Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Media Res

After a long hiatus from roleplaying, I will be kicking off a new campaign this Sunday.  I've always found that first sessions are very special as they tend to set the tone for the rest of the campaign.  They are pregnant with possibility; a golden time when anything is possible.  Players sit with brand new, vaguely defined characters written on crisp clean character records that do not yet bear the scars of constant erasing or the doodles borne of months spent waiting for their turn to act.

After that first session characters start to become defined, pathways chosen, story arcs develop and inevitably, just as happens when we make choices in life, doors close.  Never again, for the rest of the campaign, will the players experience that same thrill of untold possibility as they do when they sit down to begin that first session. That's a lot to have riding on a single evening.

So, how do we usually kick it off?  By spending the evening shopping for gear, then maybe meeting up in the tavern to make awkward and forced introductions followed by the Employment Offer (TM) that assumes that each character will have sufficient trust and cause to band together with a group of strangers and go risk their lives together because, hey, that's how its done.

At least that's how most of my campaigns have traditionally started, despite the fact that I find this unsatisfying and a waste of such potentially thrilling possibilities.

The best first session I ever played was in a friend's Traveller campaign about thirty years ago.  I'd missed the first few sessions and had to join in after the game had already started.  My character, whose name I forget, was a disreputable Jack of All Trades whose sole possessions were a leather jacket, a 9mm slug-thrower, a boot knife, a pack of smokes, and a hover-car I'd gotten as a mustering-out benefit.  In the opening scene, I was driving down the street when a fellow (PC) ran out in front of my hover-car frantically waving for me stop, then beseeching me to give him a ride to the spaceport.  As I was negotiating a price a trio of attack helicopters suddenly flew around a corner and opened fire.  My passenger screamed at me to drive while throwing fist-fulls of money at me.  I drove.  After a very exciting chase, my bullet-riddled hover-car careened into the space port at high speed and, with pedal to the metal, I raced into the cargo hold of a ship that was just preparing to boost off planet.  All of a sudden I found myself in the company of rebels who were en-route to assault an Imperial prison planet to free some political prisoners.  And I was going along for the ride.

This is perhaps the most memorable game session I've ever played, and what made it so successful, in my opinion, was starting off in media res.  I had no idea what was going on.  I was thrown into the thick of things without any benefit of introduction or back story and before I knew what was happening I was in over my head, being chased by powerful enemies and trying to stay alive long enough to get my bearings and figure things out.  Kind of how you'd expect real people to get drawn into adventures.

So, this time around I think I'm going to try starting the campaign in media res.  No shopping. No introductions.  Just "here's the situation - go!" I have no real plan for a first adventure; I've got a bad case of game master's block, so I may just wait until I see what characters get rolled up and then go from there and just wing the session.  Most of this campaign is an experiment in which I'm play testing my sword & sorcery rule system, so I may as well add yet another experiment and go with my gut and see how things unwind.  It may be an epic fail, or it could end up as my best campaign start ever.


Anonymous said...

I just started a Gamma World-Pathfidner hack of my own design with "Pshhhh - the doors of your cryogenic units are opening. You don't know how you came here. Or who you are."
That worked like a blast. So, yeah, go for it.

Don said...

Sounds good to me. :)

Anonymous said...

The old West End Games version of the Star Wars RPG had the advice to start in media res, too (like the movies did.) Not a bad idea at all, as most of the players don't really want to sit around waiting to discover the adventure any more than the DM does. Start with some excitement and it will carry through and get them thinking fast, immediately.

Sean Robson said...

There are a lot of things I really liked about WEG's Star Wars RPG. They really did cinematic action well. I liked their system for being able to attempt any number of things in a given round, and being able to spend a force point to double your dice pools so you might actually succeed. (like dodging TIE fighters while navigating an asteroid field and trying to calculate the jump to hyperspace, for example).