Story is the main objective of a tabletop RPG. You sit down with a bunch of friends, play pretend, and make an awesome narrative while doing it. Some are better than others at this, and some only come to the table to mess around with math. The industry has started to adapt to this by incorporating rules into games that help the group collaboratively tell the story. They thrust power and agency into the hands of players, giving the GM more dough to knead before sticking it all in the oven for the final moments of a campaign. Since story is inherently system, and platform, agnostic, you can drag and drop some stuff to create a Frankenstein game! Here are some story mechanics that you could borrow from other games to make yours more cinematic, regardless of what RPG you play.
1) Skill Challenge (D&D 4e)
I wanted to get this one out of the way, just so I can stop hearing the moaning and groaning that comes with the territory. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a plethora of problems, but the product itself had a few shining gems. This was honestly one of my favorite parts of that game. The basic outline of this mechanic is to mimic the passage of time; traveling from one place to another, performing a ritual, climbing a cliff while a battle rages below you, etc. In my opinion, it does that exceedingly well and is easy enough to translate to other games. The way it functions is that the GM determines a number of successful skill checks needed to complete the challenge before a certain number of failures. That scale can be tipped either way, depending on how difficult you want it to be. A house rule that my gaming group used when we played this game was that you couldn’t use the same skill twice in a row or the skill the player before you used, even if you failed. It helps force players (and characters) out of their comfort zone and into a creative one. Cleverly done, WotC.
The DMG one and two explain how to do this specifically for 4e, but the Rules Compendium is definitely the better route to look at. They all give you some example DCs, but if you’re putting this in another RPG, obviously those DCs probably aren’t worth much. The concept overall is easy to adapt, as most all games have some manner of a skill check system. Amp up the creativity and tension with this one.
2) Finding Clues (GUMSHOE)
Investigative campaigns can sometimes be the hardest to implement, especially if you depend on character stats to find clues. Look no more for the fix, because the GUMSHOE system has a way to make investigating easy and effective. GUMSHOE isn’t a specific game, but an engine that runs a few games (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, etc.). The basic philosophy of this rule is that characters automatically find the important clue. Of course, you have to make them work for it through the narrative, but they ultimately find it. This eliminates the problem of characters bumbling around trying to progress through the story but not having the skill checks work in their favor.
In the GUMSHOE system, you would have to make what’s called a “spend” to get more information than the clue itself at face value. For example, you automatically find the candlestick, but you would have to make a spend to make the connection that it’s sitting on top of the book that Colonel Mustard reads every night before bed. Replace this spend concept with a skill check and voila, you can put it in any game. It helps keep things moving, prevents the players (and GM) from becoming frustrated, and keeps the players engaged. What’s there to lose here?
3) One Unique Thing (13th Age)
I talk about this game all the time, I know. I just can’t help it, I love it so much, and this rule is testament to that fact. Every character in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG has a trait called a One Unique Thing. Basically, it’s something that is unique to your character that nobody else in the narrative is allowed to have. It can’t affect stats, it can’t give you an unreasonable edge. So, no, your one unique thing can’t be that you can fly faster than a speeding bullet. It can, however, be that you’re the child of the story’s big villain who ran away at a young age.
It doesn’t always have to be that drastic, but I find that the more drastic and rooted the OUT is, the more fun it is to play with. This mechanic serves as a springboard and idea cache in my home game. I’m always adding story elements to my campaign based off of my players’ OUTs. Never before have I seen someone so invested in the main story of a game. Obviously, since this legitimately has no mechanical benefit, this one is incredibly easy to bring to other systems.
4) Character Questionnaire (Dread)
You don’t have any stats, just the deftness of your steady hand to remove that block from the tower. Dread is a fantastic game on its own, but the way player characters are created can most definitely be put into other games. The character questionnaire is all you have; the answers to those questions are the foundation of who your character is and what burdens they carry. It’s awesome to see a situation be presented, a player look down at their sheet, look back up at the tower, and make a nervous gulp when you ask them how they react to a situation.
The character questionnaire usually helps identify flaws in a character’s… well… character! The questions can help players think of traumatic experiences their character has been through, their pet peeves, their relationship with the rest of the party, and even some random personal quirks like a drug habit or a stutter. A perfect tool for a session zero, if you ask me.
5) Character Death (7th Sea)
This one caused the pot to boil a bit in the RPG community, mainly because it seems that most people like gritty, mechanical games. John Wick’s train of thought with this one seemed to be, “Let’s make a movie into a game!” Let me tell you, based off of what I’ve read in the book, he did it exceedingly well. In movies, you very rarely see an important character killed by a random environmental hazard, trap, or crummy happenstance. 7th Sea’s take on character death definitely mirrors that.
Player characters can only be killed by a villain or hero. That means if a building comes down on your head, the GM (or players, I suppose) has to think of a way to explain how this wasn’t the end for the heroes. It makes things incredibly cinematic, though some people would probably whine calling this idea “plot armor.” I disagree. It just makes death more rewarding when it comes to claim you!
I’m a little biased towards all of these, as I’m a GM that’s overly focused on story. These ideas help make a game more robust and fun; far more fun than rocks fall, everyone dies, methinks. Explore around games that you haven’t read before, as almost every single one has something fun to take from it. Maybe it’ll even inspire you to create a game of your own!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
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