The comments on my article on DM Fiat took an interesting turn last week when people started talking about how much more “cinematic” 4e is than previous editions. This is a claim I’d heard applied several times to 4e, but I’ve never really understood why. The combat is faster! All the classes have cool powers now, not just the casters! I can’t confirm or deny these things, but I am calling Shenanigans on them making anything more action-movie awesome on their own. As a matter of fact, I am extending these same Shenanigans to claims that any game system can do this.
Fantasy Film School
I guess it is too late now after having called such broad, sweeping Shenanigans, but it’s probably worthwhile to consider what “cinematic” actually means to people seeking it in their tabletop gaming.
To some I’ve heard, it means nothing more than having a lot of things happen in battle that would later see its players recalling it using some form of “Dude… that was SO COOL”. To some, it’s special effects. Things blowing up, other things glowing with eldritch fire, that sort of thing. 4e is positively replete with flavor text for powers. I have previously established in these pages my opinion that special effects alone do not excitement make. I suppose it is technically true that cool powers and effects can make a gaming experience like a movie. Unfortunately, that movie is Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. All style, little substance, and in some cases even the style speaks with a stupid accent.
The mark of a great action movie in my mind is that the crowd is on the edge of their seats. No matter how awesome something looks, no matter how many flips someone did to get atop an oliphant, no matter how big the guns are that are shooting a dinosaur, visuals alone cannot do the job. Drama is the gravitational force that draws us precariously toward the inglorious dark filled with long-forgotten stale popcorn and melted gummi bears. If a movie can get its audience invested in its characters, it will grab them by the face and do amazing things with their emotions.
Tension is one device used to do this. A writer can create tension by creating struggles between a character and another character, a character and some obstacle, or even some internal conflict in a character’s mind. Generally speaking, adventure stories tend to start with the tension low and dial it up as things progress toward to the exciting climax.
Interactivity (Now In Imaginary 3-D)
Roleplaying games provide a strange twist to this tool in that it’s no longer a single person writing the story. The players can introduce tension of their own, and they may not respond to the tension the DM provides in the intended way. (Which, I suppose, is its own kind of tension. Meta-tension?)
For me, tension is the catalyst for making “cinematic” happen. The DM has set up the story and a diabolical plot is in motion. A band of adventurers meets and gets to know each other as they overcome all manner of danger, eventually reaching the point where they come crashing headlong into their destiny and everything is riding on their success. For this, you need the DM to set the stage, control the pace, and put obstacles in the way of the PCs.
The players’ portion of this can come in with something as rolling a 20 at a do-or-die moment (which is made way better by the DM being awesomely descriptive of the results) — but my favorite is when a player gets a wild notion and tries something radical at a Dramatically Appropriate Time. I’ve been fortunate enough to have DMs that would not only let that sort of thing slide even if it was a little outside the rules, but to give bonuses for creativity and cool factor. This is what makes the game for me. This, cookies, and good company are the three reasons I show up at any given gaming table.
This is, in my opinion, what it means to be “cinematic” in a role-playing game. So-called movie magic is in all of us, not any particular game system, and it is far cooler than making someone’s forearms glow or something silly like that. (Unless you are really emotionally invested in those forearms, in which case you fill a very specific niche market.)