Adding Cinematic Moments to Your Campaign
D&D, Pathfinder, and other TTRPGs all come with an element of cinematic storytelling to their gameplay. Players, after all, describe their actions in epic ways and the GM or DM tells them whether or not they succeed based on the fall of the dice. These feats and actions the players describe can be very cinematic, with their characters leaping through windows or firing the battle-winning arrow through the bugbear-chieftain's heart. Yet sometimes the mechanics of the game slow down the action enough so that it no longer feels cinematic and very much feels like a tabletop board game with some of the roleplaying conspicuously absent.
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[The following paragraph contains potential spoilers for Alien the Roleplaying Game]
However, in recent years, there has emerged an emphasis on the cinematic aspect of storytelling with movie based TTRPG properties such as Alien the Roleplaying Game by Free League Publishing and other games like it that require minimal dice rolling with more focus on the actual storytelling. In Alien, gone are the momentum-slogging game mechanics of other TTRPGs which are replaced by looser, more streamlined rules conducive to speedy and exciting gameplay. Alien is a great game with lots and lots of opportunities for cinematic immersion. In my introductory game of Alien, I was secretly a synthetic sent to learn about Xenomorphs on a cargo ship and I was masquerading as a cargo loader roughneck named Cham. My goal was to hide my true identity at any cost and also to acquire any information I could about the Xenomorphs. My ruse held steady for a long while until I convinced my pal Rye, another roughneck, to help me sneak into the computer mainframe and data storage - directly opposing an order from our increasingly reckless pilot, Davis (who had been taking drugs in secret and growing more erratic). Davis had taken charge after Miller, an Officer, went AWOL. In a moment of panic and desperation, since we'd already been hunted by a Xenomorph while Rye had been trying to make repairs to the damaged and immobile ship, Davis opened fire on us as we fled down a corridor in the ship and I was wounded, outing me as a synthetic. My grand cinematic moment came when the Xenomorph that had been hunting us severely wounded Rye, and I took an axe and began going to town on the alien until I finally embraced the creature in a bearhug and shouted for Davis and the others to hit us both with the M240 Incinerator Unit while it started eviscerating my body. Cham and the Xenomorph were engulfed in flames, and in the end the synthetic and the Xenomorph were fused together in an endless embrace of death. They did manage to eventually salvage my head in order to try and revive me if they ever made it off the ship, but for the sake of cinematic immersion I was happy to have been part of a heroic sacrifice to buy the others more time to try to survive the growing Xenomorph threat, and after the game we all talked about how cool that moment was as if we had watched it unfold in an actual Aliens film.
As a GM for more rules-laden games like D&D - even before I played games like Alien my personal philosophy was to keep the cinematic opportunities in my game as exciting as possible and to try and keep my players captivated enough that they feel like their characters are in a movie. I'm going to tell you how I personally achieve this, and maybe it will help you on your own game nights as a player or as a GM. It's harder to do in a rules-crunchy game like D&D than with a game like Alien, but it's possible.
DESCRIBE, DESCRIBE, DESCRIBE
One of the first steps to creating a cinematic experience is to let your players describe as much as they want of their character's actions, and also let the other players in the group add on to it with their own. Don't try to interject, unless you're going to embellish one of their descriptions. Let their imaginations do the work, and then when it gets back to you to do your duties as the GM - take it a step further and be flexible in making it work for your encounter. One of the things I like to do once the players have all said their piece and articulated what they'd like their characters to do is rephrase what they said into the narrative. So, when Derek tells me he wants his monk to do a back flip off the cliff edge and tumble when he gets to the ground, I try to make it sound as dramatic as possible with the most amount of description I can muster. It's often worth the extra narrative effort in order to see the looks on the players' faces when you describe all the action to them in the same manner in which up until that point you've been describing everything else. In Derek's case, I might say something like "Okay, so the rest of you see Zanari (Derek's monk character) salute you, and then run like a madman to the edge of the cliff. When he gets there, you see him launch off the edge, his body twisting and turning into somersaults through the air until he disappears from your view. Zanari, as you approach the floor of the cavern faster and faster, you angle your body so as to absorb the impact as best you can, grunting as you connect with the ground and roll to your feet with practiced ease. Your party looks down on you in amazement." To me, there's no such thing as too much description. It clears away any misconceptions, especially in a theater of the mind setting, and really lets players think outside the box in a way that being super adherent to the rules does not. That brings me to my next point.
BE WATER, MY FRIEND
Bruce Lee said it best; "Be formless, shapeless, like water." This is a great philosophical stance to have when you're going to be dealing with a game like D&D. As a GM, it is our duty to know and to interpret the rules. However, some newer GMs especially take this too close to heart, thinking they must be an arbiter of the rules to the extreme. While it's great to know the rules and continuously provide that information and any clarifications to the players, another GM tenet is for the players to have a great time which is arguably more important than knowing all the rules by heart. Creating cinematic moments in your games creates "real" memories for the players to draw on when discussing the games with other people and thus creates value and desire in the games you play with them. Fun is obviously a massive byproduct of enjoyment of the games, so making sure the players have a great, memorable time should be number one priority. So, be like water - don't let looking up minor rules slow down the flow. Just go with it, make something up on the spot, and keep the river moving.
INSPIRATION IS A FRIEND, NOT A FOE
It's okay to use existing movies, games, and books as sources of inspiration for cinematic moments in your games. This is a common tactic more experienced GMs employ when they're in a pinch or just want to add some pizazz. We've run several blog posts detailing some great BOOKS, GAMES, MOVIES, and SHOWS to use for inspiration in TTRPGs and also some general ADVICE on how to do that and why it's useful. In one of my campaigns, Hilmark - a Dragonborn Eldritch Knight - had chosen to breathe fire on a group of orcs he and his party were battling. The fire breath did some heavy damage, and while the orcs were ultimately no massive threat to the party, I wanted the party to feel like the orcs were a massive threat. One small thing I did that made the encounter memorable was, while the orc was on fire - he lit one of his own arrows with the flames from his own body and notched it, firing it back at one of the party members. He was ultimately taken out anyway (and I believe missed his shot), but giving the dying orc that memorable, badass moment stuck out and the players had fun talking about it later. Of course, I could have referenced several rules at the time to see whether or not he could light his arrow on fire, whether or not he could even fire his arrow, but that would have slowed everything down and would have taken away some of the cinematic quality of the moment. And that moment was something I drew on from movies like Lord of the Rings, and how terrible and frightening the Uruk-Hai were in the first movie. Inspiration is your friend, I'm telling you.
Don't be afraid in your narration to use time-tested movie tropes, such as cliffhangers (whether at the end of a session or end of a turn), fast forwarding events, utilizing flashbacks, love triangles, or what have you - as long as they are going to be in service to the narration and the greater story. If it helps your session, fast forward the action and give the players some semi-interactive vignettes to play through (a heartfelt conversation around a campfire, a memorable battle after being ambushed on the road, etc), or maybe you can describe in a sort of montage what the characters have been up to if you fast forward through a month or two of in-game time. The sky is the limit!
Anyway, those are just a few of the techniques I deploy to make my players more engaged and to provide them scenarios in which they can experience cinematic moments. Let us know in the comments if you have some different tactics or what you thought of these ones. I hope you have an excellent game night! - Joe