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So in most story mediums, you will get "cutscenes" that the characters are unaware of, a figure in shadow gives an order to do something, you see the swat team enter the building but the characters don't know yet, in order to provide Dramatic Irony. How good or bad of an idea is this in table top RPG? Can it work? Does it just give up things too soon? How can you make this work similar to how it does in other media?

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9 Answers 9

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The Point of Cutscenes
Cutscenes/dramatic irony scenes are difficult to do in tabletop RPGs, in large part because of what they're meant to do. In movies and even video games, cutscenes work because they let the viewer/player see something coming, without necessarily letting them do anything about it. Alfred Hitchcock talks about this: a boring family dinner suddenly becomes incredibly tense to watch if the audience knows there's a timed bomb under the table. The suspense comes from the audience knowing there's a bomb but being unable to warn the diners or defuse the bomb.

However, in many tabletop RPGs, the whole point is that the players can do something about whatever problems they are aware of in the world of the game*. So showing the players a cutscene doesn't have the same effect. As movie viewers, they can't do anything to help the characters on screen, and even in a video game, their ability to respond to the cutscene is likely to be limited. But the open-ended nature of tabletop RPGs means that there's nothing stopping the PCs from dropping everything and acting on their newfound knowledge.

How to Use Cutscenes
There are a few tips to help you put a cutscene into a tabletop game and still achieve the goal of increasing suspense while giving the players knowledge they need, without losing drama or excitement:

  1. Make the cutscene too vague to act on. For example, a shadowy figure in a dark room slicing their hand over a silver bowl, while a demonic form begins to coalesce in a rune circle. There's simply not enough information here for the players to run out and immediately stop whatever's happening. It's at the GM's discretion to allow additional checks (such as perception or arcana) by the players to see or understand more about the cutscene, depending on the method by which it reaches the players (see #4).

  2. Show the cutscene with the expectation that the players will act on it, and have roadblocks ready. The PCs want to run off and deal with whatever they saw? Great! But there's a dangerous mountain range in the way, or perhaps as they try to leave town, the king's guards arrest them and they have to defend themselves against false charges brought by the villain to delay them.

  3. Use the cutscene to cause a moral dilemma or choice. Perhaps the cutscene shows a town being sacked by the evil army, and if the characters drop everything and head over there, they can save the town. Except that the characters are in the middle of saving the elven tribe they're staying with, and if they drop everything, the elves will be slaughtered.

  4. Make sure the players understand why they're seeing the cutscene. Movies and video games restrict the audience's ability to interact with the events of the world, so they can use cutscenes because the audience inherently understands the storytelling tactic behind it: that the cutscene is there to increase suspense because the audience can't do anything about it. In tabletop games, however, the understanding is usually that story information provided by the GM is being given specifically to allow the players to act on that information. So if you just show them the cutscene, the PCs are likely to assume it's meant to be acted on immediately. But if you give it to them some other way - perhaps a dream, or a magical vision, or a prophecy - which puts the cutscene "inside" the world of the game, then it becomes more clear that it's not necessarily something that needs immediate action.

  5. Think long and hard about why you want the cutscene, especially if you only want to show the players (not their characters). This is related to #4 above, where the understanding of most tabletop games is that the GM provides information to be acted on. Dave made a comment about the distinction between the players being aware of something, and the PCs being aware of it. In my opinion and experience with tabletop games, the narrative is usually meant to come from the point of view of the PCs. Strictly speaking, this would mean that nothing the PCs don't witness firsthand (whether by actually being there, seeing a vision, etc) should be in the story. In my opinion, player-only cutscenes break the illusion that you the player "are" Cutter the barbarian - they put a wall between the players and the story. There are some games where this works or is encouraged, but unless the system is specifically designed to handle that (as Sardathrion mentioned Fate and VtM are, and as discussed in the comments below), it can damage player immersion. So I would recommend using them sparingly, if at all, and instead try to find a way to convey the cutscene to the character within the world.

An example from my own game:
I needed to use a cutscene to make the players aware of something they wouldn't be otherwise (that one PC's father had been kidnapped by the villains). So I had some of them, based on Wisdom rolls, experience a dream where they watched the villains - including a couple of cloaked figures they hadn't yet met - torture the father for information. My players did want to act on it immediately, of course - but because they had no idea where the father was being kept or why the villains were after him, they first had to find where the father had been staying, hunt down his notes, retrace his steps, and finally uncover the secret he'd found that the villains now wanted.

Ultimately, it took them three or four sessions to track down the villains' lair and rescue the father. It was made all the worse because they knew that every minute they spent elsewhere, the father was being tortured. When they did finally find him, we had one of the best roleplaying scenes of the game as the PCs took out (real-life) weeks of frustration and fear on the villains' minions in the fight to rescue him.

TL;DR: Cutscenes are tools to help build suspense in a narrative. If you want to use them in tabletop games, you must use them in ways that increase the players' suspense, by preventing the players from immediately acting on them.

*I've had the debate before that not all games are like this, but for the purposes of this question, I'm talking about games where players have individual agency to affect the game world.

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+1 because this mostly good advice. However, I strongly disagree with the idea that player knowledge as PC knowledge is in any way mandatory or even "the default". –  Wesley Obenshain Jul 10 at 19:28
I disagree with this answer. It assumes players will metagame (which I and many others forbid) and the remedy for that is railroading them, as shown on #2 and #3. @thatgirldm if you wanted an example, take the one from #3. Players see the village is under attack, but they cannot make a moral choice, because their characters don't know that fact. Why were they abandoning their mission if they know nothing about the attack? –  Flamma Jul 11 at 8:04
There is the point that even with players committed to not metagaming, if the player knows something the character doesn't the player is likely to take actions for their character that are "plausible" without the knowledge, but lead to in-character discovery. Often this isn't intended to "exploit" meta-gaming; the player is just trying to "go with the flow". For example, if my players reach a new town and I give them a cut scene of something shady going on in the tavern, the characters are likely to be thirsty after their journey, because the players will think that's where I want them to go –  Ben Jul 11 at 8:43
Hey, this is not a discussion forum. Please only use comments to get clarification on or improve the answer. I think the general point about "metagaming maybe shouldn't be assumed" has been made. –  mxyzplk Jul 11 at 13:02

I've had great success with this alternative to the GM simply narrating cutscenes: placing the dramatic irony in the hands of the players by having them (as enemy PCs) enact the Evil Plan which their main characters will later face.

During a lengthy campaign in which the main characters were members of a special paramilitary force on one side of a world-spanning war between two superpowers, I had them also create characters in a similar team working for the enemy. We would take one level out of every five or so (the campaign spanned thirty levels) to play on the enemy side. Their enemy-side characters would be given a task like embedding spies in the main characters' capital city, which the main party would later have to root out.

Thus for several levels thereafter the players would know (though their main characters would not) that there were spies in their capital working to corrupt and undermine their nation. This would make them paranoid and suspicious out of character, but in character they'd have to wait to deal with the problem until it manifested as something their PCs could notice and act on. And even then, because they're working against themselves they know their adversaries are just as competent and clever as they are.

This doesn't work if the players have trouble separating out-of-character and in-character knowledge, but that's true of any manner of cutscene like this. There's also the possibility that the party will deliberately do half-hearted work for the enemies, but in my experience the desire to excel in the moment usually overrides that urge.

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I use these a lot!

These get used nearly always with games that put relationships as a high priority for player characters. It's always great to cut away to an NPC who is doing something or having an event go on as a contrast or parallel to whatever the PCs are doing. ("The PC has just gotten shot down and his plane crashes. Meanwhile, back at home, his wife stands on the porch, looking at the sky, wondering when he's coming home. A shooting star goes by...")

For action games, I usually only use cutscenes as a chance to give commentary on scale of effects... for example, a massive battle might have explosions that warrant a cut scene back to "home" where you see paintings falling off the walls...

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Several game systems attempt to do this -- VtM for one did it quite a lot in some of their earlier adventures. They also let the players play NPCs in cut scenes showing things happening in the past, which then impacted on what was happening in the present. In some games, e.g. FATE, the whole idea is for the players to know extra information about the world so they can build the story around it.

In general, a story telling mechanism that works in one medium will not work as well in others, and cut scenes may well be one of those. Generally, their aim is to give the viewer an idea of what is going on behind the scene. They can foreshadow something that the protagonists are not aware of but the viewer is. Thus, they build tension and drama.

Inserting them in a game will allow the players to know something that their characters do not. Thus, if they are good players, they will weave this extra information into the story. This can make it much better -- for example, having their character fall in love with Alice, who was revealed as the mole in a previous cut scene. However, if you do something like this then you have just given away a plot twist. In general, I find surprising both players and their characters works best.

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That's a really interesting question.

The short answer is that it can work effectively, but it works differently than in a medium where the audience doesn't participate.

I wouldn't consider any example of dramatic irony that characters are supposed to know about in-game to really count as dramatic irony.

Therefore, to be able to use dramatic irony at all requires players that won't meta-game and use the information in character. An interesting aspect of this is that they can't help but use the information a little bit - the players can't deliberately forget what you've told them. So you probably don't want to give them information that would affect what decision they would make on a problem solving part of the campaign. You could use it draw players attention to certain aspects of your world though.

If you are doing a collaborative kind of campaign, you could use dramatic irony to give your players information about where you are planning to take the story and allow them to riff off of that information.

You could also use dramatic irony to add some depth to actions the characters are doing anyway. For example, if they off on some incredibly urgent quest to help their side win a war, rather than waiting until they return with help and then filling them in on what happened when they are gone, you could periodically give them a brief narration of what is happening at that moment back at the home front, even though the characters have no knowledge about it until they return with the help.

One potential drawback of dramatic irony is it necessarily consists of the GM talking while the players have no possibility of doing anything. Handouts might help. Keeping it brief is pretty much essential. Giving players information in real time is really nice in this regard, it actually helps break up longer narrative into shorter and more dramatic chunks.

Thanks for the great question, I'm going to incorporate a bit more dramatic irony into my own games as a result.

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You want the cutscene info to affect the decision what to do if you see the players as the author of the character (and therefore capable of exploiting the information for dramatically ironic effect) as opposed to seeing the character as the player's playing piece (so that any information they have, they use for in-game benefit only) or their sole POV on the world and/or the story (such that OOC information merely hinders the appreciation of that limited POV). That in turn is a game style issue :-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 12 at 17:31
@SteveJessop - That's a good point. It's more that sometimes you don't want to ruin things by giving away the wrong information. Letting players play with the dramatic irony too could work well - and is arguably more like dramatic irony in a movie or book. –  psr Jul 14 at 16:19

The GM that introduced me to Exalted (1e, if it matters) was a fan of this; he liked calling it "the ping of destiny."

I think the effectiveness of such cutscenes depends heavily on the setting and flavor of the game. In Exalted, the PCs should be capable of epic feats and be responsible for major shifts in the world powers. These "cutscenes" can be used as plot hooks without necessarily dragging the PCs into the scene.

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I agree with most of what @thatgirldm had to say but there is a critical difference in perspective. In certain contexts where the players are always considered to be together and the narrative doesn't matter too much (Dungeon Crawls, for instance) having the PCs know everything the players do is a convenient tool. However given the breadth of RPGs there are many games and many circumstances where this isn't true and, in my experience, makes suggesting otherwise very, very bad advice.

If you want to play that sort of game (the kind with cutscenes, splitting the party, solo scenes, etc) it is important to (and I say this only for lack of a better term) "train" your players to understand that not all knowledge is PC knowledge. Just as most GMs wouldn't allow a PC to make gunpowder just because their player knows the formula; reminding the players that they are not their characters and vice versa and forcing them to justify player decisions that seem clearly based on knowledge the PCs don't have can quickly lead to a new player understanding.

It is a very different style of play and you should be certain that it is one you want to undertake as you may risk alienating players who have only played the other style and have trouble adapting.

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Cutscenes can be used with the same purposes that are used on other forms of fiction

Mostly, to add emotion (you know the protagonists are being unknowingly chased by the enemy). The audience (the players) know things the protagonists (the characters) don't. So, the protagonists/characters can be relaxed, but the audience/players are in tension.

Logically, players should be mature enough to separate out of game and in-game knowledge, specially in those games that don't have metagaming mechanics. Characters should never do anything that don't match their knowledge.

But they are not for all stories

As some films or books don't let the viewers/readers know anything not known to the protagonists, many games don't allow players to know anything the party doesn't know. It's another form of build tension, as the players is as intrigued and lost as his character.

Only some films do this. Books do it more often (specially those written on first person, or subjective third person). In RPGs this could be the default.

Also, if players are not mature enough to not metagame, you will have a worse experience.

So, you should judge for any story and any group the impact of showing cutscenes and revealing players out of character information. For instance, I have done cutscenes sometimes, but I still don't do them on most stories to favour immersion.

The trick is to reveal only what you want

How does a film keep mystery if it reveals plot via cutscenes? Because the scriptwriters/director only show you what they want you to see. They can show you the evil overlord ordering protagonists termination, but you are not allowed to see how they will try it, or who he will send. Maybe you see the enemy, but don't know exactly who is. They can even deceive you and the enemy chasing the group wasn't the enemy at all, but some ally trying to give a warning to the protagonists.

In RPG it works the same way. Build tension showing the characters something is going on, but don't spoil the mystery revealing what it is exactly.

Cutscenes are not interactive!

Don't abuse cutscenes. Keep them short. Players are spectators, but they are much more, they are story-builders, and they have come to play, not to watch yourself playing alone. No matter how cool are your characters and how complex their relationships, abuse the cutscenes and everyone else will die to boredom.

Unless you let players control cutscene characters, as you can read on other answers. In that case, I suppose they can be a little longer, but I would generally avoid spending too much time away from the main characters, except if you want a specific feel. Note that if you let players play cutscene characters your control of what you show to players and what information they get is less effective.

Bonus trick: in-game cutscenes

Maybe your players can't separate out of character knowledge. Or maybe you are not comfortable to show the group info they don't have. You can still use cutscenes.

A GM did that to me once. My character had retrieved an evil artifact in a cave. Later, at some point, a group of powerful antagonists stole it from her for using it on their evil plots. The thing is the first time my character touched the item, a psychic link was created. So, sometimes, she had visions of the antagonists doing their evil things. As they were difficult to reach, that built a lot of tension, specially when they seemed impossible to stop.

Another example would be if the party has a psychic character who can have glimpses from other places.

Note that many previous said things totally apply if you follow this choice. Specially the one controlling the information you give to avoid spoil the mystery.

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As thatgirldm pointed out, a traditional "cutscene" is best suited to video games or movies. Having said that, I've certainly used similar techniques to convey information to the players they would not normally be privy to; just never thought of it as a cutscene. The difference between what I do and a typical cutscene is simply the plausible delivery. In a movie or videogame, the cutscene just happens; there is no explanation why you as a viewer or player get the information. However, in an RPG, a cutscene should be delivered in a way that maintains immersion, player efficacy and suspension of disbelief, perhaps as a dream or vision as thatgirldm mentions, or what I've used often; simply having a patron (a deity's avatar, faction's agent, talking raven, formerly met ally, or other NPC) deliver the "cutscene." An otherwise mundane animal that begins talking seems to always grab the players' attention, though on a few occasions players have immediately attempted to kill it. This will not only give the players the information, as well as the dramatic irony you intend, but will also establish patron relationships giving your players valuable resources. I've also added similar tales from patrons about their enemy's evil deeds just before a final assault on an enemy's fortress, simply to give the players more motivation. Good luck!

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