It’s Long, Get Some Coffee
A day or two ago a friend posted a link to an article from a um… very conventional tabletop roleplaying blog, let’s say, about this amazing idea they ran into of treating the narration in their game as if it were on film. It was a charming reminder of how big the gaps are getting between fandoms, that’s for sure.
Mark’s angle, because he’s #indieaf, went the opposite direction (let me know if I’m being uncharitable here, Mark!): that modern gameplay had become so completely dependent on the game-as-show metaphor that other approaches to getting everyone on the same page at the table were going unused. Unexamined. Forgotten. It was like the bizarro-universe version of that conventional ttrpg blog.
Anyway, in that thread I doodled out a very quick list of specifically filmic methods I’ve used, personally, to make a game feel more show-like. The point of this post isn’t the list but here it is anyway, so you know what I’m talking about:
- camera angles
- zooming in/out
- fading in/out
- smash cuts
- montages (training or otherwise)
- the “set piece” (I first saw mention of this in Feng Shui, one of the first explicitly filmic games I can think of, I think after Theatrix)
- specifying scene elements as thematically important
- cutting a scene
- second unit footage (landscapes that set the tone and convey setting assumptions, but not protagonists or plot)
- referencing soundtrack comments (scary tense music, the swelling theme, drum beats, your own heartbeat)
- the very notion of “screen time” as a persistent metaphor
- handheld versus steadicam versus Michael Bay 360 shot (and other ways one might handle a camera and what is implied by them)
So this approach, it’s a continuum, right? If you don’t really go that deep into the actual metaphor of film, and just describe things in a maybe elevated or authorial way, well, that’s already much different than a DM moving painted figures around on crafted 3D terrain. I’m not implying one must go all-in to treat your game like a show. I’m also saying if you don’t use any of these tricks, then I think what you’re left with is generic play-the-day “how you roleplay” type default roleplaying.
(This is in no way an invitation to get into a definition war. God damn it! Fight the urge, friends. Fight it.)
But what really got me thinking about other structurally purposeful ways of synchronizing the shared imaginary space. The SIS is the core killer app of tabletop roleplaying, yeah? But it seems weird, to me, that we haven’t really poked at this very much. I mean other than the language of television and movies, which has marinated so much of indie gaming that lots of folks aren’t even aware of other approaches. There’s an age/experience component to that as well. And it’s a point of friction between OSR types and storygamer types when either camp declares their way is “better.”
Like, say you wanted a game to borrow instead from novels, right? I mean chapters, scenes, narrow rules about point-of-view. Heck, you could get quite avant-garde if you wanted: what would a game play like if it was emulating House of Leaves? There’s some physical-handling stuff that House of Leaves pulls that one simply could not replicate exactly. But I’ll bet you could get close.
But even without avant-garde trickery, there are still fundamentals of novel writing I think one could apply:
- Point of view rules: I could totally see the GM having to work in the constraint of third-person limited (or hell, omniscient, which violates all kinds of conventional RPG nonos but maaaaybeee the right game could pull it off). The players could have different rules, equally constrained. First person omniscient is the obvious choice. But you could experimentally pass around second-person limited as well.
- Scene breaks that feel different than cutaways on a show. The written word is generally not able to be as dynamic as visual media, yeah? So how might one narrate a novelic scene break? Probably more time spent explicating emotional stakes so you can have not-literal cliffhangers indicate the break.
- Chapters and Parts. Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine does the chapter thing, not really sure if that’s just a handy shorthand or if the game is trying to feel like how a novel is structured. It might actually be, especially given the pre-made character arc elements.
- Setting dumps. Setting dumps! Yes! Where someone just tells and doesn’t show and you have to absorb a bunch of maybe-useful stuff fast. Rules be damned, even good writers do this. It’s not just bad genre writing.
- Internal monologues. Michael Miller reminded me that With Great Power has physical thought bubble props, perfect for comics. Sometimes I’ll ask players to narrate their internal monologues, particularly in games where we need to externalize internal material: moldbreaker moments in Burning Wheel for example.
The other part of running and playing a game in a consciously novelic way would be avoiding other metaphors. Like film. Although, yeah, lots of novels use film language now.
Other storytelling media: stage plays. Radio plays. Actual written-by-vikings sagas. Oh god, musicals. How how how could we get songs that are both beautiful and convey new material about the characters or plot?
Now, I’m first in line when it comes to treating RPGs as unique and not derivative. But the arts have always, always shared among themselves.