Sunday 19 July 2015

GM Advice - no time for introductions

Would love to credit the creator of this image, is it you?
Almost every RPG sessions I've seen, played, heard or watched has started the same way. No, not necessarily in a Tavern. Every game seems to start with character introductions.

The GM asks the players, in turn, to describe their characters. Player one starts telling everyone about how his character is an Elf, from Elfholm, who has 3 siblings that are all competing for daddy's attention. He describes this elf's hair, her eye colour. There's a description of what armour the elf is wearing, what weapons she wields.

Sometimes a player goes into in depth background details that take up a ton of time. Other times a player will say almost nothing at all.

Overall this process takes a ton of time, as each player gives their own description and/or background. In some groups this can take up most of a session depending on how much each player wants to share. What's shared often varies player to player. One player will read through their 5 pages of family history while the next player will only say: "I'm a human fighter with plate and a greatsword, I look like an average big tough dude." 

I am not a fan of this method of starting the game. I personally feel that an RPG game has no time for introductions.

Start with a bang!

I like to start my games off with a bang. A big action sequence of some type. Most often a combat but that depends on the system. Sometimes an environmental challenge or even a social challenge fits the system and theme of the game better. Whatever it is, it has to be exciting. Get into the action right away. No reading the text box, no talking about who the characters are or why they are there. That can all be figured out later. There is a clear and present danger that the players need to deal with RIGHT NOW!

Cover Art: Pathfinder RPG Adventure Path #89
Palace of the Fallen Stars by Wayne Reynolds
This is the In Medias Res technique taken to an extreme. I don't even call for initiative rolls as that would start the games in mechanics instead of action. I just pick a character to go first, then someone to go second, interjecting bad guy/monster actions where dramatically appropriate at the moment.

What's more exciting?

1) Okay all of your characters stand together ready to meet the Prince who has called you all together today. Joe, who are you and what do you look like?

2) Joe, your character flinches as an Orc arrow whizzes by your left ear. You are in the middle of a deep woods with lots of trees and underbrush. You know there's at least one Orc out there but no clue how many what do you do?

The answer is obviously 2. The player's hearts start pumping, people move up in their seat and everyone gets engaged in the game right away.

Next we start to find out who these people are.

Once things get moving, after at least every player has had one or two actions, you can start having the players add some information about their characters to the game. Just little bits and pieces tossed into the ongoing narrative. As players describe what they are doing ask them for small details. 

When Joe says he attacks the nearest Orc, ask Joe a question or two; What weapon are you using to strike the Orc, what kind of training do you have, are you well trained at fighting? 

In this way small details of character information are added. Not full backgrounds, just little details so that the picture of the action scene in the player's head starts coming into focus. When a character get's hit ask what type of armour they were wearing and how it failed them. When the orc boss is defeated ask the character to describe how cool the final blow looked from a 3rd person perspective adding details like colour of gear, hair colour, etc.

A few examples:

Deanna is playing Teal a bard. On her action she announces that she wants to use her inspiration ability. So the GM asks: "So Teal, obviously a bard whips out an instrument, which instrument does he rock and is there anything special about this particular instrument?"

WotC forum image.
Don't know more than that sorry.
Jay is playing Gelpo a Dwarf and just took a critical hit from a Goblin. The GM states: "The goblin grabs onto your beard (Red was it?) and yanks hard, you can't help but duck down with this motion and his small yet sharply bony knee meets your nose. Is Gelpo's hair long enough to fall into his face and get matted with blood from his now broken nose?

Devon is playing Jayne a Cop who's interrogating a perp, and just rolled an awesome roll on her skill check. The GM asks: "Where did Jayne learn her interrogation techniques? On the streets or in the classroom?"

An added bonus of doing this is that it can end up with players asking questions about their characters they never even considered. Maybe Jay never even considered his Dwarf's hair colour. Devon may have just spent some points on Interrogate without ever considering why Jayne was so good at it.

Don't over due it though. The focus at this point is still the action scene. Don't ask players questions and have them add details every single action. Just a few here and there so that everyone gets a bit of a better picture of what's going on and who's involved. Focus on the excitement and action there will be plenty of time for details later.

The aftermath is when the blanks get filled in.

After the first action scene is when we get the rest of the details about the characters. Once the dust is settled I give the players any additional world/story details they need and then ask the big question "Why are you here"

The important thing at this point it to make sure that you have the characters at a point in the story where they are already together. Already a group (a party if you will) and already have a reason to be there (which should have been established in the first action scene). The game starts assuming the characters signed on to do this thing and will work together to do it. That's already established. They are already doing it. 

An example:
"Now that you have defeated the final Orc Guards you know that only the warband leader and his lieutenants remain. If you finish them off the village of Westrest should be safe from the raids that have been plaguing it for the last few weeks."

Here the players are informed that they are here to kill a Warband Leader, and that they are doing it to help out the Village of Westrest. There's no question of  whether or not the characters want to do this, they are already doing it. It's at this point we establish why.

From the Exalted comic book series by Udon
This is where things get more traditional. I will go around the table and ask he player why their character is here. As the players answer, ask more questions. Get some details. Also let the players ask you questions. Fill in the gaps.

Here I also give the players quite a bit of narrative control. If they say that they are here because Westrest offered a reward. So be it, Westrest offered a reward. I will work with the players to help them fit their answers into my game world where needed, but most often I will adapt my game world ideas to fit their input. 

A quick tip: take lots of notes during this part of the game! You players are going to be giving you their motivations here. The reason their characters are proactive and like to get involved. Note this stuff so you can use it later.

Final thoughts.

I first started using this technique when I first read and then ran Feng Shui by Robin Laws. The main inspiration there was to start things in the middle of the story and ask the players why the characters were there. That was brilliant to me. I no longer needed to think up a hook for my new games. I learned you could start the game after the characters were already hooked and even better get the players to tell me why. 

Since then I've used this starting method for pretty much every game I have run. Both new and old systems and I've yet to have it fail on me. Over the years I've refined it, change bits and pieces and improved on what I initially learned. Sometimes it goes a little better than others, but every time I think it's better than starting my games with: "So Dave what are you playing?"


  1. Great article, I agree completely with the sentiment. I remember reading a forum post some years back in which a guy said that he began each campaign with the words "Roll Initiative." There would be some kind of epic fight or action scene, and only afterwords would they go back and establish what had happened to lead up to it all.

    That picture is from the Exalted comic book series by Udon, BTW.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Glad you agreed with the article and it's good to know I'm not alone.

      I've updated the text under the Exalted picture. I tried pretty hard to find the sources for the images I use but sometimes the net makes that very hard.