Monday, September 17, 2012

An opening statement

Managing a tabletop game is often discussed in terms of perfect players in a perfect situation. By that, I mean that when I read stuff online about running a game, it's just assumed that your players will be undistracted and able to sit still for an extended time. I don't know about you, but in my experience, that's not realistic.

So a perspective I find helpful is to look at a game like a court case. Just like your players who have either consented willingly or found themselves curious to play your game, in a court you have your line of jurors who are there either for a profound sense of justice, or the (low) pay, or the time off of work. If you're the prosecuting attorney, you have materials to prepare and a point to make, and it's your job to take that jury along as you recount your version of the story. At the end, you want to persuade them to believe your story and act on it.

I'll stop the analogy there, but I want you to consider that a tabletop game can always use a good opening statement. I like to set the players in a particular time and place and present them with a few options for action. Here's an example from a game session I ran a few months ago:

  The open-air bazaar of Witchfire sits on the east bank of the Myur river where the water cuts through a wide, temperate valley.

  Witchfire, named for its violent history as the westernmost outpost of the once-formidable Lician empire, is a ruin of its former stature. Mossy rubble and carved stone piers that bear lionfish heads are the only remnants of the old city, a glorified fort where justice was swiftly dispensed and the invocation of spirits was cause for execution. Now the Lician border is 50 mies to the east, the territory is wild again, and only the most brazen or misanthropic traders and adventurers make Witchfire their home. Some settlers risk putting up wooden houses and wide burlap tents in hopes that a large enough presence will protect them from the brooding forests to the north and the tall, snow-capped mountains of Chelft to the south.

  Slave traders, opportunists, lore-seekers, and river folk come to Witchfire to deal in wares and secrets that would be unwelcome in a more law-bound settlement. Some of these strangers have stayed over time to make Witchfire their home, giving it an eclectic, if not tense, population of about 100, plus another hundred or so visitors who happen by on the river. The Tuna, a seedy ale hall, attracts the more sociable of these residents. Other noticeable features are the Witchfire School for the Touched, led by Brother Talc; The Dream, a cafe that caters to most illicit needs; and the recently reinvigorated Temple of Kruss, the horned pig god of consumption.

  Today is mild but windy. The sun is shining but about to make its midday journey behind the clouds. Four adventurers have coincidentally arrived by different means, and they find themselves standing in a throng of other new visitors. The wooden docks creak, the river gulls hungrily watch peoples' hands for dropped food. The wind gently blows the daytime smells of cookfires, searing meat, unwashed bodies, and the distant, dark forest to your nose.

What I tried to do here was introduce two new players and two veterans to the campaign setting. I wanted the players to think of themselves as strangers meeting each other in a new and dangerous place. This set the scene for them to introduce themselves and talk about what their immediate in-game goals were. (Unfortunately, the campaign never progressed beyond the first session.)

Here are some points of advice for a game session's opening statement:

  • Begin broadly; end specifically. Your statement should be like a microscope: you have to start far away but then you can focus on the most salient details.
  • Use your other senses to describe the location. What does it smell like? What can be heard?
  • You only need to hint at the place's deeper lore. Don't make it too wordy or you'll risk distracting or boring your players.
  • Using "you" can be powerful if you don't overuse it. Make your players feel like they even though they could be anywhere, they're here by some cosmic confluence of fate.
  • Include some options--like different places, or people, or upcoming events--to hook your players in early.

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