- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

Stepping Onto the Stage

stagespotlight [1]First impressions count. Some research has shown that within milliseconds of observing something or someone, the subconscious has already formed an opinion on whether or not you like what you’re seeing. A bad first impression isn’t the end of the world, but it does take time and effort to overcome – just ask anyone who’s fumbled a first day on a new job. While most players starting a new game are pretty open to what the GM presents, creating a chance for their characters to make a good first impression on everyone else at the table can go a long way to getting your players invested in the game.

It’s easy, as the GM, to get caught up in the minutia of getting a game off the ground and forget to plan a solid opening scene where all the players get to introduce their characters. There are background events to plan and prep for, NPCs to be created and given motivations, encounters to stat out, and last but not least, back-up plans for those times when the PCs completely sidestep all your careful preparation. All of that is incredibly important, but for the players, it’s all about their character and how they fit into the game world. Everything they come across will be seen through the lens of their character’s perceptions, including the other PCs.

As a player, it has always bothered me to have a proper introductory scene for the PCs completely overlooked. Each player may know who their character is, and the GM may have a good understanding of who everyone is, but the characters don’t know each other yet. Too many times to count, I’ve seen players develop an incorrect assumption about another character in the game. It’s very frustrating to have a scene awkwardly stall later on in the game as the player realizes they had the wrong idea about another character. This can be easily avoided by finding a way to introduce each character a little more clearly. Think of a movie or a play – each character gets a moment where they step onto the screen or stage where the audience gets a quick glimpse of who they are. It’s often just a quick scene or a line or two, but it goes a long way to establish that character. Who are the players if not the game’s audience?

There are so many different ways to open a game, but it’s really important to make sure the PCs get a moment to establish themselves. It can be incredibly fun to get a little creative with how you bring the PCs into the game, so have fun with it. For a campaign, you’ve got a bit more time to set the stage with the PCs, while for a one-shot, you need to get it done in a significantly more limited amount of time.

Here are two different methods I’ve used:

The Prologue

Each character, even if the player hasn’t articulated it yet, has a history. That character had a life before the game started, so try giving each player the spotlight with a prologue geared towards their character. This can be a little difficult to pull off in the limited time constraints of a one-shot, but for full campaigns, it can be a dynamic way to kick things off.

During one campaign I ran, the characters all started off as ‘normal’ people waking up in a mysterious lab where they’re forced to work together and escape while their awakening super powers slowly begin to manifest. Rather than start the game from the moment they wake up, I spent the first hour of the game giving each player a short vignette that allowed them to show off who their character was and to learn how they got kidnapped and ended up in the lab in the first place. It went a long way to establish the characters and how they dealt with everything that happened after that.

If you want to be slightly more ambitious, you can also plan to spend one game session per character on a prologue scene. This isn’t something I have attempted yet, but I have played in games that started this way. The GM gave each character (there were only three of us) a separate session as a prologue where the other players took on the role of NPCs in our backgrounds. A couple of the scenarios were surprisingly intense and gave a real weight to the characters.

The Staggered Entrance

Another method I’ve used to good effect is to set the scene and then bring each character in one at a time. Each player gets to describe their character and narrate a little of how they enter the scene. Whether the characters enter the game knowing one another or not, this is a good way to provide a little context for who the character is in a way that lets the other players know who they are.

One convention game I’ve run a few times has all the characters, experienced monster hunters, showing up to the reading of the will of a recently deceased acquaintance that happened to be a (mostly) respected, older hunter. Each time I’ve run it, I’ve described the scene and explained who the deceased was and why they are all there. Then I ask who arrives first. Invariably, someone steps forward and they get to describe their arrival and everyone gets to see their first interactions with the lawyer. Then I bring in the next player and let them do the same while also reminding them of who they may actually know. Wash, rinse, repeat. It has worked really well as a way to set-up the game and establish the personality and relationships of the characters.

No matter how you decide to begin a game, the important thing to remember is to give your players an opportunity to establish their character as they step onto the game’s stage for the very first time. Their characters are their avenue into the game, so treat them as the protagonists they are.

Do you have any other methods you’ve used to get a game rolling that gives the players a chance to shine? 

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Stepping Onto the Stage"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 25, 2014 @ 7:43 am

I think you are right. A staggered opening is a good way to go. Even in a one off and you open with combat … The player can use that opening turn in the initiative to share something important about their character before taking their first action.

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On April 25, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

That’s a really good way to handle doing the in media res beginning of a game and still get the sense of each character. 🙂

#3 Comment By Lucas Curell On April 25, 2014 @ 7:44 am

On several occasions we have kicked off a new campaign via a short PBEM. While it can be a bit time intensive, our group has found this to be an excellent means to bring new characters together. In addition to allowing each character their own spotlight, if you setup the PBEM so that no one except the GM knows who is playing each character, you may find that some of the usual alliances between players come out differently.

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On April 25, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

I like that idea, especially for a group that doesn’t get together weekly. It’d be a nice way to establish the characters ‘off time’ before the actual game begins.

#5 Comment By beldar1215 On April 25, 2014 @ 9:58 am

I play Savage Worlds and there is a perfect mechanic for starting games. It is called an Interlude. Each player is dealt a card and based on the suit, they tell a story about their character. I start almost every con game this way.

#6 Comment By Angela Murray On April 25, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

How do you handle the slightly shy players who aren’t quite as able to jump in with something about their character right away? Drawing in the quieter, shyer players is always something I’m interested in. That mechanic is a nice way to combine both a prologue and a staggered entrance. 🙂

#7 Comment By Razjah On April 25, 2014 @ 11:16 am

FATE, and its associated games, has a great method of introducing characters- the creation phases. The players get to create a story for their character and tie multiple other PCS into the story.

I have never done the prologue, but I have used the staggered entrance to great effect in a Pathfinder game. We had one PC mentoring the other, they gathered the rest of the party as assistants and old friends to help with the quest.

#8 Comment By Angela Murray On April 25, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

The Apocalypse World style games often have something similar. I’m more familiar with Monster of the Week which has the PCs work out connections between each character. If not done right, it can get a little time consuming and clunky, but it goes a long way to establishing the relationships between the PCs. I’ll have to look into the Fate version.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On April 25, 2014 @ 11:38 am

I used to use prologues, mostly when I was running White Wolf games more frequently (since their rules suggested it), and it can be great. I wandered away from prologues to get to the action faster, but you really do miss out on establishing characterization from the start.

The staggered entrance works well, until you get to the one character who doesn’t show up… loners are tricky.

#10 Comment By Angela Murray On April 25, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

The ambitious prologues I mentioned above were specifically for a Vampire/World of Darkness game. They were really well done and very intense, but also very time consuming. It’s tough to find the balance between doing worthy entrances and getting into the action.

Loners always are tough. They drive me nuts, especially when the player is a method actor who doesn’t really help drive the story forward and is only focused on playing their PC.

#11 Comment By Blackjack On April 25, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

My group generally does two things to introduce new characters. First, we write background stories about ourselves. Though that’s not feasible for one-shots like con events it’s reasonable for multi-session games.

Second, we employ the “Describe your arrival” technique mentioned above. That works great even for short games and it works well across a wide variety of introductory scenes. We’ve even used it a number of times to improve the classic everyone-meets-in-a-tavern trope. “Describe your entrance at Tavern X, what you look like, and how people tend to react to you,” has provoked some fun little vignettes.

#12 Comment By Angela Murray On April 25, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

I’ve played in games before where the GM has offered bonus XP to anyone who’s given a written background. I personally love the idea (being someone who enjoys writing), but I know it wouldn’t work well with my current group. Everyone’s too busy with work and family, so it’s hard enough eking out the time to get together a couple times a month to game.

Sometimes I really miss the days of high school/college where all you had to worry about was homework and gaming. 😉

#13 Comment By John Fredericks On April 25, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

Ooh, I like the lawyer reading the will scenario. For a fantasy game, it would be a great way to give folks some magic items.

Though they sometimes come with their own problems.

I’m going to check out your blog link as well.

#14 Comment By Angela Murray On April 29, 2014 @ 3:09 am

The lawyer and will scenario worked really well to kick off the game. I was very pleased with how it turned out each time I ran it, which I think was about four times at different conventions. It would be interesting to try it in different genres. 🙂