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  • Aaron K

Story Intro: The Portal

Hey Reader!

Welcome back to the Zurn blog! We wanted to do a quick article on a way to introduce your story to your players through a unique form of character creation involving a portal. I recently used this for one of my new roleplay groups this fall, and it went over so well that I wanted to talk about it as a possible option for your games if it fits the theme.

Now I'll start by saying that this trope isn't going to work for every group, but if it does, it makes for a nice twist for your players, especially for veteran roleplayers who have run through a campaign or two in the past.

I. Setting Up the Portal

So, a quick synopsis of how this beginning of a campaign works: the players arrive to the session, and you narrate that they see in front of them a portal (perhaps created by an imp, or pixie, or whatever) that draws them into the game, much like Jumanji. So when they are building their characters, they are building themselves, albeit "Fantasy Them," not necessarily "Actual Them." This allows them to play a spellcaster even if they aren't one in real life, because the magic that brought them into our fantasy world has added things to them.

Because of this, though, we'll need to make sure that they are ready for the session, and that we set expectations in advance of Session Zero so that they take the twist well. A few thoughts on this that will make sense more in the next section below.

First, tell them not to make a character in advance of Session Zero. This will both remove the letdown of, "Dang it, I spent all this time building a character in advance of the session and it's gone," but it also has a positive effect: it saves them time. People are much more likely to come to Session Zero when they don't need to have something prepped in advance. Instead, tell them to think about the kind of character they'd like to play. This way they will have some direction, but nothing is fleshed out yet.

For more on what a "Session Zero" is, see our article here, or do a casual search of YouTube for some great content there.

Second, encourage them to dress up like the kind of character they would enjoy playing. More on that in the next section, but just know for now that it's important.

And finally, tell them the general gist of the campaign. Are you going to shipwreck them on an island (the setting for the group I am running)? Will they be escorting a princess? Rescuing someone? Is it an open-ended "sandbox" campaign? We want to give a semblance of "everything is normal" so that no one expects the twist, and give them an idea of the kind of character that might fit well with the theme of the campaign.

Once we set the expectations for our players, we let the cat out of the bag at Session Zero.

II. Session Zero

Your Session Zero is important, as it will present the twist and we will see how much buy-in your group has in it. So a few notes on how to present it well to them and how to run the twist so that they'll enjoy it.

First, once everyone has gathered, tell them that you're going to start with the first scene of the campaign, even before characters are created. What they will hear by this is, "Oh, he's giving us background on the world so that we can make our characters in a way that fits the narrative." What it actually is is, "Hi: I'm stealing you from Earth to put you in a cool new world that you're going to love."

Then the twist happens - describe a group of players sitting around a table, have their GM address them with a weird accent (because self-deprecating humor helps to smooth things over, like sucking your players into an RPG), and then the portal appears and sucks them in as the room fills with a blinding light.

Once they are sucked in, don't lose momentum: hand out character sheets with their names at the top, and have them start building their characters immediately. Naturally this is going to change a bit based on what game you're playing, but here's what I recommend doing:

  • Have the players choose their race. You want them choosing what they look like, as appearance is evocative, and it fosters buy-in for your players. Also, allow the magic to change them from human to something else - we are making "Fantasy Them," and this helps with creating that illusion of immersion.

  • Have the player to their left assign their stats, describing the player as well as they can. This works best if the people know each other before the session, but if not, consider allowing the player to adjust the stats slightly when the other person hands their sheet back. If you are using the Zurn system, I recommend that you require the stats to be the Strong category, as having 14D to assign gives you the most freedom to show the nuance in your players natural abilities and talents. If you are using a system where you roll for stats, we recommend not doing that, and favoring instead a point-buy system or another method that makes it more likely that you can accurately reflect the abilities of the person you are describing.

  • If you are playing a class-based game, have the players select a class, using the stats that they were given. If you are using the Zurn system, skip this step, but remind everyone that they should keep in mind what kind of character they want to build for this campaign (as Zurn is a classless system).

  • Tell everyone to empty their pockets, purses, and backpacks and note the clothes they are wearing: this will represent the items that they bring with them through the portal. Don't let someone who hosts the group grab something from another room: what you brought to the session is what you get to use. Remember how we said people should be encouraged to dress up like their character? And remember how everyone didn't do that? Don't let them off the hook: they had their chance, and they didn't do it, so no extra chances to grab things now. But you'll also find that people carry some of the most random stuff with them, and if used creatively it can be very useful in an RPG campaign.

  • If you use adjectives or bonds or skill proficiencies, have the player to the right assign a few of them (as appropriate for your gaming system) to the character. If you are using the Zurn system, have the player list 3 adjectives that describe the person, including physical attributes, areas of training and expertise, social capabilities, knowledge areas, and interests. And encourage your players to have an eye toward what might be useful: if they know someone is a boy scout and this is a survival campaign, that should appear on their character sheet as a "Boy Scout" adjective or "Survival" skill proficiency.

Once they have their characters built, go around the table and have everyone tell a bit about "Fantasy You": what parts of you have carried over? What might have been added by the island? It gives the group a chance to show off some of their skills and talents that people may not have known about before, which suddenly come to light because of the nature of the campaign.

III. Playing the Campaign

And your final step is to actually play the campaign! If time allows, reward your players with a chance to start the first session's content and start exploring the world. Let them get a feel for the world around them, playing as themselves in a fantasy world. A few notes on things that may prove useful in doing this.

First, you should use their skills in your session content. If someone is good at making fire, use that. If someone is a nerd and has read a lot, use that - have lots of cool animals that they can identify to make it easier for the party to plan for threats. If someone is a good dancer, have a dance-off to pass a test or trap.

There's nothing that builds buy-in for a campaign than saying, "I am the reason that we made it past that," and with this campaign trope, this has even more meaning. It's not just, "I rolled high enough to do this," or "I was able to think of the solution": it's literally that they did it as Fantasy Them. So don't forget to use the skills they have - it will make more of an impact on your characters.

Second, make the campaign more puzzle-centric and/or trap-focused rather than combat-focused. Since you know the players but you don't know how much armor, weaponry, etc. they are going to bring to Session Zero, balancing encounters can be hard, especially if the party is walking into it with little to no armor. So while this is optional, I'd recommend having more puzzle and trap content (aka, things they can figure out sitting around the table), as we know more about their ability to solve problems than we know about their equipment.

If you want to have more of a martial campaign, consider having them come across a weapons cache or depot early in the campaign, giving them a chance to prepare for battle before it happens in earnest.

And finally, don't forget the power of the pause. We'll talk about this more in a separate post as it's something I'm trying to do more of in my games (and have done well on a few occasions in the past), but don't forget when a person is doing something that involves one of their traits as a player that carried over to the table to pause and build up the moment. This is them doing something, and you want them to remember it. If that means shushing other players, do it. And don't regret it. If that means going a little overtime, do it. Impact the scene, because this is more than just a player doing something: it's a player doing something as the character.


I tried this out in one of my groups a few weeks ago, and it went over really well. I suspect there are several reasons for this, ranging from the fact that to some extent people always put part of themselves into their characters, and in part because in some way or another people metagame. And this allows them, to some extent, to do (and justify) both: as a player, you have read the sourcebooks - you know what some of the spells in the book do by memory (maybe all of them!), so you should be able to identify it when you see it.

Starting a campaign this way allows you to say as the game master, "I know that you have great ideas as a player, and I don't want you to stifle those ideas because of a game system telling you your character wouldn't think of that. You're in this game, and you're the one making the choice right now. So what would you like to do?" And what you'll discover is that your friends will love that. And they'll be excited to show up for the next session.

You'll also find that it's encouraging and empowering for them. You'd be surprised how many useful skills your players have that just don't get talked about, let alone celebrated, in their daily lives. And when you throw them into a crisis situation like being sucked into a game, you'd be surprised how many opportunities you'll have to celebrate them. And that will mean the world to them.

Just a random idea - it may not work for your campaign, but if you're thinking about starting up a group, this could be a cool way to do it.

In our next post I'm going to tackle something I haven't seen discussed anywhere else, so we might even do a YouTube vlog post on it too, and that is how psychology factors into game design, and why you may need someone to bounce ideas off of to make your games better.

Until next time,




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