Welcome back to the Zurn blog! After a hiatus due to popping a question and planning a wedding which will take place in two weeks, we are returning to tackle the topic of Mission 1. In today's post we jump into our world for the first time, and this means that how we present the world to them matters immensely.
"Mission 1" refers to the first task that the party will have in your campaign. This may be completed in the first session, or it may span multiple sessions. How long it takes doesn't matter as much as what you do in the first mission, so that is the topic of this post.
We will begin by discussing the things to consider as regards presentation, and then discuss the mechanical elements of pulling a party together while also drawing them into the plot.
I. Introducing Your Players to the World
The biggest hurdle for your first session is introducing people to the world. If you are playing a roleplay game set in Earth's history this may be a little easier for you as you can assume a level of familiarity with the history and mechanics of the world. But the moment that you leave Earth for another world, there will always need to be explanations for how things work.
To do this, I recommend including at least one variant element of your world from Earth in your first session. Is your world flat instead of round (allowing the protagonists to see the blur of the enemy fortress even though it is leagues away, as there is no natural curvature to the earth to obscure it)? Does gravity work differently in your world, or perhaps only in certain places (the Feywild v. the rest of the world)? Are there orcs, and are they always evil, or are they merely chaotic? Showcase something that brings to light that your world is different, so that your players are properly oriented to one central rule going forward:
Not everything is the same in this world.
Maybe fire arrows can actually work in your fantasy realm (because in case you didn't know, the speed in which an arrow from a warbow flies would put out any flame almost instantly). Maybe magic is created by dancing instead of speaking. Showcase something to your players that indicates that this world is different, which teaches them that if something doesn't make sense, they should ask questions.
You also want to introduce your players to the story. What type of story are we telling? In the tragedy campaign I finished (and may run a second group through this season), the party is introduced in Mission 1 to the minotaur threat, and discover that they are scouting out the villages of the wood elves. This gives them a bit of context: something is afoot, and the elves that we hunted with are in danger.
Now the difficulty of doing this will vary based on the type of campaign you are running. If you are intending to run an online RPG-style campaign where it's an open world system and you can complete content in any order as desired, this may not be as easy as, say, a "Magnificent Seven"-style drama where you get to meet the villagers (and maybe some of the bandits) in the opening session. But try as best you can to introduce your players to the goal of the campaign: players like knowing where they are headed.
Of course, showing them the campaign is one thing: getting them to work together is something else entirely. And that is where we turn next.
II. Pulling a Party Together
There are about as many ways to throw a party together as there are potential members of a party. My first roleplay group was comprised of adventurers who met at a tavern and found a listing that paid in gold, and I'm sure that lots of other groups have started this way as well. I have come to the conclusion, though, that while this can work for some groups, on the whole I don't like to form parties through a chance meeting in a tavern for a few reasons.
First, party cohesion can be hard to form, especially at the outset. Why would an aspiring knight continue to stay with a thief who constantly brings the party grief because he gets into trouble looking for treasure? Why should the kindly priest healer save the life of a bloodthirsty berserker who opposes everything that he stand for who he met yesterday? I've GMed and been in groups where party cohesion was a serious question because there was no central commandment or commission tying the party together, and party cohesion is, in my mind, one of the most critical elements of a successful group.
Now sometimes party cohesion can flourish from a chance meeting. But in all of the times that I've seen this work, it either involved a party split (where players formed different groups to allow like-minded characters to do their own thing) or players who were already like-minded in the kind of characters they wanted to play. And you can't always plan on that.
Second, the question of direction comes up pretty quickly, especially if a natural leader does not emerge. Where do we go? In a conflict, who calls the shots? If we can't agree, do we resort to a party split? A character leaving the group and someone building a new one? A lot of questions arise when a group of strangers navigate hard waters.
So for the tragedy campaign I'm running, the players are guests of the elves joining them for the Great Hunt, and as the campaign progresses they work for the elves to defend them from the coming reckoning. They have a reason to work together (we all serve the same guy who pays us), they have a common goal (protect the elven towns from the attacking armies), and they have a reason to work together (we all want the elves to be safe, so I'll put up with some of your quirks because we need every man and woman able to fight).
In other campaigns I've had the party assemble as agents of a baron, marooned together and relying on each other to escape, and even put them on the same team in fights to the death. There are many ways to foster party cohesion, and part of it is intentionality in Mission 1 in drawing the party together. Be creative, talk to your players, and pull your party together.
III. Plot v. Placement
So I mentioned near the start of this campaign series that the plot is one of the less important elements of a roleplay campaign, and I stand by that. If the plot is already mapped out, you aren't roleplaying: you're writing a book. The players have to have some level of agency in the development and progression of the plot.
That being said, you also need to give your party direction, and that is where plot comes in. The critical element of Mission 1 is to place your party in the story. They need to get a firm grasp of the plot in your first mission, because you don't want to be one of those stories where it takes forever for the plot to start (looking at you, Tolstoy). Are you solving a murder mystery? Then introduce them to the person who will be murdered, and end the session with a gun going off and everyone losing their minds as that person dies.
In the tragedy campaign I'm doing, though, we don't start with the destruction of an elf camp. Instead, we end it with a portending prophecy, showing the party what they are defending by spending time with the elves, but then introducing them to the prophecy: doom is coming. This gives the party an idea of what they should expect from the campaign without avoiding laying the necessary groundwork of the campaign.
Over the next few weeks I'll be following up with more campaign notes, but I will also be adding some new content to the blog. Since October/November I've been playing in a D&D campaign with friends, and during this time I've come to realize a few changes I'd make to D&D's rule system. So I'll also be providing content (possibly vlog content) on how you might make your D&D campaigns better through slight tweaks and frameworks. So keep watching this space!