As part of the recent Blog Carnival, I shared a tool that I had developed for creating a character’s background (Blog Carnival November 2016: The Ordinary Life of a Fantasy PC).
As part of that article, I originally had a section (entitled “An Alternative Route”) discussing playing a pre-game to enable players to develop the personalities and backgrounds of their characters before the main campaign starts, but ended up having to cut it when it began to overwhelm the main thrust of the article.
Reader Alan Kellogg noted the omission in a comment, which read,
Of course it helps when you make the process fun. Have a pre-game game where the players as a whole get together and play out how the group got together. Perhaps they work for an Ibo Merchant as he travels from Niger to Albion looking for items to bring back with him. Or a Seneca Shaman has brought then together to seek a lost artifact of the Mound Builders days.
So, what’s the story with pre-campaign adventuring? What are the benefits and the pitfalls? And why, despite the self-evident appeal, don’t I recommend it except in special and quite limited circumstances?
Stating the Obvious: What is a pre-campaign game?
Let’s start by making sure that we’re all on common ground when it comes to the subject of discussion. A pre-campaign game is a game in which the characters are not finalized in personalities, in which both players and GM get to discover what works and what doesn’t about their latest and greatest creations, in which the characters establish their backgrounds within the game world and in which the story of how they came together in a unit gets “told”. It establishes relationships between the characters and between the characters and the game world, and may or may not introduce key elements of the campaign to follow such as important NPCs and situations. I’ve never met the GM yet who didn’t also take the opportunity to diffuse the spreading of background information to the characters and players.
It’s a game that introduces the characters but not the campaign, though it does introduce the environment in which the campaign will take place. Aside from the PCs getting together, not much that happens is intended to have a lasting impact.
There are some obvious benefits to this approach, and the preceding description touches on many of them.
- Players begin to get a handle on personalities, background, mechanics – especially useful with a new game system.
- Gives the Gm the chance to intro characters, situations, and see what’s working and what’s not.
- Makes the final part of the character generation more process fun.
- Gives everyone the chance to tweak and adjust anything that isn’t quite right.
- Moves the awkward “getting-to-know-you” phase out of the campaign, which is important if the characters are supposed to know each other and have been working together for weeks, months, or years.
Quite often, the campaign will start with the characters having achieved character level X, in D&D terms, while the pre-campaign game will depict the characters at a much lower character level. The separation helps create a firebreak between the pre-campaign adventure and the campaign, ensures that some elements of the campaign and setting are new and fresh for the players, and allows game-time “room” for revisions and tweaks to characters and setting.
That doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t without its potential negatives. There are four big ones that come to mind. These need a little more explanation (I tried producing a simple list the way I have above, and it just doesn’t work).
Pitfall 1: Ideas without foundation
Either the GM already has the whole campaign setting and background worked out, and it’s just a matter of revealing it to the players in a dynamic and interesting way, in which case there isn’t a lot of value to the pre-campaign adventure, or he hasn’t.
Either way, the implication is that the players have little or no idea of that campaign setting and background, and the characters that they come up with might or might not fit it. They are creating characters blind, and simply hoping that they will fit. I once met a GM who vastly preferred convention gaming because it meant that he got to create the characters instead of the players doing so, ensuring that they were fully integrated into the setting. Personally, I think that might be going a little overboard, but I can see his point.
Back in the old days, when characters started out as nothing more than a bunch of randomly-generated stats, with the ‘personality’ of the character still waiting to be discovered, the pre-campaign game had more merit. It might still apply to old-school gaming. The more input and direction a player has into the capabilities of the character, the more they are conceived as an integrated unit complete with personality and ambitions, the more significance this pitfall assumes.
Pitfall 2: Shifts the creative deadline to no great advantage
So the obvious solution is for the GM to make at least an outline of the campaign world available to the players prior to character generation so that they can integrate their creative concepts with the game environment. Which means that the GM needs to have it all, or almost all, fully worked up and fleshed out prior to the pre-campaign game.
This undermines several of the most significant advantages listed earlier. Really, all that it means is that the GM needs to have his campaign design completed that much sooner, or delay the real campaign that much longer. The only advantage that remains fairly intact is enabling the players to start play feeling that their PCs already know each other, begging the question: is it really that difficult to justify their coming together for the first time in the first adventure?
And, if there is a clear advantage to the campaign in having the characters establish relationships before play starts, there are other ways to achieve that, and I’ll offer one later in the article.
Worse still, the shortened deadline might lead to the GM rushing his campaign development, detrimentally affecting the entire campaign. There’s little worse than integrating a half-baked idea into the campaign foundations, something that the players and GM have to continually avoid looking at too closely or the internal logic of the whole thing falls apart. To the players, it’s a no-go area that’s barred from their characters; to the GM it’s a constant reminder of failure; and it’s something that the players can use to exert pressure on the GM to change other things they don’t like about the campaign. Most players aren’t so ruthless, but I have known one or two who were not above emotional blackmail in my time. And I’ve met one GM who was so emotionally scarred by this behavior that he gave up gaming altogether.
Not worth it.
Pitfall 3: Can derail the whole campaign
The problem with placing a discontinuity between the adventure and the campaign is that you risk divergent trajectories as characters pass through the discontinuity. In effect, the players want to go in direction A in the campaign, while the campaign that the GM has planned lies in direction B. Unless there’s substantial common ground, and a willingness to compromise on both sides, the expectations and desires generated by the pre-campaign adventure can derail the whole campaign.
This happened to one GM that I know; he ended up starting a second campaign with different players to play out the campaign that he originally intended while permitting the players in the pre-campaign call the direction they enjoyed in the original. This not only spread his prep too thin, it ate into his sleep and his health – two campaigns were simply too much for him to handle. In the end, he had to choose between his career and his hobby, because the hobby was wearing him out. So he dropped out of gaming for a number of years. He’s now back in the GMs chair with an extremely irregular campaign whose pace is dictated by his ability to prep to a standard that he finds acceptable. Sometimes there are games only weeks apart, sometimes three-to-six month intervals – but he refuses to wear himself out, and its hard to argue with his logic and compromise. An irregular game is better than no game at all!
Pitfall 4: Raises issues about the transition process
So you’ve had your pre-campaign adventure and each of the players has found things they didn’t like about their characters. One wants to change one optional ability for another. Another doesn’t like the way his chosen race are being interpreted by the GM, and in particular the baggage that the GM is saddling him with, and wants to change races. A third has found that his chosen character class isn’t as much fun as he thought it would be, and wants to change it. And a fourth dislikes the personality he came up with and wants to completely revise it into something that’s easier to play.
How many such changes have to be made before you end up with an entirely new party, anyway? What changes should be permitted, and what’s going too far? Is it good enough to say to player number two that his character has undergone a magical transformation that has altered his entire outlook and precepts, but that his early life and experience remained unchanged (maintaining the validity of the pre-campaign adventure)? How about telling the third player that he was free to take a new class but that his one level in the other class had to remain for the sake of consistency? Or might that be penalizing the character for using the pre-campaign adventure for the exact purpose it was intended?
How about a player taking what he learned in the pre-campaign adventure and using it to modify his character to give him an advantage over the other PCs?
I’ve seen some of these problems arise in the course of an actual campaign, never mind in the gap between pre-campaign and campaign. I have no doubt that some or all of them would eventually befall any GM who employed a pre-campaign adventure. Viewed one way, the pre-campaign could be described as a safety valve permitting these changes to take place before they overwhelm the main campaign; viewed another, it’s inviting compatibility issues between PCs and campaign.
Once again, you would have to ask if it’s really worth the grief? And my answer would be, “Maybe – it depends on the players”. Some players would use this as an opportunity to enhance both the game and their enjoyment of it; others, not so much…
The pre-campaign adventure as Pilot Episode
I have often held that changing perspectives on a situation can reveal hidden aspects and solutions to that situation. Perhaps looking at the pre-campaign adventure in a different light will find a way to maximize the advantages and minimize the problems?
The first such alternative perspective that comes to mind is one from Hollywood TV. A pilot episode forms part of the primary plotline, but permits wholesale changes that are retroactively introduced into the continuity. Any justifiable change is fair game. There have even been cases where a supporting character has become one of the stars while a supposed star has been relegated to supporting character status. And sometimes, those changes were even justified in terms of the popularity of the character. At other times, the character’s number one fan was one of the executives behind the show.
And, to be fair, sometimes the executive was right and the character grew into the new role.
President Bartlett was intended to be a supporting character in the West Wing, someone who parachuted into the plotline just in time for the climax or lobbed demands and hurdles to be cleared, from the sidelines. That changed right after the pilot, a change that hindsight says was probably inevitable.
G’kar was originally going to be the villain of Babylon-5, the character seduced by the Shadows, while Londo was going to escape foppishness and foolishness and become a hero of the series. That began to change right after the pilot, and even more-so after the first season, but shades of those conceptions remained, giving both characters depth and nuance and even pathos. At times, we caught glimpses of the Londo and G’kar that might have been.
Casting changes are also common after pilot episodes. Entire roles can be redefined – that happened with Babylon-5 as well, with Lieutenant Takashima was out, and Ivanova was in. Dr Kyle was out, and the much younger and more dynamic Dr Franklin was in. De’Lenn underwent a complete change of gender!
Clearly, almost any change is possible. Which changes should be permitted? There are two options: either revising a character from the initial adventure, or completely replacing the first character. Either should be permitted provided that there is a justification for the change; it’s really a matter of player and GM figuring out the least-disruptive way of handling the changes called for.
Viewing the pre-campaign adventure as part of the campaign in which there is a window for negotiated revision kills off virtually all of the pitfalls while retaining most of the advantages. But is it really a pre-campaign adventure anymore?
The main campaign as sequel
Or perhaps, “viewing the pre-campaign adventure(s) as a prequel” might be a more accurate way of describing this approach, which I have employed myself: in the original Fumanor campaign, the main plot couldn’t begin, in my opinion, until the characters reached a certain level of capability. Specifically, third level spells was the marker that I had in mind; at that point, characters would be sufficiently versatile to cope with the challenges. In the meantime, I could move various chess pieces into place as developments in the prequel part of the plot instead of having them already in place and starting the characters at the required character level. This gave the players time to get used to the campaign world before I pulled the rug out from under their characters’ feet and turned that world upside-down.
This approach was always my intent, from day one of designing the campaign. I wanted the game to feel just like any other D&D-oriented game world, with dungeons and the like, before the big picture emerged to transform the campaign utterly. This approach was modeled on the first season of Babylon-5 very deliberately, resting on the theory that the players wouldn’t really feel the upheaval unless they had time to get used to the status quo first. But there were ongoing hints that bigger things were in the works.
Through organic changes to the characters as they developed, over time, the campaign’s cast evolved to suit the game world and the player’s proclivities, in particular the number of players – several were part of the campaign and dropped out for a variety of reasons. In essence, instead of one massive change after a single prequel adventure, evolution was spread over the course of the entire prequel phase, making them seem more natural and giving players more opportunity to grow used to the changes.
This approach works – but it does so because it was a key part of the campaign plan from the beginning. And, once again, I have to ask the question – are we still talking about pre-campaign adventures, here? This clearly goes a long way beyond the scope of what was described at the start of this article, and it succeeds more effectively because of those changes – effectively arguing against the utility of pre-campaign adventures, instead recommending that various aspects of the pre-campaign adventure be grafted into the campaign proper.
Prequel adventures as “more of the same”
What if the GM has no radical “big-picture” shakeup planned to signal the commencement of the “main campaign”? If there is no real difference between pre-campaign adventure and the ongoing campaign, why bother having the pre-campaign adventure in the first place? In this circumstance, it’s the benefits that are almost entirely wiped out – I’ve never met a GM who wasn’t ready to make major changes to their campaign if they thought it necessary to preserve the entertainment that everyone was getting from it, or to restore that entertainment if it had mis-stepped somewhere along the line.
Prequel adventures as “something distinctly different”
But there is a danger in the “radical transformation” model, too – what if the players don’t like the changes? To avoid that problem, I generally assume that the players will assume an objective of restoring the status quo, or something as close to it as possible. The implication is that the changes are not intended to be permanent, though there are always ways of preserving any changes that go over well, and an impermanent change is far more tolerable than a permanent change that is viewed as ‘ad-hoc’ or capricious. Another key element of my planning of the original Fumanor campaign was ensuring that the justifications for the changes that the PCs were to experience in the game world were in place long before they actually occurred, though situations were often taken at face value and the embedded hints not appreciated at the time. As events unfolded, however, those clues became recognized for their true significance.
There are greater problems to overcome if the transition is not intended to be reversible. Running a prequel campaign which is a political thriller with James Bond overtones and ends in World War III and a nuclear holocaust may be a train-wreck that the players can see coming while being helpless to stop it – but there’s no road back from that, the world after is irrevocably changed. The only solution that I can see is to make sure that the players are told in advance that the ultimate goal of the prequel campaign is to end in a nuclear Armageddon which will set the main campaign in motion, which at least cushions the blow. But don’t be surprised if the players work to prevent the disaster as hard as they can – it’s something that is eminently reasonable for their characters to do, after all – and resent any attempts by the GM to railroad his way toward that outcome.
That’s the key word in this discussion – railroad. Avoiding any hint that the rails to the main campaign are laid down unalterably undermines and devalues the prequel section of the campaign. It’s not acceptable to the players, and that makes the ‘permanent, radical, transformation’ infinitely more difficult a proposition.
To a certain extent, the shorter the ‘bedding in’ period, the less the players and characters will have invested in the status quo, and the less resistant to the changes they will be, especially if it is made clear to them in advance that something of Magnitude 12 is going to take place to launch the campaign proper.
The pre-campaign adventure as Prologue
I have seen suggestions that a pre-campaign adventure should be treated as a prologue to the main plot. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with a prologue depicting “life as usual” for the PCs; it certainly works in novels, especially when the power of foreshadowing is exploited.
Unfortunately, an RPG game is not a novel. This sort of prologue works in fiction because the characters are designed to be highlighted by the prologue, and the prologue is designed to highlight the basics of the fictional world. The two, plot and characterization, are intertwined, and each designed to fit the other like a glove. If a character is the rakish type, there will be something in the prologue to show that. If the character is honest and honorable, there will be something about his values and beliefs in the prologue.
You can’t integrate the personalities of the PCs into a prologue in an RPG because you don’t know what they are going to be. And that ties one hand behind the GM’s back in many respects. If he knows the game world that he’s created well enough, and is inventive enough at improv adventures, he might be able to steer the character into a situation that lets him show off his traits as the GM identifies them. If not, then the GM is left fumbling with generica, with cliché.
The only way out of this situation is for the initial encounter in the prequel to be fairly irrelevant to the PCs in terms of interaction, designed to show off the campaign world with the PCs as eyewitnesses. From their reactions, the GM can begin assessing personality traits and inventing more substantial plot elements that highlight the characters – who may well be evolving from generic cut-outs at the same time, as both players and GM grope in the dark for the shape of the eventual campaign.
The big difference between a campaign prologue and an prequel campaign or “Pilot Episode” is that most things are left unresolved, dangling plot threads that can be picked up on in the future. Only the immediate situation tends to be resolved. And, if character generation is taking place at the game table, that might be all that there is time for.
Prologues exist to thrust the characters into the main plot faster and harder than they might like. That’s a function that negates some of the negatives, but that leaves little room for the benefits. Incorporating any other function into the prologue weights it down and dilutes its effectiveness. Putting the entirety of the burden listed as functions of a pre-campaign adventure dilutes it so much that you have to wonder what the benefit is.
That’s not to say that prologues don’t work. I use prologues all the time. For adventures, they are usually a single sentence or brief paragraph; the longest was aimed at capturing the “feel” of New York City in the 1930s, the mood of the city, the tone of it, and required four short paragraphs – and a lot of work went into trying to abbreviate it further. As it turned out, it was effective and just short of being too long.
At the campaign level, a prologue sets a domino piece in motion or puts a chess piece on the board, Its purpose is to manipulate the players with knowledge that their characters don’t posses, i.e. to function at a metagame level. Such a prologue can be anything from that one-line length (“Somewhere, an old man in a Santa Suit mails a package…”) to an entire adventure. It’s a First Shoe.
So long as prologues exist to service the plot by getting players into the right mind-set, they work perfectly and are completely acceptable or even ideal. It’s when you load them with additional overarching functions that the situation becomes akin to spinning many plates on sticks at the same time.
Getting to know you: a practical alternative or two
So, if pre-game adventures have all these problems, and you decide to shelve the idea, but the PCs are still supposed to start the game knowing each other and with a common history, what’s the answer?
One solution is to play an entirely separate game, one in which the character’s backgrounds and relationships are forged as a narrative structure – in effect, collaborating with the players on a backstory. All that’s necessary is to agree on the goal of the story, what it’s supposed to achieve, then have everyone roll a d20. Highest roll gets sixty seconds to advance or complicate the narrative using his character, then he puts the die away and hands the baton over to the GM, who gets a minute to revise and edit the player’s contribution, and then the next highest roll gets a minute, and so on. Once everyone’s had a turn, you either start over in the same order, or roll again. The narrative structure means that a lot of game time can be consumed really quickly – travel from place to place and lots of mundane details get handwaved in favor of The Story. And, of course, the GM makes notes as he goes. There are other ways of achieving the same end, but they all have the same fundamental characteristics.
But there’s a specific tool that I have devised that I would employ before beginning that process. Each player needs a sheet of paper, on which they write the names of the other PCs and their players, as evenly spaced out as possible. Each player then takes it in turns to describe their character, while the other players make notes about how their character would react to the PC being described. Each player then gets to ask a question about the PC to enhance whatever they have decided without revealing what they have written.
Once all players have described their PCs, the GM asks them to make some additional notes in answer to specific questions – yours may vary, but these are the ones I would employ:
- “Which of the described PCs will your character get on best with? Write ‘Friend’ next to their name.”
- “With which of the PCs described do you have the least in common with? Write ‘Stranger’ next to their name.”
- “Which of the PCs described do you think is most likely to make you uncomfortable? Write ‘Suspicious’ next to their name and add a note as to why to your notes on that PC.”
- “Of the characters described, which are you most interested in, fascinated by, or curious about? Write ‘Intrigued by’ next to their name, and if it’s specific, add a reason why.”
- “Which of the characters is most likely to get your character into trouble? Write ‘Trouble’ next to their name.” and, finally,
- “When you get into trouble, which of the PCs listed do you think is most likely to come to your rescue? Write ‘Wingman’ next to their name.”
This gets followed by something akin to a speed-dating situation, supervised by the GM, in which the players get together in pairs to exchange how they see each other and work out what the relationship is like between them. This should only take a minute or two for each combination.
The resulting relationships then provide a foundation for the narrative ‘game’ that I described earlier, exposing the relationships to the players other than the ones directly affected. “I buy Glorwith a drink, but since he abstains, I drink it for him. I tell him to loosen up, and attract the attention of a barmaid, tip her, and tell her he’s lonely.” (Glorwith’s player rolls his eyes).
Immediately, there’s a rapport, a camaraderie. It feels like they have known each other for years, and this is just the latest in a long line of practical jokes between them. The getting-to-know-you process between them has been short-cutted.
This approach is just as much fun as a straight adventure, possibly even more-so because of the change-of-pace factor, and the best part? This is fully compatible with and complimentary to, the characterization tool that I offered in the post referenced at the start of this article.
In limited circumstances, where the GM has solutions to the problems raised and the pre-adventure campaign has a definite purpose that can’t be achieved in adventure #1 of the main campaign, and where the content of the campaign makes it especially desirous that the first adventure “hits the ground running”, a pre-campaign adventure may be the ideal solution. But unless you can tick all of those boxes, you have to ask what the real benefit is, and whether they outweigh the pitfalls.
A pre-game adventure is a compromise between starting “cold” and running a prequel campaign, and (as with most compromises) no-one is ever completely satisfied by the result – especially when there are alternatives.