Look To Hollywood Blockbusters For Adventure Design Guidance
  • Look To Hollywood Blockbusters For Adventure Design Guidance


    Let's talk about a valuable lesson game masters can take from The Force Awakens and 2009's Star Trek, both directed by J.J. Abrams. Maybe you've heard of them.


    Those movies often polarize fans of the respective franchises, but game masters can take some lessons from how Abrams mixes character development into intense action scenes. The technique results in deeper characters without slowing the pace of the films, and I've found that attempting something similar in the games I run often enhances them by making the big moments feel as satisfying as the payoff in a well-crafted blockbuster.

    Remember that scene from The Force Awakens where Finn and Rey run for cover as a TIE Fighter strafes the Jakku village? That's a prime example of what I'm talking about. Throughout the frenetic action scene, Finn repeatedly attempts to take Rey's hand, either as a means of protecting her or leading her to safety, but Rey protests each time. The exchange tells us something about both characters, even as explosions and blaster bolts detonate around them.

    Something similar happens in Star Trek during the opening sequence. George Kirk shares a heartbreaking moment with his wife as they debate what to name their newborn son, even as George Kirk fights a hopeless space battle to hold off the time-displaced Narada to buy time for his crewmates to abandon ship. Both sequences give us a feel for the characters while simultaneously dazzling us with big-budget action and special effects.

    Making an effort to replicate that in a tabletop rpg creates deeper PCs while also keeping the plot moving forward. Reflecting on my own games, I've noticed a tendency to partition action and character development into separate tracks. In the worst cases, I've intentionally injected character scenes into sessions just to pad them out and fill time. That's not always a bad decision, but it runs the risk of derailing the pace of a session by introducing scenes that feel like dead ends. So nowadays I try to hardwire opportunities for character moments directly into the most exciting and consequential scenes.

    The simplest, most direct means of accomplishing this to ask the players to reflect on the big moments of a campaign through the eyes of their characters in real time. When a particularly fantastic or dramatic moment unfolds, ask the players what their characters think of this new development. Have the characters encountered something like this before? If a player responds in a way that creates interesting new layers for their character, consider granting an in-game reward such as an inspiration point or a bump in initiative.

    Game masters can tie action sequences directly to the backgrounds of the characters. Raise the stakes by putting beloved NPCs or familiars in danger. Introduce magic items or tomes of lore with connections to a character's family or hometown, then give the players a moment to reflect when they finally get their hands on those precious artifacts or lose them forever. When characters have a personal stake in the action, the result of the scene naturally will provide opportunities for character growth.

    Character development doesn't have to disappear when initiative is rolled, as recent entries in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises demonstrate. If you've seen neither of the films mentioned here and have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sorry this column missed the mark for you. But something tells me that won't be a widespread phenomenon around these parts.

    contributed by Fred Love
    Comments 16 Comments
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      A good technique if you have players who start to doze off during the "role-playing scenes" of your game.
    1. N01H3r3's Avatar
      N01H3r3 -
      Recently, I've been making an effort to follow John Rogers' advice on action scenes: in short, don't make action scenes, make suspense scenes that require action to resolve.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      I try to hardwire opportunities for character moments directly into the most exciting and consequential scenes.

      The simplest, most direct means of accomplishing this to ask the players to reflect on the big moments of a campaign through the eyes of their characters in real time. When a particularly fantastic or dramatic moment unfolds, ask the players what their characters think of this new development. Have the characters encountered something like this before? If a player responds in a way that creates interesting new layers for their character, consider granting an in-game reward such as an inspiration point or a bump in initiative.
      Is that really the most direct means of having an action scene yield character development - by asking a player what his/her PC is thinking?

      What about the choices the player makes for his/her PC in the scene? These seem more fundamental to RPGing, less epiphenomenal/"meta", and to go to the heart of who the character is.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Is that really the most direct means of having an action scene yield character development - by asking a player what his/her PC is thinking?

      What about the choices the player makes for his/her PC in the scene? These seem more fundamental to RPGing, less epiphenomenal/"meta", and to go to the heart of who the character is.
      This works when the choice is more than just “I attack Orc #3” or “I use magic missile on the spellcaster.” If a player is playing to what they always know, if a DM or other players want to encourage more role play during combat, sometimes it’s necessary to give a little nudge or to lead by example. As DM, take advantage of that whole “monologuing is a free action” thing and be OK with giving a sentence from the NPC’s mouth as they’re doing something momentous. Our GM for a Pathfinder game was having the main villain of a combat spout a couple of lines from his “down with the nobility, up with the proletariat” manifesto as his minions were ripping us a new one and as he was casting spell suport for them. It was fun when one of the players’ PC was countering the villain’s logic as he was gutting minions one by one.

      Also the GM can call out a certain choice the NPC is making, like focusing on the group elf for his attacks because he’s homicidally racist against elves, or how the villain keeps trying to shut down the combat with save or suck spells but not kill anyone, and get away, because their child is in trouble and they want to go save them. A grand finale combat could become an alliance of forces because of the classic “face turn” a la professional wrestling. (cf. Darth Vader tossing the Emperor down the shaft)
    1. thzero -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      What about the choices the player makes for his/her PC in the scene? These seem more fundamental to RPGing, less epiphenomenal/"meta", and to go to the heart of who the character is.
      Can't say yes enough! Quit trying to force things on players... its a game, not a script writing seminar!

      And considering Force Awakens, Last Jedi, the new Star Trek movies are pretty much terrible movies... not exactly a good model to be following anyways.
    1. thzero -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      A grand finale combat could become an alliance of forces because of the classic “face turn” a la professional wrestling. (cf. Darth Vader tossing the Emperor down the shaft)
      Deus Ex Machina?!

      Story? Ok, can be a great plot twist especially if the villain/heel has been deeply written into the storyline. A game? Not so much... its anti-climatic.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Quote Originally Posted by thzero View Post
      Can't say yes enough! Quit trying to force things on players... its a game, not a script writing seminar!
      If someone DOESN’T want to add more opportunities to role play, that’s a totally different topic, involving things like group play style, making sure all the players at the table (including the DM) are a good fit for the game being played, etc.

      However no one’s talking about script writing or railroading, they’re talking about suggesting new opportunities for adding new avenues for player interaction. The player in my group CHOSE to rebut the villain in the middle of combat, and it added a lot of fun doing so - but we NEVER would have done it had the GM not tried it, and discovered how memorable the event could be.

      Quote Originally Posted by thzero View Post
      Deus Ex Machina?!

      Story? Ok, can be a great plot twist especially if the villain/heel has been deeply written into the storyline. A game? Not so much... its anti-climatic.
      How is that anti-climactic? In the vas majority of D&D games I’ve seen both at home and at conventions, the enemy in a combat exists for two purposes - to be two-dimensional, and to be killed. Something like finding out that an enemy doesn’t have to be your enemy, or just as cool, finding out someone you almost see eye-to-eye with, but IS your enemy) makes for a great experience specifically because it’s uncommon. I wouldn’t do it for every main enemy, but having it happen once or twice in a campaign makes it stand out, and makes it more cinematic. And cinematic doesn’t have to be a bad thing, just because it’s a game.
    1. thzero -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      Something like finding out that an enemy doesn’t have to be your enemy, or just as cool, finding out someone you almost see eye-to-eye with, but IS your enemy) makes for a great experience specifically because it’s uncommon.
      That is different than having the villain/heel/npc make the finishing "move", aka Deus Ex Machina such as the Darth Vader scene you reference.

      Having scenarios like you suggested that I quoted does make for an interesting game, not because of cinematics, but because it gives players choices - choices that they hopefully make based on their characters stats, background, personality, group dynamics, etc.

      Do I side with the bad guy, or even try and convince him to help? But he's evil?! Nice quandary.

      And yes, most games at conventions have very one or two dimensional (at best) villains... but those games generally run in a very short time period.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      This works when the choice is more than just “I attack Orc #3” or “I use magic missile on the spellcaster.”



      A grand finale combat could become an alliance of forces because of the classic “face turn” a la professional wrestling. (cf. Darth Vader tossing the Emperor down the shaft)
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      Something like finding out that an enemy doesn’t have to be your enemy, or just as cool, finding out someone you almost see eye-to-eye with, but IS your enemy) makes for a great experience specifically because it’s uncommon.
      Quote Originally Posted by thzero View Post
      Having scenarios like you suggested that I quoted does make for an interesting game, not because of cinematics, but because it gives players choices - choices that they hopefully make based on their characters stats, background, personality, group dynamics, etc.

      Do I side with the bad guy, or even try and convince him to help? But he's evil?! Nice quandary.
      The sorts of things thzero talks about would count as examples of a player making choices for his/her character. Rather than narrating feelings (as the OP suggests), or the GM introducing some unilateral story element (like having the villain turn), those involve the players playing their PCs.

      I think it would make for the more interesting way to have a villain turn, also: rather than the GM deciding this, the players declare actions for their PCs that (if successful) change the loyalty of the NPC.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Is that really the most direct means of having an action scene yield character development - by asking a player what his/her PC is thinking?

      What about the choices the player makes for his/her PC in the scene? These seem more fundamental to RPGing, less epiphenomenal/"meta", and to go to the heart of who the character is.
      The problem is that those choices are often dictated more by tactical considerations and characters' game-mechanical capabilities than by their personality. Indeed, players can feel pressured to prioritise those considerations in order not to let down the group. Giving them the opportunity to express their reactions allows them to show concerns that don't show through in their actions, and may let them feel more comfortable to react in-character instead of making the most mechanically optimal choice.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by thzero View Post
      That is different than having the villain/heel/npc make the finishing "move", aka Deus Ex Machina such as the Darth Vader scene you reference.
      To be fair, this scene could be read both ways. Luke had already interacted with Vader on several occasions before, Vader was aware Luke was his son, Luke claimed there was conflict within Vader about turning Luke over to the Emperor. While the Emperor was torturing Luke, Luke was calling out for his "father" to help him.

      So it's not really Deus-Ex-Machina if you read Vader turning on the Emperor as a slowly developing character trait, and a response to Luke's cries for help under the Emperor's torture.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      To be fair, this scene could be read both ways. Luke had already interacted with Vader on several occasions before, Vader was aware Luke was his son, Luke claimed there was conflict within Vader about turning Luke over to the Emperor. While the Emperor was torturing Luke, Luke was calling out for his "father" to help him.

      So it's not really Deus-Ex-Machina if you read Vader turning on the Emperor as a slowly developing character trait, and a response to Luke's cries for help under the Emperor's torture.
      I agree with this as an analysis of the story. In RPGing terms, I think it becomes most interesting if it's Luke's player making some sort of action declaration to bring Vader over to Luke's side.

      Quote Originally Posted by MarkB View Post
      The problem is that those choices are often dictated more by tactical considerations and characters' game-mechanical capabilities than by their personality. Indeed, players can feel pressured to prioritise those considerations in order not to let down the group. Giving them the opportunity to express their reactions allows them to show concerns that don't show through in their actions, and may let them feel more comfortable to react in-character instead of making the most mechanically optimal choice.
      I think that if the "mechanically optimal" choice is at odds with the character's character, and the player always makes that choice, then it casts doubt on that really being the character's character, doesn't it?

      But many games have mechanics that permit some sort of squaring of this circle - eg in 5e, the Inspiration mechanics seem relevant.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      I agree with this as an analysis of the story. In RPGing terms, I think it becomes most interesting if it's Luke's player making some sort of action declaration to bring Vader over to Luke's side.
      Well yes, it's always more interesting when NPCs react believably to PCs. But it is similarly more interesting if PCs act believably towards NPCs. The former tends to be fairly easy even with two-dimensional NPCs, the latter is somewhat harder to accomplish, especially in combat where PC actions tend to edge towards "optimal" decisions rather than character-befitting ones.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      Well yes, it's always more interesting when NPCs react believably to PCs. But it is similarly more interesting if PCs act believably towards NPCs.
      I think "believably" can be a bit of a trap if a GM is not careful, though. Is it believable that Vader would redeem himself? Does its believability depend upon the GM coming up with the idea?
    1. MrZeddaPiras's Avatar
      MrZeddaPiras -
      I'd rather be inspired by good movies. Star Trek was infuriatingly dumb. The Force Awakens boring and derivative.
    1. monkius's Avatar
      monkius -
      Lady Blackbird had a Refresh mechanism where you could do a flashback to learn more about the characters in the middle of some other action, allowing you to refresh your dice pool while you were at it.

      http://www.onesevendesign.com/ladyblackbird/
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