Whenever I start a new campaign, I try to run 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 a 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 early element adjustments (rewrites)?