Bang! Why The Start Is So Important

This GM tip brought to you by Jason Kerney

  • There is a loud crack of thunder. The floor beneath your feet shifts as the stone walls crack. The air fills with dust and the room is punctured by a spear of radiant light from the moon. If you do not act fast you and a dozen other people will die; what do you do?
  • The King pounds his fists on the throne. He stands up and the strained muscles in his face turn it a livid red. “Explain yourselves!” he exclaims.Before you can answer a guard steps forward, “My liege, they meant you no harm. Your nephew fell into the street before a charging carriage and these men lifted him to save his life.”

    You can see a vein pulse in the King’s neck, “Kill this insolent fool for speaking out of turn!” He sits down, sweat forming on his heated brow. “Explain yourselves or die.”

  • BANG! The crack of gunfire shakes the room. Timothy McMann, the governor, falls dead onto his desk before you. He never got to speak a word. Your good friend and employer throws your gun into your lap and walks out of the room. What do you do?

I have run many a game that started with a conversation. I can tell you those games take three to four sessions before they start flowing correctly – people take time to get to know each other and explore their characters.

This all changed when I started running a game called Seventh Sea. The Seventh Sea Game Master’s Guide talked about starting your games medias in res or in the middle of action. It talked about immediately drawing your players into the action and having them figure out what is going on as they play.

It sounded fun so I tried it. I immediately fell in love with the idea. That first game ended with many complaints from my players. They wanted to continue, they needed to solve the current problem and they wouldn’t leave the table. It is rare the first game ends with so much enthusiasm. The next morning I awoke with emails from all my players asking when the next game would be.

The benefits continued to grow. My players became familiar with their characters during the first session, and I continued to get open leads that my players generated for more story ideas. I felt I had learned a winning strategy, but I did not know for sure. I have since run several games using this technique and it has always gotten me over that awkward first couple of games. I no longer have that ramp up of interest that kills many of my stories.

We work so hard on making games last that we often overlook the most important part of a good game. The beginning. I plan to never let this part be ignored again.

Richard

Hi.

This is good advice, Jason. I have a new group starting together for the first time. The group has formed over the summer, all of us strangers, with allot of players falling away. One person even said they were playing as a favour to me – just to give you a taste of the crew’s motley-ness. A core two remained through the summer and will be joined at my table shortly by another two players we picked up over the summer.

This group is it, finally! We started my campaign in April, quickly switched to a module, then switched to another game with another DM to try that out, picked up two players along the way. We return to my campaign now, a new party for the first time together, and I realise I need your suggestions here.

Picture this: 1st-level characters on the road to find a mentor to train them in the big bad freebooting city. I have everyone on the road, travelling together as individuals. They begin a 10-day travel.

Three days into the travel, if they stay to the merchant track, they will arrive at the first planned adventure: a fortress levelled to the ground by the local Baron. Lots of creepy rumours and, in the basement, the beginning of the political plot I want the campaign story to tell.

Okay, I would appreciate your advice at this point. How do I start these politically insignificant PCs with a bang! on a political campaign (set in medieval Europe)? Should I even be thinking politics right now? Should I use an unrelated wandering monster, encounter, event? (The module came up after a TPK and the group was bleeding members; completed by 1/2 the party so this will be the first time all players sit down together in my campaign.) My second chance at an introduction!

What would you do? Thanks in advance!

    Jason Kerney, @bagheer (twitter)

    Richard,

    Before I talk about how I would start your adventure let me give you advice on political campaigns. If you intend this to be a political campaign you need to be thinking of it as one from the start, but your characters need to know they are pawns right off. It even works better if they believe there are multiple forces using them as pawns. (Remember Pawns are expendable.)

    This helps build tension. Keep the politics in the distance until your players have xp enough to justify more hands on interaction. Once they have reached that point show them there is more that they cannot reach.

    Now onto how I would start this. There are tree ways. 1. I would start it with the first fight of the first adventure and let the players figure out that they are traveling with a troop seeking teachers.

    My second choice would be start it with a seemingly random battle where one of the fallen foes has information about the upcoming battle.

    Lastly. I would start it in the middle of a inter-troop conflict about to turn violent. This is particularly interesting because it introduces politics on a small scale. I would make the conflict over something important yet mundane. Like what is the next destination.

    I hope this helps.

    ~Jason~

      Johnn Four

      A memorable campaign start had my PCs meeting at a crossroads.

      PCs #1 and #2 had their cart break down in a giant mud puddle in an intersection a few miles outside a city.

      PC #3 traveling through the forest spotted them and offered to lend a hand (I told the player this is what his PC was doing).

      PC #4 was travelling the west road and came upon the group.

      PC #5 was travelling the north road and came upon the group.

      That’s when the orcs attacked.

Da' Vane

It depends what sort of encounter you have planned in the basement of said fortress, but I think the best approach is to have the PCs start right in the thick of it. Don’t start them off down the road where they can get distracted and wander off the track – instead, focus them immediately on the levelled fortress and it’s secrets.

One good way to do this might be if the party come across the fortress just as the local Baron is fleeing. Describe the flames, the horror, the screams, and the chaos. One or two survivors could be rescued, some of the minor thugs the baron has employed could be fought, and the baron himself might be seen as a shadow to flee into the darkness opposite the flames.

This sets up two immediate plot threads. Not only do you have the Baron and fortress, and everything you have planned, but the Baron is also aware that the PCs are witnesses and will want to silence them. Of course, he cannot be sure that the PCs have recognised him, so the Baron will have to be sneaky by hiring assassins and other indirect methods that will not reveal his true identity.

Both of these working together should allow your PCs to follow the trail and get to the Baron, and thus embark on the political story you have planned. You have set up the means to drop clues onto the PCs when they get stuck, as well as a trail to follow when they take an active approach.

If the PCs work hard to fight the fire in the fortress, they may be able to gain evidence and learn secrets that the Baron wished destroyed, which was the motivation for the fire, as well as secure allies from the owners of the fortress. It might not be enough, but it’s a start, and it should keep everyone too busy focusing on the action to ask inconvenient questions like “Why are we travelling together again?”

    Jason Kerney, @bagheer (twitter)

    I like it. The characters are forced to react, work together and be heroes.

    Johnn Four

    “I think the best approach is to have the PCs start right in the thick of it. Don’t start them off down the road where they can get distracted and wander off the track”

    Good call!

Bill

In media res is awesome, in part because it forces the PCs to ask questions about why they’re there and what they’re doing, which is a lot better than just telling them.

Da' Vane

The key to getting the best out of In Media Res is to understand the diference between novels, movies, video games, and RPGs.

The most significant difference between all these is that in RPGs a significant amount of story control is given to the PCs. It is not predefined beforehand by the author or progammer – and therefore you have to be able to both steer the players to get the best out of them and the story you have prepared, while giving them the freedom to take things in new directions.

In media res basically limits choices to reactions, and brings everything to the here and now. The PCs don’t have to enter the villain’s death-trap, they are already there. They don’t have to hunt for the artifact, it falls into their hands. They don’t have to intervene to prevent a merchant being attacked, when the thugs assume the heavily armed group nearby are his bodyguards and decide not to take any chances.

The PCs still have control over their own reactions, but it is focused for them – this is where the action is. What do you do? Most players will be willing to let the GM have control over their PC long enough to establish the starting scene.

When the GM gets into the territory of answering why the PCs are doing something, they risk entering the territory of railroading. This should be something the PCs choose for themselves, and preferably a few sessions down the line once the dust settles and they realise what’s going on.

Novels and movies have the luxury of being able to control the PCs and the world, to get the desired storyline, no matter how convoluted it may be. Take Running Man, a favourite example of mine – a great deal of the movie is dedicated to defining the motivation and character of Arnie’s character as the stitched-up “Butcher of Bakersfield”, having him escape from a high security prison camp and getting caught attempting to flee the country to end up on the deadly game show.

In a movie, this works, because this is the plot, but as a scenario for an RPG, there’s too much that can go wrong with this concept – if the PCs fail to escape the prison complex, or they manage to escape the country, the whole point of the adventure – the deadly gameshow the Running Man is missed out.

Using in media res, you’ld want to start the PCs as contestants in the Running Man, and cut out all the other options, as this is the whole point of the adventure. Frome here, let them choose what they want to do – escape alive, claim vengeance, prove their innocence, spill blood, or become famous.

“It’s time to start RUNNING!”

Richard

Hi All,

The Baron is actually the good guy – but rumours paint him either way. He’s also a simple Elf, not really involved with politics. (Dutious Ned Stark, anyone?) He did level the castle due to political pressures but he has no idea how far up the chain the corrupt politics extends. The two guys who were defeated (a high-level Elven wizard and a heroic Elven Lord no less) are the bad guys. There are clues to a secret organisation and a trail off to another Lord within the basement. (I have 4-typed pages of rumours swirling this place.)

The PCs just come together. They’re not noble by birth or political in nature at level 1. No one is chasing them, and they’re outcasts of their land for a variety of reasons, predominently because Elves in my campaign are conformists. The Players know the story is going to be political but I haven’t clothed any one in robes or titles. I just told them they are on the same road for the same reason – Blue booking the lead into the campaign separately for each PC.

So they find themselves on the same road for the same reason. I had to use a module because 1- whoops! TPK in dungeon room 1 was my bad for not knowing the players well enough beforehand; and 2- many players swarmed but didn’t commit until we “built it and they came.” The module was innocuous team building. Now the PCs are on the road even more motivated to train up – two are at level 2 XP. (I will have to have injured trainers recovering near the fortress so the town isn’t just a rest stop on the way to the PC’s ultimate destination… but how to play this 2/4 training up and 2/4… waiting?)

I intend to play out the journey to the fortress rather than say “you see a fortress ahead.” I have a roadside inn along the way and one PC to be introduced to the party. (1 player has played in the other game but not in this one.)

The last of the Baron’s Officers pulled out (during the TPK session) which almost errupted into a bar brawl. (!!!) The fortress is surrounded by a town and the siege – including troops leveling stones by hand – lasted 6 months.

The new PCs are gonna be on that same road just south of the inn during evening. The Baron is long gone to serve the Queen in the south.

One other thing. No one knows about the secret society manipulating the Queen’s court, otherwise, well, why have level 1 characters involved when a Baron can level a castle? This will become the secret information only the PCs know and act on – outsiders to the machinations of the court. That will make them dangerous – the uncalculated risk. The Elven lands are on high alert/war with Orcs in the south so the loyal Lords are constantly mustering and marshalling troops. “Evil” Lords and lower vassals of “good” Lords (like the Baron’s two fief’d vassals) see their opportunity to power. As “good guys” die off, the PC’s rise in power with their secret knowledge. As the court becomes more corrupted, the Queen will be threatened, and the neighboring lands that operate the manipulation will invade at the most propitious time. It’s way too much information for level 1 but it is the general campaign outline.

So, well, I am still stuck. I want the PCs confused about who to trust (a slave of Sauron who deem more fair and seem less foul, Samwise) so I do not want a “too clear picture” presented to them. Ho! an evil low level messenger with orders on the road! I want to play the evil guys as the high level threats they are allowing for ONLY a few gaffs in choice of minion and/or sweaty palms.

Any more suggestions for the first BANG! encounter? I really appreciate this discussion.

    Jason Kerney, @bagheer (twitter)

    The biggest thing about using medias in res is that it has to part of your story. It cannot be random violence. My advice is take a break. Work on something else related to your story let your mind wonder for a bit and then ask “What is the most unexpected way this can start?”

    You will probably have the answer.

Richard

Still stuck… my players are at level 2 XP now and need trainers so I can use a device where they meet returning heroes/trainers, wounded, travelling home in a caravan of peasants who get attacked.

It’s a completely random encounter, disconnected from the story but in-line with the current PC needs. So it works but it does not progress the storyline.

Any suggestion for a better Bang to progress the storyline?

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