Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Cinematic roleplaying is an oxymoron

Jerry Stratton, June 24, 2020

Sacrifice to the Plot Queen

I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time. It is amazingly different from the cinematic portrayals of the story, so much so that it isn’t the same story. The cinematic portrayal relies on cues—corpses, Germanic nobiliary particles, lightning-powered resurrections—that are entirely absent from the book and completely change what it’s about.

The differences are, I think, emblematic of what makes “cinematic roleplaying” an oxymoron. It doesn’t generally involve role-playing, but rather abbreviated telling and required actions. There is no need to roleplay because the cues determine PC actions. The PC is required to act this way because it follows, cinematically, from that thing.

If you don’t pay attention to how the pattern developed in cinema (scripts and directors controlling every action) you are likely to repeat it in role-playing games (rules and GMs controlling every action).

I recently got into a discussion on theRPGSite that went the way “cinematic roleplaying” discussions always seem to go. I don’t mean to single out this designer as exceptional. He may even come up with a good system. But I doubt it, because he’s locked himself into a rhetorical box, cinematic roleplaying, from which there is no escape. His specific complaint is that when he plays, he wants his character to do things that are not his definition of cinematic role-playing:

That [Player choice] won't work well, I'm afraid. A substantial part of the trad games community wants to take the optimal tactical decision and I largely share that sentiment.

He wants a game that forbids him from having his character do what he wants his character to do, because he doesn’t want his character to do it.

I wish there had been a rule in place that had kept me from attacking.

Choosing to do what isn’t optimal for your character is roleplaying. But the same choice, forced, is not a choice, and cannot be roleplaying.

This is not about whether he’s having fun; he claims his fun requires cinematic control of player choices. What I’m interested in is how trying for cinematic gaming necessarily requires the muddy thinking of wanting characters to do what you don’t want them to do. It is difficult to define what you want when you keep looking in the wrong place, when you define what you want as what you don’t want, or what you don’t want as what you want.

I am coming increasingly to the belief that, despite their superficial similarities, “cinematic roleplaying” is an oxymoron. Cinematic techniques are counterproductive in roleplaying because the needs of cinema are counter to the needs of roleplaying games.

Cinematic roleplaying becomes about outcomes rather than choices. Choices are the essence of roleplaying. But the ultimate reason things happen the way they do in a movie is that movies have an authorial overlord directing what happens. The author/director needs to get the plot to a specific place regardless of the characters. Great writers and directors can make this somewhat seamless, but it’s super easy to see it if you look, barely an inconvenience. The character did this, not because of the moment, but because the ending requires it. That is, they did it because the writer or the director scripted it. Games don’t have scripted characters. They have played characters. Which means that emulating cinematic combat becomes impossible without giving either the GM or the dice control of the player characters, taking that control from the players.

The reason that El, for example, in Stranger Things, loses her powers at the end of season three is because the director realized that El’s powers would make the cliffhanger irrelevant. This is not a spoiler. That’s kind of the point that it’s not a spoiler: it has nothing to do with what’s going on in the show except that it makes the cliffhanger possible.

Movies have to neuter their characters all the time to avoid the characters having access to information that they obviously have access to. This is why cell phones are so rarely used to their potential in movies. A built-in camera, recorder, and web browser would make many movies end in ten minutes.

But it’s worse than that; many of the cinematic techniques that are technically about compressing time are really about curtailing information. The worst is when movies cut off conversations whenever the obvious next bit of dialogue would be the characters sharing information the director/writer doesn’t want them to share. The same dynamic is in play when two people start a flight or a drive at the beginning of a conversation—often an argument—and leave the vehicle several hours later ending the same conversation without having exchanged any information. Exchanging information might resolve the argument before the movie is over, and that can’t be allowed to happen.

It’s annoying as hell. But if you want to emulate cinematic outcomes, you ultimately have to do the same thing a movie director does: script the hell out of it and artificially curtail it. Because the goal is a specific outcome, the only way to do it is by curtailing the roleplaying.

In a footnote to my post on whether tabletop roleplaying was inevitable, I wondered what would have happened if computer RPGs came first and someone was inspired by computer RPGs to create the first tabletop RPG. My fear is that it would have looked a lot like cinematic roleplaying.

The actions would be controlled by the need to get to a jump screen, or past a conversation. They would be “PC-selected… not player selected… I’m pursuing a bit of a different philosophy: that the players generally (but not entirely) can’t choose specific maneuvers or outcomes because it is assumed their character will choose the best move…”. Because the goal is “a mechanically generated story of the battle, to be narrated by the GM.”

“It’s not a decision that a player can take; it’s a decision that the PC has to take.”. Putting choice into players’ hands is “micromanagement in combat.”

Why is my little man not doing that automatically whenever he sees an opportunity to do so?

The poster’s “cinematic” roleplaying is very close to computer roleplaying because both are based on scripts. They are based on formulas of what ought to happen to maximize the GM’s story rather than just giving each character to a player and offering the players opportunities to role-play, to make choices.

The dice begin to tell a story that is easy to visualize. That reduces a bit the need for a plethora of tactical options (albeit without eliminating it)… Because 1 v Many1 is a more complex situation with many variables, it leaves much creative space for the GM to interpret the dice rolls in varied ways.

It makes me very glad that tabletop roleplaying came first.

The GM is not god. God is merely one of his NPCs. If the GM is god, all of the player characters are GMPCs.

  1. One of his main goals for cinematic roleplaying is to require players not to have their character join a fight, so that fights are often one PC against many NPCs.

  1. <- AD&D surprise, initiative