Where are you headed?
Having cute characters and a story arc is nice and all, but what about flow? How well do your players follow along with your track, as the GM?
Pretend we’re in the first session of a brand new story, all new PCs, but the players know one another. How have you prepared them for the land they now populate? Was it a paper print out, explaining why there are very few Gnomes left? Where’s the royalty, are the streets rife with thieves? Or are metals a very rare material, so weapons are made from bone and wood only? Or have you presented a written intro that you verbalize yourself (this is what I do) that communicates the tone and feeling of your setting, in only 200 words?
Sure that’s not easy to do, but the more you do it the better you get at it. And why have your PCs inexplicably met up? We know the genuine reason is we’re all players in a game, but we’re trying to escape reality for some fun! So let the players talk it out. Maybe the Dwarf and Human are super distant relatives, while the Halfling owes the Half-Orc a favor for their previous adventure? Once the introductions are out the way, and the PCs know who they are, and where they are, how do you then go into the real meat of the game, giving control over to the PCs?
That is the real test, the proof of the pudding. When you let go of the reins and give the PCs that actual control, how quickly do they take up those reins? Is the Rogue immediately “I wanna scope out the town for the wealthiest house (probably the mayors)?” Does the Paladin say solemnly “We must find these poor lost children if it costs us our lives!” before locating a church? Does the Ranger instantly suspect everyone of being a Werewolf?
I’ll give you an example of my openings. And every session I have ever run has had an intro and outro unless time choked a session short, in which I couldn’t deliver the outro. This is for my adult adventure known simply as “Bottomsley” (requested by a dear friend). This campaign was intentionally rated 15+ minimum, and the dungeons and complications encountered were always far more than “my relative has been kidnapped, do save.”
“Welcome, to Bottomsley, brave adventurers. Where social norms are not the norm at all, and clothing is perhaps optional. At least in polite company. Bottomsley is famed for its lack of rules and self-built laws, where each pair of breasts hides a dagger, and every sock an item of defense. The siren call of wild success has lured you in, because if anyone could tame the wild notions of Bottomsley then surely their power would be great.
As you walk into the town – a group of mild friends having traveled 3 days together – you notice how normal the town looks. Buildings of stone and wood, high roofs of hand-woven thatch. The streets are cobbled and horses are lead about while carriages pull groups of customers to and fro.
Up one arm of the city, you see a lining of buildings that look like hotels, weaponsmiths, bars. Along the complete opposite side of the city, you see the same, curving inwards as well, more buildings and places of commerce. Directly ahead of you is a small raised island of earth, whereupon three great houses sit, each one larger and grander than the one before it. At the furthest house, you think you spot a dark figure, but you blink and it’s gone.
As you look around and get that curious itch, a ruckus begins right before you…”
The opening continued into a fight between a married couple, surrounded quickly by a crowd, with the adults’ kids acting as bookies! The PCs were encouraged to bet on the fight and doubled their money before the family brushed off and got back to life. You can see from my opening it expresses clearly that the town you’re going into isn’t normal, the people aren’t normal, and pants are legally optional. Not only that but when you open with some action you think it’ll be a “Rat infestation in the local bar”, not a couple having fisticuffs in the main street! My PCs weren’t expecting this opening, but instantly understood the place they were in. I think the bit that sold the opening the best was that the children of the fighting couple were the bookies.
I also mentioned briefly why the group is together. “A group of mild friends having traveled 3 days together.” Yes, that glosses over any key information, like pre-existing relationships, or who owes who money, but it allowed the opening to explain the town and it’s people better, while not limiting the PCs in their later decisions on why they were there. I also mention weaponsmiths, bars, hotels, 3 grand houses right in the middle of the street. Enough for the PCs to grow curious about and investigate.
That is only for introductions, however. What about getting from session 2 to 3? In another campaign, I had a fight involving Goblins, a Treant (you met him last article) and the PCs. Having returned the Treant home there was a fight to “convince” the Goblins to leave. Those who didn’t, got into a big fight, and left another way. During the fight, however, the Treant was picking up Goblin huts and hurling them like rocks. In all the commotion, and with only one real rock handy, the Treant hits the side of the mountain and causes a minor cave in. This goes unnoticed until after the fight, however, and the PCS investigate and find a long dark tunnel, that splits into two pathways. One for Medium-sized critters, and one for Small. Well, we’d have to rest and relax back in town and get the Treant set up properly, but we knew where we were headed next! What was down there, in those dark tunnels, hidden within the Treant’s grove?
(Turns out it was Svirfneblin, and a huge part of the main story arc. And I know last time I said it WAS a typo, that was the joke! No one can pronounce that race properly anyway. Just show someone that word and ask them to pronounce it properly. Go ahead, I’ll wait…)
My point here was that you can see the mechanics behind the story. The story is “you vanquish the Goblins and the Treant opened up a mysterious track…” The mechanics were “There’s a fight to get rid of the Goblins first, and after that, we go into the cave system.” It was totally possible to have the Treant arrive home safely, no Goblins, and simply show the players the way into the caves with the Svirfneblin, but where’s the fun in that? I say again if you’re not interested in your story and what you’ve presented, how can you expect your players to be?
There have definitely been times when my flow has needed work, but I think it’s the exception rather than the rule. Knowing I have an open and closing piece to read to the players helps me to think of the session’s action in clear-cut portions, and gives me the confidence to run a great session. Now talking about flow, I didn’t mention what to do when the game throws a gear in your works and ruins any idea of flow at all…
So join me next article when I talk about cheating player deaths…