"RPGs aren't movies"

The author is describing how we often want to play a linear narrative in our gaming adventures. It’s a quick watch; check it out! I know it’s is something I’ve struggled with as both a dramatist and a rpg hobbyist.

Related to that, it’s a pet peeve of mine is if everything is described with “camera” and things like “we see”, “cut to”, “if we pan up” … Because no, it’s a character, not an omniscent POV. And yet, this is our common vocabulary and something that helps us share a vision of the world.

Early RPGs came from a world of wargaming and fantasy literature sections of bookstores. Now, the world we come from is movies and episodic television. I think it’s changed how we present and play in our rpg worlds.


I feel like this argument is largely just rehashing the common fallacy about unlimited agency/choice in RPGs. There are lots of choices that an RPG can present to players, and they don’t all have to be ones that concern “Big Plot Items” or whatever.

Players never have the option to decide everything, and limiting what choices players are allowed to make doesn’t have to lessen the experience of a game.

Instead of saying, “Don’t compare RPGs to other media where X, Y, and Z are predetermined,” I think it’s more fruitful to ask, “What choices do players have when X, Y, and Z are already predetermined, and what can we do to make those choices more meaningful?”


I think it’s really interesting to ask what other media are “description touchstones” for a particular RPG session or series!

Masks, for instance, calls on players to “describe like a comic book,” suggesting narrating things in terms of “panels.” In practice, I have usually described Masks like a tv show or movie, since I actually see superheroes onscreen more often than in comic books. But it can be really fun to make a specific choice about this. In @JimLikesGames’s Coven Prime series of Urban Shadows games, we described everything in terms of a Vertigo-style dark and gritty comics series, complete with cover descriptions at the top of each session.


There is a lot I disagree with in your initial post, but I’m not sure how much of it is ‘on topic’ for this post.

Suffice to say that I don’t think there is an inherent advantage to any of the things you are espousing, and that they seem more like matters of taste or aesthetic choices than they do facts or advice, and ruling these things out because they resemble movies is to rob yourself of tools and options and narrow your palette in ways I do not find desirable.


A play or a movie is linear because we only see it after it’s been created. Matt Damon said that he and Ben Affleck wrote thousands of pages for Good Will Hunting because they went off in all kinds of directions before they reached the script that we seen today.

An actual play of a session is linear too. Honestly, just writing down an adventure to be played creates a linear structure. I believe we need different ways of conveying “adventures”, like random tables popular in OSR or the agenda structure in Spirit of the Century.

Spirit of the Century
Example from Spirit of the Century.

Humans sucks when it comes to understanding a process: we are much better at grasping linear structures.


A play or a movie is linear because we only see it after it’s been created.

I’d like to emphasize that. At least for how I play.

In general, I’ll have the plot that happens if the PCs do nothing. That is set because these are the choices by the NPCs over which the PCs have no influence. I also have the goals and tactics of the NPCs set—how they generally react to obstacles and setbacks.

Then the PCs interact and overturn the applecart and we see how things will go from there.

When viewed at the end of the session, it will look very linear—this is how the story played out—but each choice by a PC creates a branch that could lead elsewhere, until the PCs interact with the story again, and change it again.

It’s like . . . a multiverse of madness?


Which is funny to me, since I have a pet peeve about how often comic books are trying to be movies these days. :slight_smile:

It’s probably helpful to use these cinematic terms to create a shared experience, and it’s probably helpful for a rulebook’s GM advice section to open that door for people. I just feel sometimes that there is a subtle difference between feeling like I’m a being a character in a world and feeling like I’m controlling a character in a movie.

That’s generally how I played, and made very explicit for me after GMing Monster of the Week.

I guess this whole topic is interesting to me because I like how RPGs can have such a spectrum being being a game, being a collective story, and everything in between, and how mechanics and approaches can emphasize or disable aspects of each. Add the fact that “story” can also have a spectrum in terms of medium such as film/tv versus novel or whatever, and there’s a lot of nuance I think on a meta level.

I’ve been in some games that are so sandboxy that it doesn’t work, and I’ve been on the other end when it was so railroady that it felt like it didn’t matter. The latter may happen more if a GM (inexperienced?) is expressly trying to have a plot play out beat for beat, and relying on “storytelling” that is often more familiar or equated with movies/TV

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Good discussion here.

I had a funny experience recently, where I joined a game with some people I didn’t really know. The GM was describing a lot of things in terms of “scenes” and “cuts” and so forth, rather like a movie or a stage play.

At the time I thought it was just a technique - which, as you’re discussing here, has been popularized lately.

However, after the game, the GM explained that he was surprised no one had caught on to his “clues” - the descriptive technique, was, after all, supposed to reveal something about the nature of our reality in that game. Ha!


I think it’s very astute to point out that we tell stories in the format of stories we are familiar with. Not sure I have something to move the conversation forward but a couple adjacent observations:

  • We should not lose track that while typical ttrpg play involves player control over a “character”, that doesn’t mean they are operating them as a puppet. Many games use mechanics at a narrative level. Things like backgrounds, bonds, connections, funds, etc. are abstracts that allow the player to control the narrative while not directing their character’s physical actions. In this case the idea of “camera control” or other metatextual descriptions are fitting as they indicate the distance the player is taking from their character when storytelling.

  • From my own experience I can think of several ways in which I lean on different storytelling methods and I don’t think any of them direct the story linearly/nonlinearly. I’ll switch between 1st and 3rd person PoV when describing my character’s actions (“I do this”, “my character does this”) based on how close I am feeling to the action. Ditto for in character dialogue vs descriptions of what my character is saying. My friends and I have also used the camera pan phrase, although in my head I contextualize it as an indication that the things being described are not through the character’s eyes but rather “setting the scene” descriptions. As part of storytelling we need to describe things that are inherently outside a single character’s observation.


(another aside for the linear vs. nonlinear debate; I think the story told during play is linear even if the act of telling it is nonlinear.)