Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cutscenes in Roleplaying Games

Way back in my college years, there were many video games that dominated our time - Warcraft, Warcraft II, Doom - the list goes on. But one game in particular sticks out in my mind - Star Wars: TIE Fighter for DOS.

Not only was it a really cool game - but it had a profound effect on how we roleplayed. One of the more rewarding experiences in TIE Fighter were its cutscenes. Every once in a while, you were rewarded with a cinematic, Star Wars-esque scene of how your character had influenced the larger Star Wars universe. In the example above, you are shown how you, a lone TIE Fighter pilot had a hand in bringing an Imperial traitor to "justice". (See above)

Now, remember that back then, very few games had cutscenes. Particularly flight simulators. In any case, the cutscenes in TIE Fighter worked very well for a few reasons.
  • For the most part, each cutscene didn't reveal too much. In the game, "you" took on the role of a TIE Fighter pilot, so most scenes never gave you information you were not supposed to have.
  • The cutscenes were short, sweet, and to the point.
  • The cutscenes also were a form of reward. You got to watch a (what at the time was) a cool motion graphic.
  • The scenes gave the game an epic feel, because it showed how your actions in each individual mission ultimately affected the fate of the Empire and the rest of the galaxy.
  • The scenes allowed you to get to know the villains and antagonists in the story, because you certainly weren't going to meet them in space while flying a starship.
We enjoyed these cutscenes so much that we immediately started incorporating them into our own games, unconsciously following the rules above. Now, with time and distance, I can see why they worked.

What a Cutscene Is
In a table-top RPG, a cutscene is a moment in the campaign where the player characters are not present. The GM describes the scene, the characters, and what happens. For example, you might feature a scene where a king talks about the problems within the kingdom, or a council of Imperial Inquistors discussing the latest heresy. It might feature either allies, neutrals, or antagonists. For example, it might show a the campaign's main villain committing an atrocity or plotting his next move.

Incorporating Cutscenes into a Game
I've found over the years that when I talk about cutscenes in text or on the net, there will always be a number of people who balk at the idea. Critics of this idea state that it creates too much of a strain on the players. It's too much to ask of them to make a disconnect from the information in the cutscene and the information that their character know. Others say it jerks players out of the moment and puts them into someone else's shoes, straining the sense of disbelief.

These criticisms can be very true if cutscenes are done incorrectly. However, the way we used them really addressed those problems. For one, any cutscene we used never gave away information the players didn't already know. For example, a cutscene in Rogue Trader might have the Explorers landing on a planet that was ravaged by orks. As the Explorers comb the planet, they piece together what happened. Then, the GM describes the events in a cutscene, rather than just telling them the cold, hard facts. The point here is that the PCs would have discovered all of the information you had in your cutscene anyway. But the scene you craft helps put the events into perspective and makes your campaign setting seem larger. Hey look, stuff happens when the PCs aren't there...

A cutscene also might be form of reward for players. For example, when the villain of the campaign finds out that the player characters have interfered with his long-range plans again, he might lose his temper or have to go before his superiors and explain himself. Again, it's not a hard stretch that the player characters know the villain has been frustrated. These sorts of cutscenes will often get players high-fiving each other.

To avoid breaking the players out of the game, a cutscene is best used right before a break. The PCs finish what they are doing, and right before people go pour themselves a pint, you give them a little teaser or reward scene to think about.

When it's all said and done, however, cutscenes are simply not for everyone. It may simply not be something that you would want to do in your game because it doesn't fit your style. That's totally fine. This is just my take on them.

My Interactive Cutscene in Rogue Trader
For our big pre-holiday session, I wanted to make it grand, big, and epic. For that reason, I crafted a cutscene for that game. However, when scripting it, I noted that it was fairly long. The thing is, no one wants to see you soliloquy for ten minutes. Even five minutes is pretty long.

So, what I did to break it up a little was to make the cutscene interactive. Huh. As I write this, I see that I've gone on long enough. I'll talk about my interactive cutscene in the next post. Instead, here's a little reward: all of the cutscenes from the old Star Wars: TIE Fighter game.


  1. Great description and use of cutscenes, something I have yet to really employ in Rogue Trader. I should have thought of Star Wars immediately when you mentioned cutscenes, my longest stint as GM was running WEG D6 Star Wars and it just being a natural facet of the medium (film) and the setting of Star Wars, really. I was much younger and less experienced then, so I am guilty of mis-using cutscenes: I tried to echo the scene where Grand Moff Tarkin and Vader are discussing the homing beacon placed on the Falcon, which in the film added some tension, but in the adventure I was running my players felt that it was disruptive and jarring. Anyway, the guys in my current group have noticed that I obviously want things to be cinematic, and I have strived to make RT so.

    I should say also that I've always lamented that there can't be more dialog between NPCs as compared to books, movies and videogames, as it's something I find hard to do believably in a tabletop RPG. Obviously one has to keep the exchanges brief (so as not to feel too much like a one man comedy show), but so far I don't think I've had the confidence to really pull them off well. Perhaps I'm not setting the scene well enough, even if the conversation takes place with the PCs present.

    In any case, I'm curious to know what makes a cutscene interactive, so looking forward to your next post!

    Oh, and great pull on the Tie Fighter references, by the way-- I read on a gaming site recently that it was the "best Star Wars game ever made," and I'm inclined to agree. I still remember the intro, "...even now our capable forces, lead by Darth Vader, are striking back at the Rebel insurgents. Soon, Peace and Order will be restored throughout the Galaxy!" :)

    That and the Ultima Underworld Intro have been indelibly burned into my mind for whatever reason.

  2. So as not to sound like a one-man comedy show, I've seen a lot of people just describe what is going on in sort of general terms. And then really focus in on a lot of detail on just one or two things. But in general, you're right. You don't need a lot of dialogue in a cutscene. I usually have only one or two exchanges.