The Formula

The Formula

What can GMs learn from the movie industry?

In 2006, Malcolm Gladwell interviewed a man named Dick Copaken for an article in the New Yorker. The piece was titled 'The Formula.'

Copaken had started a company called Epagogix, which analyzed movie screenplays using neural networks.

They could estimate within a few million dollars it's box-office revenue. Before the movie was even made!

They knew, for example, that:

  • Better characterization was worth an additional $2.46 million
  • The right locale the movie was set in: +$4.92 million
  • A good sidekick character: +$12.3 million
  • All three together, +24.6 million, due to synergy effects

What's super interesting is that their estimates were based solely on the screenplay.

Many of the things the studios thought mattered to box-office revenue, did not.

Big-name actors? Not a factor. When it was released? Didn't matter. The director? No effect.

The story alone was enough to predict box-office revenue!

So what does making money on movies have to do with GMing? Well, everything really.

Box office revenue is a reflection of audience enjoyment.

And in RPGs that audience is your players (who of course, don't just sit there watching, but actively participate as well).


Here at Scabard, I've been focusing a lot lately on encounters. So let's apply the lessons above to that.

Recall what I said above about having the right locale or setting.

A fight with zombies can be fun for low to mid level characters.

But a fight with zombies in a graveyard. At night. With a full moon. Wolves howling in the background. And more zombies clawing their way out of their graves to join the fray.

See the difference? More fun. More memorable. And just about the same amount of work for you to prepare.

Here's another example...

I made up a Gnome village many years ago. When the PCs arrived, they noticed a large mechanical clock tower in the center of the village. '2nd Largest Clock in the World,' it said on an inscription.

They also saw gnomes performing pranks on each other. They soon learned that these gnomes were such pranksters, that the village could support two joke shops, despite the low population.

These give the village character. They make it memorable.

Now, if I wanted to have a great encounter or two for the PCs, I would select either the clock tower or one of the two joke shops as the setting.

Why? Because these are iconic places within the village. The ones I mentioned when they first arrived. The ones that give it character. 

It's one thing to rescue their NPC friend from a random warehouse I never introduced. And another thing entirely to rescue her while:

  • She's hanging from the minute hand of the clock tower
  • Before the clock strikes midnight, which might startle her and make her fall
  • While gnome villagers stand below gaping upwards.

This should give you food for thought for your next encounters.

I'll be elaborating a bit on this over the next email or two. So stay tuned!

P.S.: Got any memorable encounters where the setting you used worked perfectly? Shoot me a reply!

Happy Gaming!
-Stolph (Ed)


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