While I was watching old movies and cleaning out my basement a few weeks ago, I watched a movie that made me go “Wow! That was totally someone’s role-playing game!”. It wasn’t the first time that happened to me, and this isn’t the first time that the idea has been discussed here on the stew ( 1  | 2  ). There are a lot of movies and TV shows that have the feeling of a roleplaying game in one way or another. There are some elements in these movies that can easily be picked up on:
- Focuses on a group of people instead of one “everyman” hero.
- Sets up an epic adventure with many locations, layers, and twists as opposed to a single story with a definite end (until the sequel).
- The movie theme fits many stereotypes of a particular role-playing game or setting.
- Characters have a depth of personality indicative of massive time spent plotting out backstory.
- Characters have a cookie-cutter feel, as if they are the shining example of a character class.
- Comedic dialogue of the style which might be found around a gaming table.
- Evident hooks of some sort bring the characters into the story and give them a reason to work together.
- Pacing that mimics the flow of a game with all of the unnecessary “down time” bits cut out.
Sure a lot of these are tropes  of many different types of media, but some movies just resonate as “Game” to the RPG attuned mind. Some movies like these 5:
- Ice Pirates  – This is the movie that drew me onto this line of thinking. The jokey dialogue, outrageous string of scenes that felt like multiple stringed encounters, and the epic quest for a universe saving planet that is spoken of only in legend. Sounds like a roleplaying game to me. The cast of characters that surround the main two “heroes” were well fleshed out and had that “character” feel to them. Plus it had Ron Perlman in it.
- Vampires: Los Muertos  – An B-movie flick starring Bon Jovi as a vampire hunter, which was totally written off of someone’s W.O.D. Hunter notes. Whether it is the computer network used to collect information about the vampires, the supporting character who is a vampire but uses special pills to fight off the infection, the other hunters who join the party before the climactic battle, the vampiress villain who is seeking an unholy artifact to overcome her weakness, or the incredibly cinematic ending everything about this movie screams campaign.
- Indiana Jones Movies  – Every time my gaming group travels long distances one gamer plays the Indiana Jones theme on his cell phone while the other makes a dotted line on the map. Despite focusing around the adventures of one man and his sidekicks, the Indiana Jones movies have so many crossover elements with RPGs that it is hard to separate them sometimes. World spanning journeys, a quintessential main villain and his/her lieutenant’s, a huge cast of NPCs, long abandoned dungeons with epic traps, the search for magical artifacts of great power, and a slew of other elements too numerous to list. The newest movie in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , felt one step removed from the last Eberron game I ran.
- Firefly  – Long have I been a devotee of the church of Whedon, and long have I known that he was a gamer. In one episode of Buffy, a scene shows 3 characters seemingly planning an assault on a demon base, shortly revealed to be a game of D&D they are playing. Firefly was not immune to Whedon’s gamer side. It focuses on a group of people, each with individual specialties and personalities, who travel on a ship taking on jobs but inevitably doing good for the world. The characters, for the most part, get equal amounts of screen time. The group each has a role that might correspond to common sci-fi themed classes. It has even spawned a wonderful RPG of its own . Firefly can even be considered a game campaign in that it ended halfway through, before the main villain could be but hinted at (2 by 2 – Hands of blue ).
- The Fifth Element  – A classic story of an ancient evil reawakening after a set period of sleep and only one “chosen one” has the ability to stop it. Together with her band of stalwart companions, she journeys across multiple worlds, fights off the orc-like minions of the sub-lieutenant for the BBEG, and acquires the pieces of the key that will release the only weapon able to defeat the BBEG. While there is a lot more to the movie than that, it has all the earmarks of an RPG plot.
The GMing Advice?
Those 5 movies are just some examples of movies that have the feel of gaming sessions or campaigns, but what does that have to do with helping us all become better Game Master’s? Movies like this are a great example of building off of the elements we find in almost all RPGs and doing something different with them. While all these movies have the feel of gaming sessions, they also do things that are necessary to create the drama and action found in a movie. By picking out the gaming similar elements, we can see what else the movie does to create its feel. We can pick up on lessons new to us, or old lessons that we never should have forgotten but did. Examples?
- While some of these movies feature “dungeons” of a sort, they are not an endless grind. The action is fast and furious and does not stop.
- Battles occur anywhere and have dynamic terrain. While the terrain can have an impact on the combat, some leeway should be granted for the sake of characters being awesome enough to jump between moving cars.
- Shows like Firefly can show us that each character needs a moment to shine, and the way people build their characters (Kaylee = Mechanic with no gun skills) show us what they want to do in the game.
- Ice Pirates did not have the high action and incredible budget of some movies, but the hilarious situations and interplay of the characters made the experience an enjoyable thing, much like the joking of the players makes the experience enjoyable outside of the game being played.
Even sitting down and watching a movie like this before designing or playing in a game can get you thinking in a different way.
In trying to get the best examples of these kind of movies I could, I proposed the idea to the Gnomes to see their movie choices. Here is what they said:
- Kindred: The Embraced  – Remember that vampire soap opera based on VTM that played late nights in the 90s?
- GI Joe  felt like a gaming session – 5 min of exposition, 20 min of over-the-top action, and so many coincidences…
- Parts of Dollhouse  feel gamey, notably the missions and some of the ‘character building’.
- The Unit  had both the ensemble cast and mission-based storyline that feel gamey. And some of the story arcs had that Gygaxian ‘peeling the onion’ plot reveal.
- Hawk the Slayer 
- Conan the Destroyer 
- Willow 
- Mission  Impossible 
- The A-Team  (soon to be a movie)
- And for a quintessential 80s and completely obscure film, there’s “Eliminators .” A cyborg, a scientist/gadgeteer, a ninja, and a Han Solo-ish riverboat captain team up against a mad scientist in power armor with time travel powers.
- Stargate: SG-1  (I know it’s an RPG, but it was a TV show first and a very good RPG set-up)
- The TV show Leverage  feels likes someone’s d20 Modern group. There are hints that the writers are geeks of some sorts. One episode the alias of all the characters were names of actors who played Dr. Who (Tom Baker, etc). In one episode, starting Will Wheaton (need I say more), Will was part of a Rival Party that faced off against the main group. Just the plans that are laid out and executed in the episodes feel like some gaming group cooked them up and the GM just let them roll.
Also, after writing the majority of this I came across Johnn Four’s excellent list of movies for Game Masters. Go check it out for more movie ideas. He mentions a lot of the ones that we Gnomes have mentioned here. Go check it out: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/articles/top_movies_for_game_masters.html 
So what movies have you seen that feel like they were written as games? What about them might make you see your own games differently?