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Playing With Time

posted Sep 4, 2013, 7:25 PM by Christopher Ellison   [ updated Sep 4, 2013, 7:28 PM ]

I really thought this would be an easy week to write a blog post - four-day weekend, no big plans, I should have plenty of time.  Instead, I ended up being hit with a random inspiration for a short D&D campaign and spent the whole weekend writing that up instead.  

I mention this not just to complain or excuse my even-worse-than-normal-quality writing but also because this campaign idea has caused me to reconsider how I start and run my campaigns normally.  I’ve run a lot of sessions, campaigns and one-shots alike, in the past, and I’ve always run them in a fairly linear fashion.  I don’t mean “I railroad my players”; what I mean is that I assume the players should know everything their characters know up to a given point in the game.  I always thought of narrative conventions like in medias res starts that divide the player from the character are somehow unfair or inappropriate in RPGs.  RPGs have always, to me, had a very first-person feel to them; forcing the players to be ignorant of something the characters should know seems just wrong.  As a result, I’ve always run the storyline of a campaign in a fairly straightforward fashion.

Approaching this new campaign, though, has forced me to change up my normal formula a bit (okay, a lot; and yes, that’s a very good thing).  Instead of allowing the players to create characters that may or may not know each other and then somehow contriving to get them all together, I’m forcing the players to start off with pre-existing relationships.  This constrains who the characters can be, which is something I always tried to avoid as much as possible; but I think that it doesn’t overconstrain the players, and I hope the narrative tradeoff will make the constraint worthwhile.  I’m doing this because I need to characters to care about one another at the start of the game, at least to some extent.

This change in character creation opened up a few new doors for me.  For one, I plan to allow the players to invoke flashbacks.  Since the characters have known one another for a very long time, both the players and I will be watching out for in-character comments that seem to have interesting potential.  When those come up, I plan to trigger short flashbacks that we can role-play out.  I’m a little nervous about doing this, as it’ll test my limited abilities as a GM.  I’m also excited, though -- I think it will be very interesting to see how this option develops the characters and the storyline.  Also, this satisfies my bias against narrative timejumping in RPGs in two ways:

  1. The players, not me, will generally dictate the flashback.  I’ll only be refereeing that nothing game- or world-breaking happens (no, you did not accidentally stumble upon a keen long sword +5 on your way home from the market…).  This keeps the players in control of what their characters know and allows me to believe that we will adequately maintain the first-person gameplay perspective I love in RPGs.

  2. This campaign is highly dependent upon the interplay amongst the characters, and I believe that these flashbacks will bring that even more to the forefront.  I hope that I’ll be able to use them to add to the game in that way instead of distracting from it, which is something I’ve always worried about in the past.

Since this will be my first time applying some more non-linear narrative conventions as a DM, I don’t really expect them to work amazingly well.  I’m positive I’ll need to keep good notes about what happened so that I can review and learn.  Still, I’m hoping this tiny step into the broader world of “not being so goddamn boring all the time” will improve my game-running abilities.  Most importantly, though, I just hope it’s fun.

Edit:  Added the link to the campaign that I originally forgot to put in....