Like quite a few other people this past week, I went to see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. It has a 92% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and if you listen to the buzz, the movie is everything from the absolute best film this year to the second coming of ‘Star Wars’. While I won’t really go that far, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, I wanted to go see it again right away and it desperately made me want to play in or run a pulpy science-fiction game. My favorite review of the movie even mentions its suitability as a roleplaying game:

“I want to play in this roleplaying game like not a video game but with dice and character sheets and OOH OOH CAN I PLAY THE TECHIE RACCOON WITH A CHIP ON HIS SHOULDER!?”

Yup.

Yup.

Yeah, that was pretty much the giddy thought racing through my head as well. From the way the team is introduced to the way they each have their own role to fill and eventually come together to take on the bad guys, it screamed ROLEPLAYING GAME to me. But translating the magic of a movie into a roleplaying game doesn’t always go as smoothly as it could. In some ways, just taking the narrative of a movie and slapping system rules on it can sap some of the magic out of what you’re trying to recapture.

Avoiding major spoilers, there is a moment in the film where one of the characters casts what is essentially a light spell, but in the film it’s a magical moment, capturing a sense of wonder and beauty in the midst of a life and death battle to save a planet. Something so simple, so elegant to get across the essence of the characters, yet you and I both know how moments like that can become invisible or steamrolled by the banality of the mechanics and the way we get caught up in them.

I know this is true for me and I imagine it’s true for others, but many of us got into gaming because it captures just a tiny bit of that wondrous sense of pretend we experienced as children, running around without rules or guidelines but still creating a magical world of heroes, bad guys, super powers and anything else that captured our nearly limitless imaginations. By the time we get to using roleplaying games and their various mechanics to facilitate that type of play, there’s often a little too much of the weight of the world on our shoulders to just freely pretend, but that magic is still part of what draws us in.

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I’ve had groups of players that could match this crew.

As you might have realized from some of my other articles, I’m a GM that believes in story first, crunch second. Part of the reason that I run games is to capture that bit of magic you can get from good movies, books, tv shows, comic books, and so on. I can remember way back in the early days of gaming for me, one of the other players in my group pointed out a game book’s illustration of a beautiful elven queen on a throne surrounded by stern looking guards, situated in a majestic forest palace. She smirked and said, “Our GM would totally turn that into a boring scene. Just some chick on a chair with guys standing around her.” She was right and that bothered me, but back then, I never thought I would ever know the rules well enough to be a GM and have a chance at doing a better job.

It’s up to everyone at the table to help bring a little of that movie magic into the game by describing little things with the same creativity we put into the big moments, but the GM needs to set the tone. If the GM doesn’t put effort into trying to capture the essence of awesome we see in our entertainment and want in our games, the players won’t really have any reason to bother. The game may as well be a tactical simulation instead of a roleplaying game.

Not every little thing needs to get played up, of course; sometimes a light spell is just a light spell and that’s okay. Just keep in mind the little moments in movies (or TV, or comics, or…) that really make you fall in love with the characters and the story. If you can find a way to work those little flashes of wonder and magic into your game, your players will be hooked.

Do you have any suggestions or examples on how to bring some of those little movie magic moments into your game?

About  Angela Murray

Angela has been playing roleplaying games for over twenty-five years, but it's only in the last decade that she's gotten into being a game master. Once she got into it, though, her interest in that aspect of gaming exploded. In addition to writing for Gnome Stew, she also writes for the all-female blog, 'Rogue Princess Squadron'.



15 Responses to Movie Magic

  1. John Fredericks

    Angela, this is a great column. And it goes both ways: it is up to the GM to present colorful descriptions, but it is up to the players to respond. For example, I’ve had times when I’m trying to paint a picture in their minds (briefly, I don’t go on that long), only to get sidelined by a mechanical question/rules issue.

    There’s a place for asking mechanical questions, and I don’t make every call perfectly either. But there’s a time to just sit back and have fun with it.

    For me, that should be most of the time.

    • Absolutely!

      I find the only time I start quibbling about mechanics is when I feel like something unfair is happening. :) But yeah, it helps if the players know when to just role with it… instead of roll with it.

  2. Those moments are tough to convey–sometimes the whole group is on the same page and it just works, but often the vision in your head is too complicated to convey in quick precise detail.

    My wife does a great job of bringing pictures and props in when she GMs to reinforce the feeling, or convey the “it’s a wide but jumpable chasm” with a vertigo inducing chasm picture.

  3. Nowadays I’m much more inclined to play and enjoy rules-light systems, so my opinion biased to the side of “less cruch” as well.

    As a player, few things bore me more than the GM going: “Roll. Hmm. Ok, you/she/he/it take[s] 8 damage.” Where are the colorful descriptions, the blood, broken bones and dented armor?

    For this reason when I’m GMing I not only try to give the colorful descriptions, but I also encourage my players to do the same with their actions. If they come up with great ideas/descriptions, I’ll let them do stuff that is not predicted in the rules, or give them an automatic success.

    Some of these player created moments are among our most remembered scenes, years later :D

    • It really is way too easy to get caught up in the mechanics and boil it all down to numbers and a game of attrition. I love when GMs ask players to describe how something looks when their character does it.

      • One memorable example:
        Once, the party was battling some minotaurs, and they were outnumbered. One of the players was fighting kind of alone, and got a truly bad string of rolls. Like 5 failures in roll, 2 of those of the critical variation :(

        Because of this, she was being dragged out of the battlefield (the minotaurs wanted some hostages), at which point she said “I’m going to pretend I’m cursing this guy”. She proceeded to roll her eyes, muttering gibberish and flailing her armas like crazy.

        It was specially well timed since the casters were absolutely destroying on their side of the fight. The prospect of a caster blowing him up to pieces was enough to put the minotaur in doubt long enough for her to recover.

        I gave her an automatic success in the intimidation check because the idea was so good in the context I couldn’t let it go to waste. :D

  4. It’s a constant effort to rise above the mechanics of crunchy systems and tell stories with vivid description. I frequently put a reminder in my GM notes: “Slow down!” As in, slow down and describe the scene. What the room or area looks like, what the NPCs/monsters look like, how they’re acting, etc.

    This works best when the players also remember to slow down. They, too, easily get caught up in the mechanics of rolling dice and adding up countless situational modifiers.

    “I got a 36 on my Diplomacy check!” a player breathlessly told me while we were roleplaying an aristocratic party. “What happens?”

    “Well,” I said slowly, “You already know that your NPC ally, a warrior-priestess with a leadership role in her church, has spent the evening using her considerable powers of rhetoric to alternately inspire and shame the duke, his vassals, and his advisers into reneging on the duchy’s treaty with an evil foreign power. Through her moral rectitude and soaring speechcraft it seems that she just may overcome all the obvious forms of inertia against what essentially amounts to declaring war. The question is, with your considerable skill, what do you want to happen?”

    • That is an excellent example. I know charisma based things can be some of the toughest to handle. On one hand, they’re the type of things that should be roleplayed out, but on the other, not every player is going to be able to easily convey what a high charisma score on their sheet will get them. Your description is a perfect way to handle that without watching a player try and awkwardly struggle through roleplaying being charming.

      • Communication skills are tough to roleplay when you don’t have them yourself. When I see a situation about to go off the rails because a player with modest social skills is completely fumbling what a suave character would do, I interrupt the immersive roleplay with a few metagame questions: What outcome are you trying to achieve? What general approach will you take? Usually 1-2 situation specific questions as well. I combine the answers to these questions with the dice roll and compare them to the parameters of the situation. I narrate the result, often creating a detail or two on the spur of the moment to explain the numerical result. Sometimes these become very memorable scenes in the game.

        Note, there’s no reason to limit this approach to communications challenges. When players have been willing to tolerate fast-and-loose mechanics in favor of a more cinematic experience, I’ve applied it to overcoming physical challenges and maneuvering in combat.

  5. I also like to use pictures to create an impression. I can describe how majestic and serene the lake surrounded by mountains looks, but at some point my players’ eyes glaze over if it goes on for too long. However, when I show them a picture of that lake with the mountains I get oohs and aahs over how pretty it looks.

    A combination of pictures and short evocative descriptions seems to work best. DNAPhil had an article that talked about character portraits and finding one that works for you on the internet. It’s also a great resource for notable NPCS, places, creatures and pretty much nearly anything else you can think. And yes, it’s technically stealing art, but I don’t think anyone is going to arrest you for showing a picture you found on the internet to some friends during a game.

    • Definitely a good point on not letting the flavor text go on for too long. It helps if you can be brief and to the point. There can be a fine line between drawing them in and losing them completely.

  6. i can identify Nico, Tree and Ants in that line up no problem :)

  7. I’ve found that mystery is one of the drivers of a good game. A new game/campaign/monster is compelling because we don’t know what happens next.

    It can definitely be overdone, however…

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