Thursday, April 2, 2015

Kicking Off a Campaign Right

Prelude (or 'Living Life Makes It Hard to Write a Blog Sometimes')

 So, a long Wednesday is behind me and a long Wednesday night lies ahead. Today I picked up a neat little book called Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt; a history of Dungeons & Dragons combined with memoirs of the writer. It looks like a good read and a great subject for an article. I'll be reading it over the next week or so and let you all know how it goes.

 However, tonight I find myself in a position I've found myself in many times before. Before me lies a campaign in its new beginnings. A few friends of mine and I have started a Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 game in which we are incorporating/reworking the Spelljammer rules from 2nd Edition AD&D which, if you are unfamiliar with the setting, is essentially fantasy-equivalent space travel. My players and I had devised a theme and direction for our campaign, but it was left to me as the game master to devise the opening to the game; how the characters meet and how they end up on this adventure.
 Creating a fluid and immersive beginning to a campaign is a daunting task, especially to beginning GM's. You have to create a scenario in which all the players (and their characters) are invested and immersed, create connections between the characters and to the world they're in, and establish the mood, themes, and concept.

 The easiest, and most commonly used method to address this challenge is 'handwaving'. There's a reason "You all start in a tavern..." is one of the biggest tropes in tabletop gaming. It's lame and cheesy and overused, but it's a quick, simple way to force your way through the awkward introductions phase and push into the adventure.
 Being a man who is obsessive about detail, I try very hard to avoid using 'handwavy' methods. The story, the characters, and how they all connect matter to me, even if they don't matter to my players (whether this is a flaw or a boon is up for debate). Anyway, I'd like to share some insight I've gotten from players, forums, brainstorming, etc. on how to start a campaign and how to do it in interesting ways.

Where to Begin With Your Beginning

 Logically, the first step to take when starting a new campaign is to assess what the goals are in creating a first session. To speak generally, your first session should...
    • Establish your role as a GM; how you arbitrate your game and interact with your players
    • Introduce the setting, mood, and themes of the game you're running
    • Sell the game's concept to the players and immerse them in it
    • Make those players feel like their characters belong in the world
    • Bring those characters together as a group
 Ideally, a gaming group would do well to go into a new campaign in unity, building characters together with the setting and mood in mind to avoid awkward beginnings, stubborn 'lone wolf' situations, and the immersion disconnect of automatically trusting the fighter at the tavern with a badge that reads 'Player Character'.
 Give your players an idea of what the campaign is going to be like; the themes, the mood, the setting, and encourage them to build their characters with these things in mind. Often times, many problems can be solved by designing the group's characters to be tied to each others' backstory in some way. This is a great way to build cohesion before the game even starts and avoid the awkward introductions of why a lawful good paladin might be hanging out with a chaotic neutral rogue.
 Now, this option may not always be available to you. Sometimes players want to try something new (and sometime you have very stubborn players) and that's not always a bad thing. But as long as you have at least some cohesion in your group and players who want to be immersed, you can still bring a cast of characters together without that disconnect of immersion. Sell the world to your players; give their characters shared conflicts and motivations that align with each other.

 This isn't to say that you must work so hard and spend hours of prep time on your first session to make everything painstakingly perfect (it never will be). Starting in a tavern and handwaving the characters' connections and relationships is totally fine if those aren't things your gaming group care about. And more importantly, this isn't to say that if you have a problem player who actively combats group cohesion that you should stumble hand over foot to pull everything around this person's character. Problem players should be addressed outside the game-table with understanding and a willingness to address their desires, but also a firmness and an authority as the game master and as a person.

A Couple Crazy Ideas

As a game master who has started a lot of games (far more than I have finished, I'm afraid), I've gotten more daring in my approach to a campaign's first session. Here are a few ideas to make your opening sessions a little more interesting.
  • The First Level Funnel: A fun and scary way of diversifying your characters. Each player creates three or four characters to play in your game. In turn, these characters are put through a traumatic and terrifying experience (way above their relative difficulty level) and whichever characters end up surviving become the party; brought together by a harrowing experience.
  • The 'Tarantino': When your players come to the first session, start the game off hot by dropping them directly into an intense situation (high octane combat, a big battle, a dramatic social encounter, etc.) After (or perhaps during) the encounter, describe a flashback to the players; the details of a mission briefing prior to the encounter they had been dropped into, or a tense situation that went sour. While this method is borderline railroadie, it allows the players to jump into the action and become engaged immediately and saves the group the worry of bringing their characters together.
  • The Prologue: Sit one or two players down at a time and create a short vignette-style sidebar for each character; how they came to be where they are now, how they're involved with the adventure hook, and how they know the other characters. This not only provides a set of defined circumstances in which to incorporate the characters into a party, it also helps the players loosen up a little and gives them time to get into character.

And so concludes another week's worth of Casting Lots. How do you start your campaigns with a bang? If you have any tips that I don't know share them!

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