Cinematic - What does this mean? How does Heirs do it?

Cinematic action was an important design goal of Heirs to the Lost World. Many RPGs describe themselves as "cinematic". This can be problematic for many reasons, the most obvious being that this word means different things to different people. In addition, games make themselves cinematic in different ways. This post lists several of the meanings of cinematic and how Heirs to the Lost World tackles each meaning.

What does "cinematic" mean?
Using lots of good input from this post from rpg.net, here is a short list of "cinematic" elements:

1.a. Major characters can take lots of damage and stay up (or alternately are not hit at all)
b. Mooks/extras/nameless characters go down fairly easily
2. Improbable/Outrageous physical stunts
3. Magic (powerful and/or common)
4. Cut Scenes
5. Fast and lots of action
6. Major characters are especially lucky
7. Characters succeed more often
8. Action movie pacing (intro teaser, building action including win-zone, climax with big bad)
9. Focused on the conflicts that matter (not dealing with small stuff)
10. Dramatic voice-overs
11. High stakes/larger than life

How does Heirs to the Lost World do this?

1. Tough Major Characters / Weak Extras - Wound rules insure that Major Characters can take several hits before going down, Minor Characters can take 2 or 3, and Extras go down with one hit.
2. Outrageous Stunts - In some games, characters can not penalized for attempting stunts. Actions are based on their effect rather than method. If you take out a mook it does not matter if you just punch him or if you do an flying spin kick - mechanically they work the same. To me, this does not mechanically encourage stunts - it only does not discourage them. In Heirs, not only are characters not penalized for doing stunts, the system actually encourages it by rewarding them with Destiny Points.
3. Magic - The spell system is flexible and allows room for creativity.
4. Cut Scenes - Not specifically addressed in the rules
5. Fast - The rules allow tactical choices without requiring any tables and very little bookkeeping. This keeps the players attention on the fiction/story, rather than the rules. Despite this, players still must make difficult decisions (such as where they are spending their Effort dice).
6. Lucky Major Characters - Destiny points give Major Characters that edge they need and provides players a way to shape the story slightly. When a character has run out of Destiny points, they know their luck may have run out. (They better attempt some Stunts to get some more Destiny points).
7. Characters succeed often - Starting Major Characters in Heirs are more powerful and effective than "first level" characters in many games.
8. Pacing - Heirs recommends this type of pacing for adventures, but it is not specifically dealt with in the rules.
9. Focused on what matters - Heirs treats background things (like going shopping) with light rules that do not require much attention.
10. Dramatic voice-overs - not dealt with specifically in the rules, but as a Game Director, I would give out Destiny points for especially good ones (or at least allow a player to use one when doing a stunt).
11. Larger Than Life - While Game Directors can make adventures on any issue, the setting has enough "big" issues. The adventures can involve clear "good guys/bad guys" or can involve some of the more "shade of gray" topics.

Immersion - What hurts it for you?

This is the first of my Random RPG Thoughts posts.

As my gaming experience grows, I am regularly surprised. In playing with different gaming groups, (especially when playing with gamers who have only played with a small numbers of gaming groups) I find these different groups have different assumptions about the way things should be. In particular, I find it interesting that different groups have polar opposite views about immersion and what breaks it for them. For example, one group may say, "Game X sucks because it has Y. How can anyone stay immersed in their character with Y!" Another group may say, "Game Z sucks because it does not have Y. How can anyone stay immersed in their character without Y!" This has inspired me to make a list of things I have heard people say that ruins their immersion. Note how many of these are exact opposites. (Also note that I am not defining immersion - clearly part of the reason people have such widely different opinions about it is that their definitions of the term varies.)

-Unrealistic rules
-Gamist rules (i.e. players needing to making tactical decisions with regard to the mechanics, not the fiction. Having to use your strategy brain instead of your story brain)
-Metagaming (i.e. thinking about story from beyond a single character)
-The GM or other players giving you information, but saying, "...but your character does not know that."
-GM or other players writing and passing notes
-GM taking certain players out of the room to talk
-conflict resolution instead of task resolution
-GMs making failure interesting (in real life, failure is often not interesting, it is just failure - a lack of anything happening, e.g. failing to pick a lock just means you don't pick the lock, it does not mean that you pick the lock just as the guards arrive)
-Using miniatures
-Consulting tables during play
-Consulting rules during play
-Consulting character sheets during play
-players talking about and describing their own character's actions, thoughts, and words in 3rd person
-role-playing multiple characters at the same time
-bad accents
-any mechanics (i.e. engaging with and thinking about the system and rules)
-setting stakes
-Rules that tell you what your character feels or thinks (personality mechanics, fear levels, etc.)
-feeling restrained by the mechanics or lack of satisfying tactical choices in the mechanics (not in the fiction) e.g. The "why would I move into range and let him hit me" problem
-Rolling dice
-Spending bennies, Destiny points, etc (to gain re-rolls, bonuses, or to change the plot)
-Using something other than dice (cards, gaming tokens)
-fiddly bits

Here are a couple of RPG.net posts dealing with this topic:
[Question time] Immersion
[Craft, Goals] Getting Immersion

Working on Cover

So we are all finished with playtest and the editing is almost finished (just a few typos to correct and that is it). I've gotten some feedback that my cover needs improvement, and I agree. Hopefully, this is the last step and the game will be done. Josh is working on the cover, and says he can finish it in a couple weeks.

There will still be design issues for Heirs to the Lost World supplements and rules expansions. For example, I am working on generalizing the rules to any cinematic settings, ship combat rules, and specific setting expansions (with corresponding rules supplements). I will be posting comments about these issues on this blog, but in the meantime, I will be posting some side comments about RPG design in general. These posts will be random musings about RPG theory and other topics.

Obsidian Portal Wiki

The gaming at the Source has been going well. It seems difficult to get the pacing down for a complete 3 hour, one-shot adventure. Most adventures so far have been stretched over two sessions instead. There has been a good core of people, but there also have been some different people each week. It is nice to see how easily new people can come and go. The game seems easy to explain, and enjoy from the beginning.

To help with the continuity of play, I have set up an adventure log over on Obsidian Portal. Eventually I will fully populate the wiki. For now, I am only updating the adventure log, and I have a sketch of some setting information. This wiki will replace the wikidot wiki.

Starting New Campaign

I am starting up a new semi-episodic campaign this Wednesday, Feb. 25. We will play every Wednesday at the Source (1601 Larpenteur Ave, http://www.sourcecandg.com/), from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. My goal is to have an ongoing campaign, but each session will tell a complete (if small) story. This way, players can join anytime and there is no big deal if a player misses an individual session. In addition, players can come in and play a single time as a one-shot, and stick around if they liked it.

Writing is going well. It is almost ready for a Beta release (after one more round of editing) so it will be available soon.

New web site domain and other news

The second proof copy is on its way here. I am very happy with the improvements (mostly editing and formatting) that I have made so I expect it to look even better than the first proof.

I've purchased a domain name and migrated my website to it. Check it out at: www.ObsidianSerpent.com.

I've been preparing for Con of the North. I made some postcards (with sample paper miniatures) to hand out, and the adventure is coming along well.

Wanted: Playtesters

I am ready for beta testing. Ideally, I would like to find an interested local gaming group who is willing to run a few sessions. Up to this point, I have been helping to teach the game in every playtest. Now I want blind-playtesting so I will not be involved at all, except perhaps to watch and/or record a session. I have a few specific design questions and many shorter questions. Most of all, I want to see if the text explains how to play the game.

Proof Copy

Not much playtesting has been happening lately. I got married, and that has taken much of my energy. The best news is that I did work hard to get the text finished, received my proof copy, and started another round of editing. The rules look solid, and the editing is going well. I am hoping to have text revisions finished by the end of the holidays. I need to start working on my Con of the North scenario soon - I have the basic story finished, but I need to work on the pre gen characters and the NPCs.

Group Char Creation and Merging Complications and the Motivation Matrix

Group Character Creation
After listening to a podcast interview of Fred Hicks (I think from Theory From the Closet), I was inspired to start working on an alternate character creation system. One of my favorite things about Spirit of the Century is the character creation system. Creating characters is fun, even if you never "play" the game and use the character. In addition, players are forced to make their characters connected to the driving/uniting organization and to each other. The process also makes sure the characters are filled with "flags" to tell the GM what the players want in the game. Fred (correctly) mentioned that these ideas could be ported to almost any game. I think I have a workable framework to do this (as an alternative to standard character creation) in Heirs to the Lost World. It actually is only slightly different from the standard system, adding a few steps where players share their ideas and make some connections with each other.

In doing this, I am also reworking my advice for initial character creation. My current plan is to include a list of standard character concepts (or archetypes) as in many other games, mainly to help those who may be less familiar with the setting. Beyond this, I will recommend players to come up with "something extra" to make the character more than just the standard archetype.

Merging Complications and the Motivations Matrix
I am loving both the complications and the motivation matrix, but they seem disconnected. I am working with a way to merge them in a more concrete way. My current idea is to force them together, making the upper area of the motivation matrix the place where you put complications. Some complications do not fit on the motivation matrix (notably physical complications and a few others). I will include a "Other Complications" section below the Motivation Matrix for these.

Magic Revision and fixing up the Soul

The magic system is going through some major revisions. All spellcasters must be specialized (by choosing a certain god, totem, loa, element, etc). This will greatly limit the variety of powers they can use. I am trying to have between 4-6 powers for each specialty. This will increase niche-protection (although many specialties will overlap), making spellcasters distinct from each other. In addition, many of the more powerful spells will be moved to path abilities.

I cleaned up the mechanics on the Soul. Now, each aspect of the soul has a corresponding "point". Ihiyotl - fatigue points, Tonalli - fear points, Teyolia - drain points. Each of these points has a negative consequence. In addition, when you collect a number of "points" equal to the corresponding soul aspect, then there is another negative consequence. This makes all three work the same way.

We also have been trying out some changes to the Initiative rules. First, we eliminated the impact of fatigue and fear points on Initiative. This seems like a good change and simplifies play. Second, we added a new rule so that when someone is hit in combat, their Initiative drops to zero for their next action, regardless of whether the damage roll succeeds or fails. This is an added complexity, but it lessens the negative feeling players have when they hit, but do no damage.

Con of the North 2008

Both Heirs to the Lost World games at Con of the North went great. John ran "Shadows of Xicalango" on Friday night, and I ran "Rescue at Fortaleza de Dios" on Saturday. Both games had great players who picked up the game very quickly and seemed to have a good time. They used Destiny points very well and had clever and exciting stunts and critical successes. Overall I was very impressed with the quality of play and pleased with how the games turned out.