a spaceship approaches a swirling wormhole vortex with a planet in the background

The ship is facing off against an entire House’s army. The gate to the unknown is behind them, but no one has ever come back. With her standard confidence, the pirate queen takes her lover’s hand, smiles at him, and says “We will come back. We will be the first.” A crack pilot, she flips the ship and snaps through the gate before the army can react.

And that was the last anyone knew of my mom and dad, before Uncle J brought me back.

Sometimes game night just doesn’t happen the way you expect. Sometimes out of five players only three show up — and there’s just no easy way to go on with the story as it stands. We’ve talked a lot on this site about some things you can do when schedules collide, but I’m going to propose one more option: the prequel. Our Scum and Villainy game was just not going to go off that night, so we jumped in to a big hole in our backstory — my character’s parents, how they met, and how, being different species, they had managed to procreate (and that’s how there was me).

Why a Prequel?

  • You can keep building on your story without creating pieces that will mess with the other players. We were all super ready to play the game that night — our session zero had left us amped. We wanted to engage with the setting and our characters, but we didn’t want to play things that our other players would miss when we jumped back in. We zeroed in on playing backstory for my particular character because we didn’t know much about her parents except that (we thought) they were dead. We didn’t know how they met, how they fell in love, how they had me, and how they died — but this information wasn’t likely to effect characters other than mine, so it didn’t matter so much that the other players were out.
  • You can establish character backstory. Since we didn’t know how my parents had managed to procreate, we discovered that my character in this game is a clone…a fact that she does not actually know. Her uncle does in theory, but since he doesn’t remember much lucidly, it’s unclear if he knows from moment to moment. When I sat back down to play with the whole group again, my character was immediately more fleshed out, and there is a whole host of hints at her true origin starting to work their way in to the game.
  • You get to keep world building. We discovered how the House that runs the information network in our game (use the out of the box setting? Hah — as usual we immediately mangled that) manages safe zones for underground exchanges. We learned that there are pirates in this universe, living on the edges of the law. Clones were created as soldiers, and age differently than humans, and they have a specific shelf life. And we learned what symbiotes do to their hosts over time, as they merge personalities into one being.
  • You can build more investment. I thought I was invested in this game after our cracking session zero. I am even more invested in this game because I want to play to find out how Snaps will learn she is a clone, what happened to her parents when they jumped through the gate that no one had ever returned from, and how her uncle got out with her. And…is Uncle J really on her side? He hated her mother, but he’s raised her ever since she can remember. And to make the stakes higher, the House that chased our ship gate all those years ago is the same one that’s looking for us now.

How To Make It Work

  • Play to leave more questions, not fewer. In my example, we answered a couple of questions: how did my parents meet? How did they procreate? But left many, many more that are pertinent to our current timeline: what is on the other side of the Gate to the unknown? Are my parents really dead? What did Uncle J see in there that made him into the rather senile druggy he is today? Does the House remember that this ship escaped them? Is that why they’re after us? Am I really my mother’s clone?
  • Don’t play with characters of people who aren’t there. None of our actual game characters were in this story, with the notable exception of Jonas (my Uncle J). Because the original character concept for Jonas was specifically a mentally unstable addict, we weren’t worried about his player missing details. He ended up playing a bigger role than we expected, but part of the reason I love this game group is that his player was super excited to get an extra secret email from the GM with all sorts of awesome plot information for him to play with. I consider myself very lucky! I would not recommend snagging anyone’s character for a prequel without their permission — agency is all we truly have in a game, and playing someone’s character without their permission and in their absence removes their agency. Handle with care.
  • Add details that build forward into your current game. We already had established some rocky relations between our ship and a specific character on it and the information-based House. We leaned in hard and gave them even more reasons to dislike us and have history with us that none of our characters would or could logically know. All this history plays extra nicely against Wen’s character, who’s lover works for them. Who knows when that will turn against us?

I love being able to use off nights to build more investment into the game that we’re playing, although of course it doesn’t always work out that way. When your regular game night is once every week or month, skipping one can make it easy to lose momentum. When you can pull it off, playing a prequel is a great way to keep the excitement going, build more story hooks, and really dig in on your world. In the time since I started this article, we ended up playing yet another prequel to find out why one of our other characters is traveling on this ship at all, and it was also fantastic! Playing prequels would not have previously been my default, but I am definitely a convert. 

Have you ever played a prequel game, either as a filler or just to go back and fill in details? How did it work for you? Did I miss any tips?