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Tabletop RPG game masters can learn a lot from Pixar’s Onward

Role-playing tips and tricks from a movie about elves and dragons

Older brother elf Barley waves a staff around in a frustrated way as his astonished mother and brother Ian watch. Image: Disney/Pixar

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Pixar’s new movie Onward, which debuted on Disney Plus on April 3 after an interrupted theatrical run, features something gamers don’t often see in mainstream tentpole media: role-playing games portrayed as a positive, even crucial, hobby. Unlike Stranger Things, which foregrounds characters actually playing Dungeons & Dragons, or the various D&D films and shows set in a D&D-inspired world, Onward is a hybrid, where fantasy gaming exists in a world that’s essentially an RPG setting. Magic has largely been forgotten in Onward’s world, but when elf brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) have to make a crucial spell work, Barley’s gaming manual gives them insight into actual historical spells, and his RPG obsessions tell him what components they need, and how to acquire them.

Onward eventually turns into a classic D&D quest, complete with a dungeon, a dragon, and a series of episodic adventures on the way to a final goal. But the story’s lessons aren’t just for the characters. Onward has a lot of potentially valuable insights for tabletop GMs running Dungeons & Dragons, or virtually any gaming system. Here’s what game masters could stand to learn from Onward.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for Pixar’s Onward.]

A widely grinning, stout blue-skinned and blue-haired elf stands with his hand proudly on the hood of a rusty purple van with a crescent-moon-shaped side window and a flying pegasus painted on the side. Image: Disney/Pixar

Give your setting specificity and history

The little background details are a big part of Onward. So much of the audience’s attention is on Ian and Barley that it can be easy to overlook how intricately designed the locations around them are. As they race along the highway on their quest, the camera lingers briefly on the skyline, and the buildings shaped like castles. Those towers and battlements are then reflected in the iconography of the highway signs. It’s similar to the ways America’s highway system relies on sign motifs like shields; those are carryovers from the classical architecture used in official government buildings. The same highway scenes contrast that iconography with the inside of Barley’s van, Guinevere, which is festooned with medieval shapes.

These similar, repeated forms mean different things in different contexts, but they all contribute to the sense that this world has its own entirely unique history. In a similar way, GMs should take the time to layer in that kind of history with the settings they create for their players. Players don’t have to go crawling through a generic dungeon — when was it built? Who designed it? What sorts of shapes and symbols would have been important enough for them to carve into stone?

Reading through your average campaign book, there’s lots of flavor text that your players will likely never see. Use that as fuel to create a vision for the world that you’re creating at the table, and get in the habit of using themes and motifs in different ways to signal each era of that world’s history.

Alternate who’s steering the story

Players complain about railroading GMs, who’ve laid out a story in advance and aren’t interested in player deviation from that path. GMs complain about pushy players, who derail a perfectly good story to focus on seemingly trivial things. The best campaigns, though, leave some room for what everyone’s excited about. In Onward, Barley stands in for the GM role, laying out facts about the world and trying to dictate the path the story should take, what kind of encounters it should have, and exactly what Ian should be learning along the way. But Ian has a different perspective, and keeps pulling toward paths Barley didn’t predict or doesn’t like.

In the end, the story works better when they try both routes. Barley gets to shape an overall story that makes sense. He touches on the tropes he’s excited to explore, like danger and adventure. The story he wants to experience has a logical sense of build and expansion. Sometimes Ian goes along with his plans, and gets a bigger variety of experience than he expected. But when Ian also gets to dictate some of their path, he feels more invested and more heard by his brother. And when he makes a bad choice, like getting on the freeway, the story takes him on exciting, unexpected adventures instead of having Barley shut the idea down entirely.

Also, Ian gets to see how badly his idea works out, which moves him to appreciate Barley’s planned path forward. If a GM did that punitively — “Fine, we’ll do it your way, and it’ll suck for you” — it could lead to hurt feelings and a bad game experience for everyone. Instead, letting Ian direct the story for a while leads to some extra action and useful new lessons, without actually shutting down the option to explore the more dangerous road Barley wanted to travel.

Nervous-looking, skinny blue elf Ian cringes awkwardly after badly blowing a social cue at his high school. Behind him, out of focus, some of his classmates — satyr and elf girls, a troll and cyclops boy — stand together, watching him curiously. Image: Disney/Pixar

Ground stories in the characters’ emotions, and make them urgent

Onward plays out as a series of mini-quests — find the Manticore, rescue the map, cross a chasm, evade pursuers, and so on. But none of them would have any particular impact without the driving force behind the story: Ian’s desperate need to complete a spell that will let him meet his dead father. All of the story’s emotional impact is locked up within that need, which simultaneously sets the story up for a powerful cathartic ending, and lets writer-director Dan Scanlon and his team get away with any nonsense they want to throw in along the way, from a miniature sprite motorcycle gang to an encounter with a gelatinous cube. There’s certainly room in tabletop RPGs for stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and series of random encounters that don’t fit a bigger theme. But players are a lot more likely to tolerate whatever interaction the GM is in the mood for if they also feel like they’re pursuing goals they authentically care about.

And Onward operates on a deadline — Ian and Barley only have 24 hours to finish summoning up their father before the spell he left them permanently elapses. That lends a tremendous intensity to the otherwise scattered chases, fights, puzzles, and social encounters. For GMs, listening to what players really care about and want to pursue is helpful for crafting story hooks the characters will jump on without hesitation. Building a story around the urgent need to pursue those goals now will keep them invested and focused.

Blue elves Barley, Ian, and their mother all gape at a written message Ian is holding in Pixar’s Onward. Image: Disney/Pixar

Always have a clear next goal ahead for the players

If a GM has gone to the trouble of crafting a detailed setting and an interesting world, it’s often worth letting players have enough downtime to explore it. That might mean letting the characters spend a session hanging out with some particularly interesting NPCs, or do something mundane and head-clearing, like shopping for a new outfit or visiting a local festival. But any downtime is less enjoyable when the players are only holding off on the next steps because they can’t figure out how to pursue their goals. An awful lot of RPGs bog down because the GM is expecting the players to know exactly what to do next — what rumors or hook to follow to get to the next adventure. And if the players feel aimless or lost instead, they’re going to lose their sense of connection to the game.

That doesn’t mean not giving players any choice about how to move forward. (See the section on railroading, above.) It just means that if they’re supposed to find an artifact, solve a murder, or travel to a specific place, and they’re obviously having trouble figuring out why that matters, or whether it’s possible, they’re likely to get restless. Even GMs running pure sandbox games, whether every story is dictated by player choice, still need to throw out enough clear options that players don’t feel like they’re up against a wall.

Onward has plenty of moments where Ian and Barley lose the thread — they expect the Manticore to give them a map, but she destroys it; they make it to Raven’s Point and don’t immediately find the gem they’re looking for. But those frustrations are always brief, and they feel like resolutions for mini-arcs rather than points where the story slams to a stop. When they take some downtime for a dance party with their magic half-a-dad, it’s because they’re ready for a break, not because they have no idea where to go next. It’s generally a great idea for GMs to have some patience with players who want to take some time out of the story to express themselves and explore their own idea of fun. Having a next goal doesn’t mean glaring at the players until they take the next expected step.

Blue elf mom Laurel and the Manticore confront an elf cop in Pixar’s Onward. Image: Disney/Pixar

Foreshadow what’s coming

Onward seeds hints of what’s coming up because stories are more satisfying if there’s payoff — for instance, the way the dragon mascot is foregrounded early in the film. Nothing about the early shots of that school mural suggests the characters will eventually wind up fighting an animated rubble-dragon, but the audience gets the image early on, and the camera lingers on it long enough to suggest that it means something. When it comes back around later in the story, the specific form of the payoff is unexpected — but it still feels like a payoff rather than an out-of-the-blue surprise. Dropping clues throughout a game — rumors from NPCs, glimpses of things that will turn out to be more significant than they seem, a peek into an old story or history that seems to be repeating — can make a game world feel more consistent and real, and give the players a sense that they’re operating in a larger world that isn’t being made up as you go along.

Mix up tones and encounter styles

Some RPGs have this dynamic built into them, with a potential for action sequences or battles, but also with rules for social struggles, puzzle encounters, or skills challenges that take the emphasis off fighting. Other systems are simpler, and assume players are only going to engage in one kind of combat. But even in games where the rules don’t directly support it, giving players a sense of variety will keep them alert and invested. Bringing a serious or frightening moment into a mostly humorous game gives players a reason to need their usual humor more than ever. Lightening the tension of a grim game with a momentarily silly situation feels more natural, given how people tend to joke about even the most horrible subjects, and it resets the tension so it can build to bigger heights. In Onward, the story moves from reckless, silly chases to the life-threatening chasm crossing to a heartwarming moment of family connection, and all those pieces inform each other and help develop the characters and the world.

Look for unexpected ways to give players what they want

Onward’s most unexpected plot beat comes in the way Ian gets what he’s wanted all along — but not in the form he was expecting. And the twist in the story winds up being a more satisfying payoff than if he spent the whole story asking for one thing, then got exactly that. Unpredictability is a great boon for any kind of story, and not being able to see the ending coming always makes that ending more exciting.

If your players think they want one simple thing, like defeating an adversary or getting a big payoff for a risky mission, think about ways to complicate the story so they get less than what they want, and have to chase their goals in new ways. Or better yet, give them more than what they want, and use that to complicate the story. Onward is ultimately about finding something satisfying in an unexpected place. It’s a terrific feeling when a GM can pull that off for players who don’t see it coming. And in the end, running an RPG is about collaborating with other people to tell a great story — one the players wouldn’t have thought to tell on their own. The payoff should be more than they imagined it could be.

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