It’s Not A Movie

A man in a trenchcoat stands before a grave. He hears tires squealing and runs to catch a glimpse of the car before it disappears down the cemetery lane. As the rain falls softly, the camera pans back and shows a single rose newly laid on the grave…

Here’s a GM Tip you’ve heard before: Look at books or movies to get ideas for your games. Sounds good right? Well yes and no. You can steal some ideas, but movies or books are not good guides for how to create games.

Actors & Audience

In movies there are actors and then there is the audience. The audience can be completely in the dark about what is going on, but they have faith that as the story unfolds it will all make sense. Why is the man in the graveyard? Why is he interested in who’s in the car? Does he know them? Is he afraid of them? Did he leave the rose or did someone else? We (the audience) don’t know yet, but that’s okay because he (the actor) does know, and we can sit back and munch popcorn until the answer is revealed.

In a game the players are both the actors and the audience. In order to play they need to make decisions, and to make decisions they need information.

GM: So you’re going into this warehouse…
Player: Why am I going into a warehouse?
GM: You’re investigating a case. You’re following a lead.
Player: What case?
GM: It’s not important, it’s just setting the scene.
Player: Do I expect trouble? Is this the same day as that fight at the bar? What part of town is this?
GM: …

Is this information the character should know? Yes. It’s only the player who’s in the dark.*

Cut to new scene

Movies hide a lot of information. They gloss over the details that connect the scenes or that bring characters from A to B. How did the detectives figure out where to find the suspect? Does it matter? The movie skips that part and cuts right to them kicking in his door. We (the audience) assume that some kind of clever investigation went on off-screen.

But players (as actors) demand that information. They need to know how they went from A to B. Even if it’s as trivial as “a snitch tells you where the guy lives,” the players need to know so they understand the basis for what they are doing. If you don’t tell them they’ll back up and ask you.

Forgetting to include this kind of “connective tissue” to make transitions work is a common design flaw. How do the heroes find the warehouse? How do they know the heist is part of the crime spree, not an isolated incident? Why will the heroes go back to Doc Mercury’s lab the next day?

These details are trivial but critical. When they’re there you barely notice it, but when they’re missing it can stop the game in its tracks.

Did I mention the script?

Then there’s the obvious problem: a movie or book is scripted. Actors always do exactly what the writer or director wants. Games aren’t. The players can do whatever they want.

Player choice is what makes it a game, not a story. Building a scenario that can deal with player free will is one of the most critical parts of design. It’s not about what will happen, it’s about what might happen or if you’re lucky what probably will happen.

In movies the actors don’t stop and raise unexpected questions. They don’t get confused, misunderstand elements of the plot, or just take the bit in their teeth and make a hard left for the sheer fun of it.

Even if your players did want to follow your “script” they can’t because they don’t know what it is. They can try, but sometimes their guesses of what they “should be” doing are more unpredictable than when they try to rebel.


* As the GM it is forbidden to interfere with the flow of information between the character and the player. You can never say “yes, your character knew that all along, but I didn’t tell you.”** You can mess with the character’s mind all you want, you can introduce amnesia or flashbacks or whatever, but if it’s happening in the character’s conscious mind, whether it’s real or delusional, the player is privy to it.

** Well okay, you can, and it can be a lot of fun. But that’s experimental stuff and it doesn’t always work. You should never do it without knowing you’re taking a risk.

    Ben Robbins | June 25th, 2007 | | show 4 comments