Last weekend our group wrapped up the first part of our Star Wars campaign (and the first part of my Aurora RPG Engine playtest). Though, in reality, it wasn’t really the first part of the campaign, for the campaign I’ve got planned to run is the Dawn of Defiance campaign, a massive 12-part adventure. Instead what wrapped up was three prelude adventures, which, originally, I meant primarily as a shakedown cruise for the new ruleset, to fix any egregious problems before we began to play in earnest. But what I’m realizing now is that these preludes provided so much more than just that, enough that for any epic-length campaign I run from now on I will always run a series of preludes.
Big-ass campaign modules are kind of in vogue right now. Whether they be termed “adventure paths” and bought as a series of interconnected modules, or whether they come in a single and big 256-page book, there are plenty out there that promise to take the characters through a big, grand, and heroic adventure arc. Which can be great! But if the campaign starts with beginning or new characters, there’s no time for the players to get settled and feel out and inhabit their characters before they get plunged into that big narrative. Which can weaken the feel and excitement and visceral experience right at the most crucial moments of the game: those events and those hooks that are intended to serve as the fire that carries the campaign forward. If those moments fall flat, or the investment isn’t there (because the investment isn’t yet there in the character(s)), then the feel of the entire campaign can suffer.*
Hence, running a series of preludes to give the players a chance to feel out and develop their characters before the inciting incident of the campaign proper. This goes both mechanically and RP-wise. Sometimes a certain build doesn’t play out at the table as well as, or as interesting, as we’d thought it would. Or, as our character’s character settles down, maybe what we built no longer suits this new direction.** And getting that direction itself is critical. While we may come with a backstory and thoughts on how they behave, often that shifts during game time as we explore and play and let things bubble up… often seemingly from nowhere, but it fits and feels right and so it becomes part of the character. Through the chance to play and develop the players get to know their characters, the characters get to know each other, and the builds get settled, all so that once they begin the adventure path there’s nothing left to hammer out and they can immediately fully inhabit what’s to come.
So that’s my little epiphany and cheerleading for always running a few introductory adventures before embarking on the grand adventure path voyage.
* Of course, for campaigns that consist of independent and smaller scaled adventures this isn’t required – in effect, every adventure is like a prelude. And sometimes the adventure path/big book/etc already does this, with a series of small things to deal with before the big hook, in which case great, the work’s already been done for you.
** Or, equally important, if the campaign starts with very experienced characters (ie, starting at a higher ‘level’), then there’s the added layer of just learning how to run that character and all their abilities. Plus, there are more abilities and combos to tweak and try out to find the fit that suits the vision and the evolving character. Nothing is worse than having an epic start to a campaign grind to a halt as each player tries to figure out what their character can do or how to do it… and yes, very much speaking from experience here).