Practical Thoughts on Starting in the Middle

So… this is getting to be a thing. I write about something, then I offer some suggestions to put that something into practice. I promise I’ll stop soon.

On the subject of starting in the middle:

Something Mysterious – but not really a mystery.

I have only attempted to run NWoD once. I ran a Vampire: Requiem game and when it came time to be introduced to the local Prince, well, that happened in his private box at the theatre. He was there, and a very nice lady who introduced herself as a local leader was there as well. They both spoke to the characters but never to each other. In fact, they didn’t even seem to acknowledge that the other was there. When one of them was speaking, the other would turn their attention elsewhere. They were never rude, never spoke over each other or responded in any way to what the other was saying… and they were both in the Prince’s box, with his Sheriff and his guards around… so it’s not like she was an enemy. When the player’s contact spoke of the two, he acted like nothing at all weird had happened. But it was an effective scene and clearly, there was a story there.

This kind of thing can be effective if you don’t overplay the hand. It has to be subtle and you must remain committed to making the details fit. The PCs can be drawn into all kinds of weirdness by their own curiosity but the important takeaway is the feeling that there is something they don’t know, some history between these two that makes for a confusing situation. I mean, if a Prince and a Primogen say two different things, and the two are acting like they are the only one in the room — what does a poor newbie do except get caught in the middle? And maybe knowing the history is important to resolving something in game… For these kinds of moves it really is all in the details though. What if the PCs are watching really carefully and they notice that every now and then the Prince looks at the lady in his box and has a hint of human sadness in his eyes? It’s a world immersion detail and it also rewards careful players who care about those details.

The Buddy System

This is a personal favorite of mine as a player. Don’t make your character alone. Having a detailed backstory is fun, but it’s tough to really get that stuff into play. But if you make your character with another player and build a shared backstory, well, now you can reference that shared history during play. You can share each other’s flaws and refer to them. I’ve played Royal Cousins, twin sisters, face and bodyguard friends, a troll and his human sister, and other crazy roles pairs over the years. And you don’t have to define it all up front. Watch a movie like Sahara and when Dirk says to Al, “We’re doing a Panama” well, the audience doesn’t know what a Panama is (Dirk and Al were never actually in Panama…) but there’s a sense of these people as more than just the two hours we spend with them in the film. This works in game too.

Having shared history, and a willingness to exploit it in game, is a great way to make the characters into more “living” personalities. We all have shared memories with other people and those experiences deepen our bonds. Use that in game as well.

A heretofore unseen NPC (or two)

In a previous post I mentioned the “dwarven shovelbuddies” made up on the spot by a player in one of my urban D&D games. I loved this. These were not characters that I had made up or that the player had made up before that moment. But it was inventive play, had a cinematic feel to it, and created a potential for the PC to owe a favor later on — to the kind of people who would waylay a couple of pursuers on a moment’s notice (and by ‘waylay’ – I mean kill if necessary). So maybe not a favor you want to owe. But what made it so great was that the PC did it himself. He did all the heavy lifting for me as the GM, I just had to say yes.

We often see characters in stories who have “an old friend” (cough, Lando Calrissian, Cough) who may not exactly be friend. But they have what the PC needs. Games like Shadowrun are great for this because they build taking Contacts right into the character creation process. It’s useful to get your GM’s permission and ask if you can leave a few points “banked” for Contacts and define them on the fly. As a GM, you might encourage players to only define their contacts in broad terms at the beginning of the game and fill them in as those NPCs come up. This allows them to have layers of nuance they might not when you’re in the middle of juggling the numbers on your sheet.

So, those are three simple suggestions for helping to make “the middle of the story” feel more real right from the start. I hope they help. As always, thanks for reading.

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4 responses

  1. The buddy system works very well, but in a long term campaign I’ve found that it works best in moderation. You wouldn’t every one of your players to be paired off as it could lead to party splits at awkward times, and maybe stretch credulity.

  2. You’re absolutely right. Moderation is important. I’m not sure what you mean about stretching credulity – most groups of people have subsets of intertwined relationships (but I could also be misreading your meaning). I primarily suggest buddying up because I’ve found that it’s much more of a struggle to convince all the players to agree to build a shared background (despite the usefulness of such work in the long run).

  3. […] Practical Thoughts on Starting in the Middle at Rhetorical Gamer: Here are three methods for working more detailed backstory into your game, letting you skip to the meaty middle of your campaign. […]

  4. […] of character histories… Do you start in the middle? MorrisonMP @ The Rhetorical Gamer offers some interesting suggestions about having a history where you’ve only defined that it exists, not what it is, between two […]

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