Friday, February 28, 2014

The Drunken Duck: Your First Session

In many iterations of your games, the characters your players create will most likely very little, if not absolutely nothing, in common with the other PCs. Your city campaign may very well have a woodland hermit, a mercenary knight, an itinerant bard, a streetwise pickpocket, and a princess in disguise composing the adventuring party, and the most common way to have them all get into bed together- not literally, unless that's what your campaign is about, and if so...giggity- is to throw them into a crowded tavern where the only empty seats around a table are (surprise) with the rest of the soon to be group!
A common occurrence five minutes after each player character has consumed at least one ale.
Now, there are a variety of reasons why this can make sense; partially because of alcohol's tendency to break down social barriers and foster camaraderie between total strangers which, when combined with a sudden outbreak of taproom hostilities, can enable a quick plot-line that railroads players into cooperating with each other, despite their characters' lack of mutual familiarity. Now, this is a tried and true method of sticking characters together at the start of a game. Unfortunately, it's also a trope, which is both why it works so much and also why it occasionally doesn't. Because a trope is only effective when it is acknowledged and accepted, it is subject to a variety of fail states.
-Perhaps you have a character that isn't feeling particularly sociable, like the Woodland Hermit, and thus decides to subvert the bar room meeting by finding a quieter locale.
-Maybe one of the characters is a local to the city, and has her own spot reserved at the bar counter, putting her on the outskirts of the ensuing chaos, giving her the option to simply dodge the rail-roady team-building exercise you have planned. The Streetwise Pickpocket is the most likely candidate for this particular derailing gambit.
-There's also the possibility of getting a brand new player in the game, who is inexperienced not only in-game, but out of game as well, and thus fails to recognize this setup. The Princess in Disguise, unwise in the way of campaign tactics, simply buys a room at the inn and takes an early night in.
Now, there are a variety of different ways a GM can angle CharGen so that they can dodge the tavern meet up or, if they have their hearts set on it for nostalgic/plot purposes, hedge their bets enough to ensure characters have actual reasons to sit together. I'll list a few off, with amusing mission names because I feel like it.
Tactic 1: Operation Venn Diagram
In character creation, have each player create a relationship with one or two other players' characters. They can be as simple or complex as players like, but the end results substantially increase the quality of your roleplaying. Creating connections allows players to create backstory for their characters, even if its simplistic, it gives them a jumping off point to think about their characters' motives, history, and possibly momentary aspirations.
-Perhaps the Itinerant Bard encountered the Woodland Hermit's shack and regaled him with enough stories of the outside world that the hermit decided to see what has changed since he left society behind.
-A long time ago, the Streetwise Pickpocket and Itinerant Bard ran confidence scams in another city, but were forced to vacate and go their separate ways some years ago.
-The Princess in Disguise hired the Mercenary Knight to escort her to this city. She has fled her home in search of her uncle, who abdicated the throne years ago and turned to the life of a Woodland Hermit.
-The Mercenary Knight has secretly discovered the Princess in Disguise's true identity and doesn't wish to leave her service, and thus must discover a way to lengthen their contract without spilling the beans. He has also had run-ins with the Streetwise Pickpocket previously, and it seems like the unscrupulous thief has also realized who his employer really is.
This kind of cooperative storytelling is my favorite for CharGen, as it gives the GM various plot hooks to integrate into his overall machinations, along with allowing players to create bits of story that run alongside the overarching plot of the game.
Tactic 2: Operation In Media Res
Sometimes films and books begin in the midst of a pivotal scene. A robbery, a battle, an invasion; things are happening and there's little time for idle conversation or setup. This circumvents the "You meet in a tavern" trope entirely, establishing the idea that even if such an event did occur in the past, its events proceeded in such a way as to lead to the characters being together in their current situation. This type of first game requires a certain amount of GM input in terms of the current status quo and mutual character history, but sidesteps any possibility that any character could miss the bus.
It also allows for the implementation of in-game flashbacks, which have the potential to be interesting side-stories or paradox-generating nightmares. Or both. If I catch myself using in media res, I ignore the idea of flashbacks.
Tactic 3: Operation Plot it Out
This last option isn't exactly a method used to 'dodge' the tavern meet trope entirely; rather, it's a way to ensure it proceeds in the direction the GM wants it to. Essentially, the GM creates a reason for each character to be in the tavern. It differs from Operation Venn Diagram in the sense that the Game Master isn't creating character backstory, he's creating plot reasons for players to be where they are. Plot hooks, they're usually called. Everyone receives a letter of invitation, or a mutual friend asks them to come together for a job.
This method still has the potential to be derailed by determined players, because a) they're still meeting in a tavern and b) because, well, they're players; but if you put work into writing something instead of just throwing everyone into an enclosed space with copious amounts of alcohol, at least some of them might feel guilty taking things in a weird direction.

The operating word there, of course, is might. They're players, remember?

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