They say the first step to resolving an addiction is to admit you have a problem. Well, here’s my problem: I’m addicted to new settings.
I look at new systems whether they are set in an existing RPG framework or a brand new one. I’ll look into systems and worlds whether I’m currently running and/or playing in a campaign or not. Regardless of my current circumstances, I seem to compulsively keep an eye out on other settings to check out what they are all about. This can be an obviously be an expensive addiction just between buying the various settings and finding storage space for it all.
Think I’m kidding? In the past couple of years, I have checked out the Pathfinder campaign setting, the Dragon Age campaign setting, the Mutant & Masterminds setting (and their DC spin-off), the A Song of Ice and Fire RPG and Eclipse Phase settings. (And that is just naming a few of the games I have checked out — this is actually a slower phase for me than normal.)
What I haven’t ever really figured out is what I’m looking for.
On the one hand, mining new systems for ideas is attractive to me. I may not ever use a system like Eclipse Phase, but its ideas about its setting and how to make use of reputation within a setting are full of great ideas. And it’s a similar situation with the A Song of Ice and Fire RPG — I’m not all that interested in running a Westeros-themed campaign, but the tools around building noble houses in a fantasy setting seem very useful.
But my compulsions don’t tend to stop there…
A friend (or on-line blog post) could say something that makes me curious enough to check it out the system. I believe it was Fitz’s review of FantasyCraft that made me want to check it out. Or it could be just a bit of the blurb about the setting makes me curious as to either to what the setting is like or how the rules handle something.
In the case of Dragon Age, it was a bit of both things — the setting was Dark Fantasy, which I tend to like, and I was really curious to play around with the stunt mechanics.
For Mutants & Masterminds, I bought the first book for two reasons. One, I was curious what all the hype was about. Two, since the old Marvel Superheroes RPG system that was put out by TSR, I haven’t really found a superhero RPG setting that I clicked with the rules. Given all the superhero movies that are out, I thought it might be time to check out another system for that type of genre.
At any rate, I have an addiction. And even though I’m not currently playing or running a campaign, I don’t really see an end in sight!
What attracts you to look at new systems?
Last week, on the Forged Front, I discussed players thinking about party dynamics before the campaign even starts in attempt to really make it easier for everyone to ease into the long haul for the campaign without having to wonder why their character would put up with another character for any length of time at all. This week, I want to discuss that very first session with the newly minted characters.
One of the theories about how the universe started is with a Big Bang — namely that an explosion caused the universe to expand (and cool) to its current state. This can be applied to campaigns in a variety of manners. If you take a look at a lot of modules and adventures that have been published, they all aim to start fast.
In one memorable D&D adventure (WGA4: Vecna Lives!), the players temporarily control high level wizards that are investigating a small tomb and collectively get crushed by an even more powerful adversary. (If I recall correctly, the final encounter in the dungeon likely won’t even last 5 rounds.) The PCs then get hired to find out what happened to their respective friends/mentors.
Another module series (Desert of Desolation) begins with the party being accused (right or wrong never gets established) of shenanigans against a court wizard and volunteered to be sent into the desert to deal with troublesome bandits. The action starts right after the party gets walloped by a sand storm.
At any rate, modules generally seem to take on one of two approaches to start though. They either start with a very quick encounter (typically combative in nature) or an introduction that quickly leads to an encounter. The general principle seems to be that action hooks you quicker into the story, and you can start asking the usual sorts of questions (how, why, where, etc.) after the dust settles. The art in this is you don’t want the combat or encounter to be completely throw away — it should illustrate themes you want to convey for the rest of the campaign.
I have two additional examples to provide from my own experience.
The first is something I used to start a fantasy campaign, which started with the PCs finding themselves arrested in a dungeon. After getting their bearings and noticing their surroundings, they are freed. They are lead to first to some baths to get cleaned up, given formal feast attire including signet rings with the symbol of a jester on it, and then led to a feast. At the feast they get to mingle briefly before meeting their host, who apologizes that the nation’s ruler (a dragon) could not meet them personally, but inquires as to how they got arrested. After implying that the guests have an important role to play for the kingdom, the host moves on to greet others. If I recall correctly, I implied that the dragon might not even exist.
At the end of the feast, they wake up in an inn and it slowly dawns on them it was a very vivid dream that they just had. However, when they sort through their stuff, they notice their packs now contain the garb they wore at the feast and they all have the signet rings as well. It also dawns on them that the inn is way too quiet for being at that time of day. When they get downstairs, they see a ritual circle drawn out on the floor with the symbol of a jester and with a little investigation, they are the only ones alive in the inn. Everyone else has died apparently with a smile on their face. And with that … the PCs are faced with what are they going to do as they hear cries going out for the city watch.
(Editor’s Note: Having played in this campaign, can I just say what a joy it was to panic every time we ran into anything jester-related in the campaign after this event? The initial meeting was a shock, but we were constantly on the lookout for those darn signet rings everywhere we went!!)
What I liked about this start was that it hinted at something big going on without answering why the PCs were chosen and left them with an immediate mess on their hands to deal with. How they chose to proceed would shape what directions the campaign would grow. From time to time, I would introduce an NPC that was part of the dream as well.
The second example is an idea I’ve been toying with using as the start of a space opera type campaign. The PCs are passengers that happen to be looking for transport in a shipyard. They are about to interview for passage on a particular ship when one of the crewmembers runs past basically screaming, “WE HAVE TO LEAVE NOW!!!” as he heads to the helm to take off. The person that was about to do the interview says, “Well you better come aboard — we can sort out the rest later.” If they players get on-board, they have a harrowing escape as the shipyard is under a massive/lopsided surprise attack. If the players don’t get on-board, they have to find another way out of the shipyard from same attack. Depending on which path they take, there could be all sorts of things to follow up on if the PCs survive the attack.
So now that I shared some of the ways I think about starting campaigns, let me ask to my readers: What is the most memorable start to a campaign that you have been apart of?
Until next time…
A RPG campaign lives and dies with the PCs. A GM can create an interesting setting backdrop, start the campaign off with a bang, and provide compelling reasons to want to explore the campaign world. However, the GM cannot force the PCs to actually stay together. Despite the GM’s best efforts, sometimes the various PCs’ personalities eventually shatter the bonds of the group enough that the party rather split up (or kill each other) than continue the story.
Classic PHB Illustration of Standard PCs
That flies in the face of why the gaming group decided to play the campaign in the first place. Here at the Front, I maintain that creating a party that wants to stay together is the shared responsibility of the players and the GM. While it can be interesting to have some intra-group tension within the party, the GM has a responsibility to not elevate the tensions to the boiling point where the various party members would rather trust complete strangers than the people they have been working with for the past few weeks/months.
The players, on the other hand, shouldn’t create characters that they know are going to drive the others up a wall and make the other characters stuff them into a barrel and ship them off to the nearest insane asylum for society’s betterment. A lone wolf character is another type that doesn’t really work well for a party situation. It’s a great concept, but if they want to be a loner, why would the others want them around and vice versa? So the responsibility for creating a group that will work for the campaign’s long haul starts right off the bat in character creation. The players figure out what roles they would like their respective characters to take within the narrative — likely factoring in what the other players’ want to their characters to play within the campaign narrative. Each player figures out a basic personality and background. However, even doing this doesn’t mean that the party will bond well enough to stick together.
Let’s look at an example. This party was put together to hunt for relics which they sell off to various collectors. It is made up of:
- A street urchin that dreams of becoming a knight — the money gained from selling relics will pave his way into becoming more than a potential hedge knight.
- A archer who seeks fame and fortune to distance himself with from the family he can’t stand.
- An exiled foreigner on the run because of her beliefs.
- An elementalist mage naive in the ways of the world due to spending most of his life in a school.
- An archaeologist interesting in discovering relics and legends of the past and sharing those tales with audiences.
Not a bad group … potentially fairly well balance for various roles that could come up during various sessions. And yet, at this point while they may have a common goal of relic hunting there is really no compelling reason on how they know each other or why they are willing to work with each other but put their lives on the line for the others. At this point, there are looming potential trouble-spots based on some of these character concepts. Some are driven by purely monetary concerns and at least one character is running from their past which may cause the party to have to deal it if it catches up with them.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect system for making this work. The crux of this is simply that if the players are open about the concepts and personality of their characters (while still possibly keeping some surprises down the line for interesting story developments), the players collectively can steer their sense of their own characters toward why would the put up with the characters when the times get tough or if their quirks drive them up a wall? This is harder to do if the characters really are meeting and getting to know each other for the first time at during the first session of the campaign. However, even in this case, I would suggest the players hold an out of game discussion before starting to make sure that the party won’t disintegrate as soon as their characters in-game get to know each other.
So how do you go about working with the other players to create a group that not only is balanced to deal with challenges the campaign will likely throw at them but creating a party that really does have each others backs through thick and thin?
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