I use cutscenes in my role-playing, just like video games, and they can be a fun Storyteller tool. Movies are basically one long cutscene that tells the audience everything they need to know to understand and enjoy the story, which is why video games began using them as a way to give the players story details and context. In role-playing games, I do the same. After all, I want my players to understand and enjoy my story, to learn the information that they need and get to watch things their characters aren’t privy to, and a few other little tricks.
What is an RPG cutscene?
In video games, a cutscene is most always an animated scene that plays out on the screen. It might show full-resolution characters voiced by actors, or still images with text or voice-over to tell some part of the story.
In most role-playing games, cutscenes aren’t animated, though they are voiced — they might be a few lines or several minutes of uninterrupted Storytelling, but are almost always narrated entirely by the Storyteller.
Alright, now let’s get into cutscenes and their uses.
Setting the scene
Narration is a part of Storytelling. The players say what they do, then the Storyteller narrates how it turns out. The Storyteller also narrates the beginning of a scene, because players can’t do stuff if they don’t know where their characters are, or what and who is around. You might describe the tavern where everyone is drinking when the scene starts, or detail the starliner that they’re taking to the next planet. And once you’ve narrated a little cutscene of their surroundings, maybe the first thing the characters do is see if there’s anyone gambling in the tavern, or ask the droid flight attendant for some peanuts.
Just like that, we’re in the scene. In movies, there’s establishing shots — sequences that establish a scene. Take A New Hope for example. What’s the opening scene? The Tantive IV fleeing from the Avenger, alarms ringing and the rebel crew preparing for battle. Is Leia in those first shots at all? Let’s call her the player character here, and we don’t actually see her for a little bit. But your narration starts with the Corellian Corvette running with a Star Destroyer hot on its heels, turbolasers harrying it. Then you move into the fleeing ship and describe the wailing alarms and nervous crew scrambling. You could even start with Vader cutting his way through half of them like Rogue One to put some background on that fear.
Then you turn to Leia’s player and ask what she’s doing. Hiding the plans, the player says! Maybe they were thinking that their character is a princess and might begin the game in a palace on Alderaan, or in the Senate on Coruscant. But no, you’ve set the scene in the middle of a mission that went sideways. Their character is about to be hit by a superior force, so now the player knows what their situation is and how to play from there.
Later, none of the “player characters” are present when the Executor is bearing down on Hoth and Darth Vader is killing off his commanders for slipping up, but it tells the players that the scariest guy in the story is coming for them — but also that the crew made a mistake that gives them a chance!
The opening crawl of Star Wars is a cutscene, too, just a written one; it provides exposition. Oh, the Empire is bad and there’s rebels? And the rebels just won their first battle and have secret plans? Got it. You can not only set the scene, but roll out your world-building.
Setting the tone
Establishing shots are good for a scene and can get things going with some energy, but cutscenes often pop up in the middle of a story too. Calling back to Star Wars again, what about when Vader and Tarkin are discussing the tracking device that they planted? None of our heroes (aka player characters) are there, and the narration doesn’t set a scene that they’re about to join. After all, the PCs aren’t about to walk into the Death Star’s CIC. Instead, this kind of cutscene works on the players, not their characters.
Now the players know that the biggest gun in the galaxy is pointed at them, that their hidden base is exposed. Their characters don’t know what happened, but the players do, and that allows you to build tension. Their scene is set when you start describing the rebel briefing and the PCs are getting ready to jump in, but the tone is built up before that. Now when you begin the briefing, the players know that this is the climax, that things are dire and feel the weight of the coming story events.
Basically, you’re using metagaming to build up stakes and drama. The characters are in the dark, but their players are on the edge of their seats. It’s like when the killer appears behind the shirtless himbo in a horror movie — he doesn’t see the monster, he’s just checking the fuse box in his boxers (for some reason). But the audience sees the killer behind him. People sink low in their seats or shout “turn around, dude!” and “it’s behind you!” That tension is why movie-goers will talk in the theater to characters that will never hear them or change their actions.
Try showing your players the monster stalking them and let them see the danger coming for their oblivious characters.
Metagaming pros & cons
Obviously, using cutscenes in this way relies upon players who can keep out-of-game knowledge compartmentalized. If you go to the trouble of describing a creature coming up on their camp only to have a characters suddenly start sleeping in armor when they never have before, then you’ve got a problem. You might need to either skip those kinds of cutscenes or talk to the player. But if that doesn’t do the trick, cutscenes might not work for your group.
Role-playing games are an agreement anyway. Players give you control of their character’s entire world. They agree to let you dredge up drama from their backstory and attack them with monsters. They trust that you will tell a fun story, not just kill their character or make their life hell. Players agree to buy into a story where spaceships are real and everyone in the galaxy speaks whatever language you all use around the table. There is already a pretty steep suspension of disbelief going on.
If you have any doubts, make metagame knowledge part of your session zero or table talk. Let the table know that you would like to use cutscenes and that some of them will be about what villains are up to or take place on the other side of the world. Ask them to enjoy the scenes, but to make sure that they keep player and character knowledge separate.
Cutscenes are a fun story tool. They can make your game feel more cinematic or literary. You can provide some exposition to show off world-building or to set individual scenes. And you can Storytell not just to affect the characters, but to directly affect the players, too. Round out the story by showing them what their enemies are doing or send some shivers down their spine by building up dramatic tension. It’s important to talk to your players about this Storytelling tool, but give it a try and see what you can do with it.