Cutscenes in D&D are a controversial topic. Some DMs say that any cutscene is a bad cutscene while other DMs really want to implement some cinematic theatrics.
The truth about cutscenes in D&D is that we all do them. We all know how to make cutscenes good, but we try to put them in situations that don’t work.
Recognizing when to use cutscenes and when not to use cutscenes is important, but there are ways to make cutscenes work in D&D even when they shouldn’t.
When to use cutscenes
In D&D combat can last 6 hours in real life and less than 6 minutes in-game. The exact opposite happens when roleplay is involved and sometimes is much longer in-game time.
How do you think that we skip this in-game time? The answer is with cutscenes.
Cutscenes in D&D are used to give a quick explanation of what happened in that time. This is perfect since the players cannot interact with the events that you are speeding through. The players can give some input, but they are not really interacting with what happens.
This is what cutscenes in D&D are meant to be used as. Non-interactive time skips or events that need to be told to the players. This works well in any form of roleplay that doesn’t allow the player to act. It doesn’t have to just be time skips.
Scrying is a cutscene. When a player scrys or uses any form of divination to find out the information you give a cutscene. The players have no power over this and will listen to what happens.
In most of these cutscenes we already know what to do, but can improve. We will talk about how to improve our cutscenes in the later portions of the article and even how to make interactive cutscenes. First, we have to talk about when not to use cutscenes in D&D.
When not to use cutscenes in D&D
If you use cutscenes in the wrong place, it will feel like your effort goes to waste. Bashing your head against a brick wall will not do you any good. That is why we need to know when to not make traditional cutscenes in D&D.
Have you ever tried to make a cutscene happen to set up an awesome boss? “Galgor the mighty strides into the room with glistening black armor and-” “I attack!”
You wanted to make a grand entrance and have the almighty boss kill a person to show the party he means business. Furthermore, that person was someone special to the party. But your players just want to fight and not let the scene play out.
This is obvious if you think about it from the player’s perspective. Why would they let their friend or anyone for that matter die when they can do something about it? They wouldn’t.
When we use cutscenes like this we forget 2 things.
- How will the players feel/what will they want to do?
- Can the players interact with the scene?
If the players feel like they don’t want to see the scene play out they will try to do something. If the players can do something they will almost always try to do an action. Why let a scene play out when it isn’t going to be anything good for you?
These are all sensible ideas when you consider the greater context of D&D. We want our players to be creative so that the game becomes more interesting. It is better for them to interject and think of a crazy plan than just sit there and go along with everything.
When it is put that way, why are you even trying to have them sit around and watch as something happens? It goes against the core of what we and the players want in D&D. That is why you need to change how these cutscenes are done.
Quicktime events (Interactive Cutscenes)
Cutscenes in D&D can be interactive. How to create good cutscenes in D&D is to modify them a little bit. Make them interactive to where the party has to act. If you plan for the big boss to come out and chop off a prisoner’s head be ready for a player’s quick thinking!
Quick time events are scripted events in video games. They have a designated button to press at a certain time and you get to re-try it if you fail. In D&D our quick time events can be a little different.
The players see a scene play out. There is a point where they can interject by doing something creative. There is no button to press. This is based solely on the player and their creativity.
When the player makes an action in the quicktime event let them roll for it right away. Once they do an action you carry on and only have the player who acted quickest get an action.
This may seem unfair if done poorly and that is why every option to interject into the cutscene should be about 1 second. This way every player will get to act in a round like normal, but it will be much more dramatic.
Quicktime events are hard to pull off properly and I only recommend seasoned DMs doing this. It requires the ability to act on the fly and go with whatever your players want to do. Your players may also not do anything (which is rare) so be ready to get away with the entire scene unless you want to add a lot of hints that the players can and should do something.
But we don’t always need to do interactive cutscenes. We can instead work on improving our cutscenes that occur normally.
Improving your cutscenes
Tell me which sounds better to a party looking at their arch-nemesis from a crystal ball.
“Galgor the might struts in and glares at you and roars!”
“You hear a slow thud as heavy metal hits the ground. Galgor appears with a foul odor. In full black platemail you don’t see his eyes, but you can feel him glaring at you. He then lets out a deafening roar.”
Yes, the second one had more description, but what did it describe? What made the second one so much better? It was not word count. It was how the scene was described.
We talk a lot more about description here, but the main thing to take away from that example is how our senses were used. Galgor had a presence, feeling, smell, sight for us to behold, and a loud auditory sensation that breaks the slow buildup.
Surprise is nice, but you need to build up to it if your surprise is going to be effective and you want an effective ending to your cutscene. That was just a short cutscene, but if you had a personal history with this monster it would leave an impact.
If you just make a cutscene appear out of nowhere, the players will be confused instead of awed. “Who is this guy?” Is never a question that you want to hear when describing a cutscene. A bad cutscene can also leave your players confused instead of awed.
That is why you need to plan out your cutscene beforehand. Every good cutscene in D&D should be planned. If you have a plan it is easy for you to place things in the correct order and consider your words carefully. If it is not planned it can come out garbled and leave the players confused instead of in awe.
In short, use planning, surprise with buildup, and the senses to improve your cutscene.
How to create good cutscenes in D&D follows a few simple rules.
- Do not make them interactable.
- If they are interactable, make them a quick time event.
- Use cutscenes to highlight important information that the players can’t interact with.
- Plan your cutscene.
- Use proper buildup.
- Use the senses to enhance your players understanding of the scene.
If you follow these rules then you should be able to make great cutscenes that add to your game instead of detracting from it.
We use cutscenes in D&D all the time. Saying that cutscenes are just bad is not a great attitude toward them. Think about if the cutscene is necessary and if it will add to the game. Think of your party and how they will feel. Will they sit by and listen or will they try to do something about it? Do they think they can do something about it?
If your players think they can do something about it, then they will.
Always keep that in mind when designing cutscenes, and I hope that you are able to make a great cutscene that will impress your D&D party!
This has been Wizo and keep larping!