OK, admittedly, I’ve only done this once, but I really like the concept. Here it is: Most of us hate exposition. OK, the first time you see the history of the universe scroll in front of you from a 70mm projector, it is really cool, but after however many years, it’s dull. Unless you get James Earl Jones or some other phenomenal voice to read you all the history stuff, it’s boring. Let’s be clear, when one of us as GM reads the history to the players, it’s dull!
So - the goal is to avoid the exposition - the monologue that most GMs need to read aloud at the start of most campaigns (and most missions). So here’s what we do - You play a mission that gives clues to the history of the world and/or this campaign. I like to think of it like the start of a Bond movie. Ever notice that Bond movies always start with some fantastic action scene? Does that scene set up the movie? Sometimes. Sometimes not. This would be one of the “sometimes”. But nobody cares about the why and who and the motivation during those action scenes; they just love the stunts!
That’s what we’re going for here! Here’s a good example: Everybody is told to pick one of the stock characters out of the pile. All the characters are rather basic soldiers, though there are humans, halflings and centaurs. No healers, no mages. (This would be a great way to teach the rules to new players, too!) The mission start exposition is this: Do you all have a character sheet now? OK, It’s dusk. You are soldiers protecting the city of Villai. The warning horns have just sounded and your city is under surprise attack by the Latvich army from Garnock. You are fully armed and armored. You walk out of your barracks and you see a squad of Latvich soldiers running towards you. Initiative.
Really - that’s it. Where is Villai? you don’t care. Who are the Lats and why are they attacking? you don’t care, and you don’t know. How come none of us cast magic? Because you’re grunt soldiers - roll initiative or I’m going to attack you. But what does my character want to accomplish, what’s my history? you don’t care. You want to accomplish survival.
But you won’t. Massive battle is going on and you as GM just throw them right into the middle of it. You could have this be a couple of gaming sessions if you want to! They could connect up with more senior officers and bigger units. They could protect a family home from looters. They could get chased down the streets by chariots with archers and only be able to stay ahead of them by quickly ducking around corners that the chariots cannot manage. They could take to the roofs and try to be snipers only to have a company of soldiers working their way up the stairs to the roofs to kill them.
HUGE action! No role-playing, but huge action and fun! During this massive melee, the party sees two halflings being chased by three enemies. They intercept the bad guys and save the two halflings, who promptly run off hopefully to safety. But just before the halflings turn a corner, the one looks back as says, “Thanks buddy. Go cover my retreat, OK?” Does this matter? Not at the time, no. This is a one shot mission and the party is going to die before dawn breaks -You’ve stacked the odds completely against them.
Then you start a new campaign and the party is based in Villai 25 years later. The city has been mostly rebuilt and life goes on - standard adventuring stuff. Eventually they get caught up in the whole issue of who stole the crown jewels of Garnock and why did that cause Garnock to burn Villai 25 years ago. That was the battle they were fighting. Now it makes sense, sort of. They run into the same units; not the same people, but the same armor, weaponry, etc. So it sort of seems familiar, because they were exposed to it before. Oh, and the “retreating halfling”? Yeah - he actually had the crown jewels on him. Their seemingly unimportant characters who died before anyone knew what they did, saved the life of one of the conspirators and thereby prevented the crown jewels from being recovered by Garnock. Had they failed to save the halflings in that first fight, Garnock would not have burned the city. By saving the burglars, they doomed their own city. OK, I think that’s pretty cool, even if it takes you a dozen game sessions to get to that reveal.
I said I did this once before. We had a May convention - local, small, but we felt we had to go. They wanted me to run some relatively big Legend Quest games. OK, I can do that. But my eyes were on GENCON in August. I was planning to run The Endless Siege, a game that would fill every slot at the world’s biggest (arguably) gaming convention and a spiritual sequel to The Endless Dungeon we ran in 1991. So here’s what I did: The May convention mission was for a team of adventurers (sort of a special ops unit) to destroy the Flying Fortress - an actual flying building (not that big, but big) that was to serve for the bad guys’ HQ at the Endless Siege. If they succeeded, there would be no Flying Fortress at GENCON, but if they failed, it would become a focal point of the 60 hour mission.
They failed - The Flying Fortress was the focal point of the Endless Siege, and truly the most fun we had during the event. But that was cool! The folks at GENCON knew that the May team(s) had failed and therefore it was the fault of some other gamers that they now had to contend with this thing.
I know you will still have to do exposition! But running a prequel mission that helps to set up the action in the actual campaign can help to jump right into the action without everyone starting to get bored. Honestly, I like the idea of fighting the Sack of Villai before basing a campaign there, even though the retreating halfling seems a bit overdone, and unlikely to be memorable enough to be the “big” link. I think having the party play through the destruction of their city and then jumping 25 years forward will help root them in pride in their city and a hatred for the Latvich forces. Passion is a tough thing to generate in a role-playing game, but it is awesome if you can get there!