Starting with a Big Bang

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.

BigBang_060613-617x416One 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.

JesterThe 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…

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The Ties That Bind

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

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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A Sporting Affair

Few would deny how influential sports is in modern society. Wars are fought all the time, but the world pays attention when FIFA hosts the World Cup, where the Olympics are played, and who wins. The amount of money that FIFA, NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL each bring in is staggering. This influx of money suggests there are all sorts of things that happen both visibly and not so visibly around the sports. Just naming a few are: gambling, fights over who pays for stadiums, match-fixing, cheating to win games or pad stats, etc.

JoustingHere at the Front, this seems like largely untapped potential for RPG campaigns. Ancient Greece started the tradition of the Olympics. The Roman Empire had gladiatorial games and charioteer races. (I believe I heard there is evidence that they even flooded the Coliseum to host mock Naval battles.) In the Middle Ages, you have tournaments that were held for jousting, archery competitions, and even grand melees.

It has also invaded fictional works to one degree or another. Just to name a few … in the Harry Potter series, there is Quidditch. In Episode 1 of the Star Wars prequel movies there is Pod Racing. Games Workshop put out the Blood Bowl game in 1987. A year later, Bitmap Brothers put out a PC game called Speedball. There are a number of books and movies that have expounded on what computer games could turn into – the most visionary of these was Tron which predicted the rise of multiplayer computer games in a virtual setting. More recently, a really good novel came out about an Easter Egg hunt (with a massive reward) through a MMORPG called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. (Well worth the read if you remember the games being played in the 1980s.)

And yet, in an RPG setting this has only been lightly touched upon. Usually gladiatorial games get the nod in various settings. Shadowrun, if I recall correctly, invented two sports for their setting and covered at least a bit in how cybertech and biotech impacted legacy modern sports. They even put out a module (A Killing Glare) involving one of their invented sports. Meanwhile, in the Dragon Age Set 2 box, there is a short adventure covering intrigue around a tournament. (I believe Green Ronin also used a tournament as a module for the RPG based off the Game of Thrones setting.)

All in all, this still seems like a largely untapped potential of stories … just to throw out a few possible seeds:

  • The PCs are hired to fix the outcome of a match (or prevent someone from fixing a match)
  • The PCs are hired to protect someone who is being coerced into agreeing to fund a stadium or look the other way for a sports’ benefit.
  • The PCs are hired to investigate why someone was killed. Did they stumble upon some dark secret that someone wants covered up?
  • The PCs witness the aftermath of an “accidental” death. Afterwards, there seems to be surprisingly no investigation as to what happened. Do the PCs investigate?
  • The PCs are hired to help stock critters for the gladiatorial games.
  • The PCs get involved in an underground Fight Club.

In my own campaigns, I have only lightly (at best) tapped into the sporting world for the setting. Usually this is because I already have enough things going on in the setting. However, this seems to be ignoring a chance to make the world feel even more in motion within the campaign. Do sports come into play in your campaigns and how? If they don’t, why do you think that it doesn’t come into play given how popular sports are?

Until the next time, bet on the long-shot horse to make a comeback and win the race!

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It’s Halloween. If you’ve lived in the United States around kids for any amount of time during October, you mean this means three things… costumes, candy, and trick-or-treating. I spent many years enjoying this phenomenon and I’m happy to say that I enjoy seeing my kids enjoy this pattern now too. I’m not a fan . . . → Read More: Trick-or-Treat!

The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

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Tired of the status quo? As a GM, you have many powerful tools at your disposal to shake up the campaign. Here at the Front, I suggest that one of the most powerful of these is the death of a NPC.

NPCs are the supporting characters, both tiny and mighty, who shape the world and . . . → Read More: The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

It’s a Good Day to Die

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One of the trickier things to handle in a campaign is a player’s character death. Over many years of roleplaying, I’ve had my share of character deaths. Not being a computer game, there is no reload/respawn point for the character. If the system has it set up, you can get the character resurrected from the . . . → Read More: It’s a Good Day to Die

Gamer… Engage!

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A GM wears many hats in most typical campaigns. Among their varied responsibilities are setting the scenes, creating the adversaries, keeping the world in motion, and adjudicating challenges the protagonists face. However, the players, in the Forged Front’s opinion, are the most important part of the whole equation… they are the main stars. Without the . . . → Read More: Gamer… Engage!

The Value of Belief

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Belief is an interesting thing. In the name of religion, countless conflicts have occurred across the ages. The Forged Front asserts that you don’t even need to look that deeply to name conflicts or cultures that were shaped to a large extent by religion. For instance, take a look at the Vikings or better yet, . . . → Read More: The Value of Belief

The Art of Downtime

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Ever hit that point where you just need to take a break from it all? Here at the Forged Front, that happens from time to time. However, in a campaign though, it is a matter of taste and what you want to accomplish.

Various systems have tried to capture the essence of what could happen . . . → Read More: The Art of Downtime

The 50000 Foot View, Part 2

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Last week in part 1 we talked about a few of the broad brush strokes of the campaign. Let’s keep going on that front…

The Far East — the Jade Empire and its Rainbow Court. This was the least fleshed out by me for my original campaigns, but it was envisioned to bring classic Chinese, . . . → Read More: The 50000 Foot View, Part 2

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