Posted on Posted in Stranger than Fiction

“Begin in an experience, real or imagined.” – Richard Hugo

I’ve tried doing the “Stranger than Fiction” series a couple of other places, but it never works out, so I’m going to try it again here on my website, and hopefully, I’ll manage to keep it around longer than some of the other places that have hosted it. The purpose of this series of posts is to increase our meta-game rpg skill level by applying the elements of crafting good and great fiction to our gaming experience. Mostly this is aimed at Game Masters, since that’s the role I usually take recently in gaming groups. Apparently, I’m challenging to have as a player. Anyway…since we’re starting out fresh, this first post will be about beginnings.

Well, here we are taking the first steps of an adventure, and like most gaming moments, we’re hoping that these tentative steps will lead us to something epic, as both players and Game Masters. In the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, I’m going to devote a bit of time once a week to talk about how we can make our gaming experience better by using the elements of crafting great fiction. As this is our first time together, I felt it best to start at the beginning.

Traditionally, fantasy role-playing games starts in taverns. A group of would-be adventurers sits around a table, until a stranger comes in and gives them a mission, and they’re off on adventure.

Not every game starts this way, especially not any more. Games have gotten far more sophisticated, and we have far more genres that just hack and slash fantasy. However, I come from the old school days where options were limited. Even after I stopped playing DnD in favor of Shadowrun, which really is just DnD cyberpunk, and Vampire (along with the other World of Darkness games), taverns gave way to night clubs. Why? What seems to be the fascination with this sort of setting? I don’t know for sure, but I’d put a few bucks down that it’s because pretty much every culture in the world has a place where people gather to drink booze where it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a mysterious stranger to show up. (Because if I’m a mysterious stranger looking for people to go do something more than a little stupid, I’m going to look for them in a place with lots of alcohol…I think I’ll start my next game at a frat house.) And really, back then, it kind of worked. We hadn’t over used the cliché. And, even today, if you’re a Game Master, and if you’ve got someone brand new to gaming in your group, you’re kind of morally obligated to open a game like this just once. It’s good for people to experience the traditions of this great hobby of ours.

However, let’s say you’re starting a new game. You have a bunch of people that have been gaming since AD&D consisted of three hardback books, and they thought GAMMA WORLD would never work, because it wasn’t fantasy. What do you do for them? Or, say that you have a group of reluctant gamers, as I did when 3rd Edition DnD came out and I was trying to convince my wife and a friend to play? Both of these are tough crowds, where the traditional opening in a tavern is not going to work.

Not to fear! We can turn to our understanding of fiction to get our game off to a strong start! One of the first rules of fiction is: Make them care right from the beginning. How do you do that?  Give them conflict! Give them drama! Most of all: Make it personal.

The very first session of the very first game I ran for my skeptical wife hooked her as a gamer. After over ten years, we still game, and she even takes her turn at running games. (Right now she’s running a wonderful Pathfinder game which is one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve ever had – but I digress.) How did I hook her? Well, she needed a character, but before I boggled her mind with abilities, and hit points, and armor class, and etc, I just ran through the races and classes. She chose a half-elf druid, because the druid picture in the 3rd Edition Players Handbook was pretty. We gave the character a name, gave her a pet wolf, and we started gaming – no dice rolling, no character sheet – pure story to start with.

She was walking through the woods, came home to the cabin that her mother and she lived in… and some guys (at least a dozen) in black leather armor with skull helmets were nailing her naked mother to the door of the cabin. Mom screamed, “Run.” Some of the guys in leather started toward my wife’s character. Note: Up to this point, I was referring to my wife’s character name and using third person pronouns. There’s a madness to my methods.

When I described this, my wife told me, “I run like hell.”

I replied, “I’m sorry. What?”

She said, “I run like hell. I’m not going to let them get me too. But someday, they are going to pay.”


I had her.

Granted, unlike trying to sell a short story or a novel to an editor, Game Masters have a little more time, but not as much as they might think. You’ve got generally one session, perhaps two at the most, to really get your players caring, or you run the risk of losing them (more on this later.)

Much more recently, I started a World of Darkness game, where all the players started as normal humans. They got to create their characters before the first game session, bearing this in mind: they were all in their late teens/early twenties who had be institutionalized for some mental and/or emotional trauma. At the opening of the first game session each one had managed to work through quite a bit of their issues and were now living in a half-way house, with the idea that this was their next step to getting their lives back. In the first session, the house first ate one of the player characters (she was a plant and knew this was happening and had a new character ready to go), then the house ate the staff, and to really make things interesting for some reason, the players had become unnoticed by the other people in their neighborhood. All in a few hours: danger, mystery, a shared horrible experience. Oh yeah, I forgot the shared dream they all had that was exactly the same to the last detail, giving them clues on how to fix the problem they were in. By the end of that first game session, one of the details of the dream had showed up in the house, pointing them on a course of action.

These are two examples of many different ways to grab your readers… um… players. On the other hand, something like these may not work for your gamers. I can’t tell you what will. Each group is different, and you know your players better than I do. I do know that today’s gamer has a very short attention span. Between all the MMOs and other video games, Netflix, Facebook games with live chat channels, grabbing and holding their attention is an uphill battle on the best of days. The easiest way to hold their attention despite these distractions is by opening strong. If you do that, they will follow, even if your story lags in the middle like some massive, epic, multi-volume fantasies I could mention (but won’t because I don’t want to get lynched) they will follow you.

Slow and cliché openings don’t work anymore. As I said, one game session, maybe two is all you’ve got. Stuck for an opening to your new game? Go to your bookshelf and read the first chapter of five of your favorite books. That should give you some idea. It doesn’t matter what genre the game is or what genre the book is. It’s just about fueling the fire of your imagination.

Until next time: Game Epic!