Let’s say you have a story you want to tell using the medium of a tabletop roleplaying game (TRPG). Good, good. The world needs more GMs. (And also note that some of this post is also relevant if you want to tell stories with other kinds of games as well.)
Where do you start?
No, I don’t mean where do you start your preparations for the game. I mean where in your storyline do you bring in the player characters (aka the PCs; aka the protagonists)? I’ve already done one post about general advice for starting a story, but games have their own needs sometimes in conflict with general storytelling advice. So here are some considerations I ponder before starting up a game.
Length of Story
How long of a story you want to tell, or perhaps more pertinently how many sessions you want to spend telling it, is probably the single greatest consideration. If you plan to run a multi-year epic story that tracks the rise of the PCs from mere peasants to near demigods, you need to tie them in a lot earlier in the storyline than if you plan on just running one or two sessions.
Even for a one-shot game (one where you play a single session with no continuity with other sessions), where you can start much close to the end of the story, you probably need to do more than just start with rolling initiative for the climactic battle. I mean, you probably could do that, but you’re going to struggle with making that into a story that engages your players. I suppose that is the gaming equivalent of flash fiction (stories of about a thousand words or less).
How to Introduce the PCs
Tying in with the above point, how and when in their careers you bring in the characters matters as much as where in the storyline. What I mean is, do you bring in the characters at the start of their careers (at 1st level, if you’re playing a level-based game) or sometime after they have gained some experience?
In medias res: Yes, you can start a game in medias res. Be prepared to answer (or better, work with your players to answer) a lot of questions early, though.
It can be a lot trickier because you have to then work with your players to establish how they got into that situation. And I’ve seen some people complain about these kinds of starts as “railroading,” which I disagree with on the principle that railroading (that is, the GM exerting so much control over the game’s plot that the players can do nothing to change it) doesn’t exist–only poorly set expectations.
The classic way to start an adventure, “You’re standing outside the entrance to the dungeon,” is definitely a case of in medias res. Why the characters are at the entrance to the dungeon and how they got there are glossed over completely, if addressed at all; all that matters is they are there and they have a dungeon plunder. While that certainly worked just fine in the 70s and early 80s, and the method definitely still has its place and adherents, it seems these days that people expect more from their RPGs.
Starting a game in medias res might be with, “Roll for initiative,” but that doesn’t seem as common (although it was recommended as the beginning of choice in the gamemastering section of the old West End Star Wars RPG). Anyway, starting a game with combat can really get your players’ attention. (And although beginnings aren’t as important in games as in fiction having a memorable start doesn’t hurt.) The real trouble with starting with combat, though, is making the beginning so awesome you can’t maintain the same level of excitement throughout the rest of the game.
You look trustworthy!: Then there is the equally tried-and-true method of telling the party’s (that is, the group of player characters) coming together. This doesn’t have to be terribly creative or extensively roleplayed, but it’s a great way to start a long-term game. This is the equivalent of starting the story the day the main character’s life is thrown into upheaval. Except, since it’s an RPG, you’re talking about the day that several peoples’ lives changed and brought them together. This can be an in medias res opening, with all the PCs coming together to defend their home town from an invasion, or it can a much more laid-back start, where they are drawn together by some other, milder, method (posted announcement, town crier, contest, mutually witnessed event, or whatever). This method works perfectly well for characters just starting their careers (i.e., 1st-level), but it can also work for more experienced PCs who just happen to finally meet.
My Olde Friends: The other side of that coin, of course, is the “You’ve all known each other for several years” method. The main problem with this approach, though, is that the way people who have known each other act comfortably together takes time to develop both in real time and in the imaginary space of RPG characters. What I mean is, characters who have known each other for years are going to act a certain way around each other. It’s hard to capture that kind intimacy and trust with characters you just created ten minutes earlier. That said, this method opens up a lot of storytelling opportunities for both you as the gamemaster and for your players. It’s particularly good for characters who aren’t just starting out, but childhood friends who decide to band together to become adventurers also works.s
This post is quite long enough, I think, but there’s more to be said about starting out. I haven’t even gotten to the mysterious man in the darkened corner of the tavern!
I’ll have to revisit starting your game again in the near future. And then I can move on to the most important part of your campaign: the end. Oh, and I guess I really should talk about why I think the idea of railroading is bunk. Lots to say, and with the excitement I have for D&D Next I’ll probably start talking about storytelling in games more often moving forward. :)