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The Culture Beneath The Stairs

In the Box Office - Cinema, Pacing and Roleplaying

by Conan McKegg
Sep 10,2004


The Culture Beneath the Stairs

By Conan McKegg

In the Box Office - Cinema, Pacing and Roleplaying


Welcome back to yet another look at the various issues that relate to our gaming culture. Given the rather heavy material of the last three articles, I thought it would be a nice change to look at something a little less philosophically riddled and more about style. Namely what cinema can teach us about the concepts of narrative and pacing.

The reason I choose to investigate cinema is because there is, to me, a lot more in common to cinema when running a game, than there is to a novel. While much of the rules are the same, cinema has the added benefit of more instantly recognisable examples of how pacing, plot, story and narrative work.

Today I'll draw upon some of the ideas held by film writers and directors, and explain how they can benefit us as roleplayers.

What can cinema teach us about storytelling

Both cinema and stage have very well developed narrative theories that relate to entertaining an audience. Due to the visual nature of both styles of entertainment, pacing and the linking of scenes becomes of a greater importance than in written fiction.

Given that roleplaying has a similar situation in that it is an active entertainment that tends to have a considerable temporal focus, pacing is of great importance to a successful game.


Now, this is a concept that I will be returning to in upcoming articles, so I wont go into too much detail here. Essentially one of the key issues about pacing is that it is not an easy thing to teach or even explain. Due to the different requirements of varying genres, pacing is never the same for each game or story. It is something that is a combination of the flow of time, plot and location. Certain scenes will drag on to raise the tension or expound an important plot development, while other scenes will race by to heighten the sense of urgency.

Adding to this is the soundtrack and general atmosphere of the film. Many of the elements of pacing are tied in with this as well. If the music is quick, the scene will seem to move by more quickly. If it is slow, the scene will appear to drag.

The trick to understanding pacing comes from understanding the flow of a narrative.

Story, Plot and Narrative

Which leads me to the central point of my article today - the effect film has had on roleplaying narrative language. With the advent of the metaplot, gaming has continued to add more and more filmic language to its vocabulary. The odd thing is that something like "metaplot" would simply be called the story in a film script.

Filmic theory identifies three key elements to the creation of a formal system of storytelling in cinema. The first element is the Narrative. Narrative is essentially the whole system of telling a story. It dictates the flow of the story and how it is told. To quote David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson - from their work Film Art: An Introduction:

"A narrative is a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space


Essentially, a narrative is what we mean by the term "story." However, there needs to be a certain distinction made when referring to a story and a narrative. In film there are two key elements to a narrative - the story and the plot.

The story is the entire narrative - from the plot to everything that leads up to it. When we watch a film, we are seeing only part of the story. The rest of the story is inferred by the comments and actions of the characters within a movie.

To turn this to roleplaying, the story is both the campaign that the GM runs, and the setting material initially provided in the rulebook and the backgrounds any players may choose to write up prior to the game starting. In this manner, it becomes clear that a metaplot is simply the story of an entire campaign setting.

In other words - any campaign with any story written by a GM or the publisher is both a metaplot and a story. The more I think on it, the more I realise that the term Metaplot is synonymous with story. It is because a lot of people have mistakenly equated the word "plot" with story.


I mentioned earlier on in this article that the narrative consisted of all the elements of how a story is told. The plot, in filmic language, is the visible story. It is the explicitly shown events that occur during the film, as well as the added soundtrack, subtitles and credits. The plot is the how of the narrative, compared to the story's why.

To carry this concept over to roleplaying, the plot is how the GM and players tell the story started with the setting material and character backgrounds. It is also how that initial series of inferred events unfold via the continued cause and effect relations.

Consider this - the PCs are part of a world setting where two years ago a prominent leader was assassinated and this started a war. The war caused the PCs to loose much of their old lives. The game begins with someone identifying who was responsible for the PCs misfortune. This is the first cause of the plot - but the effect is related to both this cause and all the cause and effect relations that led up to it via the story itself.


Cause and Effect occurs within time - and so a plot might jump back and forth across the temporal duration of the story to reveal to us the cause and effects. It reveals to us the story through how it shows us cause and effect.

Think about the movie, Memento. The plot takes us back and forth along the main character's story to show us the cause and effect relationships in a manner that controls the pacing of the film. By moving backwards through the story, the pace increases as the film progresses.

This is the single most important lesson about pacing. Understanding that the plot needn't follow the story, rather it is meant to reveal the story. The story itself has a beginning, middle and end. But the plot doesn't have to start at the beginning, and neither do your games.

Pacing comes from knowing when to move from one cause and effect to the next. A well paced story identifies when the cause and effect relationships of a scene have been revealed, and thus moves quickly to the next scene - regardless of whether that scene comes chronologically before or after the previous sequence.

Using this in gaming

The trick to good pacing relies on both the GM and the Players. Using what we have learnt here, players need to consider when a scene has successfully played out either a cause or effect and thus have their PCs react accordingly - nothing happens in a vacuum, think about what the effect of an event is, but also think about what brought about the cause.

For GM it becomes a case of recognising how much of the scene is revealing the story, and how much of it is unrelated to the plot.

Naturally in gaming there is also the element of play - so don't feel that you should cut a scene short solely because it doesn't feel like it is relating to the plot of the story anymore. Rather, take note of what occurs and try to work it into the story. This is where roleplaying has an advantage over a movie. You can control the pacing through judicious use of what the players are giving you.

This has the benefit of both rewarding the players for being imaginative, but also reminding them that everything they do eventually relates to the plot. In doing so, you do what all movies attempt to do - keep the protagonists squarely at the centre of your story.

Nothing can kill a game more than a story where the main characters do not have much effect on the plot or story. This doesn't mean they win, or can stop the antagonists. But their actions must keep a cause and effect relationship with the narrative.

It is this element that we can learn most from observing films. By watching various different movies, if you keep these concepts in mind, you soon begin to pick up why certain directors choose to follow certain plots. Many pacing decisions become obvious to you.

So what are you doing still reading? Go by a ticket to the movies NOW!

Next week: Good Gaming, can it really be identified?

Remember - you can always contact me at Culture Beneath The Stairs if you would like to discuss any of the ideas I mention, or have any other questions relating to this column.

Until next time! Take Care!

Conan TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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