“A few small, mostly melted candles adorn an old round table at the center of this shadowy room. The candle light flickers lightly as you step into the room through an ornate curtain. The dancing luminescence wicks over numerous porcelain masks covering the walls, their demonic visage accentuated almost seeming alive. A single gold censer hangs from the ceiling, swaying lightly, it’s pungent smoke cascading from it. Sitting at the low table is an ancient man, legs crossed, as he adjusts himself on one of the oversized pillows set around the room. His eyes are glazed and pale white, his beard grey, long, and scraggly. He wears an enormous red turban adorned with silver baubles and ornaments. An ornate red demon mask lies on the table in front of him, his gangly fingers gently tracing its features. His head tilts towards you, looking more with his ears than his eyes. In a raspy yet elegant voice he says: ‘You’ve come! Have you brought it?’ “
This is an introductory event I planned out for an adventure set in a fantastical and far off, foreign land. After gathering some information from the players, I set out to design an introduction to the game WE decided to play. These introductions are an art form that takes practice to get right. They come in many shapes and sizes; though, I much prefer to use these events as an introduction to the game we will be playing. Therefore, when you plan your session 0 this should be the first thing you present to your players. This moment is an accumulation of the story you want to run as well as a representation of what your players ask for in your initial chats about playing the game. (You really should chat a bit with your players before you set up a session 0.) Each introductory event will be different depending on the type of game your players want to play and the story you want to tell.
Why is this important?
The beginning is the foundation of the entire story. It is the structural pillar, the load bearing wall. It defines so many aspects of the game. It gives the players a sense of the general tone of the adventure and gives them inspiration. It also provides important information about the setting and what the characters are up to at the beginning of the adventure. My players wanted a caper like adventure in a unique setting. Something that would stick out from the standard fantasy land. Your players may want a traditional dungeon crawling adventure. Others may want a grim horror-scape or high seas adventure. Each of these will require a different event with unique information, inspiration, and tone.
Without a proper foundation, your walls and ceilings will come crumbling down. Let’s break down my example, during which I will simultaneously use information, inspiration, and tone I’m presented with to create the outline of a character.
What sort of information can we gather from the event? Firstly we notice that this may not be a typical fantasy setting. The imagery of the turban and masks, the ornate baubles, lead us towards a different cultural basis. What else? The old man, described as ancient, seems to know us. He asks: “Have you brought it?” leading us to believe we are working for him. Maybe we’ve brought him a mask for his collection. Maybe something a bit more nefarious…
Good information presented to the players in an introductory event should raise as many questions as it answers. Why? Information that brings questions is an excellent source of inspiration. Where are we? Why am I here? What am I? Are all questions that should come up in your introductory event. Keep the questions flowing and the players’ inspiration will follow.
Ask yourself: “What sort of character would I make?” What do you think? Does anything come to mind? Is there anything in the imagery that sticks out to you? There are a few things that stick out to me instantly, the turban, incense, and mask. I also get a Djinn in a bottle vibe. With that in mind, I immediately saw a Tiefling holding open the curtain.
“She has dark-colored skin, almost black, which helps her blend into the shadows. She has ornate gold-plated horns that curl back from her forehead and around the back of her ears jutting to the sides at the end. She wears pale red harem trousers with brown leather strapping around her waist and chest. She wears a long grey sleeveless coat with gold filigree. She smiles a toothy white grin, simultaneously blending in with the shadows. Her steely blue eyes pierce the room as they look about.”
I used the information as my basis of inspiration and incorporated it into my character. She blends into the shadows of the room. She wears clothing that would likely be worn in a setting inspired Middle Eastern fantasy. The demonic masks prompted me to think Tiefling. I see the characters as devilish and deceptive as a Djinn, which also pulled me towards a Sorcerer. Maybe a Shadow Sorcerer? Warlock?
Inspiration you give the players during this event should give them a plethora of sources to draw upon. Here we can look at sources like Prince of Persia and Aladdin, Middle Eastern folklore, and Indian culture. Our example gives the players a lot to work with, but not too much. If your depiction is too narrow you may force the characters to become generalized. If you give them too much they may be overwhelmed. The inspiration given should prompt the players to create characters that will work in the adventure you are going to run. Inadvertently, we also touched on our final aspect…
Using the information we were given what can we determine about the tone of the adventure? We see a lot of shadows and demonic visages. There is a bit of religious or ceremonial texture with the censer. What feeling do you get? I get a sense of darker setting with hidden fantastical elements. The masks seemingly coming alive act as an omen or premonition. There is a ritualistic nature to the way the room is laid out and how the man gently strokes the mask. The imagery, though dark, is not completely devoid of color. Bright red turban, Silver trinkets, Golden censer, all lend themselves to the notion that there is a vibrancy to the world.
The tone, I would say, is dark though it has its moments of prosperity and hope.
What character would you make?
Here are two more examples of Introductory events, each with different information, inspiration, and tone. What character would you make for each? (This website has a ton of nice tools for playing and running games. Check it out!)
“A flash of light cascades over the drenched field, the darkened shadows that stand here now illuminated. A knight dressed in full plate armor bearing golden etchings of a dragon kneels in the mud, using his massive sword to hold his weight. The water from the rain turns milky with blood as it runs over the armor. He breathes heavily. The other figure stands tall, dressed in similar heavy armor adorned with blue etchings of lightning. He carries a hammer thrust up towards the sky. The etchings on the armor flash and fade as crackling energy webs up his arm and into the hammer. The light fades and the figures return to shadow. With a low rumbling thunder lightning arcs from the hammer striking the fallen knight, sparking with intense fury. He slumps to the ground. You were witnesses to the duel, properly performed. Sir Eman of House Oren has fallen.”
“The boat gently rocks. Captain Zelanna holds out her compass as she pours over the map on the table. The air coalesces around her Air Genasi form. She’s frustrated. You know she’s frustrated when she loses control of her air. It’s been two weeks and no sign of land. Food stores are running low. The rum is gone. The stars shifted, seemingly overnight, and you were lost. No. Transported? They sky is completely different here. Alien. Two weeks and no sun. Where in all the god’s domain have you ended up? Zelanna slams her fist on the table, causing the others to jump. … ‘LAND HO!’ You hear the cry. Salvation? You look to each other in disbelief for a moment, but quickly, almost in unison, you run to the deck.”
How does this help?
This is your foundation. You need to set a proper foundation, both for your players and yourself. From this, you set your pillars. The pillars are the stories you will tell. In part two we I’ll delve into the pillar of your adventures and how you should prepare each one. For now, happy adventuring!