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?