Game Review: Screenplay

Screenplay by Todd Crapper is a game about movie madness. Specifically, cooperatively creating an adventure that feels like a movie, both in the game play and the story told.

The first thing you notice about screenplay is its layout. It’s awesome. The side of every page is lined with a film shaped off angle sidebar. Sometimes there are pictures overlaying this, but most of the times it’s just the sidebar itself. This and the large font size make the book easier to read. The sidebar is also used as a sidebar with rule asides or, more often, page references for terms used in the page's text. This is not substitute for an index and there could be more of it, but in a physical copy of the book, it easily lets you save your page with a finger and flips somewhere else for a quick read.

 Look at that schway layout.

Look at that schway layout.

After telling you what the game is, the book starts with a long example of gameplay and then delves into all the moving parts. The example may not make 100% sense on your first read through, since you don't know the game mechanics yet, but it does try to explain them. It works well to prime you and give you a sense of what you can do with Screenplay, but it is also worth revisiting after you've read the rest of the rules.

It may have been cool to use the sidebars in the example to call out where specific mechanics are being used. This is done elsewhere in the book to great effect. For example, at one point we see Kieron giving two details for a description. The sidebar could then say "descriptions, page XX; details page YY."

 

Once you get done flipping through the book and are ready to start playing you find that the "traditional" roles work a bit different. Players are called Writers and are in change of most of the story. I daresay, the way it is arranged they could be in charge of as much as they want, potentially regulating the Game Master, called Director, to a referee. That's a bit of an exaggeration for most games, but not by too much, depending on the sort of game you want to play of course. Here's how things work.

Where the Writers start with Main Characters, whenever a thing is introduced into the game fiction, er... movie, that person is in charge of it. If you want to do anything with it, you have to clear it with that person. So if I describe my main character going to a laundromat that serves as a front for Queen Ming, an underworld information broker, I'm now the person in charge of the laundromat and Queen Ming (if no one else previously created her). If you want to sneak in through the back door, you have to ask me how that can work. The larger the group of Writers, the more they will create and the less the Director will probably have to do and thus control, especially if you have aggressive Writers.

A fun twist in Screenplay is that as a Writer, you are not in charge of only one character. You control as many characters as you have created. If you introduce a new character, he’s yours, be he a lead character, supporting character, or extra. However, only one of your characters can act on your turn.

The Director sets the shot, describing the opening for each scene. She also manages triggers and prods the characters to keep things moving. The director could also create and add materials just like the writer, but she doesn't have to the same way a Dungeon Master must. The advice for the director even provides that you should only establish the basics then let the writers run wild (mostly).

 

As with many story games, characters are loosely defined. Make up a label (called potentials), like Bounty Hunter, and give it a level. The level tells you what die you roll when using that potential, the difficulty when people act against it, and the details you can make with it (we'll talk more about this last one in a bit). Potentials act like similar labels in story games. If it can apply, then you can use. The potential you use is declared at the start of each turn.

As you might guess, when there is a challenge, there is a difficulty assigned to it and you need to roll over that with your die. An important point that the rules make is that this die roll does not determine if you succeed or not. If you declare you jump out of the way of a trap, then you do. The die roll is how well you succeed. So a failure might mean you trip and slide back or that you clear the trap but sprain your ankle. Of course, if you roll well enough, then you succeed. Since your level is defined (in part) by a die size, moving up and down the scale gives you a better or worse chance of success.

 Rounds... turns... good use of the side bar.

Rounds... turns... good use of the side bar.

Now the interesting bit with potentials is the details. Whenever it’s your turn you describe what you do, including as many details as you want up to the number allowed by your potential. This means your characters impose more narrative control on the scene when they are acting to their strengths. This lets characters shine at what they are good at. The detective gets his long exposition about who the murderer is, the samurai gets the long shot describing cherry blossoms flowing past his blade, etc. This aspect of the game, to me, is its greatest strength as it specifically encourages embellishment in a way that fits with the theme.

Where details exist mainly to make a character look cool (and do stuff), details are also necessary for ancillary actions or effects. You need to maintain an effect? Then one of your details goes to that. Need to draw your pistol or duck behind a barrel for cover? A detail for each. You want to make out the particulars of a ship on the horizon? Spend a detail for each range category.

Details are part of a larger description. As mentioned, when it’s your turn you describe what's going on. In response someone else describes the outcome. The director describes the outcome for writers while writers describe the outcome for the director's characters. The rules here may take a second read through, but the sidebar helps explain just what effects outcomes can and cannot have.

 

As a twist to rolling, you can use Stamina to shift your die roll. I have mixed feelings about mechanics like this. Since you are taking damage for gain, the payout needs to match or exceed the expense so that it encourages the mechanic’s use. In Screenplay, protagonists have enough base Stamina, the die sizes are small enough, and you recover Stamina fast enough that this works in a way that lets Stamina act as an active defense measure. However, there is one twist that I'm less excited about.

You cannot shift a die roll when the max value is rolled, unless you rolled it. This means the less skilled someone is, the more likely they will make an unshiftable roll, and since most mooks and other low level background characters (called extras) have low dice, there's a greater chance that they will succeed against the lead characters in a way that cannot be shifted down through active defense. The lower chance of extras succeeding should balance this out, but it does raise my eyebrow as this shifting is essentially your active defense (e.g. dodging) and you don’t have it all the time.

 

Both writers and the director accrue experience. For writers an experience point is called a milestone, and for the director it is called a challenge. They functions a bit differently, but both are fungible assets that can be used to adjust the action, and, in the case of milestones, improve characters. These experience points come pretty readily, especially for the director.

 

As for what I think of Screenplay overall, it reminds me a lot of story games like Fiasco where participants very clearly all take part in building the story, not just one character. Only it has a lot more structure than Fiasco.

I do believe Screenplay accomplishes what it aims to do, and I think it can make for some great one or two shot games. However, like many other story games, I’m not sure it would carry me past a handful of sessions. I’m not sure I would make it to the projected 10 four hour sessions to string together a two hour movie. I simply tend to favor games with more concrete characters and options to flesh them out.

Check out Screenplay at DriveThruRPG, where you can also find its first supplement (Screenplay Presents: Ironbound).