just wrong.
One way to boost your action is to have your players plan out their actions a few turns at a time, make the needed rolls, and then use your storytelling ability to explain what happened in those turns. Make the fighting sound as exciting as possible.
Use lots of detail – clanging of swords, shuffling of stones under the characters’ feet, grunts and moans of the dying. If one of your players uses a monk-type character, make sure you know the martial-arts moves that monk knows and describe every leap, punch, and kick.
Cater to Different Abilities
One of the mainstays of roleplaying games is a group of characters working together for a common goal. Each of these characters typically has their own place in the group, their own abilities that contribute to the success of the adventure or mission. The Princess Bride emphasizes this perfectly. Inigo is the sword fighter. Fezzik is the muscle, the strong man, the wrestler. Vizzini is the brains. Miracle Max (though not really part of a group) is the mystical miracle-maker.
Ensuring that your group includes different ability types, though, is not enough. Look at how The Princess Bride is able to highlight each character’s ability. Inigo is left alone on the cliff top to fight Westley with the sword. Fezzik is left in the rocky outcropping to wrestle Westley, again, on his own. Westley meets Vizzini to have a battle of the wit, just the two of them.
If you want your players coming back, you will need to highlight their characters’ abilities in much the same way. If your group includes a priest or cleric, make sure to offer plenty of chances for healing (of many different types) or turning undead. If you have a wizard, be sure to include something that only he can do; you will, of course, have to keep in mind what spells that wizard knows.
If a player wishes to play a bard, why not allow the group to spend the night at a well-known inn or tavern, and why not have a flustered innkeeper who needs a replacement story teller? Remember, not every talent needs to be used in a combat situation. The name of the game is “roleplaying”, after all.
(Robert’s note: Spotlighting a PC doesn’t have to focus on special abilities and powers. Focus also on their contacts and specialized knowledge. Maybe the cleric can get them access to a church library, wherein the mage can help him do research and find the answer to a puzzle. Anything you can do to highlight what makes a PC special and different will do the job.)
Cater to Different Motivations
Characters are not only the sum of their abilities. Good player characters should have some sort of motivation, even a small one, and a good GM should be sure to cater to those motivations.
Inigo is motivated by his need for revenge against his father’s killer. Vizzini is motivated by his greed for money. Westley is motivated by “true love”. Even the NPC, Miracle Max, has his personal motivation to see Prince Humperdinck suffer.
Catering to character motivation is easy enough to accomplish, but doing it with flair may take a little hard work. If a character has the simple motivation of gathering great wealth, you could simply put them on the path to mounds of gold (anyone want to raid a dragon lair?). Let’s be a bit more creative, though. Perhaps the character finds gems, and golden mirrors and hair combs.
Then you have something to describe with greater detail, and the player can have more fun roleplaying his character while haggling over the sell price when he sells the treasures he finds. An even greater end to finding such treasures would be if the character uses these things to furnish his home.
Perhaps the character wishes to avenge the deaths of his parents at the hands of goblins or orcs. Of course, the easiest way to do this is to offer the character plenty of goblins and orcs to kill. Why not leave a breadcrumb trail to the actual goblin or orc that killed the character’s parents?
Allow the character and his companions to track down the creature, spending a few weeks hunting it, meeting a variety of NPC’s along the way, and perhaps helping a few downtrodden when they can. Turn a mundane motivation into the plot for an entire campaign that shows your entire game world to the players.
(Robert’s note: This is a great idea! Give this goblin or orc a name and personality. Make him a person of interest among his tribe, famous for his savagery, combat skill, or as a rising leader. Making him stand out in some way will make the PC’s revenge all the sweeter!)
How to Run the NPCs
The Princess Bride relies on strong tags for consistent NPC behavior and personality. Here are some GM notes for running them:
- Prince: Arrogant, cares little for others, takes what he wants when he wants it, seems to be full of hot air.
- Count: Deceitful, conniving, just plain mean.
- Inigo: Not really “evil”, just fell in with bad people. Has a great joy for life and for what he does. Fair and honorable.
Draw Players into Roleplaying by Roleplaying NPC’s Who Are Their Friends
Even small lines or pieces of conversation help. This doesn’t take up a lot of time, but encourages players to interact with NPC’s and each other.
NPC as Group Leader? It’s Possible
Vizzini leads, but leaves everything to everyone else. He just tells them what to do and where to meet afterward. Sometimes he offers suggestions on how to do it, but generally leaves it up to the characters.
Do your homework and add in real terms for the actions and descriptions. For example, they used real terms for the sword fighting techniques and styles. Little details help the players visualize what you are describing, whether it’s a gun, a vehicle, or an animal breed.
Leave the Romance Out of It
Rather than roleplay the romance and kissy stuff, they left it all off camera. It was sufficient to say that Westley and Buttercup were in love.
Handling NPC Factions
Jordan Durham recently shared his way of handling NPC factions. He structures them very simply, gives them a goal, and sets things in motion in the background of his game. Eventually the PCs will cross paths with member of the faction, but until then, each organization will pursue its agenda unimpeded. But I’ll let him explain it:
This is gonna be a longer one, but I hope it can be of benefit of you. This system’s fairly simple, but can evolve into a fairly sophisticated world.
First, I create a profile of an organization. This works a lot like the Three Line NPC system. The organization gets a function, theme tied in with its name, and a general good/bad bent.
- Name: The Association of Free Traders
- Function: Mercantile Guild
- Good/Bad: We’ll make these guys villainous at the higher levels, with a respectable veneer of legitimate businesses.
Now we have a framework on which we can build. Let’s give them an overarching goal–since they’re bad guys, we’ll make it domination-themed.
- Goal: The Association of Free Traders is moving drugs into the region of Black Sands, for the purposes of further destabilizing the human (ethnic Khazanni) population and undermining the foundling post-war government in order to gain total control over trade in the region.
We have a general profile and a long term goal, so let’s break it down into short term goals. I like to divide organizational goals and progress by real-time weeks, so that there’s a measurable progression of world events which do not necessarily require me to keep up with them as in-game events. I also like to structure these entries as NPC actions/diary entries/personal accounts of events. So, let’s start with Week 1 of the campaign.
- Week One: “Our agents have noticed a curious characteristic of the locals in Black Sands. They seem to have quite the affection for skeely. We have procured several subjects for testing the potency of the latest batch. This could be the opening we were looking for.” Artem Follis, AFT Planning Committee, Journal Entry
What this weekly snippet does is kind of amazing, considering the simplicity of the prep work. We’ve set up a potential quest line for the PCs with just one journal entry, and generating that was simple because we have an organization framework to hang it all on. Now, it’s worth noting that the organization’s activities will continue even if the PCs don’t interact with the timeline. That fact isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though! It can create some really interesting world dynamics once they do interact with an NPC who is tied to one of these organizations, since these groups interact with one another!
What this does is that it creates a “self-dynamic” world which acts on itself and on the players. Each NPC isn’t just a quest with legs, they’re full characters with stories. In the same way, these organizations aren’t just names that happen during quests–they’re groups with goals which drive and shape the world just as much as the players do.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and I’d really like to know what you think about my system!
Thanks for spending the time!
We’ve all probably done similar things, but I don’t know if I’ve ever done them with this much eloquence. By using a simple, 3-line description method and personalized, in-character movements, Jordan’s factions have focus and quickly take on a life of their own.
The key is putting the actions or plans in the first person. It let’s me get into the head of the group or NPC, thinking the way they do, and truly understand and visualize their goals and what’s needed to achieve them. When I do this, I see the game world from a different perspective and it opens new windows into the story. Here is the example I wrote for a faction in my game:
- Name: Circle of Thoth
- Function: Local group of amateur paranormal investigators.
- Good/Bad: Good in that they don’t intend to be bad. Their investigations into the local supernatural scene get them into places better left alone.
- Goal: Their leader, Ericka Jenkins, has developed a thirst for power, and now pushes the group into dangerous situations.
- Move: Ericka has been spying on the PCs, specifically their wizard, to learn more about magic and supernatural entities. Now she’s found a way to gain that power for herself:
- “I found a ritual that will let me contact the Higher Planes. Now I can finally summon an angelic being to give me guidance and knowledge. All I need to conduct the ritual is to capture one of those fairies I’ve seen hanging around that woman Claire (a PC). I hate to harm the poor creature, but it’s only an animal and its enchanted blood will lend power to my ritual. Soon, I’ll show them all that I’m not just a New Age flake!” – The diary of Ericka Jenkins
Speaking of talking, Roleplaying Tips reader Jen suggests using YouTube to help you learn different accents:
I make my characters different through accents. I have watched hours of YouTube videos to help with that. So far I have got a Russian, Chinese, Australian and Irish accent and I experiment with my voice all the time to see if doing a certain pitch makes me sound different. I have gotten decently low for a male voice and by adjusting around more throat muscles I have a kiddish one, a noble sounding one and after playing Fable I have learned some of those voice fluctuations.
Another thing I do (especially with my male voices) is to give a character a catch phrase so that he can be noticed right off the bat. If someone says something general, such as “Wow, check out that bar maiden!” One of my males may say “Yeaaah buddy!” and my PCs will know that that person was Wayde the Barbarian and what I say afterward is most likely a continuance of that specific character.
A Quick Tip – Let Players Lay Out The Map
From: Mac Shell
To involve players in the game play, I sometimes let them lay out the map tiles of what they want to see. I have the monsters lined up but they get to design the location for the fight.
How To Get An Emotional Attachment From PCs – A Response
I’d like to reiterate your answer to Jacob’s question about how to get an emotional attachment from PC’s, but I’d like to offer something else as well. For one off gaming sessions at conventions you don’t have the time to build character back stories. Hand the PC’s their character sheets, and have them give a quick and dirty background of their own. This also lets you know if they role play or not. A ten second vaguely described background versus a 30 second creative one, shows you exactly who the role players are.
I ALWAYS start every session out with an encounter, whether it be:
- A fight.
- A bar brawl.
- A chase – either the PC’s are chasing someone, (who stole something, murdered someone, monster chasing them, etc), or they’re being chased.
- An encounter in the wilderness where they need to save someone who has been captured by goblins, orcs, etc.
- A night encounter where they see something moving around in the woods
Anything which makes for a fast moving encounter.
For me there are dozens of ways to get an emotional attachment. I’ve found that it’s all about excitement. Everyone is already excited to be sitting down and playing, especially at a convention where there may be spectators, so I’ll embrace that. For example, two minutes into the session I’ll use a thief to steal something from the party, and have him take off running through the streets.
I’ll make the thief small, perhaps a child – like Oliver Twist, or a small halfling or something so he’s hard to see at times. I’ll have him quickly disappear around a corner, or into a crowded market knocking over people; (the party will be able to track his path by people yelping and turning their heads – in reaction to the thief’s path); patting women on their behinds as he runs by, so their male companion will get engaged; through a group of meditating Paladins, Druids, etc; a protest by workers, women, halflings, etc; a funeral procession (have the body tumble out of the dropped casket); or a gang of thugs playing dice or something.
Anything that will put up a slight (but not total) roadblock in between the party and the thief. If the party is able to somehow halt the thief from running, I’ll have a different thief snatch whatever from the first thief’s hands, so the chase is still on.
While the party has to deal with whatever they’ve disrupted, the thief is still getting away!! The party doesn’t have time to deal with anything, so they’ll keep running after the thief. Have the chasers yelling and snapping at the party’s heels because it adds flavor, and adds to the excitement.
As the DM, you know where the thief is headed, and you know how to ditch who’s chasing the party in case they haven’t came up with anything; (if it’s thugs say a group of the City Watch comes around the corner; If it’s goody two shoes Paladins, have two gangs of thugs engaged in a fight, etc). It’s not difficult to come up with how the chasers are going to stopped.
I always give back what was stolen, and then I’ll present the game. The party ALWAYS thinks the initial encounter is part of the game, or module, or whatever, but it’s not. It was only a way to manipulate them into getting emotionally attached, and put them at the beginning of your game. Plus the chase (or whatever) was fun!! My gaming group is so used to having encounters start a session, that when a guest DM doesn’t do it, it’s a bit of a letdown.
What happens if you have a bunch of PC’s which don’t want to take off running after the thief, or engage in whatever you’ve presented? It has been years since I’ve ran into that, because it all boils down to how it’s presented. I’ve seen where one….maybe two people are reluctant to pursue, but I remind them that there isn’t enough time for running a split party. “We only have a few hours, and split party’s take time to run successfully”, but this has only happened a few times personally.
I’ve done lots of conventions, so trust me; if you’re having a good time, and embrace the excitement which is already in the air, you’ll come off looking like one of the best GM’s the group has ever played with. That’s exactly how convention GM’s are supposed to look. They need to be a little bit better than the average.