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The Deeper Well

In The Beginning

by James Bierly
Jun 16,2005

 

In The Beginning

After our whirlwind tour of plot archetypes and their possible applications in an RPG campaign, it's time to break plot down into its even more basic elements; beginning, middle and end.

Background and Setting Information

In most campaigns, it is a good idea that the players should know some basic information about the setting, so that they can create characters that are connected in some way to the world. But how much information do they need? Let's weigh the pros and cons of some different techniques for dealing with background and setting information.

Light info:

The players are told the general geography and political set up of the world, but nothing incredibly detailed. Some basic history and current events may or may not be provided. There are definite benefits to this style. Players can feel free to invent details for their character's backgrounds, so long as they do not conflict with the basic setting info. This allows people to make a wide variety of character concepts, and creates plot hooks and locations that the GM can be sure the players will already have an investment in. This also allows the campaign world to grow and evolve with the interests of the players and the needs of whatever plots take shape. It also helps to avoid a situation in which a GM feels she must find a way to incorporate all the cool setting info that she created into the campaign and is disappointed when this is found to be impossible.

Medium info:

A lot of setting info exists, but only the basics are given to the players. A lot of packaged settings can be used in this way. The benefits are that alterations to the world can still be made (the players won't know the difference), but there is plenty of material available to fall back on when writer's block hits. People also like to feel immersed in a setting. A feeling of history and a world existing independent of the PCs helps with this. When the material exists, feel free to sprinkle historical facts and current events throughout a campaign.

(The same effect can be given in a Light Info campaign too... the difference is that the GM tends to make the stuff up on the spot. This is great, so long as she can keep all the improvised facts straight in her head.)

Heavy info:

There is a lot of setting info, and the players are expected to know it. This happens a lot with well-known published settings, such as Forgotten Realms or Exalted. Some gaming groups like to create incredibly detailed home-brew worlds as well. This can result in player characters that are deeply connected with the game world. As players read setting info out of game (or possibly write setting info, if it is a home-brew game world), it helps keep them immersed in the setting, and can make them care about the campaign more. If you are using a published world, it is a lot easier to communicate what is happening in your game to the internet gamer community, which makes it easy to get advice for your campaign.

A downside to this approach is that it makes it difficult for new players not familiar with the game world to become involved in a campaign. Also, the GMs ability to change things in the game world is severely hampered. Even if you say "this is MY version of the Forgotten Realms", there will still be people who will find it extremely difficult to handle changes in a setting they have come to know and love.

The First Session

The first session of a campaign should involve something instantly dramatic and involving. Most groups like to use action/combat for this, but it is possible to achieve the same effect with a particularly emotionally charged scene of character interaction or a life changing/world changing event. The idea is to instantly connect the players with the game world in a meaningful way.

Whether the player characters are meeting each other for the first time, or know each other prior to the campaign, every player is encouraged to think of a way to have their character perform one action in-game which summarizes what their personality is like. Perhaps the idealistic diplomat gives a brief speech about his political views. Or the hedonistic half-orc gets drunk. These little "character showcases" can be as complex or simple as the players like. The purpose is to introduce the characters on a more personal level than "he's the pilot", and also to give a foretaste of things to come.

Conflicting actions help to give an even more interesting portrait of a character. For instance, a young paladin volunteers to undertake a quest with no thought of personal reward, then later tracks down someone who owes him money and beats him up. Conflicting actions raise questions. Why does the paladin act the way he does? As the campaign progresses, the questions raised in the first session can be explored and expanded upon, creating character driven plots.

The first session of a campaign can also be an excellent opportunity to set the tone for the entire campaign. If the first session is filled with rain and involves a grisly murder, people will expect a darker campaign than if the first session involves a wild romp through a town of midgets.

Hope you all have a great game this week,

James Bierly

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