I Was A Teenage Movie Magic-User

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.)

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  1. To me cinematic gameplay is not about over-arching plots, action-focus, etc. Cinematic gameplay is about scenes, set-pieces the focus all of the elements into cinematic scene. In movie terms its when the star wars theme music starts playing and building in volume. Encounters in 4e are still considered set-pieces or scenes. Players and monsters have different skills that trigger at set points in the scene (beginning (first attacks), middle (triggers on bloodied), and end (triggers on death). Well done skill challenges are the car-chase scenes of cop/crime dramas. It’s about making a great scene that builds and releases tension within the contours of the greater plot.

  2. Tension is important in ANY narrative medium. When we examine cinema as an art form distinct from any other, the most insightful analysis is generally considered to be the observation by Lev Kuleshov: “Film is editing”.

    The way a film is edited controls the way the audience interpret events, and it is a technique almos unique to film.

    Thus if we talk about an RPG being cinematic it is likely that there is some kind of editing going on – Zoarmt it right, it’s the “scenes” and set pieces particular to Event Based adventure writing. Less important events are skipped over; we go right to the “highlights”.

    Now not everyone likes this. Location or Situation based adventure writing (eg sandbox) lead to more literary or even more “real” types of play – characters and events that feel real, the lack of editing generating a warts-and-all approach.

    So yes, 4E, with it’s rule balance suggesting the skipping major parts of adventurers lives in order to go ‘straight to the action’ – that is more cinematic than rule sets that encourage a more even spread of your time..Of course you can actively compensate for this if you want to, but it helps to do so consciously.

  3. As the Transformers movies show us, it tends to be writers who think good movies have drama and most everyone else who thinks good movies have special effects. I agree with you much more than them, however.

  4. Standing around and hoping for a 20? I’d hazard to say, yer doin’ it oldschool.

    All the elements you discussed are true, of any game. Has anyone else done a happy dance when they were the first person to land on Boardwalk while playing Monopoly? Or am I the only one? (I’ve learned its also rude to do that when someone else lands on it if I own it.)

    4e has simpler, well defined rules which naturally lend themselves to great action. I use the descriptive texts as guide lines to what I say to my players. (I don’t say the same thing over and over. That’s not fun.)

    In doing a little research for you I came across a fellow Critical Hits comrad;

    Dissecting his description from a DMs perspective.. All you need is a good set, and a bit of plan for how the baddy will work. That’s a heck of a lot easier than hoping your players didn’t show up hung over and pray for a 20.

    I don’t think you’ll hear anyone in 4e say, “I hit it with my sword.” Yet that’s a euphemism for older D&D. (It was a joke that came back with the announcement of Essentials.)

    I feel that 4e’s greatest strength is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Sometimes you just don’t need a grand fight. (Sometimes you do just want to hit it with your sword and move on.)

  5. Hey Vanir!

    Yes, I agree that ‘cinematic’ isn’t synonymous with ‘special effects’. OTOH making the situations the PCs face be a bit ‘larger than life’ does tend to amp things up. What I found with older editions of D&D was it was all too easy for the game to devolve down to a lot of fairly small scale scenes. “You bash in door #13, Ohh, you hit the jackpot, room full of orcs!” followed by a half hour of dice rolling and gritting of teeth as the orc hit the cleric and hoping he didn’t roll more than a 6 on his damage die. There certainly COULD be so much more, but the rules didn’t HELP you do more. 4e’s rules do.

    No system really has a LOT to say about plot. Some systems may frame up a basic overarching concept that is part of the game’s assumed setting, but D&D has never been one of them. So you’re right that 4e doesn’t have a monopoly on creating tension. I think it just allows the DM to exploit it in a more effective way and actually aims consciously at bringing events to a tense climax.

    Again, there are a variety of characteristics that are helpful in this way:

    1) Characters are tough – A PC can usually take a licking and keep on ticking. Taking chances is thus far less about ‘succeed or die’ and more about ‘succeed or something else fun happens’.

    2) There are lots of ‘pull your fat out of the fire’ type effects – From the basic ‘make a save to hang by your fingernails from the cliff edge’ on up to EDs with their ‘you cheat death one last time’ stuff.

    3) There are a number of ‘helper systems’ – For instance it is very easy and encouraged to create various kinds of terrain, effects, and powers tied to the environment. 4e is very facile at doing things like lava, collapsing tunnels, drop the logs on the ogres, etc.

    4) Powers, especially monster powers, really naturally tend towards pushing things to a perceived wire. Most of the more interesting monsters can unleash some kind of ‘knock you back on your heels’ kind of move (usually an encounter power) for instance. This is actually pretty well tuned. There’s a pretty high probability that any halfway decent encounter will have the monsters putting the party into a pickle early on and then letting them figure out how to haul themselves back out and turn the tables.

    I think you can do these things with other systems, but you seem to get a real nice toolkit for it with 4e, and even when you don’t specifically set things up it seems like interesting stuff is likely to pop out naturally if the DM has incorporated a couple of interesting elements into the environment. Its resource management scheme seems to support this well too. Characters have a pretty deep pool of resources to dig into. I don’t think it is quite perfect, but 4e seems tooled to a ‘sweeping action’ style of play, where say AD&D is more tooled towards a group of PCs operating in a careful, methodical fashion, husbanding their few meager hit points.

  6. Much more cinematic in terms ofplayers presenting the scene with the help of flavor text, even if it’s just, “With a Sly Flourish, I attack with my sword…” instead of “I attack with my sword.”
    If green mists always herald the use of Phantasmal Force, there’s several more ways to describe the use of the power besides, “I use Phatasmal Force and roll a 15 to hit, plus 3 for my Int” to help dress
    the set.
    The DM’s need to provide tension is fine – players don’t want their characters to die.
    But, 4E does add quite a bit to visualizing the action with the flavor text that accompanies power descriptions.