In Medias Res – the REALLY strong start
By Jason Campbell
If you’re familiar with Mike Shea (Sly Flourish’s) Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and other writing “how to” sites you’ve heard about the idea of the “strong start”. This idea is that the Game Master prepares a ttrpg session so that it begins in an exciting way to immediately engage the players. The classic example would be beginning a ttrpg session by declaring, “Roll for initiative!” The strong start doesn’t have to begin with combat of course, just something really interesting, perhaps introducing a high stakes situation in the town or area the players are in, or maybe a threatening situation like an earthquake or sudden blizzard. As I was preparing a one shot session recently I decided to try to ramp this up even more than usual. My players didn’t know each other and weren’t familiar with each others’ characters.
So what if we tried to not just begin with an interesting encounter but use “In Media Res”, which loosely translates from latin to “in the midst of things.” You’ve probably seen movies that do this – the heroes start the story in the middle of an exciting scene. So here’s how I began this one-shot;
The players were caught off guard, but realized the urgency of the situation and had their characters dive into action. This was a good way to get the players to act in character as they were just as confused as their characters were. I asked for their actions and “moved the camera” to focus on each action (meaning we moved from character to character without pausing to dwell on any single part of the scene.
One thing that happens when you start this way is that you bypass the traditional introductions of characters, so the players are now involved in the action, and they aren’t quite sure about their situation. Do the characters know each other? Why are the characters in this carriage, or a part of this caravan? I let these details unfold naturally. If these questions came up as part of the scene I asked the player “does your character know this other character?” If the details weren’t addressed in the scene, then when the townspeople came on the scene after the action was resolved, they asked the PCs “How did you get involved in this caravan?” or “what brings you to our town?” So the players still get a chance to introduce their characters and all necessary information is brought out, but as the scene unfolds instead of as a formal introduction.
This method is interesting as it’s different from what players are used to, but it likely won’t work all the time as the players would get used to it if it happened regularly. What do you think? Have you participated in a game that began this way? Let us know in the comments below.