Ah, campaign openings. Where should I start? Providing a solid introduction to your new campaign gives you a foundation from which to build your characters and settings, while simultaneously enrapturing your players and helping them invest in your narrative. There are several ways to do this, and some are more effective than others. I’d like to explore some of the more common methods with the goal of evaluating them for common use.
1) The Tavern
Perhaps the most common setting for beginning a campaign, the “tavern” can be any common place where adventurous types might meet up to undertake quests of any stripe. Typically, players are asked to introduce their characters to some degree of familiarity, depending on whether or not the group has been traveling with each other up to that point. This latter notion can present a few problems. If the player characters already know each other, they will have to mutate their individual narratives to fit the group purpose without allowing it to naturally develop during play. If the characters are just meeting each other for the first time, their personalities or desires may chafe to the point that they might not want to travel together at all. Concessions will then need to be made in order to get the story off the ground. Furthermore, this approach can lead to a relatively slow start. Players may get bogged down in the opening overtures and lose interest before their interest can be properly captured. All in all, this method does the job well enough, but it is somewhat overused and can introduce a few problems along the way to the story proper.
2) In Media Res
Another popular method for introducing any story is to begin in the midst of the excitement. The player characters might be fleeing from some terrible threat, dropping through a ceiling vent to begin an infiltration, or even in the middle of combat. This approach may be viewed by players as bold, though it too can introduce problems. Without a chance to get their bearings, players may have trouble introducing their characters into the narrative, instead focusing on solving a challenge instead of playing their role. There may also arise some confusion regarding the setting or narrative. If you start too fast, especially with newer players, you could have more than your fair share of system issues come up. All that being said, this method tends to be intriguing enough to help players overlook most problems and get into the fun of gaming and shared storytelling. My advice for those looking to try this is simply to be prepared to stop occasionally and answer questions to keep players grounded in the narrative.
3) The Flashback
Instead of opening with action or a static setting, GMs can introduce their game by opening briefly in the present, then flashing back to a critical point in the narrative. Perhaps we revert to the scene when the characters meet one another, or when they meet the big bad. This method can be effective when starting new arcs of a campaign as well. The major problem that might arise with this opening style is the issue of information overload. Players already have to deal with how their new characters are handling the present situation (whatever that might be), but now they have to answer the question of how their character will act in a different time setting as well. Unless they’re properly prepared, players may balk at this method. Nevertheless, this can prove an intriguing and perhaps novel method of campaign introduction, especially if used for player characters that have already survived a previous campaign together.
4) Individual Preludes
This idea I’ve gleaned from White Wolf games, but it could function conceivably in any RPG or setting. It requires the most time and effort of the methods listed here, as GMs must sit with each player individually and run a solo session of some length and description that explores their character’s story prior to the campaign proper. Therefore, this functions best when used in conjunction with other methods, and for campaigns that you plan on running for a good amount of time. Too much setup can be a negative for shorter games, after all. You’ll still have to decide how you want to start your first joint session, but a lot of the individual character growth and development will be behind you, allowing you to focus on bringing these disparate player characters together in purpose. When I use this method, I often ask players to go a step further and prepare a short backstory for their character so we can really delve deep into the roleplaying aspect of the game. You can expand this even further by running multiple sessions with individual characters or groups of two, forging character traits more naturally before bringing the group together and forcing cooperation to some degree. Admittedly, this would take an extremely dedicated GM with a considerable amount of free time. The benefits of such an endeavor could outweigh the costs, but I haven’t tried it yet!
Most often, I find myself using a combination of methods to create a captivating yet practical campaign introduction. My experiments don’t always work out perfectly, but they certainly mix things up for my players, which typically presents value regardless. I’d encourage you to try a few of these methods or some concoction of several, or come up with your own methods and let me know about them. As GMs, we’re always trying to find ways to combat complacency and fight for our players’ attentions, especially in the age of the cell phone. Share your secrets!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact .
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I am become death, destroyer of worlds.