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Idea Mine

Beginning with the Middle

Michael Mearls
June, 2000
There's plenty of stereotypical ways to start an adventure. The kindly old wizard approaches the heroes in ye local tavern. A shady Mr. Johnson makes an appointment to meet the characters at a seedy, downtown bar. The rebel field agent slips the heroes the plans to the new Death Star at the spaceport pub. In essence, RPG heroes must have a hard time getting a few drinks with friends, because as soon as they step foot in a bar someone is trying to get them to save the world.

There's nothing wrong with using a tried and true method to kick off an adventure if it is handled correctly. But if your players start making jokes about staying clear of inns and taverns for fear of meeting another quest-bearing wizard, then maybe it's time to try something different. Well, how else can you kick off an adventure?

Enter this month's Idea Mine. Starting an adventure is one of the hardest things you have to do as a GM. Everyone expects a story to have a beginning, middle, and end. But the unexpected is what makes an adventure stand out. So why not try something new and completely ditch your adventure's introduction? You save yourself a little work, plus you can make a very memorable adventure, if you handle it right.

Cube is one of those movies that is easy to miss. Because it is a relatively new release, it's probably hidden between 5000 copies of Armageddon and 8000 copies of The Blair Witch Project at your local video store. Cube tells the story of six total strangers who are trapped within a sprawling death maze that consists of a series of cubical rooms. Each room has one door on each wall, plus a door on the floor and one on the ceiling. Some rooms are also rigged with lethal booby traps, and part of the puzzle is figuring out the pattern of trapped v. non-trapped rooms from the available clues.

What makes Cube a compelling film is the characters. None of them know each other, nor do they know how or why they were imprisoned within the maze of chambers. Each was simply going through their normal, daily routine before suddenly waking in the confines of the cubes. Suspicion and mistrust run rampant through the group, yet only by working together can the six of them solve the secret of the cubes and escape.

Cube provides the prototype for a potentially very rich roleplaying scenario. There is no artificial attempt to force the characters in the film into some sort of team. Each has their own agenda, and none have any real reason to trust the others. Yet, it is impossible for any one individual to escape. Only by working together to they have any hope of getting out alive. This makes Cube the perfect source material for a one shot game or tournament scenario. Obviously, in an established campaign, as opposed to a one shot, the characters already know each other. Also, declaring by GM fiat that the characters are suddenly trapped in an environment where death is a very real outcome isn't the best thing to do to people who are emotionally attached to their PCs. You also lose a big part of the roleplaying challenge if the characters already know and trust one another. What you want to do is force a set of characters together who would normally not have anything to do with one another, creating tension that can lead to some very intense roleplaying.

What makes this scenario work is the set-up. Each character just wakes up in their prison, with none of that messy introduction stuff getting in the way. There's no need to break a sweat explaining how such an incompatible group of characters got together; that's part of the mystery. In fact, a GM can get away with a lot of stuff in this type of adventure. You don't need to justify anything, because the characters are completely ignorant about their situation. They don't know anything about the nature of their captors, why they were imprisoned, or how their prison got built. They just want out. Take advantage of this and go a little over the top with your adventure plot. Things that may seem a bit hard to swallow in your regular campaign suddenly become completely acceptable in a one short format. All you need to do is deliver an effective plot; there's no need to worry about weaving it into a campaign world.

Fritz Leiber's "The Bleak Shore" provides another example of how to drop characters into the middle of an adventure plot. Unlike Cube, "The Bleak Shore" offers some good ideas for campaign play. In the story, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the two greatest warrior-thieves in the world of Newhon, are summoned to a distant island to do battle with pair of monstrous foes. The story begins innocently enough, with the two heroes spending an evening drinking and gambling at one of their favorite taverns. There, they encounter a mysterious stranger. Rather than offer them a quest, the stranger dispenses with such niceties and simply weaves an enchantment that forces the two to immediately drop what they are doing, gather their belongings, and sail to the west.

So far, we're dealing with a standard fantasy adventure opening, with the twist of a curse rather than heroism or greed getting the heroes involved in the adventure. The neat thing about "The Bleak Shore" is that not only do Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have no control over their destination, but their unwilling journey takes them into unknown lands far from home. Thus, when they finally fight their way out of their curse, they still have to deal with getting back home. "The Howling Tower," "The Sunken Land," and "The Seven Black Priests" all chronicle adventures that the two encounter while making the journey back to the city of Lankhmar.

Using a curse or section of missing time like this is a great way to spice up your campaign. You might have some ideas for adventures that don't mesh with the structure of your current campaign. Rather than junk the campaign and start a new one, try a radical location shift to bring things in line with what you want to do.

There's on important thing to keep in mind: don't forget how attached to their current home the characters, and your players, might be. You don't want to just send them across your world with a boxed text description of the plot twist you've decided on. You can get away with that if you aren't planning on stranding the characters somewhere for more than a session or two. In a Star Wars game, a hyperdrive failure might be a good plot hook to get the characters into an unexplored sector of space for one adventure, but don't count on the players giving up on everything their characters have been working towards just because you have a neat adventure idea. All throughout their journeys, Fafhrd and the Mouser never lose sight of their goal to get home. Don't expect your players to be any different.

One way to get around this problem is to tie the characters' predicament into the main campaign plotlines. For example, you may have a villainous mage in your D&D game teleport the characters to a distant land in order to get them out of his hair. He has concocted a fiendish plot and wishes to be free of their interference. Of course, in true villain fashion he tells them this before spiriting them away. Your players now have a very clear objective in mind: get back home and kick some mage butt. Of course, along the way they can run into all the weird cultures and adventures you cooked up that just wouldn't fit in with your developed campaign areas. You can go with something as simple as a Japanese or Indian themed culture, or go all out and stick the characters into an alternate plane of existence. The key is that you're basically starting the campaign over from scratch. You're back to a blank map waiting for you to pencil in nations, cities, and monsters.

Roleplayers thrive on new challenges. The problem is that in developing a campaign or following the conventions of a genre, you can easily paint yourself into a creative corner. While tossing the characters into a new situation may seem a little extreme, if done for the right reasons it can kick start an adventure or give a campaign a refreshing change of pace.

Mike Mearls


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