Whenever I start a new campaign, I try to runÂ a “pilot adventure.” In television, a potential television series shoots a pilot to convince broadcasters to carry it. Pilot episodes are usually a little rough around the edges and certain elements are smoothed out, removed, or changed prior to the series proper.
A good pilot adventure can set the tone for the campaign and give the players a good idea of what to expect. A pilot adventure is also a good tool to use to vet recurring plot elements (NPCs, subplots, metaplots) to see how well they fit. Pilot adventures also help sell the campaign to the players (Martin touched on this with pitches back on the TT website).
When running a pilot adventure, I’ve found the following things useful to keep in mind.
Get everyone to buy into the “pilot” mindset.
This is probably self-evident, but there will always be one player that will get his undies in a bunch if you change established elements from the pilot. You also don’t want to be held to plot elements or NPC interactions that didn’t work out. If everyone understands that this is a pilot, then you can drop or change elements with a simple “that was retooled from the pilot” response.
That said, players should be able to assume that events in the pilot really happened unless you tell them otherwise. For all intents and purposes, the pilot is the start of your campaign, and part of the reason for the pilot is to establish elements for the campaign.
The pilot adventure should convey the themes and goals of the campaign.
A good pilot should give the players a feel for the overall tone of the campaign and the types of things they are expected to accomplish. Even if you don’t plan on introducing the Big Bad until halfway through the campaign, her presence should be felt in the pilot. If your campaign is supposed to be gritty and dark, don’t make the pilot a light-hearted romp. If a particular NPC is supposed to be a recurring nuisance, make sure he is here (or, better yet, establish why he becomes a nuisance). If your campaign is episodic (no overarching plot threads), then make your pilot a model for the types of adventures you plan to run.
Also, make sure that the pilot showcases all of the PCs’ strengths and gives a good spread of the types of challenges you want them to face on a regular basis. If you told your players that this would be a campaign of courtly intrigue, don’t throw them into a dungeon crawl. If you said spy skills would be necessary, give them a chance to show off all of those burglary/stealth/bluff skills.
Pilot adventures should be short.
Since the goal of the pilot is to set expectations, you want to give players those expectations as quickly as possible. Also, the longer a pilot drags out, the more difficult it is to edit out plot elements that aren’t gelling. It’s easy to remove something that the players only encountered once; it’s more difficult when they’ve been encountering it for six sessions now.
Many factors influence what “short” means, but aÂ good rule of thumb is to design your pilot to last one or two sessions.
Pilot adventures should be self-contained.
Even if you’re designing a complex web of intrigue, the pilot should include some short-term goal that the players can attain and feel a sense of accomplishment. This does a number of things:
- It reinforces the “pilot” concept.
- It keeps the players from feeling overwhelmed by unresolved plot threads.
- It makes them feel competent.
- It provides a natural breaking point to make the necessary game adjustments.
- It enables PCs and NPCs that aren’t gelling to be retooled, removed, or replaced.
It’s usually a bad idea to make the PCs fail or get a good smackdown from the baddies. While you may want to give the players some sense of loss (especially in a campaign with dark themes), there should still be something that they can successfully accomplish. In other words, they may not be able to defeat Cthulhu, but they can prevent him from manifesting today.
Inform the players that their characters aren’t set in stone.
Character creation can be daunting at the start of a new campaign, especially if you are using an unfamiliar rule system. Players don’t want to feel locked in to bad choices, and they often aren’t certain what are good choices. Even if you give them a hand (and you should), there are often things that a player would have designed differently if she’d known about Rule X or how Rule Y shakes out in combat.
Similarly, players may give their characters certain personalities that just don’t gel. If their character concept is sound, you may wish to encourage them to reshape the personality for the remainder of the campaign rather than scrap a good character sheet.
How about you? Have you used the pilot concept in your campaigns? How do your players handle earlyÂ element adjustments (rewrites)?
My group as always allowed a total rewrite of your character after the first session, and a slightly less complete rewrite after the second (and sometimes third)….
Someone thinks a Paladin is for them, but after getting the gist of where the story is going to go decides a Fighter would be a better fit. Rewrite.
Three sessions in, and the Cyberarm with built-in submachinegun just isn’t as spiffy as you hoped? Not getting enough mileage out of Power Attack? Ask the DM, and get a small rewrite.
The “retrain” rules in 4E and late 3.x were a nice touch, but I on’t see myself ever doing away with this custom. It works for every televison show out there, and it works for my game.
Our group also allowed extensive PC rewrites for the first three sessions of our previous campaigns. (Though usually the changes were more to stats than personalities and interactions– that’s a smart twist.)
In my current D&D campaign, we’re much further in and still accepting character rewrites (and a player substitution). That’s an intentional change, since it’s an homage to 3.5’s complexity and choice… with all those options, people will misstep or find a better option later. The rewrites have weakened characterization a bit, but it still feels like the sendoff I was hoping to craft.
More generally, I’m a big fan of letting players start a new system/game with a one shot. Other than my current PTA game, we’re more likely to strip a few elements from the one-shot for reuse… but it’s not as cannon as a pilot episode supposes. If I had a great one-shot and the players really wanted to continue the campaign with the same characters, I’d probably follow your advice and treat the one-shot as a pilot and roll with it. [I’d also be very pleased that it went so well…]
This is -exactly- how I approach the start of a new campaign. I wrote up a bunch of pitches and sent them out to the group; once we picked one, I “shot” a pilot and presented it to them with the understanding that we weren’t committed to anything in it.
I’d also like to add that, for me at least, the pilot should convey the unique flavor of your system and/or setting – it helps it to stand out from any other pilots you might run.
I prefer to jump right into the action with a pilot. A dump truck full of backstory is a campaign killer, and I find it easier to learn the rules as they come up (as a player, anyway).
I know we’re all going to make our share of regrettable decisions with the new edition of D&D, so retooling won’t be limited to “pilot season” in any 4E campaign I run. I’m thinking I might break the three tiers into “seasons,” to facilitate introducing new things and revamps between them.
And if your group doesn’t like your pilot, don’t be afraid to scrap it. In some cases, you might get to try again later, with a fresh perspective (or a new group of players) – heck, it worked for Star Trek.
We did a tiny aspect of this in AD&D in the old days. It was an unwritten house rule that a character’s alignment (and thus most of the character concept) was fluid until no later than the 4th session of a campaign. Stats & class & numbers couldn’t change, the story could.
I’ve found that starting a campaign with a one-shot works really well, especially if the players are unfamiliar with the system. They get a better idea of what sort of character they want to play, and what they can do with the system.
The only time I’ve done this so far, the one-shot was totally unrelated to the plot of the main campaign, and mostly introduced the system. In terms of achieving that, it went great, and the players still talk about all the shenannigans that ensued. I plan to run 4e for my next campaign, which my players will be more familiar with, so I’ll probably start with a related one-shot.
It won’t necessarily be a prelude to the campaign, though – I might set something in the far past, which later becomes part of the mythology of the setting. I’d say more, but I already have.
I do like the idea of being able to retool the plot/setting a little bit after the first few sessions. After all, if you let the players iron out bugs with their characters (as apparently most of us here do), why shouldn’t you get the same chance?
This is very timely for me. I’m just starting up a D&D 4e campaign with my old group. It will be their first taste of 4th edition and my general approach to a first session is: create characters collectively so players can ask questions and become excited about their own PCs as well as others as they talk about them; then play a short game to give them a demo of their characters and the feel of the campaign.
Understanding players, especially those who have worn the DM hat before, will understand the need for campaign/story/DM adjustments. That said, it still needs to be treated like the first session of many and not a one-off. When a PC gets traded out for another, the players ought to suspend disbelief, or the DM can, at the very beginning of the next session, kill off or give reason for the old PC to abandon ship.
My policy is to have a nice set up for the world (sent in advance and then reinforced in person) and include one combat encounter and one social encounter. Set the scene, include a few overtones if possible and bring ’em back for more.
We never have done a pilot adventure, but we tend to have much more invested in the game before it starts than this. (Though I am a firm believer in tweaks after the first few sessions).
We think of things in terms of a movie. The process is something that looks like this:
1) Start with the tease: You need to know if the players will like what you want to play. I solve this by creating a number of campaign trailers. For every campaign I want to run, I create a “title” and some “copy”. The title is akin to a book or movie title. The copy is like a book blurb or advertising text for a movie, describing a bit about the campaign background and story it will (try to) tell. As a campaign is starting to wind down (before it ends or it will go on hiatus), I start presenting my troupe with these “trailers”. I can then judge their interest in various types of campaigns and build interest in the possible games. After a while, I tailor the trailers to match their responses (planning appropriate changes in the campaign). By the time the campaign stops, the players are excited about the new campaign, just as if they were excited about a new movie.
2) Poll your players I: While I am presenting various campaign trailers to my troupe, I start to work on the actual campaign we will run. I ask each player for one to five “bits” they want to see in the campaign. Each bit is a campaign element, character types, major NPCs (or type of NPC), types of story lines they want to see, the kind of settings, type of adventures they want to see, types of opposition, important elements (magic, tech, skills), genre and subgenre. From these elements, I can usually tell which campaign trailer they are most interested in. Sometimes, I will create new movie trailers based on their answers.
3) With a ruler and some tape: Armed with the various campaign bits the troupe wants to see, I start a vague outline for the campaign setting. I will work out outlines for each campaign trailer the troupe is genuinely interested in, modified for their responses.
4) Buy the Tickets. They have seen the updated trailers, the troupe begins to decide which campaign they want to play. In theory they should choose just one. It has been my experience they will waffle between two until the very last moment. Once the campaign has been choosen (or for each campaign they might want), I ask them for the 1-5 campaign bits based on that setting.
5) With a ruler and some tape II: I begin to build the game environment in earnest. For this I use a top down, bottom up method. That is, start with some conceptional ideas, and brainstorm every important part- noting the best parts. After deciding on the pieces to keep, I build the world up from the details selected.
I will also begin to work on the main storylines for the campaign.
6 ) World Pack: After creating the world, I create the basic world pack for the campaign setting. This will include the overview of the world, some details, and any special rules that we will be using for this game.
7 ) Casting: We have Casting Parties. In these group sessions, we work out all our characters together. Players help players with game mechanics and conceptions. The characters are woven together in terms of their mutual histories, so the group has a real reason to be together. As the GM I provide direction and information to the group. This casting party allows the players to create what will become a team with mutually supporting roles in the group, weave their backgrounds and story lines together, and get a good feel for the group.
8 ) Poll the characters II: In addition to any notes I make during the casting party, I ask each player for 1-5 things they want to see in the game, with an emphasis on their characters. This time they will give me actual roles they want to see in the game (love interest, evil wizard to be their enemy, etc), storylines they want, types of scenarios they are now intersted in, opponents or types of opponents, and so on.
9 ) Polish the work. The final elements of the world are created to support the characters and their conceptions. Plot lines are mapped out. Villains are created. All the final polishing of the game is done.
10 ) Start the game.
Originally posted: http://www.strolen.com/content.php?node=1461