New DM Handbook: Starting Your Adventure

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New DM Handbook: The Rival Party
New DM Handbook: Pirate's Cove (My Tutorial Quest)

New DM HandbookAs 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

Hero of a Thousand Faces adventureThe 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!!!

A New Hope intro Star WarsThe 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.

DragonbornEven 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

Characters Meeting adventureNerdarchist 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

Low Level PartyBoth 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

Player NeedsAs 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

Fellowship of the RingAs 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.

D&D Starter HeroesWhat 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

Short RestIn 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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Follow Joshua Brickley:
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.

8 Responses

  1. TheDMGinfo
    | Reply

    I’ll just leave this here… https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9i4x-AwaEYVSMuWo5D1YHu0N4BASlXBA

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      …And I’ll totally leave it behind. I don’t have anything nice to say, but I wanted to let you know that I respectfully watched the series, because I’m a firm believer in listening to other people, and I wanted you to know that I did.

  2. TheDMGinfo
    | Reply

    Also the story of Star Wars is about R2D2 and C3P0 and not Luke Skywalker. This “story from the persepctive of the lowest member of society” is used in Akira Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress and is why so many people think Star Wars is a direct crib. It too begins in a battle, with two serfs struggling to avoid death when they end up on an adventure with a great general and a princess. While I agree that the ordinary world of Luke is boring and mundane. The ordinary world of the droids is not. Their story begins with a bang and then the hook is that R2D2 meets with Princess Leia (The Herald) and their quest is to find Obi-Wan. Luke is along for the ride 🙂

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      The primary protagonist is Luke Skywalker. He is the hero in the Hero’s Journey. He literally goes through every stage, internally and externally. R2D2 and C3P0 would be more equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or maybe Pippin and Merry. They are a effective plot devices that we may love, and they may even play important roles, but they are not the heroes of the story. In fact, they make no personal or emotional advancements, which is an essential element of a hero, and a number of anti-heroes. R2D2 and C3P0 are exactly the same characters as they were in Episode IV as they were in Episode VI (I’m not counting I-III because Lucas painted himself in a corner during the entire trilogy, and it would be unfair to judge them on that basis, although there is still literal difference there, too). It would be folly to associate beloved characters with protagonists, especially if you’re trying to force them into the position of heroes as a means to rationalize what is one of the least coherent narratives in the modern era. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy Star Wars, but I understand and accept them for what they are, what they aren’t, and what serious flaws exist, just the way that I love Doctor Who (which is my favorite of the big three sci-fi franchises) for being a children’s adventure story set in space and time.

      As far as R2D2 and C3P0’s ordinary world being chaos, it would be a bit of a false assumption to say that. Since we can’t rely on Episodes I-III as being an indicator, we have to take clues from their initial actions and statements as to their traditional state. R2D2 has a very strong sense of duty. He believes in the mission, and has the resolve and courage to complete it, so his sense of familiarity with danger and chaos is more plausible, but C3P0’s isn’t. He complains about every step of the way, and is constantly trying to reorder the situations at hand into some semblance of normalcy. Given that we have little insight into R2D2’s actual words other than through the extremely biased filter of C3P0 and our own anthropomorphism assumptions, we can only rely on so much of his reactions to the outside influences. We can see that he’s courageous, but we don’t know if that courage comes from a place of familiarity, or if he is brave because he knows how significant his mission is, and that he must set aside his fears.

      However, since R2D2 is the literal messenger in the only trilogy that we can rely on, because Episodes I-III are by definition a retcon, where a lot of decisions were made for the sake of fan service, and since he is in fact not called to action, his familiarity with a world in turmoil and chaos would be reflective of the universe’s ordinary world, not that of the hero’s. If R2D2 were more than a messenger, comic relief, and a sidekick, who actually acted in a meaningful way to advance the overall journey, or at the very least his own, your argument could be made, but since his role is to advance the journeys of the heroes around him, he can’t by definition be considered the hero.

  3. Scott Garibay
    | Reply

    It is reductive to say that the Hero’s Journey (the monomyth) is the basis of Star Wars. It is not. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Star Wars films. The Star Wars films transcend the monomyth in many ways. Campbell’s work is a minor footnote to Lucas’ writing and Lucas (as a writer) will be remembered long after Campbell’s work has been forgotten. Positing that Star Wars is based on the Hero’s Journey ignores the actual structure of Lucas’ writing on Star Wars, which is Ring Composition. The original Star Wars films are only fully understood when you view them within the full context of Episodes 1 through 6 and see that the films are elegantly matched like a poem, Jedi to Menace and Empire to Clones and Hope to Sith. Most fans are too busy complaining about the prequel films to see the full picture. They cannot see passed Jar Jar Binks (who was a compelling character and one that did the job he was set to, winning an entire new generation of fans). Star Wars has a much to do with the Hero’s Journey as a Formula Race Car does with a tricycle. Campbell’s work is a trite observation and Lucas’ work is platform that will serve as a last foundation for stories for centuries or millennia.

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      Just for public record, I don’t hate Episodes I-III. They suffer from a problem of pacing, from a misunderstanding of why people love Star Wars, and from Lucas trying to cash in on specific elements, but I don’t hate them. They’re perfectly watchable. The biggest problem that they suffer is that instead of trying to tell a great story, Lucas used them as a means of keeping a promise that he made with Episodes IV-VI. If he had a great story to tell us, I think they would’ve been amazing. I also think that his weird paranoia and over reliance on CGI was a huge problem. It dipped deep into the uncanny valley and hurt the acting significantly, because acting is about interacting with other characters. It’s about feeding off the emotions and the decisions that the other actors make, and it’s about building off a bond that is made when you work together for long, long, long days for several months. I say this not just as a cinephile, or from interviews of the cast of Episodes I-III, but from personal experience as an actor of 15 years. Again, Episodes I-III aren’t as bad as everyone makes them out to be, and we all have to acknowledge that, just as we have to acknowledge that we put too much emphasis of Star Wars as a religion over critical observations when talking about it, or thinking about it. The reason why I didn’t include them in my argument is because they’re an unreliable source of canon when it comes to the discussion, specifically because they function as a kept promise, and they’re bound by the rules established by the originals, which goes for any prequel.

  4. TheDMG
    | Reply

    Joseph Campbell said of George Lucas that he was his greatest student. Lucas used the mythical template to test the narrative arc. The monomyth is not the story, it is the emotional and psychological root of human existence. The reason it works and the reason it perpetuates has nothing to do with form and everything to do with function. The human mind is a pattern recognition machine. Identifying key components of human​ existence in a story and relating that to one’s own experience. The very reason we personify R2D2 and C3P0 is because of their experience running parallel to that of a human life span. Humans see humans in non humans. While R2D2 and C3P0 grow as much as Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, they are all heroes. Their primary goal is to restore equilibrium. To rebalance the moral equation. Without the droids there are no death star plans, they all die in the trash compactor and Lukes Xwing would never have made the trench. If Luke is the primary hero, why is he only introduced 20 minutes into the film?

    • Joshua Brickley
      | Reply

      You’re right that the monomyth isn’t a narrative, but being a structure. That people love patterns. It’s why tropes are so important to us, which is why I pointed out in my article that George Lucas actually very intelligently used the monomyth trope to establish the universe as being in turmoil. Lucas likely also borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia to establish Tatooine as being a desolate planet. This is not to mention that he had to find a way of linking the greater universe in peril to Luke, who was ostensibly some kid (who, by the way, would’ve otherwise become a Tie Fighter pilot for the Empire). He chose to do it through a series of events that made it seem like it was an unlikely situation. That Luke happened to be drawn into the story by way of coincidence or the will of the Force. Yes, it took a long time, but it really didn’t need to be. R2D2 and C3P0 could’ve just as easily landed in the middle of Luke’s moisture farm. Perhaps Lucas was inspired by Tolkien’s (painfully) long form storytelling style. After all, it doesn’t leave the Shire until the sixth chapter, and it takes the hobbits two chapters three chapters just to get to the Prancing Pony to start their journey towards Rivendell. By taking his time, the way that Tolkien does, Lucas manages to focus on establishing the idea of a larger universe, which is an important element of creating a connection with the audience. It’s why he can get away with what would be otherwise unacceptably large plot holes and sketchy writing (where some of the best lines were actually changed by the actors). We know that he knew what he was doing by his choice to gamble on the back end. He knew that the people would fall in love with the universe, which would allow him to supplement good storytelling with cool moments.

      R2D2 is a hero, no doubt. He does a lot of good, but he’s not the protagonist. Just because he’s there first, and he’s around for a lot, doesn’t mean that he’s the center of the story. He was there for the destruction of the first Death Star, which is, in your word, the big bad, but was he the one who took the shot to destroy it? Did he rescue Princess Leia? Was he the one who figured out how to take down the AT-ATs? Was he the one in training with Master Yoda to have the power to take down the Empire? Did he confront his own demons to grow (an essential element of the monomyth)? Was he the one who confronted Darth Vader on Cloud City? Did he orchestrate the rescue of Han Solo? Was he in the final fight with the Darth Vader, and helped Anakin Skywalker redeem his humanity? No. He was integral to the implementation of the grand narrative, just as any great sidekick would, and he was very heroic (which no sane person can deny), but the story didn’t revolve around him. It revolved around Luke. We know this because Luke was at the center of a majority of events. More than any other character. He had the most screen time of the original trilogy (http://www.imdb.com/list/ls031379663/), with about 106 minutes, which is about triple what R2D2 had, with about 36 minutes. He doesn’t even have the same amount of screen time if you include him in the entire franchise. If R2D2 was the protagonist, surely he would’ve been the center of attention. He is not, and thus not the protagonist, or the monomyth hero (which is distinctive from a hero, or one who is heroic).

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