Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Great Debate: Do Gamers REALLY Want Cinematic Gaming?

I've heard it said lately by some gamers that they want a "cinematic" experience in a RPG. First off, why does everything have to be like the movies? Comic books want to be more "cinematic," whatever that means. Our TV screens are now the size of a movie screen. Books are written with the movie (to be produced later) in mind. And now RPGs are suppose to be cinematic? REALLY? I don't think so.

At least, not if, by "cinematic" you mean, "like the movies." Cause I gotta tell you... I don't think you would enjoy playing the main character(s) from most movies.

Action movie characters often face overwhelming odds, split up the party, have little control over what happens to them, get few rewards from their battles, and often win based on sheer luck or the actions of "NPC" characters. Let's look at some examples from some movies I recently watched.

In "Live Free or Die Hard" or any of the Die Hard movies, John McClain is outmanned, outgunned, and gets the crap kicked out of him. Do you know how many times players would be crying "fowl" if their GM treated them like the moviemakers treat McClain? Even when he "wins" his life just gets worse and worse.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone? Harry's "victory" is through sheer luck.

Any Terminator film? You're hopelessly overpowered by a superior force that you can't even damage. In gaming terms? Attack - fail, attack - fail, attack - fail... repeat 500 times. Sounds like fun!

Indiana Jones? Always gets captured and he wins by keeping his eyes closed, invoking the name of Shiva, running away from an earthquake, and a alien ship taking off. Those don't sound like satisfying RPG wins.

Even movie franchises with RPGs based on them such as Star Wars wouldn't be nearly as fun if you ran them like the movies they are based on. "Wait, I'm a JEDI! How was I beat by a wampa in a single round?" "Okay, so you're entering an asteroid field... you need to roll a "1" and a d3,720 to survive."

I Am Legend? 30 Days of Night? 3:10 to Yuma? All feature main characters hopelessly outmatched. Not much fun at the gaming table. But see, that's what movies do. Movies put the character in the darkest, most hopeless place possible before saving the character from inevitable doom.

I like all of the movies I listed above - as movies, not as a model for my RPG gaming experiences. Bottom line - I don't wall out of many movies thinking, "Boy, I wish my RPG experiences were more like that!" So why do some players insist they want their gaming experiences to be like the movies?

That's my opinion. Agree? Disagree? Feel I cherrypicked my movie examples? Post a comment with your thoughts!


  1. What does the word "cinematic" mean in gaming terms? I don't believe it means "just like the movies" in that it follows the plots and characters of movies exactly as they appear on the big screen. I believe "cinematic" as it applies to games emphasizes setting, plot, character, and action as it relates to the ongoing story of the player characters within their world, while deemphasizing rules complications and hack n slash gameplay.

    For example, take "3:10 to Yuma." The gamemaster can set up a scenario in which the PCs are hired to deliver a very bad and dangerous criminal to Yuma, knowing that the criminal's gang could be coming after them and they probably won't get much help from the local lawmen. If the PCs decide to take the job, they can use their brains and the ability of their characters to get themselves through the roadblocks set up by the GM.

    In the movie, the posse has several members to start who eventually get killed or runoff due to the machinations of the bad guy. This of course doesn't have to happen to the PCs, who should be better equipped to deal with the criminal and his gang. A GM's job is to make sure the PCs are challenged without making the scenario impossible to finish. As a player, I've been in numerous in-game situations that seemed impossible but that actually weren't once we figured out how best to handle what we were up against.

    So for me, "cinematic" means an RPG that emphasizes setting, story, character, and plot using a less-complicated game system in an attempt to mirror the "feel" of a movie without slavishly sticking to a single plot.

  2. Wait, didn't the main character DIE at the end of 3:10 to Yuma? Doesn't sound like a good RPG ending to me - TPK?

    Movies don't truly develop characters very well... Television does.

    You say that cinematic means an RPG that ephasizes plot but then you say you don't want to stick to a single plot. Which one is it?

    I think most players who say they want a "cinematic" feel REALLY mean they want to be able to do anything they want and survive. This isn't "cinematic." In movies, the hero is weaker than his opponents. In RPGs the hero is stronger than his opponents.

  3. Absolutely disagree Scott. RPG's the hero is NOT stronger than his opponents. Sure, maybe the heroic barbarian can hack-n-slash his way thru 15 zombies, but the Evil Lich King behind them is generally several levels above that of the party. This is easily outlined in the DM's Guide on how to build an adventure. If you're GMing games where the villain is several levels below the party, your not doing your job.

    I think your confusing "cinematic role playing" with player behavior. In the RPG world, when people talk about a cinematic game, they refer to games where the rules aren't overly complicated, and there is some flexability. The Storyteller System is a good example of this. Old school games like Paladium were filled with charts, graphs, random hit-location tables, etc. But heavy rules or light, there will always be those players who just want to behave badly. They shoot the waiter "just because", seduce every bar maid in town, or rob banks with the idea there shouldn't be any consequences for their actions.

    As both a player and a GM, I find games more rewarding when players attain a sense of accomplishment. If all RPG's are to you is aquiring more XP and magical weapons, so be it. But it's far more rewarding to know your character saved the princess, prevented the kingdom from being overthrown, repelled an alien armada, etc.

    Cinematic RPG are meant to be fast paced, keeping the action fresh. If a player says "I want a cinematic feel to this game" and then runs around shooting whatever, than he just doesn't get it. But he doesn't represent "most players" as you put it. Most players want fast and flexable rules. They want to feel like their characters are central to the story. That they can make a difference in their world.

    If I want to model RPGing as a GM, I openly announce to players that I like to use Star Wars as a model for my GMing style. In the Star Wars Trilogy, Luke Skywalker starts off as a young farm boy, who ends up saving the galaxy from tyranny and evil, and attaining the rank of Jedi Master and aquiring a lightsaber (a magic item). But, in so doing, he see's his aunt and uncle killed, exiled from his home, loses both his mentors, and saves, but ultimately loses his father.

    So with this model, I explain that while there is potential to gain significantly in a game, they will also experience some loss. Just like real life, there will be consequences, good and bad, based on their behavior and decisions. So you may not win every fight, you may lose items, or allies, or reputation, etc. And while I will fudge a rule here and there if it means not killing off player characters, I will not reward stupid behavior. There will always be consequences to their behavior. So, if they want to spend time seducing bar maids...well, maybe a jealous boyfriend or husband shows up.

  4. Wow... maybe there's another debate here because the RPG hero is DEFINITELY stronger than his opponents. Yes, even the head boss. Collectively, the party is stronger than the boss is. If the boss was stronger, the boss would win more times than not. This would not make for a long-term campaign.

    RPGs are designed so that your character survives. Basically characters only die for three reasons: 1) They make a stupid decision (the mage steps into melee!) 2) They're unlucky (What? You fail ANOTHER save?) 3) They piss off the judge (The classic "thunderclouds" form...).

    Actual physical threats are few and far between.

    Most roleplayers are very bad at facing a superior force because they refuse to surrender or run away.

    Sorendax3, what you're describing is a storyarc - one that is very familiar to many stories. I would not say that's "cinematic" in any way since this same theme has been present in literature for hundreds of years. Likewise, just because you have cause and effect in your game does not make it cinematic either.

    My point is that an RPG is a purely unique experience. You could tell the same story as a poem, a novel, a television show, a movie, an Massive multi-player online game, or as a tabletop RPG and it would be COMPLETELY different in every iteration. Nobody says they want thier movies to be more "roleplayish." Why? To say so would be nonsense. It's like saying you want poetry to be more like a novel. RPGs aren't "cinematic" by their very nature. And thank goodness!

  5. I think your main issue is with the word "cinematic." I think saying the word "cinematic" is much easier than saying "a game that doesn't get bogged down in charts and minutiae and the day-to-day life of the character but concentrates on story and getting to the action." It's like sending an RPG session to the editing department and having them cut out the boring parts to leave only what is needed to move the story along.

    An example: The PCs are investigating a series of museum thefts in New York in the 1930s. They discover that these artifacts are being shipped to an address in Istanbul, Turkey. They need to get on a plane and go to Istanbul.

    At this point, some GMs might have the PCs drive to the airport while making a couple drive rolls, roll to see if there is a flight available, purchase the tickets, hang out at the airport bar, get in a fight with a drunk salesman, board the plane, eat the in-flight meal, roll for possible food poisoning, stop over in London, hang out at the airport pub, get in a fight with a drunk chimney sweep, board the plane again, the pilot has a heart attack, one of the PCs lands the plane in Istanbul, and the PCs are finally back on the main storyline, but it's been three hours and the session is over.

    Or you play Indiana Jones music, everyone imagines a red line moving across a map, and 30 seconds later the PCs are in Istanbul ready to find the filcher of fine art.

    Both ways are fun, but the second way is more "cinematic" in that the GM has decided to skip what he feels is unnecessary.

  6. I'm just going to add a few things for myself here.

    RPG Hero's should not always bee tougher then the bad guy or theres no challenge.

    Regardless of cinematic or not in long term, and sometimes even is short term, games I will put the players up against their equals or even enemies that are tougher then the party. Must my regular players know that these adventures are the biggest challenge but also reap the biggest rewards.

    Also there should be some fear that your favorite character could really die. That what I think at least. If you know you can wade into that group of 50 orcs and not die why would you not do it every time. Heck if I played in a game like that I'd do something like walk into town and just start killing everyone (in the game) just to try to make the referee get the clue that my character SHOULDN'T always win.

    But then thats my games and to each his own =)


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