02
Nov
09

In Media Res

I tend to take some time at the start of a session to introduce new characters to the group. This is a holdover from running character-driven games like Amber DRPG, Ars Magica and Vampire: the Masquerade, where so much of the game revolves around watching the characters interact and exploring their personalities. But old-school D&D is a different beast with different goals, and I’m wondering whether these introductory sequences are useful, wasteful or outright counterproductive.

Old-school characters aren’t painstakingly assembled over a matter of days or weeks, nor does the DM go into the game preparing storylines for each starting character. Your first level OD&D or BD&D character is a brittle thing, a tissue of single-digit hit points wrapped around a pawn for the player to manipulate. These characters start off with one-note personalities and backstories that develop organically and gain complexity through the adversities of play. As such, new characters don’t have a lot to contribute to introductory scenes, since no one—not even their players—really know who they are yet.

There’s also the issue of spotlight time. Old-school games can involve lots of players; I’ve had as many as ten players at a session, and Tavis has run even larger groups. More players in attendance means more players twiddling their thumbs during introductory scenes, and I’d prefer to keep the entire group engaged with play whenever possible.

Last session we had three new characters and I more or less threw them in willy-nilly, with a bit of “oh, based on your concept you probably know player character X; hey, player X, are you cool with that?” It worked out fine and sped play along significantly, giving us more time in the dungeon. Success! I’ll want to experiment with various approaches to character intros before coming to any conclusions, however.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on introducing new characters in old school games, especially those with more of a beer-and-pretzels vibe. What kind of approach do you take to character intros, and what are the consequences with regard to play style?


7 Responses to “In Media Res”


  1. November 2, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    I think that minimal intros work well when combined with some obvious hooks that players can use to attach themselves to events – “You probably know X” is one such – and to establish their character’s unique personalities. Giving new characters special powers helps with the latter. Go-Ak the Frumious established himself as unique as soon as you heard his name & appearance, and seized on knowing Erwan from “the Academy” when that was suggested. Erwan used some of our existing hooks (faith in the Boss) to tie in, which suggested his background as well (why would a M-U want to become a convert after a few weeks of Hamish’s preaching).

  2. November 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I strongly support this. Figuring out why people would join the adventuring group is a necessary evil – like figuring out how you come to learn of a fabulous treasure hidden in the depths of the earth. But given that everyone at the table knows we’ll end up forming a party somehow, and the game can’t really start until we do, might as well just snap your fingers and declare it by fiat. Doing so doesn’t meaningfully impinge on player choice. It’s like setting up the board in chess: it has to be done, so might as well do it quickly.

    Many techniques which are absolutely essential in more “highly evolved” games – like conservation of spot-light time, character-driven sub-plots, etc. etc. – don’t mix well with a “beer and pretzels” style of very informal drop-in/drop-out OD&D play.

    You can totally see how those techniques evolved as groups became dissatisfied with sandbox play, but if we’re doing a sandbox it becomes harder to integrate these two approaches.

  3. November 2, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    You raise a good point with the example of Go-ak the Frumious. Namely, it is largely the player’s responsibility to create an engaging character, and that broad strokes and simple hooks help a great deal in this regard. Character classes and random attributes help by providing characteristics for the player to riff off of. I’ve noticed that dwarves and halflings are among the quickest characters to “come to life,” perhaps because of their earthy stereotypes, while the wishy-washy Red Box elf rarely develops much of a personality. Low attribute scores likewise provide footholds for quick and dirty characterizations; low Intelligence and Wisdom scores are reliably entertaining, while low Constitution scores have produced a memorable series of theatrically sickly PCs.

  4. 4 Greengoat
    November 2, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Like you say, the worries may be a subconscious holdover from experiences in a game with more of a constructed plot, but it seems that the onus of getting new characters to fit into the story falls to the player.

    Whenever there is a new player or someone who has been away from the game, at the beginning of the session there is always a summary recited by the players of what happened last game and a general fielding of questions for a couple minutes.

    Once the new PC stats are rolled and “witnessed” the new player slots into the character quite easily. Most of the player are so used to the high turnover rate, that anything could be explained away to have the character join.

    NPCs play a major role as well.
    My current long running character was once a lackey to a more powerful knight character that became a dragon snack. And a new possible character for me to play is a former slave that we rescued. As long as there are plenty of NPCs milling about and waiting in the wings for their moment to shine, it adds a lot of continuity when they get worked in.

  5. November 3, 2009 at 2:26 am

    While this kind of character development certainly dovetails well with beer and pretzels play, I think that’s more of a happy coincidence than anything. I’m of the mindset that organically deriving a character’s, well, character, is one of the best things about Old School play. The other posters are right on: It totally helps to give the character some kind of an epithet or gristy name, plug in the attributes, and you have to take that and run with it hard and fast because you can’t tell how long they’re going to last. In our last session, a new player showed up with three characters and left with one. Each time we had to add in a new character, he simply bumped into the group coming around a corner. No problem!

    Additionally, I think the acquisition of magic items is an overlooked facet of Old School character development. Since there isn’t a whole lot there, fabulous things (or sometimes not even fabulous, per se) that belong to them become part of them, something that lets the player amplify something they find interesting.

    I also like just throwing out connections, i.e., once they meet a new character in a dungeon or wherever: “Melvin, you recognize Thromblott’s name from a Registry of Questionable Wizards you perused last Solstice at the Guildhouse”, etc. Is it true? Only if Thromblott wants it to be. If not, it still provides material for potentially interesting character interactions.

    My motto: No More Backstories. Only once I started playing ODD did I realize just how sick of them I had become…

  6. 6 Lord Bodacious
    November 3, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Deep character intros are definitely somethin to be used on an “as needed” basis. Seems like this really depends at what stage in your campaign or gaming history you are with a group. Can add a genuine narrative to a sandbox world – or it can just bog down

    Last week we had a huge (I think) group – 10+ folks at the table with lots of side conversation and lots going on. Also, most of us had played together in Glantri and had lots of player and character knowledge. Fast-tracking the character intro really optimized time – and players actually ended up doing character development at tableside.

    On the other hand, when I began playing at the beginning of “the eastkeep sessions” it seemed like alot of new players were coming in, and we didn’t have a ton of region/npc background. In this case, I think it was really valuable for us to do some introductory roleplaying to knock the dust off, “troupe” storytelling to build the area, etc.

    To some degree this also applies to roleplaying of some of the “functional” aspects of the game – shopping, resting, daily room/board, etc. While it’s great to haggle about the price of haggis for the first couple times and build the setting, as players start developing the scenario they often just want to get back to the dungeon!

  7. 7 maldoor
    November 3, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    As Eric pointed out originally, redbox or OD&D characters die easily, so any investment in backstory, personality traits, elaborate introductions, second order skill sets based on parentage, etc. are something like 30% to 60% likely to be rendered moot in the first few sessions. But why not think it up, anyway, if you want to?

    Also lost, right from the start, is the opportunity to create the character organically during play. This allows the character to become a part of defining the world. Especially in the collaborative sandbox model, I think it fits better with both spirit and substance of the game to show who the character is through actions, rather than telling the other players. The sketchier and more open-ended the concept the easier it seems to be.

    As for introductions in a sandbox: since most groups end up using a town or stronghold as a base, anyone showing up in town and asking where adventure can be found will be told where to go (the adventuring group will quickly rise to the top of the town’s rumor table, if you will). This is doubly true if the group at any point has advertised or sought hirelings in the past. At the start of any session, after a while, I would assume two or three hangers-on asking to be included. They could be earnest adventurers or hirelings, or something else entirely…
    ,


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