As of this writing, about 10 days ago The DMG Info shared a video with Nerdarchy about starting your adventure, and how you’re doing it wrong. A week later, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted posted a response video. Today, in a bout of Nerdception, I want to give my thoughts about the subject as a whole, as well as drill down the subject to my experience with my new players.
In a bit of context, I want to start out by reiterating that I’m still fairly new to the hobby. However, as I hope has been made evident, I have a basic understanding of literature. Beyond being an English major, with primary focuses on literature and rhetoric, I’ve written plenty of short stories, flash fiction, and poems. So, while I can’t make an argument from the perspective of an experienced DM, of which I’ll share my own failure later in this article, I do have some experience to draw from.
Starting adventure through Narrative
The Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) is a pattern most popularly identified by Joseph Campbell, which at minimum is familiar across every culture. For those unaware, it’s the basis by which George Lucas constructed the entire narrative of Star Wars, and can be found in pretty much everything from Gilgamesh to Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings to Iron Man. The very first step is what’s known as “the ordinary world.” To summarize, the sympathetic hero is pulled by a driving force to go on an adventure, which is placed on the backdrop of their life (or world) before “the call to adventure.” This is possibly one of the most important elements of a story, because it’s impossible to know how much a character has grown without knowing where they started from. I’m starting here because it’s important to be able to clearly define how the beginning of traditional narratives are formulated, so we can understand what makes Dungeons & Dragons both no different than any other form of storytelling and completely unique.
Starting with a BANG!!!
The DMG Info vlogger, Gareth, said that everyone is starting off their adventures wrong. Introducing each of the characters and describing them in detail before the campaign begins is boring, but more importantly it’s bad storytelling. As a writer, I’ve had the concept of “show, not tell” drilled into me ad nauseam. I’m at the point where it’s painful to read it any other way, much less trying to write with exposition (The Lord of the Rings is a nightmare of exposition ex machina). So, I do agree that just sitting around and talking at each other is bland and bad storytelling.
In my game, and I have to assume in many games, character creation and design happens during Session 0. There’s absolutely no reason to hide the characters from the other players, even if the characters don’t know each other at the beginning of the game. While I was taking too long to introduce my new players for their liking, it wasn’t due to them sitting around and talking at each other for an hour.
Even without a Session 0, for whatever reason that’s a necessity, “showing, not telling” characters is as simple as inserting descriptions naturally. If a player is a Dragonborn, have an NPC comment on how they don’t see many in those parts, or have them make a specist comment. The Dragonborn could just as easily be quickly referenced when approaching another party member. It’s a cheap trick, but it establishes the character without the exposition. Other elements, such as class and equipment, can be revealed in context, such as through combat or lock-picking.
[On a side note, Gareth vastly misunderstood the intent of the opening scene of Star Wars. It started off with a bang, yes, but that’s only because it was intentionally designed to play off the monomyth trope, in the same way that The Cabin in the Woods plays off traditional horror movie tropes. By starting with an assault, George Lucas was establishing the universe as being under the heel of a violent autocratic empire. “The ordinary world” of the universe was in fact a world of extreme turmoil, where Luke Skywalker’s “ordinary world” was a boring existence as a moisture farmer, or Han Solo’s as a selfish, self-centered rogue. We know the universe is a better place because we know where it started, and we know how much Luke Skywalker and Han Solo grow as people because we know who they started as. Princess Leia didn’t need much character growth because she started out like a boss. Who needs to get stronger when you’re already standing up to the most powerful Jedi ever? Just sayin’.]
Connecting the Party
Nerdarchist Dave brought up the idea of having a few groups of party members having already started together, then bringing them all together at the beginning of the game. While I don’t know the particulars of how he set up the narrative, I found that it can be a bad idea if your party isn’t ready for role playing. There are any number of factors as to why a party may be disinterested in role playing at the beginning of a campaign. Perhaps time is a factor, or they haven’t matured into the hobby enough to appreciate that both role play and game are equally important in an RPG. Maybe, like my party was, they’re new to the hobby and are too excited to roll dice and hit things to much care about whatever gobbledy-gook that their DM has to say. As a DM, I learned very quickly, and the hard way, that my story isn’t important. I should’ve set aside my ego to recognize that I should’ve been considering my players, and what they wanted, instead of trying to cram my narrative down their throat.
This isn’t to say that my premise was wrong. I think introducing them through their personal “ordinary world,” bringing them together specifically for the quest, having not known each other before, was a great idea. It also taught some unintentional lessons, such as player knowledge vs character knowledge. I just should’ve been more sensitive to my players’ needs. I should’ve paid more attention to their excitement to dive into the mechanics, and minimized their introductions.
Beginning at the End
Both Gareth and Nerdarchists Dave and Ted brought up the idea of starting a campaign at the end of a previous one. That can be a really good idea or a really bad one depending on where you start the party. While I have only one campaign under my belt, of which we’ve only completed one quest, I’m currently a believer in starting out a full campaign at level 1. The reason why is, as I’ve discussed, there’s no appreciation of character growth if you don’t know where they started. Without “the ordinary world” and “the call to adventure,” the rest of the hero’s journey is a bit hollow. Sure, it fulfills peoples’ desires to actually make it to higher levels where all the cool stuff happens, but it’s a bit like starting a movie about half way through. Why should you care about how bad ass the protagonist has become when, from you’re perspective, he’s always been pretty strong? Imagine how unfulfilling Luke Skywalker’s speech about becoming a Jedi, just like his father, would be without seeing him as a whiny teenage moisture farmer. Even starting at Empire Strikes Back, he’s already a hero of the rebellion and he’s already starting to master the Force, becoming somewhat proficient with the lightsaber.
Of course, as usual, one-shots are a pretty huge exception to the rule. You’re not building a grand narrative during a one-shot. You’re watching a Transformers movie, whose sole concern is to watch big robots hit each other and blow things up. Minor details, like plot or story, are largely inconsequential.
What I Did Wrong and How You Can Avoid It
Pay Attention to What They Want
As I said, the first mistake I made was to ignore the kinds of things my players were expressing during Session 0. They were super excited to put together their characters, but rather de-emphasized the non-mechanics elements of the backgrounds, and between all of them I’ve barely got a couple of sentences encompassing their entire backstories. Instead of thinking about my story, I should’ve been paying attention to what they were interested in.
Don’t Front-Load the Story
As I was designing the character introductions, I built the concepts the way I would any other kind of narrative. I placed them in locations that would play best with and against each other, as well as where I felt they would be when they were being recruited. I overemphasized their “ordinary world” and “showing, not telling.” Each of the four them ended up with about 10-15 minutes of character development right from the start. I think that more role-play centered players might’ve appreciated it, but even then I was pressing my luck. For my new players, who were going bonkers waiting to roll dice and hit things, it was overkill.
What I should’ve done was set up introductions that were more like 5 minutes each. Enough to get a sense of the characters, but not enough to burn people out.
Be More Direct
It’s very hard to balance a good narrative and getting the adventure started. While I don’t regret having each of them being approached for a mission, I spent way too much time lolly-gagging, trying to convince them they should go on my quest. Especially since I was providing my new players with a Tutorial Quest, I knew they were going to go wherever I pointed them, but I egotistically wanted to get them to want to go. The same kind of logic can apply to any starting quest for more experienced players, but they don’t need to have their hand held at first, so they can be thrown into a deeper pool.
What I should’ve done was find a reason why the NPCs who were hiring them would just go to them directly. In my mind, if you’re an adventurer, you’re already above most commoners (who have a CR of 0) or even guards (CR 1/8), so someone who needs someone tough, but maybe not for a high price, would seek out a low-level adventurer.
Provide Little Role-Play Opportunities
In my tutorial quest, I included a second opportunity for role play in case they wanted to get to know each others’ characters better. That opportunity ended up needing to be cut short due to schedule conflicts, but the sentiment was probably better served for more detailed character introductions than at the beginning of the campaign. I believe the built-in long rest was a good idea, but if I had included a couple of narratively logical short rests in there, where my players could’ve taken 10-15 minutes to talk, the role play would’ve worked at a more effective pace.
I Hope There Are Good Lessons to be Learned Here
Stay Nerdy, my friends.
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Despite looking so young, I’m in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life’s direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor’s in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I’m turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.