Sunday, 18 June 2017

In Media Res

I mentioned in my previous post that I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I was reminded earlier that the first time I read it, I think aged 10 or 11, I started with The Two Towers and not The Fellowship... - I think because a friend had already taken out my local library's only copy of the latter, and I was impatient to read it. So my encounter with the books started not with Bilbo leaving Hobbiton, but with Boromir's funeral. Quite a different introduction. 

Beginning a trilogy half way through is interesting. You have to make up for a lot of missing knowledge with guesswork and imaginings. Who was Boromir? Who are these hobbits Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are looking for? What's all this stuff about a ring? And so on. It actually can add quite a bit of extra richness to the reading experience; your imagination has to work overdrive to fill in the gaps. (I wonder if there is room for a series of blog posts in which I start reading fantasy series from book two and speculate about the contents of book one...?)

A good way of beginning a fantasy novel, especially a series of fantasy novels, is of course to make it seem to the reader as though big important narrative forces are already underway - to transmit to the reader the sensation that they are coming into the middle of something; the setting is alive, and things have been going on before the plot proper starts, and will go on afterwards too. 

George RR Martin does a brilliant job of this in A Song of Ice and Fire. For all the series' flaws, it's indisputable that A Game of Thrones is a stunningly good first volume of a fantasy series, and a big part of that comes from the way Martin sets the scene: this is a world that doesn't just have a history; the characters also have histories - with each other. The book starts off with everybody having unfinished business, and takes it from there, and you're swept along with it as a result.

One can profitably adopt this approach with an RPG campaign too, of course. Having PCs start off with unfinished business is an additional impetus for them to not just do things but also engage with the setting. Gambling debts, a kidnapped child to search for, a family sold into slavery, an enemy to one day hopefully assassinate... these are all easy ways of achieving this, and pretty widely used, I would imagine.

I think it is likely to be much less common to take a wide-angle approach and begin a campaign in the middle of historical events, so to speak. Imagine starting off a campaign on the evening that a completely unrelated revolution is taking place (with a randomly determined outcome, natch). Or a few months after an earthquake, with ruined buildings still much in evidence. Or against a backdrop of a long-lasting civil war, with a battle happening just over the next hill as the PCs emerge from the dungeon with their loot. Or with the Black Death just beginning to sweep through the population. Etc. Right now all I can think of is the beginning to Deep Carbon Observatory - maybe there are other published examples out there.


  1. Huh. Huh.

    Something very interesting to think about.
    : )

  2. It certainly beats meeting in a tavern in a boring town where never ever happens and then having to travel somewhere else to get something going.

  3. At the simplest level, Whitehack (the best iteration of OD&D I've seen) has great advice:

    "The mainstream fantasy adventure has a prelude or "hook" to draw the characters in. Unless it contains a true choice, you can skip it, jump right into the action and let the players explain why the characters are there." (p.26)

    There's an example earlier, too:

    "The game may start with your character opening the Lost Tomb of Tunka Jinnn ..." (p.14)

    I followed that advice in a recent game, and it makes such a difference from the traditional tavern/travelling starting point.

    These are slightly different to what you're talking about (more micro than macro), but the same principle's at work: throw the PCs into the thick of things and go from there.

  4. Dark Sun did this. It describes the world at a moment when one of the sorcerer-king's power is in the process of collapse, about to upset the established order that has existed for as long as anyone can remember. This became followed by a disappointing metaplot not much later, but the idea was there.

  5. I think this is even more true with newer players. Whereas old hands will have enough tropelore to know what to do when 'You're all sitting in a tavern' rolls around, a new player might spend their first session tediously interacting with shop-keeps. Worse, they might think the core game mechanic of D&D involves tediously interacting with shopkeeps.

    I'm a huge fan of the rule that whatever exciting thing is supposed to happen in this locale (revolution. battle, festival, whatever) is always happening when the PCs rock up.

    (My own setting actually contains a city called Media Res after I told a newer player to always start his campaign in Media Res. His response? "Where's that?")

    1. "I think this is even more true with newer players. Whereas old hands will have enough tropelore to know what to do when 'You're all sitting in a tavern' rolls around, a new player might spend their first session tediously interacting with shop-keeps. Worse, they might think the core game mechanic of D&D involves tediously interacting with shopkeeps."

      Ha! Very true. The point about new players is a very good one. I've been running games for my kids and their friends recently, and it's crucial to hold the attentions of those who aren't familiar with the format.

      It's worth thinking about adventures as articles or speeches sometimes. You can almost always improve them by skipping the throat-clearing and introductions and beginning with a bang.

      The other point about starting in media res for new players is that it gives a chance to get everyone accustomed to the mechanics. So, of the hackneyed adventure openings, an ambush is always better than the "old man in a tavern".

      An aside: taverns themselves can be a bit tiresome. You can convey a much better sense of an ancient or medieval setting by having the PCs seek shelter in a crowded peasant hovel or whatever.

  6. I will be running a game next Tuesday which will begin with the players locked in the dungeon of a castle that has just been taken by an invading army. They'll have a choice of being POWs or perhaps criminals who were already in there when it was seized.

    Your post also gives me an idea of actually writing a fantasy book series but not ever publishing the first book. I think it could be interesting, though I doubt it would actually be published.

    Funny story: the lead designer of Dark Souls loved western fantasy novels as a kid, but his English wasn't very good. So, he had to fill in gaps in the story when he got to words he did not understand. Supposedly, this is why his games rely so much on vague allusions and unrevealed secrets.

  7. In the hopes this comes across as helpful rather than petty: it +should be in medias res.

    Even though I read The Lord of the Rings starting with the first book, this exact same sense of the world having been there for a long time already was a great part of its enchantment for me.

    One of the recent Pathfinder adventure paths, the Lovecraftian one, starts the PCs off in an asylum, without any memory of how they got there. Over the course of the adventures, they learn that they've worked for one of the villains, and he double-crossed them and put them away.

    There's a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure set in the Thirty Years' War where the inevitable arrival of the hostile Swedish army is used as both a time for the PCs and a driver for some of the NPCs to go all in on their plans, creating a sort of feverish, apocalyptic atmosphere with everyone in a hurry to get as much done as they can before the end.