I have a theatre background. When I was in high school and my abortive attempt at collegiate life, I did sports for a little bit and then moved on to it’s diametric opposite, the theatre department. I can voice-act fairly well, and the improvisational skills I had drilled into me have aided my GMing immeasurably. Every GM should own a copy of The Art of Play and Acting Interactive Theatre (both by an incredible guy by the name of Gary Izzo)– these books when put into effect will supercharge your GMing. This is the guy who CAME UP WITH the “Yes” concept, and there are awesome games and the like in his books that train your brain to come up with stuff on the fly and then implement it. I cannot say this strongly enough– THESE TWO BOOKS WILL MAKE YOU A BETTER GM. PERIOD.
“The trail immediately ahead is damp and thickly-carpeted with fragrant pine needles; they release their scent with each step, muffling all sound into an eerie silence that pervades this glade. Deep green needles, thick on the branch, obscure vision all around, limiting sight to a narrow, claustrophobic corridor of trees that guide the eyes to a low hillock. Shadowed at the base of the mound is a stone door, overgrown with moss and obscured by the same needles that cover the ground. It is obvious that the door is thick and heavy, as well as carved in deep relief by a skilled but ancient hand.”
Stuff like that, ya know? I want to guide the players’ minds on the same journey that my mind sees, and the only way to do that is to describe things in cinematic terms. So that’s one side of the equation: I always try to envision how the movie of my RPG is playing out and bring the players along that journey as we craft the mental movie that is our game. This probably explains why I enjoy making the mini movies so much: it’s giving my players a literal taste of what things look like in my head.
The second part of the cinematic experience of my games came as an extension of the first. When I made the conscious choice to make my games more movie like, I had the glorious problem of gaming with a group of renfaire geeks (of which I was one), all heavily trained in the same kind of improvisational theatre that I was; it was not uncommon for us to go two or three sessions without rolling any or barely any dice. I was and still am heavily in the habit of giving PCs heavy bonuses to their skill checks (or skill challenges in 4E, or conflicts in FATE) when interacting socially with NPCs. And it was during one of these sessions of heavy roleplay that I asked the players to re-describe their PCs to me. It had been many levels of play since the PCs had begun their journey as adventurers and I wanted them to see how their own perceptions of their characters had changed. Turns out, that one request by me revolutionized the way I have gamed from that day on.
One of the PCs, the leader of the group, had started out as a pretty standard Fighter and over the course of several levels had become semi-possessed by the spirit of a dwarven demigod, had converted to worship of the demigod trapped inside him, and then had decided to become a Paladin of that same god, who then used that influence to begin a subtle transformation of the same character into a dwarf-human hybrid. So when he began re-describing his character, he told the rest of the group about his character’s changes over the past months of in-game time; growing a thick beard, dwarf-inspired tattoos on his arms and face, changes to his build and gait and carriage… and then he blurted out, “He looks just like The Rock if you turned him into a dwarf…but taller.”
And in that one sentence, everything changed.
Jack Random (the name of the dwarf/human possessed paladin character) was the first of Fortune’s Children to describe himself. There was nodding, and a brief murmur of assent from the rest of the group, And then a long, pregnant pause. And after that, every single one of the players who described their characters started off the description with some variation of, “Well, he/she looks like actor X, but modified like this…” It was completely spontaneous, but to us was revolutionary. The players had internalized my deliberate focus on the movie-like nature of our game, and chose actors for their PCs. They then asked me if any of the major NPCs in my world were played by actors in my head. I thought about it, and as it turns out, several were, and I then described those characters in movie actor terms too. The next session, all the PCs brought pictures of the actors “playing” their PCs to show each other. A couple of sessions later, those pictures were put on standees near the player so that the image was facing the other players when they looked at each other. Even for an already RP-heavy group, the in-character interaction SKYROCKETED, and never went back as long as those pictures were in play. It increased the immersion remarkably to have the face of the character be a recognizable actor staring back at you.
And the characters invariably took on minor traits of the actors, or a particular character they played, which also increased the cinematic nature of the game. And in response to THAT, my NPC characterizations took on a bit of the actors playing them, etc. It was a snowball of awesomeness that just kept rolling.
So today, my players know, in the same way that a Law & Order audience knows, that when a “famous” NPC comes on stage, they will usually be integral to the plot, or *A* plot somewhere in the future. It has ensured that they pay attention to NPCs a whole lot more, and it’s really cool to play “typecast” actors either with or against their usual type of role to keep the PCs on their toes, too. So, for examples, in my Tales of Brittanis game currently, we have:
Novice Priestess of Liriel………………………………………………………….India deBeaufort
Rogue-ish Ex-Noble in Hiding…………………………………………..Anne Hathaway
Free Dwarf Combat Engineer…………………………………………………..Ted Levine
Fate-Tossed Wand For Hire……………………………………………………………………Jeffrey Donovan
Court Wizard to Baron Devon Ashbourne…………………………………………………….Sir Patrick Stewart
Hotshot Gambler Swordmage………………………………………………………………………Jensen Ackles
Grizzled Priest of the Northside Abbey……………………………………Brian Blessed
The protagonists are all actors the PCs picked for themselves, while the NPCs are chosen by me. Some you see are villains, others are neutral and others still allies. But giving each character a distinct, recognizable face and persona helps cement the characters in your players’ minds– both their own characters and the important NPCs they interact with. Just like everything I try to do in my game, it increases the immersion and cinematic nature of the game. It’s easy to imagine Nathan Fillion with a sword instead of a pistol, staring down the bad guy, and it’s easy to see Patrick Stewart standing behind the throne whispering to the Baron. These images come naturally to us movie-oriented folk, and the images will stick in your players’ minds, too.
A few suggestions if you’re going to go this route:
1) IMDB is your best friend. You can come up with hundreds of great actors to use as NPCs with just a few minutes of searching for your favorite shows. You’ll get more bang for your buck time-wise if you search for ensemble-cast shows. Battlerstar Galactica, any of the Star Trek/Wars movies or TV shows, any Joss Whedon show, etc etc
2) Google is your second-best friend. Once you have a stable of actors built up, use Google image search to find juuuust the right image of the actor you want. A picture of a 25 year old Patrick Stewart evokes an entirely different kind of character than does current day. Likewise, old and young pictures of the same actor can even be used as multiple generations of characters, playing fathers, sons and grandsons!
3) The picture evokes the character. Similar to the age of the actor in the pic, the character the actor is playing (or not playing in the case of candid or Hollywood shots), the role the actor is playing at the time of the pic will influence the image your players get as well. If you choose a picture of Kenneth Branagh playing Hamlet, the players get a different mental character than if you pick his performance in Much Ado About Nothing, or Henry V. Similar, Ray Winstone is vastly different (and a far more complex character) in HBO’s Rome than he is in The Punisher.
4) Use the pictures to inspire YOU, the GM. If you choose Patrick Stewart to be an NPC in your game, what kind of story do you want to tell around him? What about if you picked Steve Buscemi? Or Michael Clarke Duncan? When you choose what actors you want to be in your game, it can help you craft your world and your story towards the kinds of themes and tone you want to present to your players as well. Inspiration goes both ways, my friends.
So there you have it: picking actors to play your PCs and NPCs can go a long way to helping your players immerse themselves in your game, and it can help you as a GM build the reality of your world around the PCs. I hope this tool has been useful to you; I know it has totally changed the lens I and my players view the game through.