Assembling the Team: Easy to Improv, Hard to Plan

Hilario: It won’t be hard to find men here. Everyone wears a gun.

Chris: Sure. Same as they wear pants. That’s expected. But good men? That’s something else again.

It is the very first session of a delightful RPG campaign.  Everyone has their characters made, and the GM is ready to go.  To help tie everybody together, the GM told everybody “You have to make mercenaries, and you all work for the same company.”  Aside from that, the characters form a delightful and eccentric combination of nutty eccentrics.  Like all good bands of adventurers.

The GM says “You’ve all been called in by your boss.  They have a job for you.”  And everybody falls asleep, or maybe goes into a coma, because that is a very boring way to start a story.  Most of my players have told me that they just accept that my campaigns have a slow start, and that this comes with having a story and character focused style of play.  I do not accept that.  I think there is a way to open in a fun way while also holding the game to high standards of storytelling.

This article is about combining 2 different things: starting with a bang, and rapidly introducing the PCs to one another.

Starting With a Bang

Novels, TV shows, and movies all have a tendency to “start with a bang.”  I will not go into great detail: just watch a James Bond movie for the most straightforward example.  Each book in A Song and Ice of Fire begins with some disjointed horror story vignette to set the tone.  Most episodic action TV shows start this way: X-Files, Buffy, Miami Vice…

More Importantly. video games are now being designed with this kind of intro in mind.  Older video games would introduce the plot and characters with walls of text.  Newer games attempt to make it all more interactive and include play, with the main plot elements interspersed throughout.  Compare the beginning of Monkey Island with The Walking Dead: the former is a text overlay with picture, and the latter is a dialogue.  Almost the entirety of The Walking Dead’s play is making dialogue choices.  You could also compare the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Link to the Past has pictures on what appears to be a sword fragment and endless streams of sentences to read.  Twilight Princess has an intro that includes exploration and some simple puzzles to solve to progress the narration, which is (once again) a big chunk of what the game is about.  Baldur’s Gate 2 starts with a recap of baldur’s gate 1 and a story about how you were kidnapped, all in text form with an accompanying narrator.  Mass Effect 2 starts with RPG action sequences while other characters remind you about your exploits in mass effect 1, and occasionally ask you character-defining questions.  I personally think Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a particularly good job at incorporating all the elements the player needed to know about the character, the setting, and the main plot into one playable scene at the very beginning of the game.  It’s a shame they didn’t spend as much time on the ending, but I highly recommend that game for its integration of story and play.  It’s very well done.

To begin with a bang the GM needs to:

  1. Identify what the bulk of play will be in the campaign.
  2. Incorporate that play immediately.  James Bond fights hard, drives fast, and seduces sleazily.  Link solves puzzles by picking up pots.
  3. Intersperse thematic and setting information immediately.
  4. Decide what plot information (if any) will be included at this time, but err on the side of introducing less.

Assembling the Team

Among the first things that needs to happen in an RPG is that the PCs all need to meet.  The game is about them and their team, after all.  It can also be difficult for a GM to tailor content for each PC until after they’ve seen the character played a bit.  That, more than anything else, is why I wait to introduce character-specific “side quests” until one or two sessions into the campaign.

Having all the characters meet is also often kind of boring.  Everyone meets in a bar, or a coffeeshop, or an office, and they introduce themselves with a quick blurb.  It’s kind of like speed dating.  It just strikes me as silly.

Look at movies like Ocean’s Eleven or Seven Samurai (or the Magnificent Seven).  Note how each character is given something cool to do as the team is assembled.  Note how video games with large casts of characters often do the same thing, by giving each character a theme level or mission.  I will thus add a fifth and sixth point to the list:

5.  Everyone needs something cool to do.

6.  Not everyone needs to be present at the beginning, but they must all be included quickly.

Social Interaction is Core to the Experience of Tabletop RPGS

Planning in advance for all this is quite difficult, because so much of it is tailored to the players.  However, instead of planning this out it can be played as a social, improvised game.  Starting the game this way will immediately result in the players being creatively empowered.  It will immediately send the message to the players that the reason to play this game is to enjoy being creative together, so Point 1 (identify the bulk of play) is half-way covered already.  Next comes directing that into a specific type of action: combat, role-playing, puzzles, chases, etc.  This is a choice that the GM should have made before they even started planning the campaign: will it be an action game, a puzzle game, etc?  In the event that the GM didn’t think about it all, odds are good the rules system will imply a choice.  Pathfinder is a game where the rules are mostly about fighting.  If the GM wants to run a Pathfinder Game, it makes sense to make it mostly about fighting.

Cues from Improvised Theater

The GM, having identified what the main kind of play will be, can now move on to the core thematic and/or setting elements they want to include.  Combining those with the main kind of play will yield enough for a setting or a conflict.

A gritty, violent, medieval fantasy world where the principle play is mostly about role-playing should be set somewhere where the consequences of violence are apparent (to make it gritty) that includes magic (to make it fantasy).  Examples that immediately come to mind are: a battlefield (before or after the battle), a hospital, a camp of monster hunters after a failed hunt.  Note that none of these are set during the actual violence, because that game is going to be about the role-playing.  I’m sure you can think of more settings.

Alternately, we can emphasize a conflict to drive a scene.  The conflict will need to be about the consequences of violence (because the theme is “gritty”) and include something magical (to make it fantastic).  Examples that come to mind are a dispute over the inheritance of some magic items (assuming the deceased died violently), civil unrest over a supposed curse, and the aftermath of a trial by combat with magical weaponry.

The GM only needs to think of the setting or the conflict, not both.  If the GM thought of the setting, turn to the players and say: “One of you is already there.  You came here to do something.  What did you come here for?”  Note that the question is phrased so that they already have an objective.  A causal explanation of how they came to be there does not answer the question correctly.  They are to provide an answer that contains an objective so that they provide the conflict to start the scene.

If the conflict was provided, instead ask “Where would something like that happen?  You are already there.”  The second sentence is important, as it ensures the player will provide a location that is suitable for their character (or, if they don’t, it’s at least not the GMs fault).

Next, ask “what are you doing?”

From there on in, use the following questions to bring more players in:

“How could your character help?” examples: “you’ll need a tracker,” “don’t worry; I’m a doctor.”

“Would any of you oppose this action?  What do you do?” examples: “A frontal assault is suicide,” “How dare you show such impertinence before your king!”

“You are within earshot.  Where are you, and what are you doing?” examples: the bar getting blasted, at work in the fields.  Follow this question up with “And what do you do?” if the player doesn’t join the scene.

“You were either here already and are currently waiting for something, or just arrived from doing something else.  What are you waiting for, or what were doing right before this?”  examples: waiting for hours for an audience with the judge, just got back from horseback riding.

“Your character currently holds something vital to this scene.  What is it?”  examples: the maps, a ceremonial mace, medicine.

“You just arrive, and already know someone here.  Who is it, and why?”  examples: we grew up together, we fought once in a duel to first blood, we are business associates, we met at a wedding years ago.

Ending the Scene

The goal of the scene is just to get everyone introduced to one another.  Once this is done, it’s fine to say something like “1 year later…” and have everyone be in a group together of some kind (professional adventuring party, mercenaries, crew on board a ship, etc).

However, you may wish to have a short combat or skill based challenge to end the scene.  It will need to be simple (unless you are very good at improvising these kind of things as a GM), and many of the important details will need to be drawn from player contributions.  Do your best to make the puzzle or combat make use of details that were added by the players, or were clearly inspired by a player’s contributions.  In such a way, it is clear that the combat or puzzle is the product of the social environment and group collaboration.  This may sound daunting.  It is actually very easy; it just can’t be planned in advance and therefore seems more difficult than it is.

However, for help improvising a puzzle look at this: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/visual-supports-and-creative-thinking/

Even without the use of visuals, it helps by providing a way for thinking about environments that helps create puzzles.

Introducing The Big Villain

If the campaign will have a big villain, the GM can have them be present.  This gives the GM an NPC to roleplay alongside the players.  This gives the GM a chance to lead by example, and a chance to have some fun with acting.  It also creates an interaction with the villain that can set up why the PCs should hate this person.  Look at the exciting openings to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Magnificent Seven, or Star Wars for examples of this.

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