An Argument for Camera Tricks

You watch the heroes as they step up to the front door of the old and abandoned house, lit only by the faint glow of the streetlights down the block.  There’s a rustle, and the heroes look around them anxiously before one of them pushes open the door while the other stands watch.  A few leaves obscure your vision as the camera shifts, hiding in a bush.  The heroes both turn to look inside, and your view rushes forward, surging up the steps towards the heroes as they turn in shock and you…

… fade to black for ads.  Because you’ve just experienced the “monster cam” on a popular TV show.  It sounded a lot like Supernatural to me.  So, if TV and film get to use all of these cool cinematic tricks to heighten the audience’s tension, why can’t we as storytellers do the same thing?

In a movie or TV show, the audience doesn’t generally expect to see out through the eyes of a character.  We’ll follow along behind them, but they rarely encompass the entirety of our narration.  Instead, we’ll often expect to see things which they might not see; maybe we have the advantage of looking around corners, or have a view into the enemy’s bunker before our heroes ever arrive.  We can see just how much trouble they are about to get themselves into, or how much trouble other people are making for them at the moment (intentionally or unintentionally).  The heroes barely ever get as much information about these things as we, the audience, do.

But there’s no reason why we can’t use many of the same camera tricks.  Storytellers do have to be a little bit more careful, since most games take place with the players watching from behind the eyes of their characters.  Those moments where the audience sees what the heroes can’t see are more difficult to pull off, because the people in the audience are also the ones making the decisions for the heroes.  You either need to have a group of players who are good at not meta-gaming (not using their game knowledge gained out-of-character to influence their decisions in-character), or you need a way to reveal information that won’t directly impact character decisions even as it changes how players feel about their situation.

Yet the advantages of being a storyteller (rather than, say, a director) are clear: you aren’t limited by any special effects budget, and you don’t have to figure out how to make the camera follow from a certain perspective without catching the rest of your crew in the shot.  You can simply say what it is that we see.  Want to use a flashback?  Go for it.  Flash-forward?  A little more tricky perhaps, but still totally within your control.  A narrative cut, switching focus to some other part of the story, is as easy as shifting your attention to another player.

Going back to why we might want to use these tricks, think about it this way: movies and TV shows increase tension by showing us the scary things that are going to happen before they occur.  Even when we don’t see exactly what will happen, we can tell that something bad is coming.  Apocalypse World has an MC move specifically for this occasion, called Announce Future Badness.  There’s no need to limit your foreshadowing to things that your PCs are able to see; there are a number of times when hinting at as-yet-unseen badness-to-come is even more effective than sticking to what the PCs can see around them in the first person.

One of my favorite things to do with moments of “offscreen” focus, those instances when we get to watch things that the PCs cannot actually see, is to showcase some future problem.  It doesn’t have to be anything especially complex, just show the players some of the bad news that will eventually be coming their way, or show them how much of a hardcase someone they’re dealing with is.  As your players become more comfortable with the idea of your game operating with much of the same logic that you’d expect from a TV show or film, you can even start to include things like teasers, or stingers.  These let you show off the session’s big problems at the very beginning with a brief cutscene, or foreshadow problems to come with a little hint at the very end.

If your players are down with getting into character quickly, you can even hand over control of some of the characters in your teasers or stingers, letting them play out whatever trouble is actually occurring.  It helps to be clear about what you’re looking for from that kind of session, laying out expectations or motivations as you see fit, but the increased involvement can feel magical for the players.  And sometimes it makes a nice change of pace from their usual adopted personae.  Once you and your players are all on the same wavelength, you can jump right into those sessions; this lends itself especially well to horror or investigative games, where your PCs then have to go back and find out what happened, or watch in horror as it happens to them as well after having played through the first iteration.

Note that giving the players more knowledge than their characters have may qualify for the topics mentioned in Horror and Predetermined Outcomes.

I’m sure there’s more to deal with here, and I’ve got a post on player knowledge in the works.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter below!


2 responses to “An Argument for Camera Tricks

  1. Pingback: Define Your Terms! Talking about RPGs | Fistful of Wits

  2. I think that this idea is very dangerous ground because it shifts the focus away from the players in a way that can very easily reduce engagement and agency. It can be done well, but it involves substantial risk that may outweigh the payoff in a lot of cases. Furthermore, I think that part of the appeal to at least some of these tactics is the novelty. The stinger has potential in part because stingers are short and intended to preview later installments and because they come at the end. Timing is important in building dramatic tension and commercial breaks (or pizza-ordering breaks) can and do cause dramatic cuts to backfire because of the shift in mood. However, if there isn’t a break there then I would be afraid the tension resolves too quickly. A scene switch might do the trick, but that limits when the tactic can be used to when scene switches are appropriate. Again, I think camera tricks can be used well, but they are tricks that enhance, not foundational elements to be relied on.

    I also think that there is quite a bit more to say about meta-gaming but if you have an upcoming post about that I shall delay my thought until that time.

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