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Friday, March 21, 2014

Tips about RPG Campaign Pacing taken from the movies.

This article starts with an assumption, that a 105 minute movie (in this case the 1984 work of awesome Ghost Busters) packs enough information on the screen to build a short role playing game campaign. 

Lets say our campaign is about 10 games give or take. Millage may vary. If you are one of those lucky souls that sit at a real table with real people and play 6 hour games, then you could run through this example in two or three games. I am not so lucky, I’m writing this form the perspective of three hour Roll20 on line games, which in my experience tend to get a lot less ground covered.
Honestly it's very cool but really,  it's not the same
What I want to look at is pacing.
A good movie has pacing form scene to scene a good mix of action and characters. A good Role playing game campaign will take this notion to heart and pace the action from game to game. Having a campaign that is nothing but all action all the time, is not as effective as fostering a good mix, simply if the 
characters are always fighting, the fights stop standing out, the characters cool abilities feel less cool and more common , no one wins.  If the Ghost busters had done nothing but shoot proton beams at ghosts the whole movie, the movie would have been a terrible slog. (Mr. Abrams.)

So in an effort to look at this more closely I broke down the  movie as if it were a Role playing game campaign, into  sessions side chunks that fit how I like to pace my games.



And here that breakdown is: 
(this is not quick, sorry)

GAME 1:
The GM intro the ghost in the library, This would be a gm setting the scene, showing the players the flavor and the direction the game will be going in.

The first RP section the characters get introduced.
Introductions we meet each of the main character the PC's in their own short vignette. Venkman, for example is testing and hitting on the girl and so on. The players could handle this by going around the table, narrating a quick introduction scene for each character.

The next role play section introduces the characters as a party going to the library now we know the characters are connected and at least in part what they do.

First encounter: Getting spooked at the library, I would say "Get her" was a bad plan and rolls were failed.
This would be a great time for the GM to go over the mechanics of the game and what encounters are going to be like.
Bad Idea
Game 2:
RP section:
Going back to Columbia to find their grant has been pulled.
 Now the know the characters are even more connected as the GM just introduces some adversity into the game. The party now has a direction they need to get some work and get money so they can continue moving forward.

They mortgage a home and find a place to set up shop, the fire house.
This would be a long RP section in most games, a movie covers it in about seven minutes but all of the moving parts involved would take a GM and players a few hours to chew through. By the end of this they are the Ghost busters.

Game 3: 
NPC  introductions : We meet Dana, she is not a character but a major NPC, love interest and quest goal all rolled into one.  And Louis a lesser character plot wise but no less important, he is after all the Key Master. Everything in Dana’s apartment happens outside of the scope of the characters, this is GM’s note book stuff that will only be shared as a story by Danna latter on.

At this point the players would have an RP session , Hire  the secretary Janine and do all kinds of rolling and research to get their resources in order,  Proton packs, traps,  Containment Grid, (ecto 1 shows up) and all sorts of other  things would have to be sourced out by the GM  in another mostly RP game.
LEGO!

Game 4:
Role play event: Danna seeks ghost busters’ help and one of the players decides to flirt with the NPC until he almost has him arrested. This is where many of the points involved in the main plot are brought to bear by the GM.

They get a call! Finally after a game and a half more action!

The encounter with slimmer at the hotel, the players get to use all the stuff they whipped up in game three, so they blow the ever loving shit out of the Edmonton hotel ballroom, but they complete the encounter successfully! Hot Box!  

This would be a good time for one of the player’s research roles to reveal how powerful but dangerous crossing the streams would be. Whether or not the players try it before the final encounter is a thorny point in the whole movie as narrative process. (The guys I play with would immediately run out the front door of the fire house and cross the streams on the nearest t taxi.)

In the movie they show a montage of the Ghost-Busters doing other side encounters. In game terms I would say Game 4 ends with another short encounter and... 

Game 5
 ALL action giving the players time to figure out what works and what doesn't. This process is implied in the movie, but would make a very satisfying game 5. Play out that photo montage; let the players rip things up outside of the main plot for one game.

Game 6:
The calm.

The research roll on Tobin’s Sprit Guide having gone well, Peter tells Dana the NPC about Gozer and Zull, over lunch in a Role play section. This opening would be A great way to settle the game and get the main quest back after the chaos of game 5. The player is even given a date with the NPC, finally.

A new player joins the group and rolls up a fighter named Winston. He gets an introduction and gets to unload some ghosts.
While the GM introduces the narrative foil to the ghost buster party Walter Peck of the EPA. A quick Role play sees the Characters out witting Peck, but you know these kinds of guys never go away for long.

Game 7:
RP showing more of the ropes to Winston, the GM can drop the uptick in paranormal activity on the players here invoking the   much loved "600 pound Twinkie" metaphor.
 In the Gm's note book Dana is being accosted by arms in her arm chair and Louis being chased down by a terror dog in central park would happen outside of the eyes of the players, these things while important, take up no game time.
I know how you feel bro.
One of the Characters (Venkman) goes to pick Dana up for their date, but instead gets to role play with Horny possessed Dana. (AKA Zull.)
is that a real poncho? or is that a cheap sears poncho?

The rest of the party would have Louis hand delivered to them and would have to make some skill checks to determine the nature of his possession

The Rp heavy session continues:

The party does, research into the nature of Dana's building, and a good Rp session between Ray and Winston, which moves into "could this be the end of days?"   If this were a game and not a movie and the GM was doing their job that's exactly the conversation the players should be having by now.

And finally Game 7 sets up the rest of the campaign with Walter Peck reappearing with a cop and a con-ed guy, shutting down the ghost containment grid, and generally fucking things up, causing the Gm to describe all hell breaking loose for the next 10 minutes.

Game 8:
Last game was RP heavy the scene from the film, with the Ghost Busters in the Jail cell is getting cut, it’s a great comedy scene but really after session 7’s cliff hanger we need to kick this off.

This game should open up "in media res" in an argument at the mayors office. The Players will have to make some rolls but in the end they will win the argument and the GM should quickly get them to work.
The arrival at Dana's building should be played out with sirens crowds cheering and all that.

The pivotal part of this scene however is when the earth almost swallows up the team.  In an RPG this should be one of those total party kill moments when the GM whiffs (with purpose,) but the players know, things just stepped up.
Also in an RPG the visual gag of the ghost busters trudging up 22 flights of stairs does not work, I would add some small encounters some lesser dead to blast or something along those lines or just skip to the final scene.

The encounter with Zull in the form of an exotic woman and the Dana / Louis terror dogs on top of the building is actually a Role play segment that leads to the final "boss fight." This interaction would be delicate, as players love to punch shit in the nose before they think about how badly outmatched they might be. A Gm would have to use a deft descriptive touch to keep this from becoming a brawl that the players could not win. Or the GM could just ask "Are You a God?" then almost push the players off a 22 story building.
The big fight should dominate this game the Stay Puffed Marshmallow guy is the dragon of this game, and it should be a big over the top fight.

In the movie they crossed the streams and that was it. In an RPG this could take a bit longer with other complications such as the terror dogs running around, or the need to weaken the beast before stream crossing.
Damn that's a big bitch.

It could be argued that the Gm should have dropped the never cross the streams line back in game 2. And that the players would have to arrive at the decision to cross the proton streams themselves to beat the Stay Puff’d guy. I agree with this but I don’t think it would work that way in an RPG. I don’t speak for everyone, but my group would have crossed the streams a long time ago by this point, (back in game 5) if it was presented as an option at all.  In that caste The Gm would have described some awful out come from that (whatever happened to Jim the 5th ghost buster?)  The players would have been reinforced not to cross the streams, and might not want to take the chance to now.  No, I don’t think the story device of to or not to cross the streams works as well in an RPG as it does in a movie script.


In the end if all goes well the heroes win , the end of the game is a wrap up, guy get girl, team gets fame and fortune, and the  city becomes the sand box in game 9, let’s just hope  the GM has something better up his sleeve than Vego the Carpathian.

So let’s look at the pacing  we got from the movie game by game.
  1.     Intro game that ends fast with the library encounter
  2.    All RP, slower
  3.    All RP,  slower
  4.     RP in the start with an encounter crescendo leading to game 5
  5.     ALL fast the players cut loose.
  6.    Another RP game slower.
  7.    RP building to the cliff hanger.
  8.   Action finale and a wrap up.


Of the 8 games there are three that are totally Role-play, and two that start slow and build to something. Game five and Game eight are generally all action; each one is preceded by two slower games. This is using the games narrative to rock the players to sleep a bit, before hitting them with some adrenaline.

The slower games also give the role players more of a chance to role play; a chance to grab spot light time, before the combat monsters get to take over.  It is Very important that all of the players have a chance to do what they enjoy, some players like to role play more than they like to roll dice, it’s a fact.

Next time you are working on a story arc for a new campaign or thinking about running with a new group, look at some of your favorite movies, observe how the movie is paced.
Pick a film that matches the color of the campaign you want to run and view it as segments that could be individual sessions. It might just surprise you how much millage a GM can get out of 105 minutes.

For the record to put this together I used the movie synopsis found HERE  on IMDB, big ups to them.
Thank s for reading , any questions or comments are welcome.