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:

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.

Acting Games for RPGs based on Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when an audience knows more about events in a story than the characters within the story, and this results in differences of meaning for the audience than it does for the characters.  I saw a simple, light hearted example of this in a film today: The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey.  I don’t think this counts as a spoiler because it’s in the first half-hour of a three hour movie, but, just in case, consider yourself warned.
Bilbo Baggins wakes up in the middle of the night and a dwarf shows up.  Bilbo tries to find out what’s going on, but more and more dwarves keep on showing up before he gets answers.  And they keep taking his food!  This is obviously quite distressing for Bilbo, but it is a little bit of light hearted comedy for us in the audience.  This is because we had just had the pleasure of a lengthy exposition about dwarves.
Lets turn this into a game for PCs and the GM to act out.
Step 1:  The GM decides a piece of information to share with the PCs.  This is communicated in a short hand out, and one player does not get a copy.  This character will be called the Host.
Step 2:  Decide on a setting for the scene.  I suggest asking the Host to choose, based on what they would normally be doing at a particular time.  
Step 3:  Other PCs arrive one at a time or in groups.  They are coming because of the content of the hand out.  The Host’s goal is to get them to answer questions and explain what is going on.  However, the other PCs will attempt to find things to distract them from answering the questions.  They can use features of the immediate setting, backstory, character traits, and a great many other things.
Step 4: Eventually the host manages to get some answers.  The only question is how quickly.

Rewards:  If the host manages to get the answers they want, they should get a reward.  If everyone else always manages to evade questions by greeting other PCs, talking about something in the setting or environment, or changing the topic to something the host would like to talk about, then everyone else gets a reward.  You can decide what reward is appropriate.

Lets generalize this.  The real trick is to create an imbalance in the information available to PCs, and to assign one player the task of getting the information.  It requires the players to participate in platform building, so long as it is about the immediate location or the characters who are currently present.  It works best at the beginning of a plot to introduce the central conflict, but could be used for introducing any piece of information.  If done later in the story, the imbalance of information is often reversed: one character has all the information and is trying to communicate it, and the other characters are trying to avoid hearing it.  When analyzing status, the host is a low status character struggling to attain high status.

Variety in Social Challenges

If you GM like me, you like to provide objectives that players try to reach.  You then put a few obstacles in their way, but for the most part they can do whatever they like to try and reach that objective.  This is very limiting in social encounters.

Thinking of social encounters in this way tends to limit the kinds of social behaviour that PCs engage in.  It causes the characters to interact with NPCs in order to persuade the NPCS to do something specific.  However, in real life most people engage in social encounters for a wide variety of reasons.

I have a bit of a background in therapy, and part of my job was teaching social skills.  Given that, I am accustomed to dividing social behaviours into categories based on the function those behaviours serve.  There are three such functions: achieving objectives, maintaining relationships, and preserving self-respect.

Of course, in a game being told to “maintain your relationship” is just being provided with an objective.  I don’t see this as a problem, because it will substantially change the way the scene must be role-played.  Imagine the PCs are a rag-tag group of fantasy adventurers, and they rely on the patronage of the local baron.  The PCs have a rival group of adventurers that are trying to “steal” the baron’s patronage, and the baron is kind of a boring, snobby guy.  If I present this as a problem to my PCs, ways to solve this will probably involve doing something to the rivals.  However, as anyone who works in Sales can tell you, business is often about relationships.  If the PCs wish to maintain the baron’s patronage, then they must maintain a positive relationship with the baron.  This strikes me as plausible, or even realistic, and will result in the PCs engaging with an NPCs like the NPC is actually a person.

Preserving self-respect is used to defend oneself from unfair accusations and treatment.  If you are tired of every single dispute devolving into violence in your game, then this is for you.  Note that part of preserving self-respect is NOT attacking the other person.  The goal is for the PCs to just stick to their own values.  Imagine the characterization opportunities in such a scene.

Lets take the above situation with the adventurers, their rivals, and the baron.  I’ll add a bit more to it.  The rivals accuse the PCs of recklessly starting a big fight in a tavern.  This is starting to sound like a D&D game.  The PCs probably blew up the whole tavern with a fireball or something.  Regardless, now the PCs need to defend their values, their choices, and even their character or personality.  Of course, they could just lie.  That solves the immediate problem, but doesn’t involve preserving their self-respect.  Defending themselves without lying or attacking their accusers will force the players into engaging with this more “correctly.”

In a game with an extensive skill set, this will help make a lot of the more subtle social skills useful.  Etiquette, for example, works really well for preserving-self respect and maintaining relationships.

This also relates to player skills (as opposed to skills possessed by the character).  It can  be used to broaden the social skill portion of roleplaying by including a wider selection of scene types.

Radio Play 3: Action Scenes

Describing action during radio plays is tough, since the information needs to be conveyed mostly through dialogue. For an excellent example, listen to the first 4 minutes of The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack episode 3 at the wireless theater company ( ). My examples mostly have to do with combat, but the same techniques can be used in any scene. Here are the techniques available to both players and GM:

  1. Be Bossy
  2. Give Warnings
  3. Communicate like a sports team
  4. Make Sound Effects

Being bossy is a great way to announce a character’s intentions. The specific action is merely implied, but it can be implied so heavily that this is sufficient. Since players can’t control other players actions, the bossiness must express a goal that the player clearly wants everyone to achieve, and the character is able to also immediately act towards the goal.

  • “Quiet, everybody. We need to take them by surprise.”
  • “Keep your head down; I’ll flush them out from cover.”
  • “Charge!”

Giving warnings is a great follow up to another character being bossy. It works for a character who is going immediately after another character, because the warning can acknowledge the other character’s action. The content of the warning can imply an action from the speaker.

  • “Watch out, he has a knife!” shing, shing, thwack “I’ve got your back.”
  • “No! They’re too well defended. Let me get into position and snipe.” pew pew
  • “That cloud is toxic to you, but don’t worry: I can survive it.”

If you’ve played team sports, you probably know what I mean by “communicate like a sports team.” I’m referring to important communication like shouting “mine” when rushing to get an open ball or puck, or “open” to call for a pass. In an RPG combat, it’s things like “He’s mine!” or “I’ve got the one on the right.” This is a good way to use maneuvers or spells. Even though it sounds strange, if you imagine the communication as analogous to the rapid communication on a sports team it makes sense. It makes the players voice act the kind of communication that most people assume the characters are doing during a combat anyways.

  • “Fireball: keep your heads down!”
  • “Ego loquemur Latine mittere magicis sanos!” whispering “don’t worry; that ogre is only an illusion.”
  • “Covering your left!” machine gun sound effects

Making sound effects is the last on the list because it supports the other 3. It is rarely sufficient on it’s own. However, when combined with the other techniques sound effects can fill in the blanks. Techno-babble or speaking in the “language of magic” (usually a little bit of latin and a lot of made up words) can serve a similar purpose.

  • “Quickly! Into the alley!” creeking door
  • “Quit gawking, and start shooting!” bang bang
  • “First I reverse the protonic sub-polarity resonator… Now run before she blows!”

Including Radio Drama Actions in a Game

I have a strong dislike of prohibitive house rules. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to declare their actions with strange, in character dialogue; I want everyone to want to declare their actions with dialogue. This is why I put so much work into reward mechanisms.

Since the action I want players to do will ideally be done many times in a single setting, I think the reward should be short term and immediate. It also needs to be valuable to every PC. Perhaps a token reward where 3 tokens can be traded in for +4 to one attribute for one round. In GURPS the bonus should probably only be +1. I think the most ideal reward would be something like Hero Points (Mutants and Masterminds), Last Resort Points (Alternity), or Action Points (4th Edition D&D). In GURPS, the tokens could be traded in for additional uses per session of the Serendipity advantage (or just one use, if the players don’t have serendipity).  Any of these provide incentive, but if players are really stuck they can still declare their actions the normal way.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The main benefit of radio play action is that declaring actions involve more roleplaying and acting than normal. For the players, the main drawback is that it’s a bit more work. For the GM, the main drawback is that each encounter requires that the NPCs actually speak to each other. However, this drawback has a hidden benefit: easier character and setting development. To make use of this benefit, however, requires substantially more creativity or planning.

Using this in a campaign does not force the campaign to also use the radio-drama-style setting construction. Using both has the benefit of cutting a large amount of exposition out of the game, and replacing it with acting and roleplaying, however.