Some parts of a game are more difficult to run than others. Among the most difficult, at least for me, are the beginnings, in which players and GM alike must get back into character. Even more difficult is the start of the very first game of a campaign.
The players may have an idea of who their characters are, but they probably haven’t yet solidified. Likewise, a GM’s idea of where the game is going can drastically change as the PC and NPC motivations take form. Thus, first games, for me, have a tentative quality, as if the whole group is slowly feeling its way through a darkened room.
Traveller Jump Start
I was recently faced with one such first game, as we kicked off our new Traveller campaign. This would be the first full campaign I’d run in over a year, the first sci-fi I’d run in several years, and the first time any of us had played Traveller. It was a daunting prospect.
As I was figuring out how to jump start the game, I started noticing that our perspective of sci-fi was largely drawn from TV and movies. When the players discussed their PCs, it was often by drawing comparisons to Star Wars, Firefly, Alien, etc. So, I decided to draw on this fact by wrapping the game in a TV/movie metaphor.
When we sat down to the first session, I asked each player to imagine the title sequence of their show: scenes of alien planets, panning through star fields, and a ship arcing into view. Now their characters appear. How would they best portray their characters in just a couple visual scenes?
Here’s what they came up with:
Mac James, Pirate/Marine
- Pausing in the middle of a bar fight to down a beer, then using the empty mug to smash a face.
- In full combat armor, chasing a trio of armed marines down a sterile Navy ship corridor (a la Han Solo on the Deathstar).
- Tossing dice in an alley with a crowd of ruffians, and a two dollar whore at his side
Josiah Ben-Gideon, Engineer
- Reading by candle light in his cramped quarters, hunched over an impossibly large, leather bound tome on machinery
- Laying his hands, streaked with sweat and oil, on a ship’s drive, trying to coax just a little more power
- Sitting around the crew table on the rec deck, quietly sipping from a mug, and taking in his shipmates’ animated conversations and tales (as the camera pans around him to show his point of view)
Feng Bailey, Captain
- Pruning the bonsai tree in his quarters
- Working at the ship’s computer station, with open windows of information floating all around him.
- Breaching the outer door of a derelict alien ship in the depths of space
We then continued by introducing the ship, since it would be such a large part of the game. The crew had come to a remote shipyard, where Josiah had found them a likely ship. They’d spent a few bored days as the engineer finished directing some repairs necessary to make her space-worthy. Finally, though, they watched as the Lucky Dragon streaked toward the office.
We then took turns describing what they found as they explored the ship. I started by talking about the specks of rust and corrosion on the hull, the dust and detritus in the cargo hold, and the anatomically correct graffiti in one of the crew cabins. The players followed up with:
- Laser burn marks, dark stains, and what look suspiciously like faded chalk outlines in the hold
- Remnants of recovered files on the computer, potentially a broken AI
- A jumble of old crates in the cargo bay, including a pallet of expired MREs
This method took time, but seemed to catapult everyone into character. By the time we got to the ship, everyone was talking in character about what they discovered. It also gave everybody a good picture of what their crewmates were like.
But, as they say on the infomercials, that’s not all. As it happens, that was actually the second time I’d used this method. When I first came up with the title sequence idea, it was for an entirely different purpose.
In our last Cabin Trip, Bryan was considering a couple different options for his character, Kalimorgha. He had asked me for my opinion on the direction he should go. Being the cruel guy that I am, I answered his question with a question.
Predictably, given the context of this post, I asked him to consider the title sequence for this game’s TV show. What was Kalimorgha doing? What was she carrying? This seemed to help him narrow down the concept.
It also seemed to do a similar job for the Traveller campaign. Justin had previously described Mac James as more of a bruiser. In his sequence, though, his outgoing, gregarious personality was highlighted. As it happened, Mac became the de facto face-man of the group, disappearing into dive bars to find passengers, freight, and black market contacts.
The sequences also give the GM a glimpse at the characters that they might not have otherwise had. In each of his scenes, Mac was surrounded by people. I’m betting he’s one of those guys who can’t stand to be alone. Josiah’s life centers around machinery. How will he react to the rest of the crew messing with his ship? In contrast to Mac, in each Feng’s scenes, he was completely alone. How will he take being trapped for weeks at a time in a small space with three other guys, each of whom has an equal claim to the ship?