Saturday, August 23, 2008


So, let me get this straight. The tension-killing narrative shortcuts that destroys so many movies has had an adjective coined to describe it... and not only that, but people actively seek this sort of thing in their RPGs as if it's a desirable goal.

First: Good books are not good movies are not good role-playing games.

Second: I think a lot of people just have trouble imaging things on their own, and "cinematic" rules are one way of helping these people define in their head what's happening during the game, instead of doing that themselves, and then getting clarification when what's happening conflicts with what they have themselves come up with.

And think about this: In an average traditional D&D group, unless somebody draws a decent picture of their character, every single person at that table has a different impression of what everyone's character looks like, a different idea of what the NPCs look like, and probably has a different idea of what a hobgoblin look like, how a zombie is attacking, and exactly what action is being taken when a player rolls to hit.

I think this is a good thing. A great thing actually.

But the more "cinematic" the action gets, where every sort of attack action has a different mechanical gimmick attached to it, the more that action is defined, and the less everyone has to imagine what is happening.

Third: "Cinematic" to me is a tag describing all of the narrative shortcuts a movie (and all other media since the BLOCKBUSTER ACTION MOVIE became popular) takes to resolve its story. It saves time for the impatient and it creates a hyperreality when there is no logical way for the "necessary" things to happen. The conclusion decides what the action leading up to it needs to be.

That is absolutely anathema to role-playing. There must be no set conclusion. Once you divorce "story narrative" from your game, then you are free. Nothing is required to happen to get to the end of the story if there is no end and no pre-determined story to get there. The future is determined solely by what the players decide to do with what the situation the referee presents them with. You don't have to fudge dice to make sure the story isn't ruined, you don't have to strong-arm the characters to keep them on track, and you don't have to feed them clues like little children if they get lost in the story.

I get the idea that people assume that there are two, maybe three tiers possible within a role-playing game. Realism (Sword swing! YOU'RE DEAD!), and Cinematic (Whatever is most exciting!)... with the possible "heroic" middle ground. New D&D pretty much spells this out explicitly, doesn't it? That's... limiting. As traditional D&D is a combination of unrelated subsystems thrown together (thus allowing maximum customization - my Rule of Law is not a statement against houseruling!), so is the set reality in a role-playing game a combination of varying degrees of reality, depending on the individual circumstance. In play, nothing is ever always "realistic," and nothing is ever always "cinematic," no matter your rules, tone, or intentions. Stop shoehorning.

"Cinematic" takes away from the YOU ARE THERE - WHAT DO YOU DO? aspect, and therefore needs to be thrown into the bin.


  1. Very much agreed, but expect lots of people to disagree with you quite vehemently while throwing around random insults about your intelligence and "arrogance" at daring to criticize their fun.

  2. Well, yeah, but I don't mind that sort of thing. I'm used to the expression of an opinion becoming a reason for war.

  3. Not out to start a war.

    1.) Movies do not evolve, but viewer tastes certainly do (try watching one from as early as the 40s or 50s and you see what I mean), adopting storytelling techniques that "work" and discarding those that don't. Modern narrative sensibilities are an expression of this developement.

    2.) When a roleplaying game uses the term "cinematic", it usually means "less sub-systems, more free-wheeling descriptions by the players", not anything that is actually constraining the game.

    3.) When RPGs use "story" (not the same as cinematic) they mean "cinematic" and more "dead ends where the game grinds to a halt are to be avoided"

    Thanks for the attention, class dismissed.

  4. Alexandro, I disagree.

    Cinematic in RPGs tends to mean over the top or unrealistic action, and real-world logic being sidestepped intentionally. The free-wheeling player descriptions are an outgrowth of that concept. Less sub-systems has nothing to do with cinematic, except that simple concepts (cinematic gaming) does not need complicated rules.

  5. "Cinematic in RPGs tends to mean over the top or unrealistic action, and real-world logic being sidestepped intentionally."
    Not anything that is constraining the game, as I said.

    Jim assumes that "cinematic" implies some sort of narrative structure (which it does not), which was what I was adressing in my comment.