I have a friend, with whom I have gamed for many, many years, who has never read The Lord Of The Rings; he found the slow pace of The Fellowship Of The Ring so completely off-putting that he was never able to gather enough interest to finish the trilogy. I never had that problem – but I first read LOTR from my local library, and someone had borrowed the first volume and not returned it, so I started reading as Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas began chasing the Orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin. So I have to wonder – would I have found Tolkien’s epic fantasy as compelling if I had started at the beginning?
That’s not the only example that I can point to. I first came across the Belgariad – one of my favorite fantasy series – in a second-hand store, where parts 2 and 3 were on offer cheaply – so much so that I was willing to take a chance on the books. I enjoyed them greatly, and quickly sought out the rest of the set, and the sequel quadrilogy, the Mallorean as well. Plus Belgarath and Polgara in Hardcover. It was the scenes set in Vo Mimbre that really established my enjoyment of the series. But the Question remains, would I have enjoyed the series as much if I had started with the relatively pedestrian first volume?
And then there’s the Elenium/Tamuli double-trilogy, by the same authors. I had multiple opportunities to buy but the cover and blurb for The Diamond Throne repeatedly put me off – it sounded like a romance, not an adventure story. It was only when I was given a copy of The Shining Ones – the middle volume of the sequel trilogy, the Tamuli – for Christmas one year, and enjoyed it immensely, that I was interested enough to pick up the other five books. Even then, I found apon reading the preceding volume that much of the humor that I had so enjoyed in The Shining Ones was being read into the content by me, and was not actually part of the story as written by David and Leigh Eddings. I still enjoy the series (I’m re-reading it currently) but still experience a pang of disappointment whenever I come to one of those passages.
The common thread is that by starting in the middle, I was able to jump right into the action and figure out who the characters were as I went along. The tedium of the setup and establishing of characters and situations was bypassed.
Heck, if it comes to that, Star Wars started with Episode IV, and there are many other examples…
The James Bond movies have a before-the-credits action sequence as a standard part of their format, and it works.
So, what’s the RPG equivalent, how can GMs take advantage of it, and what are the pitfalls?
The Instant-Action Tease
Well, the obvious equivalence is throwing the PCs into a combat situation immediately, or just about so, without explanations for where it fits into the overall campaign or what its significance is and dropping dire hints as to that significance into the description of events. As the combat proceeds, the GM keeps careful notes as to where everyone is, what they are doing, what their condition is, anything important that is said, and anything else he needs to be able to recreate the events at a later date. When the battle reaches a crescendo or point of high drama – which the GM engineers if necessary – he interrupts it and takes the plot back in time to the initial meeting of the characters, the establishing of the Campaign Premise(s), and so on.
When the plot makes the encounter appropriate, the GM simply reiterates the events that he has logged, up to the point where it was interrupted, then lets the game carry on from that point.
This gives the campaign a James-Bond style kick-start, gets everyone’s adrenalin pumping, and teases them with the hints as to the significance of what’s going on. With most difficult encounters, the question to be answered is “How do we get out of this one?”; such a kick-start adds the questions, “How did we get into this mess?” and “What’s it all mean?”
But there are a couple of pitfalls in this approach to be wary of. The most serious is that the GM is committed to having events lead to the combat that was interrupted – and that can be difficult without creating plot trains. The best way of avoiding this particular problem is to ensure that the context of the encounter is undefined, or capable of multiple interpretations; this permits many plot roads to intersect at the critical point.
This is best achieved by being just a little vague about various aspects of the circumstances of the battle during the ‘Tease’. “You’re in the bottom of a pit, facing off against a giant with granite-like skin. Numerous minor cuts on your face and hands are bandaged and bloody. Make your attack rolls. [Pause for rolls] Your attacks bounce harmlessly off his armored skin. Someone yells ‘protect the Ice Crown’. The Giant snarls and raises his club and you see runes carved into its length in an unknown script – runes that are glowing blue-white with power…”
Notice all the things that aren’t stated explicitly: where the pit in question is located, how deep it is, why the characters are injured and not healed (given that they have a cleric in the party), what the Ice Crown is, who and what the Giant is, what its powers are, whether its the characters or the Giant who are instructed to ‘protect the Ice Crown’, and what the participants are fighting about. Are the PCs the Good Guys, the Bad Guys, someone else’s Pawns, or Innocent Bystanders?
There’s no context to explain these things, so it becomes much easier to match whatever context emerges in play with the battle description. The unanswered questions form a checklist of things for the GM to introduce before the battle can be restarted, a spur to his creativity. It can actually be easier if the GM has no idea what any of these things mean at the time, any more than the players do – provided the GM is confident of being able to devise explanations when the time comes, and it certainly avoids the plot train pitfall.
The Prophetic Peril
This procedure enables a GM to emulate the James Bond -style action Teasers, but we’re really looking to go beyond that and actually make the action-based introduction directly relevant to the campaign, without the cheating of building separate, semi-random elements into the plotline merely to justify the presence of those elements in the opening sequence.
Let’s be honest, then: what we are really talking about here is starting the campaign with a slightly-different form of prophecy. In my December 2009 article, “The Perils Of Prophecy: Avoiding The Plot Locomotive”, I offer a number of techniques on how to implement prophecies within a campaign while avoiding plot trains, but those techniques and most of that advice don’t apply to this particular type of prophecy. All the perils of prophecy within the campaign remain, unfortunately.
To resolve this problem, we need a new technique. The one suggested in the previous section is part of the solution, but is too anarchic to be the complete answer; we need a method of building direction into the plotline without building in a railroad.
The Elements Of The Encounter
The place to start is at the content of the initial encounter. Instead of a random collection of elements, we need to incorporate items that are intentionally relevant to the plot – in other words, lay down some railroad tracks. I know what you’re thinking at this point, bear with me!
- Instead of a pit, we might need to choose a castle throne room because that’s where our bad guy is going to be based at the start of the campaign.
- We might be able to keep the giant – if the bad guy’s early acts will get him control of one or more of these giants – but, if not, we will need to replace it/him with a more appropriate and equally fearsome enemy.
- We might or might not be able to keep the club with runes on it – if that weapon is appropriate to the enemy we have chosen, or to the chief villain, or if magic and/or magical weaponry is going to be significant to the campaign.
- …and so on.
That’s the key to getting this step right: making sure that every element of this battle is, or at least appears to be, appropriate to the campaign’s direction.
Blind chance is replaced with intentional relevance.
Derailing The Plot Train
Having laid very careful railroad tracks to validate the components of the action sequence, it’s time to derail the plot train that wants to run on them before it even gets going. Instead of the train tracks defining where the plot has to go, they are to serve as a navigational landmark, nothing more; the ONLY point at which the train tracks and the plot are required to intersect is at the moment that the battle commences.
I’ll say that again, for emphasis: the ONLY point at which the train tracks and the plot are required to intersect is at the moment that the battle commences.
How does this work in practice? The GM lets the game develop as usual, and one by one introduces the plot elements that justify the shape of the aborted battle. The players are perpetually free to interpret and act on these plot elements as they see fit; all the GM is concerned about, beyond running the game as usual, is ensuring that all the justification fundamentals are in place. Once that requirement is met, he simply needs to stay alert for an opportunity to ‘catch up’ with the combat.
If necessary, he can even cheat a little. The throne room within the castle might actually turn out to be a throne room somewhere else; the opponent might be initially disguised in some fashion as something else to avoid putting the PCs on their guard; and so on.
Whenever a GM attempts something fancy, there is always the risk of failure, and this “headlong rush into the action” is definitely on the fancy side; any serious misstep will transform the GMs attempted cleverness into an unmitigated disaster. The risk is commensurate with the rewards.
It follows that extra care and attention should be spent on avoiding those missteps if at all possible. Doing so is not difficult; all that’s required is to spend a little additional time prepping the adventure. There are four essential tasks in game prep that will collectively ensure that a catastrophic failure of the GMs designs is as unlikely as it is possible to achieve:
- Check and recheck the connecting logic between the elements and their logical presence in the battle. If possible, have multiple ways to get from A to B.
- Plan specific introductions – “cut scenes,” if you like – for each element and be sure you know how they relate to the battle.
- Double-check that there are NO assumptions about how the PCs will react in any of the introductions or connecting logics that – if violated – would break the connection to the circumstances of the battle.
- Craft descriptions for the various elements that are capable of more than one interpretation if necessary. Ensure that they are just a little vague and generic when used in the initial partial battle.
Use Prophecy As A Weapon
Not content with providing one semi-successful and one satisfactory solution to the problem, here’s a third to round out this article. I’ll present this solution in narrative form as an example is the clearest method of explaining it, but first a caveat: This involves some major precedents about various aspects of the campaign that might not fit what you have in mind; the answer offered should be customized to fit the GMs campaign concepts.
GM: “Welcome to the XXXX campaign. The unnatural fog swirls and begins to lift. You can see the granite walls of the room, broken occasionally by weapons mounted on the walls, stuffed animal heads, torches in brass fittings, and once-expensive tapestries. The shadow looming through the fog slowly resolves into a giant with rock-like skin. He looks at the numerous minor cuts and abrasions on your face and hands, and the bloody bandages that bind your wounds, and a slow smile splits his face. Make your attack rolls.”
[Pause for rolls]
“Your attacks bounce harmlessly off his armored skin. Someone yells ‘protect the Ice Crown’. The Giant snarls and raises a mighty two-handed sword festooned with sharpened protrusions and evil barbs. Runes carved down the blade begin to glow blue-white with power. As the fearsome blade begins its descent the crystal ball abruptly clouds over once again and goes Dark.
“The crystal reveals what might be, not what will be. The more certain the future, the greater the duration of the visions it provides,” explains the Witch. “There is no more; and as I told you before we began, once a scene has been viewed the spiritual signature that binds vision to subject is dissipated. No-one can show you more.”
In other words, Make the Prophetic Combat an actual Prophecy!
With this one change, there is only one plot element that has to be explained: ‘The Witch’. Explaining her role in the campaign and how it came to pass that she scried the PCs possible future should also explain why the PCs are together. Two or three minutes spent relating the appropriate backstory that covers these elements and the campaign is underway with a full head of steam. Assuming that the railroad tracks that you aren’t going to follow (see the previous section) are in at least moderate shape – they don’t have to be anywhere near as well-prepared as the previous solution requires – then everything is set to go, and it doesn’t matter if the PCs never actually have the encounter that kicked the campaign/adventure off.
So there you have it – three ways to jump straight into the action without railroading the players. It’s easier than you might think!