Railroad flashbacks as a first session

It’s always a bit of footwork to get a new campaign rolling, especially that first session. I like a short adventure giving the PCs some action. I also like all the players having some shared background to help cement relationships. It just helps get the ball rolling.

For my latest Savage Worlds campaign I decided to do a slight departure from having a lot of open talk on past relationships, and avoid the players starting off with a small adventure to tackle. Instead I put them on a story railroad to help create a shared experience and let that be the backdrop to how the players established their own relationships. There were a few key aspects for how I set this up.

Less details, more a thumbnail sketch – I didn’t want players to get all their powers, abilities and stats all lined up. I wanted very broad ideas of who they were. So a dwarf psionist or human tracker good with a bow was all I needed. I especially did not want any backstory.

Use paper dolls – I created a simple set of generic stats and types of abilities for typical hero icons. I created a melee type, a ranged weapon type, and a caster type. All with average D6 stats and without any edges or hindrances (for the 4E fans out there, consider a character with 14 in all stats, using a basic attack, possibly a magic missile at-will for spell casters, with no feats or class abilities). I didn’t need them having anything special.

I did this primarily as much of my group had not played SW before. I wanted to get one combat in and let them learn the nuts and bolts without a lot of distractions of power choices and edges. The fight would be heavily scripted with a hard stop, to allow any fallen characters a chance to recover. It was designed just to get a feel for how fights work in the system.

Run a story railroad – I created a context and background for the situation, including a short melee conflict. There are a lot of ways to do this. The key points are to have the group forced in a situation where they are around each other for an extended period of time, and have the opportunity to get into a combat. Maybe the group is part of a military campaign, or under a castle siege. Possibly the group are doing some required service for 6 months to a local lord, with the keep being attacked once during that period. Maybe they were all shipwrecked on an island for a year (cue the theme to Gilligan’s Island).

In my Dark Sun conversion using Savage Worlds I had the group leaving Tyr joining a merchant caravan. The caravan was ambushed (playing out the fight), creating a dire situation for the group. They managed to crawl to Raam and were promptly put into indentured service for a year to pay off losses incurred to the merchant. I fast forward everything so that they had completed the year of service, and were preparing to leave the merchant house in Raam. It was heavy handed, but created a situation where the group was forced to have a common experience and be in each other’s company for some time.

Determine set relationships randomly – I had each player roll a D6 and paired off everyone. The highest rolls were with the lowest, next highest with the next lowest, and any pairs rolled were given a matching partner. I did it in such a way that everyone at the table had a least one relationship with another. They were free to have other relationships among the other players, but it was required to have one with the other PC they matched up with through the die rolls.

Have the players fill in the details – Once that was set, I let the PCs tell me what happened throughout the year. How did they initially meet? What key events happened throughout the year? What did they do as individuals? How did they establish this connection with another player? In the end they all knew each other, but likely had some particular shared experience with one other player.

What is important about this is that I let the players have control over the story. I’d set some ground rules and potentially reign in some ideas (they couldn’t kill the merchant they worked under during that year). However I let the group tell me how they spent their lives during that time. I let them figure out where they came from, and how deep their friendship went with the others. The setup was just the backdrop, the players had firm direction with they did during that past time.

Another great thing is the DM can slowly set up other elements in the campaign world. As past events unfold, you can allow rumors and bits of information to accumulate. Maybe a player learns more about a key NPC, or finds out some important news, or gets the real inside scoop on the relationship between different NPCs.

For my group, Tyr was firmly under control of the sorcerer king. I had them initially explain why they joined the merchant caravan heading to Raam. Then I had them describe their lives and what service they provided the first 3 months at the merchant’s house. At the 6 month mark, I got more information on their lives and what happened at the house, however I dropped rumors that Kalak, the sorcerer king of Tyr, was slain. Fast forward another 3 months, after getting more details of their lives from the PCs, I gave them information that the impossible had happened in Tyr. It was confirmed that the sorcerer king was indeed dead, Tyr had abolished slavery, and was now known as the free city.

This is a great way to offer some background on the world in broad strokes, and not just give an info dump to the players. Additionally, you can have the players become part of that knowledge gaining experience. If players were doing required service at a noble’s keep, maybe a PC overhears a fight between the local lord and a duke emissary. Maybe the player working the kitchen hears all the juicy gossip about the lord’s youngest son being a rake and a gambler. Maybe the player working the keep library stumbles across an ancient map.

Wrap everything up and get the characters completed – At the end of the night, all the player characters should be completed. It is quite possible things can change during the course of the evening. Maybe a player learns that a ranged fighter wasn’t as exciting as being a melee swordsman. Maybe the idea of being a scout-type hunter wasn’t as exciting as being a bounty hunter. You will very likely see players getting a lot of different ideas about their characters after they get some time to work out their relationships with others.

So let them explore that with very generic characters initially, and then follow up with having them get the nuts and bolts ironed out on their character sheet. At the conclusion of the first session they should have their character details and stats completed and ready to go.

I had a lot of hesitation initially with my group. What do you mean you don’t want to hear my backstory? What do you mean you don’t want me picking all my skills? What do you mean it’s not important why I joined this group? And trust me, when I said that the group was forced into service in the merchant’s house for a year, plenty of eyes rolled up at the table.

However at the end, that perspective completely changed. That heavy handed story railroading lay a foundation for creating a shared experience for everyone. They could say they all knew each other for over a year (with some knowing each other even longer). They all had encountered difficulty and learned to depend on each other. It really allowed the group to gel and get past that uncomfortable part of getting to know one another. Give it a try sometime for your game. You will be surprised with how much backstory and adventure fodder will come from your players.