Game Mastery

Game Wrap – Let’s Start at the Beginning

by on Aug.29, 2011, under dnd4e, observations, self improvement

After game I asked the players for some immediate feedback.  Different parts of the game worked for different people.  That’s fine, it’s something I was expecting.  One of the GM’s biggest tasks is managing entertainment so that everyone gets what they like a fair share of the time.  But the one thing they all agreed on was my beginning.  It sucked.

This came as no surprise.  Historically I’ve had trouble with the beginning of games.  While I’m mostly over my originality issues, I still can’t bear to start the game in a tavern with a herald’s proclamation.  So I go for something unique and original.

Sometimes I even find a beginning that sounds good on paper.  When I began my thieves guild game, the players were all independently contacted by a guild recruiter and told to meet up in a warehouse where he’d welcome them to the guild.  The players arrived, but the recruiter did not.  Let’s start the game out with the characters being awkward and suspicious of each other.  Some other GMs I spoke to thought the idea was hilarious.  Playing it out, the players felt awkward and suspicious.  Duh.

Actually I think they thought I was too lazy to write an intro.  That’s also a fair assumption.

Anyway, I made the opposite mistake with my recent intro.  It was overwritten to hell.  I was playing with the trope of adventurers in this game.  I like that idea that in a D&D world, adventurer is a known profession.  Given how the world works, it’s just one of those things that people do.   So an adventurer by the name of Lucien recruited the PCs.  He was vaguely suspicious but very enthusiastic.  The players were a little frightened by his get rich scheme ideas for adventuring, but I’d given them all individual reasons to go along with the guy.

In session two, Lucien died.

In session three, the players went through Lucien’s belongings and found a book entitled “Lucien’s Outstanding Debts.”  It listed all the shady organizations and characters from whom he’d borrowed money to fund his adventures.   At this point I reminded the players that Lucien had introduced them to his investors when they first set out.  The PCs figured out on their own, that they’d probably be the ones held responsible for Lucien’s debts, which were truly outstanding.

From a GMing standpoint, this sounded like a fantastic beginning.  I was counting on the players offering their adventuring services to pay off the debts.  I just gave the players a book full of adventure hooks.  And some of the hooks would conflict with each other.  So they’d have to manage pissing off the church to help the gnome mafia, while placating the thieves guild and promising they’d get paid next week.  I figured I’d written up adventure hooks for the first 10 levels of the game.

But it didn’t work for the PCs.  They felt too frustrated by it.  Only one of the characters wanted to try to pay off the investors.  The rest wanted to bolt.  Worst of all, they wanted to bolt in separate directions.  Oh and the doppelganger PC could bolt very, very easily.  I honestly don’t remember how I convinced them to stick it out.  They did though, and I rushed a plot that united the group against a common enemy.  At least now they wouldn’t run in separate directions.

So why didn’t this intro work?  First off it was a railroad.  Actually it was more of a roller coaster.  The kind that locks you in place and physically restrains you until the ride is over, even if you get some doubts and want off.  A little bit of a railroad can be a necessity at game start, just to give the players some forward momentum, but this was too much.

The real problem though is that it was generic.  I wrote an intro that didn’t take into account who the PCs were.  In fact I wrote the intro before the players had even come up with their PCs.  I suppose it might have worked out with a more typical group, but this group was totally atypical.  I told a story that wasn’t about their characters.  They didn’t have fun playing those characters in that story.  Whose fault is that?

Anyway, the conclusion I’ve reached isn’t that I shouldn’t write intros.  It’s that if I’m going to write them in this fashion, where the intro is set in stone before the characters are written, I should let the players take advantage of that when they make the characters.

Next time I run a game, here’s the plan.  I’m going to write the intro to the adventure.  Then I’m going to email it to the players.  They will be responsible for choosing a character that wants to go on that adventure.  Or choosing a hapless bystander of a character who gets sucked into that adventure.  Or whatever else they can come up with.  Bottom line is I’m going to let my players pick characters who will be appropriate for the adventure and I’m giving them the narrative responsibility of inserting those characters into the story.  I’m not sure how it’ll work, but it’s got to be an improvement.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Dave

    I had a similar problem with a campaign I started a few months ago. I told the players to write characters with backstories so I could make plot hooks for them, but I already had a story planned out that didn’t fit their characters. The result was that the first several sessions were a trainwreck of confused expectations. Creating a story first and telling the players to come along for the ride is a legitimate style, but if your players don’t know that’s what’s happening (or haven’t agreed to it) your game will be awful.

    Your idea of giving the players the story and letting them fit their characters into it could solve the problem, but if you have players who want more input in your story, I’d recommend doing it the other way around. Make the characters first, then shape the story around them. Have the players create their characters, and let them establish their relationships with the other PCs and a couple of NPCs right off the bat. This gives you a cohesive group of protagonists, supporting characters, and villains. Then you can take all that material your players gave you and turn it into a story they are guaranteed to be interested in (since they made it!). This is how I plan to run all my story-focused games from now on.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:

Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!

Visit our friends!

A few highly recommended friends...