Your players have just spent hours crafting their perfect characters for your next long-form campaign. They’ve pored over the rules and splatbooks looking for just the right mix of classes and powers to get them what they want, they’ve picked all of the feats and skills for the next 12 levels, and they’ve written down pages and pages of backstory for their avatar in your game.
It comes time for the first session and you sit down at the table. “Ok, everyone describe their characters to each other.”Â That was the situation for me a while back and I remember having this incredibly anti-climactic feeling as the players described in a short paragraph or two these incredible characters they had spent so much time on. Surely there has to be a better way?
Start With An Introductory Scene
Every character should get the chance to shine, and that chance should happen in front of the other players so that they get the full effect of who and what the character is. So how can you do that? With something that I’m calling an introductory scene. TV Tropes would call this an Avengers Assemble and that concept mostly fits. What I see an introductory scene as can be boiled down to the following:
- During your first group session, each player gets one scene that focuses solely on them, where they get to reveal their character and their abilities. This scene gets played out individually between the player and the Game Master, but the other players watch it go on so that they can get a sense of the character.
- The outcome of the scene should always be in the character’s favor (unless they specify elsewise) and the general plot of the scene should be determined by the player. A good and quick way to do this is to ask each player to give you a bullet point list of 4 or 5 things that they want to happen in their scene. Something like this example scene for Jose the escape artist/thief/paramour:
1. The scene should start on a train with Jose sitting in a seat with his best suit on.
2. He should get a chance to pickpocket a secret document from someone in some amazing way, but then get discovered by one of the train guards or a conductor.
3. There should be an incredible chase where he gets on top of the train and is cornered by someone.
4.Â He should escape in a way that makes the person think he jumped off, but in reality he drops into someone else’s private car without them noticing.
5.Â It should end with him using his face change skill to change the way he looks and finding somebody beautiful in the private car, allowing him to seduce them as the scene fades.
- These scenes should be watered down mechanically. The goal is to give each player 15 to 20 minutes to act out the most awesome version of their character while the others watch. If you are working off of a plot synopsis that is determined between you and the player, assign 1 or 2 instances of the game’s mechanic to each point, but weight it in the player’s favor. The player should have little chance of failing unless they botch big-time.
- These scenes could be a tie-in to the larger story, but they could just be introductions.
- Time the scenes out so they don’t take up the whole session. Lather, Rinse, Repeat with each player at the table and then you can begin the “merge the group together” scene if the characters don’t already know each other, or just move right into the first scene of the story if the characters are already acquainted.
What An Introductory Scene Will Get You
Starting your game this way has a lot of benefits for both players and Game Masters. You don’t have to start off with anything anti-climactic. Each player gets a turn in the spotlight with guaranteed successes. Each character gets shown off at their best. Everyone gets more and more excited as their turns come up. Everyone has a feel for the other characters, not just an idea of who they are supposed to be but an example of who they are in action. The first session avoids feeling like they all met in a tavern, even if the first group scene has them meeting in a tavern.
If you think back to the beginning of any James Bond movie ever, the goal of the first scene is to introduce this character. Not all of their details, but the quintessential, core points of who they are and what you can expect with the rest of the movie. Doing that for your game will give the players a sense of what they are in for and give them each a little taste of how awesome your game is going to be. So, what do you think? Have you ever started a game this way? How did it work? What would you write up for an introductory scene for any character you’ve played?
You picked the right screencap. I cut my teeth running the “James Bond: 007” RPG in the ’80s, and one of things trying to emulate movie action taught me was the use of the teaser for character introduction (or reintroduction after a few episodes.) it’s a good technique for tying the characters to the main plot, as well — introduce a failure or a discovery that seems solitary, then ties into the latter sessions.
James Bond and other similar movies were definitely one of my inspirations for this technique.
I’ve done this both as a player and as a GM, and find it a great way to start. I wouldn’t use something like the example above, though – that wouldn’t be much different than if the player had just written a short story about how awesome their character was.
I prefer the “OK, what are you doing just before the group meets” type of thing. Each player gets to set a scene appropriate to their character, and then the GM runs it like a normal portion of a game. Works great, gives the GM a way to nudge the characters together in a less-contrived way, and establishes some player-made plot hooks at the same time.
If I were running the game above, the player would say something like “I’m in a train, trying to steal some documents” and run from there. With luck, one of the players might even be running a female character who is waiting for an informant to arrive… and after hearing the first player’s initial setup decides that she is just by coincidence waiting in the same train…
I’ve done it that way a lot, but the one thing that I liked about the approach where the player gets to lay out the framework of the scene is that it is a near guaranteed success. The intro scene is for the player to play their character to the fullest. Their dice may betray them during the actual game and they may fall flat on their face, but in the intro scene they get to be as awesome as they wanted to be. Plus, with the mechanics lite setup, you make sure to get through the scenes in a brief amount of time. This might not work for every play style, though.
The last time I faced this as a player the dice were definitely against me, and it was fantastic. I was playing a space fighter pilot who was as much of a conman/smuggler as he was a pilot. The first “real” session was a combat mission, but as my character’s intro the GM just said “you are running late getting ready for the briefing (definitely in-character for the way I had described my PC to him) – why?” and then we ran from there. Eventually my character was involved in a many-layered scheme involving intentionally failing to seduce my superior officer as a distraction from stealing some expensive alcohol to replace the ones I got drunk on the night before instead of delivering it to the officer who had already paid me for it, and had to do it all in an hour or so of in-game time. It was brilliant, and showcased my character’s personality and abilities far better than I could ever have done intentionally.
Likewise, as a GM, the character intros where everything went right were the most boring. The ones where the government agent PC’s intro starts out by me saying “who’s your most wanted criminal?” and then the character is face-to-face with him, and the bad guy ends up getting away because of a few bad die rolls, are the most memorable – and have the side effect of generating a fun NPC antagonist that the player has a real attachment to.
This is brilliant. I’ve never been able to unify players at the outset of a campaign, but this gives me a great deal of material to work with.
Thanks! If you try it or modify it for you game, I’d love to hear the results.
While it isn’t played out mechanically, the FATE games have a form of this during character creation. Each character has a spotlight pre-game story which gives you info on the character. The other players contribute additional parts of the story as to how their characters met or became associated with that character.
Yes; even the bad part of my 80s Fate game successfully created characters that everyone was eager to see in action.
I do like the approach in the article; it reminds me favorably of a prelude (from Vampire and other White Wolf games), but with a shorter, tighter focus.
Yeah, I was going to say that a lot of systems these days, this is actually IN THE RULES, though the system I was going to cite was Tenra Bansho Zero (Aside: You guys should check out this game, it is AWESOME.) where each character gets what is called a “Zero Act” which is basically a dice free narration fest between the player and the GM, designed to:
A) Give the player a chance to show off who their character is
B) Get the player some starting Aiki (Sorta like FATE Points)
C) Give the GM a chance to set up some drama for the character.
A lot of the time these scenes are flashbacks, or dreams, or something, and tie back to something. They’re often not about showing off the character’s -abilities- so much as they are about showing some of the drama or conflict that makes the character who they are. (A not uncommon sort of zero act would be a character’s -defeat- at the hands of their arch nemesis, to show where they are coming from and WHY they hate him so much.)
Zero acts are shorter than the intro scenes described here though – 5-10 minutes. Honestly, I think that’s a smarter number than 15-20, which just seems way too long. If you’ve got even a 4 player game, that means that each player is going to be spending around an HOUR doing -nothing- but being a spectator. That’s a lot of time and honestly sounds like it would make an intro scene drag out. You probably don’t want to be rolling dice during an intro, so any combat is likely to be narrated, not played out, so you really shouldn’t NEED 15 minutes to get a “James bond movie” style intro. (Though when you mentioned “Avengers Assemble” I got this awesome idea of a superhero/superspy organization game where everyone’s intro scene is what awesome thing they are doing when their ‘pager’ goes off and alerts them to report to base.) Another thing TBZ does to help offset the “I’m bored of listening to what is cool about Bob & Jim’s characters.” factor is that Aiki is given out by other players – so you NEED to have an audience paying attention for each of these scenes so you can get rewarded for the cool stuff you do in them.
Again. Check out TBZ. It is super awesome.
This seems like it’d effective and fun. I enjoy letting players direct things in a more meta-fashion than I used too. Next cinematic/exaggerated style game I run will be starting like this! Well done, sir.
Great advice, I have the gang getting back to the table after a long break and will have 3-4 new characters to introduce. They players are not going to be introduced in game to each other until the end of their first adventure (baldurs gate). Splitting the party 3 ways until they finish with module.
I plan on starting with them on a train that is under attack, and let them describe what car they are on while I present them with character friendly sinarieos.
Elves in my game start in a special 1/1 I have always done off table. I shall do it at the table from now on.