My regular gaming group of five includes four GMs, which is fantastic for all sorts of reasons — but one of the best things about it is that as a GM, I’m constantly exposed to new ideas, new approaches, and new tricks and techniques that I never would’ve come up with on my own.
The background-independent pilot session is one of those techniques.
There are lots of ways to kick off a new campaign, but other GMs in my group have used this one to great effect in that past couple of years. Notably, one of our GMs, Don, has started up his past two campaigns using this approach — including our current D&D 4e game.
From my perspective (as a player in both of the games in question), the background-independent pilot session comes together like this:
- Settle on the basics: Pick your game system, campaign setting, and other nuts and bolts using whatever method your group prefers. (Here are the four principal ways to choose your next game.)
- Character creation: Create characters however you like, whether that means holding a group character creation session (my personal favorite approach; I wrote a free PDF on how to run group chargen) or just sending out guidelines via email and letting everyone do their own thing. The only key for our purposes in this article is that your players need to create backgrounds for their PCs.
- Concurrently, create the first adventure: At the same time as chargen is getting sorted out, write, choose, or modify your pilot adventure — without worrying about the player characters’ backgrounds.
- Run the first session: It doesn’t matter whether or not everyone’s backgrounds are finished yet, have changed six times before the game begins, or were set in stone from the get-go — your pilot session is completely independent of the PCs’ backgrounds.
This approach allows you to lovingly craft your pilot adventure — laying the groundwork for your entire upcoming campaign — without fretting over incomplete PC backgrounds, rewriting sections over and over as your players change their minds, or dealing with similar concerns. Whatever happens, you know what you’ll be running when the campaign begins.
To pull this off, you need three things:
- A general sense of what your players are going to play. If you’re writing a D&D 4e pilot adventure around a balanced party (one class from each role, minimum), but your players show up with five rogues, you have a problem. Not an insurmountable problem, but still a problem. It’s good to know the rough capabilities of the party before you start writing; it’s their backgrounds you don’t care about at thos point.
- A campaign framework that can accommodate potentially disparate, unconnected backgrounds. The two campaigns our GM, Don, has run this way recently were both centered around characters in formal organizations: Stargate Command in our Stargate SG-4 campaign, and the Seven Swords Adventuring Company in our current D&D game. Those frameworks allow characters from all walks of life to be rolled into the same party with little advance planning, and give them a reason to work together.
- A willingness to adapt your pilot session material on the fly. When the rubber hits the road, you’ll find stuff that doesn’t go as planned, or that won’t work exactly the way you wrote it. You need to be able to fiddle with those sorts of things on the fly to make this approach work.
Speaking as a player, this approach rocks. It gives me a chance to test drive my character, and allows me to change my background entirely after the first session if, for some reason, I can’t stand it once we actually start the game — without feeling like I’m fucking things up for everyone else.
And our GM brings to the table a polished session that showcases what the campaign is all about, with very little time spent on “getting to know you” stuff (which, while fun, isn’t always time well spent). It’s a solid approach, and I appreciate having had the chance to learn about it from my group’s other GMs.
Have you used this approach yourself, or taken part in a background-independent pilot adventure as a player? How did it go?
This approach doesn’t really work for me because of the way I tend to start campaigns. I use character backgrounds as a starting point for the first few sessions, weaving them into the stories I may have planned, which is a great way of getting player buy-in. I also tend to use backgrounds to figure out how the players meet. The only time I don’t use backgrounds in this manner is when we play one-shots.
I’m fond of the in medias res approach. Players hit the table with characters and as much prep as they’ve decided to use for their characters. I say “roll initiative” and we get the ball rolling with some excitement. At a certain point, I start asking the players how they ended up in this mess…
I find that a kickstart helps people’s minds settle on character concepts, too. A loose “uh, I’m a ranger… from some elf city” or “I’m a Nosferatu research scientist” quickly gets fleshed out as a player gets used to their character’s skills and special abilities in a big action sequence.
Once the dust has settled, we decide whether or not the session is canonical. If so, it can either be a preview, or it can be considered a “flash-forward” to a space between games yet-to-come.
Then I go to my normal routine of “OK, I need everybody to give me 3 plot hooks for their character” and I set to work dreaming up stories/adventures.
At first glance, I was going to fire back with a negative response about how I too love to create deeply integrated background stories and setup many of the initial threads that would become a major components of the campaign. But then the wisdom of this system hit me with two words: player buy-in.
The problem with creating long involved backgrounds is that you may force your players to take on characters that may or may not work based on a ‘fun aspect’. Even if you spend considerable time writing up the details with that single player, it might not work as well with the next player. By having a ‘jam’ session, the group quickly can act/react to other player choices. Assuming everyone gets to voice their ideas adequately, everyone should end up being the star in a team AND everyone else knows the roles of that team. Cool, very cool.
The second negative-turned-positive point was the idea of creating the initial adventure on the fly while the character generation is occurring. Man, talk about pressure. But the key here is that Marin’s group is suggesting we do a ‘trial’ session (maybe ‘pilot’ is too strong of a word). Just like the characters are going through a trial, so is the campaign world. Heck, you might get more open responses from the players, “Hey! this campaign world sucks, can you change X to be more Y?” Let’s face it, better to kill off a bad idea in one night than to let it linger a slow death. And, in the end, even though the adventure is being created on the fly, as GM, you probably already had some adjustable ideas you wanted to present anyway.
All in all, this smacks a bit of Primetime Adventures (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primetime_Adventures) — something I have wanted our group to try.
I like these ideas. I haven’t considered a “Pilot Session” before.
I have tended to ask for a short character BIO in the past (via e-mail), and then had the player’s decide if and how they knew each other. It requires “buy in” from the players though or it won’t work. I’m fortunate to mostly have players that will buy in and make some effort at the start. I know that it has provided for many game enhancing moments in our campaign.
And yes… Primetime Adventures is ripe with ideas that can carry over into more traditional game systems. I especially like the spotlight and episode structure of that game.
I think I’ve been unintentionally doing something like this all along. My first session is almost always a very generic, somewhat railroady situation that can appeal to a character of almost any background. (Most recycled plot: You all happen to be traveling in the same direction, and get held up by bandits, who also steal a sentimental/valuable item being shipped to the mayor of the next town on the route. Mayor offers to replace your gear, and reward you for the return of said item.)
I have found through repeated backfires that the first sessions will be learning experiences for everyone, and it’s usually best to keep things simple.
deadlytoque: Your idea totally rocks. I’m starting a cyberpunk campaign tomorrow and was just wondering how to throw the characters together. I think I’ll steal that idea and make the players do the work 🙂 The campaign is going to be improvisation-heavy anyway with the players having a lot of say concerning their surroundings so that approach would propably suit exceptionally well.
@Havukin – It’s worked really well for me in the past! Depending on the players, I’ve found most RPers LOVE to give you input into what they want to see in the game, but a lot of people are too shy/polite to just come out and -say- it. So if you just set the stage and let it happen, things clarify quickly.
I have enjoyed this type of start, but it’s also been problematic at times. Deferring backgrounds can lead to their neglect altogether– or to their late emergence.
I suspect it could work very well if you were upfront about wanting everyone to get a chance to play first, but still expect background ties and depth before the game goes on. It could be tricky to phrase, but setting expectations seems like the only part you’d really need to get right.
@deadlytoque – Ooooh, your “dust settled” idea is SOLID! I dig it.
@LesInk – With regard to your second point, I actually should have been clearer. In my group, there’s generally a substantial lag between character creation and the first session — so creating session one concurrently with character creation isn’t real-time at all.
Doing it in real time, though…that WOULD be interesting. There are indie systems out there that I think would be a lot better for that sort of approach than most mainstream games.
Is anyone else having trouble getting the link to the group chargen pdf to work?