Some smarta$& pointed out in my Discord chat that it’s ironic that this particular article hasn’t appeared on time because, instead, you got to read a bunch of bulls$&% about Patreon screwing pretty much everyone. Including themselves. And I would normally take this opportunity to explain that my devoted Patreon supporters get access to a very active Discord server, but I feel like plugging Patreon would be in very poor taste right now. Besides, I’m sick to f$&%ing death of talking about Patreon. I wrote two entire feature articles worth of words about the damned site. So, I’m not going to discuss it further. The problem is that the debacle consumed so much of my life over the past week that I literally have nothing else with which to fill a Long, Rambling Introduction™.
Starting Your Campaign Wrong
Start as you mean to go on, right? The beginning sets the tone, right? If you’re going to end with action, start with action, right? It’s good advice. Generally, the first few adventures of your campaign…
I just realized that by excising, the Long, Rambling Introduction™, I have failed to set the vital context for this article and you have no idea what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a particular type of campaign structure that I call the False Start. What do I mean by “type of campaign structure?” Well, remember when I talked about Scope and Scale and introduced the idea that there were lots of ways to talk about campaign structures and I was just going do a bunch of articles about the different ways of putting campaigns together? Well, this is another one of those.
It’s important, though, that you understand something here. Or at least remember it. I’m pretty sure I said it in that last article. These “types of structures” aren’t all-inclusive or mutually exclusive. They don’t represent a single method of classifying things. Instead, they are just ways of describing certain campaign features. And a campaign is a complicated thing. It has lots of features.
Think about buying feature. Imagine you want to buy a piece of furniture for your living room. Something to sit on. There are types of furniture: sofas, loveseats, and recliners, right? That’s one way of picking and choosing. But these things also come in different colors. And patterns. And they can be made of different materials. Some of them recline. Some of them are sectional. Some of them turn into beds. And you can mix and many of those qualities. But you can’t mix and match all of them. You can have a red, leather, recliner, for example. Or a blue, crushed velvet sofa. But you can’t have a sofa that is also a recliner or a red couch that is also a blue couch.
And when you’re picking your furniture, some qualities are going to be more important than others to you. For example, if you have an already furnished room, you might definitely want something blue so that it matches. But if you’re furnishing a new room, you can pick whatever color you want and build the décor around that. If you need a place for guests to sleep, you will need something that turns into a bed, which means you also can’t have a recliner. Of course, even if you don’t need a sofa that turns into a bed, you might end up with one if there’s one that matches the color, material, and style that you like. The fact that it turns into a bed is incidental.
That thing I talked about last time – large in scope and scale vs. small in scope and scale campaigns? Those are like two different colors of campaign. You usually have to pick one or the other. But with the right pattern, you can combine certain elements. This False Start thing is more like having a campaign that turns into a bed. You can combine with different colors and different shapes of campaigns, but it might not be available in all models and colors.
I’m not sure if any of this is helping. I think it’s a neat analogy. And I also think I accidentally segued back into the Long, Rambling Introduction™. But it all worked out in the end. I guess I should have thought about how to start this off a little more.
Starting Your Campaign Wrong
Obviously, this article – False Starts and Dirty Lies – is about the beginning of your campaign. But it’s not about the first scene. I mean, it could be. But it’s about more than that. It’s about what you might call the First Act of the campaign. For a long-running campaign, that might encompass several adventures. For shorter campaigns, it might just refer to the first one or two adventures. And we’re going to call that the start of your campaign.
In general, the start of your campaign does two things. First, it establishes what the campaign is about. If the campaign has a major plot thread that runs through it, the start of the campaign establishes that thread and provides the motivations. Basically, it gives the impetus. The incitement. If the campaign is about hunting down a demon lord who is planning to destroy the world, the start of your campaign establishes the existence of the demon lord and suggests that this demon lord fellow might be up to no good and it would probably be a good idea if a bunch of heroes stopped him. If the campaign is about having a bunch of unrelated adventures as members of a band of mercenary-adventurers, the start of the campaign allows the band of mercenary-adventurers to discover how all those unrelated adventures will serve their individual goals such as getting rich or serving the greater good or becoming a powerful lich wizard.
Second, the start of the campaign sets the tone for the campaign. That is to say, it feels like the whole campaign is going to feel. It’s like a fabric swatch. It lets you see and feel what the upholstery of the campaign will see and feel like. If your campaign is going to be about exploring fantastic lands, plundering ancient ruins, slaying underground monstrosities, and looting ancient treasure hordes; the first few adventures should probably involve going somewhere kind of neat, descending into an ancient site, killing some beasts, and finding some treasure. They should not, for example, be about solving a murder against the backdrop of complex factional political intrigue in the fantasy equivalent of Renaissance Italy.
Almost all the advice you hear about how to start your campaign comes down to “start as you mean to go on.” Don’t start with stuff your campaign is not about. Don’t start with stuff that feels nothing like the rest of your campaign. And that is extremely good advice. I heartily endorse it. When you are starting a campaign, start your campaign. Don’t start another, different campaign and then switch to the one you really mean to run.
But maybe you totally should start another, different campaign and then switch to the one you really mean to run.
That’s the tricky thing about advice: even when it’s good, it isn’t always universally good. And even when it really is universally good, that doesn’t mean it is always the best in every situation.
So, my advice is: always start your campaign when you start your campaign unless you’re better off starting something else instead.
And that’s what this article is about. This is about starting another, different campaign before you start your actual campaign. See? That’s why it’s called “False Starts.”
But here’s the tricky part. When I explain False Starts and what they can do, you’re probably going to get really excited about them and think they are always a good idea. Some GMs love false starts so much they should just f$&%ing marry them except that marrying an abstract, game-design concept is a weird thing to do. So before I tell you to use them, I need to convince you not to. Because False Starts – if they aren’t used right – they can really f$&% with your players. And instead of being awesome, they actually just ruin everything. So, let’s talk about why False Starts are terrible before I even tell you anything else about them. But before I can do that, I also need to give you an example of a False Start just so you know precisely what they look like before I tell you that they are terrible before I tell you that they are not.
Let Me Tell You About ANOTHER Video Game
It’s time for me to do my favorite thing. It’s time for me to rave about a video game for a few paragraphs to provide an example of a thing I could probably just easily describe in one paragraph if I really tried. Today’s exemplary video game is Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, published by Square in March of 1995. It has been remade several times. I’ve played the original, the PlayStation remake, and the Nintendo DS remake. I can tell you those versions are all good. I can’t speak for the mobile phone remakes.
Chrono Trigger is a role-playing game. In it, a group of time-traveling heroes discovers that one day in the near future, Cthulhu is going to wake up and destroy the motherloving f$&% out of the world. So, they use time travel to change the future into one which doesn’t include Cthulhu and world-destruction. Sounds really cool, right? Change the past to fight an eldritch abomination in the future? Who wouldn’t want to play that? Well, here’s the funny thing. The game doesn’t start with that. You don’t know that’s what the game is about for several hours.
At the start of the game, you are Typical Fantasy RPG Protagonist #12 (Silent Type). You accidentally meet Typical Fantasy RPG Support Character #47 (Tomboy Type, Secret Royalty). There is an accident at the festival of the Inciting Incident and you and the tomboy secret-princess are sent back in time. The girl accidentally manages to prevent herself from being born and ceases to exist. You make a few changes to the kingdom and restore the girl. Whereupon you and she return to your proper place in time. But the changes you made caused an oppressive criminal justice system to spring up in the kingdom. You are immediately arrested for kidnapping the girl who turns out to be the princess. You are rescued by your friend Typical Fantasy RPG Support Character #73 (Quirky Genius Type). You and she escape the castle, whereupon you are joined by the princess and you escape by using time travel. You end up in a blasted hellscape (Class 3 Post Apocalyptic World) and discover a record indicating that the apocalypse is the result of Typical Fantasy RPG BBEG #2 (Basically Cthulhu) waking up one day and destroying the entire goddamned world. At that point, your support characters have emotional cut-scenes at you and the party resolves to use the power of time travel to prevent Cthulhu. Somehow.
That’s a perfect example of a False Start. Like, I couldn’t imagine a better example. It starts off with you being ping-ponged through a couple of minor adventures and local problems. And then, WHAM, Cthulhu is going to destroy the world and you are the only one who can stop it. And the rest of the game is the story of how to undo Cthulhu from time.
Does that sound cool? Well, it isn’t! False starts are terrible! Let me tell you why!
And then after you know they are terrible, we can talk about why they are cool.
Why False Starts are Terrible
Pretend that I offer a really cool game about preventing Cthulhu from destroying the entire goddamned world by gathering a diverse party from the world’s past, present, and future and slingshotting yourself back and forth through history, f$&%ing with the past to get the present to come out just right. That sounds pretty cool, right? That’s something you’d want to play, right? Now, pretend I tell you that you aren’t allowed to play that game until you spend an arbitrary number of hours playing a different game about some princess who doesn’t understand basic temporal mechanics and also you get to sit through a trial. Does that sound like a good deal?
Now pretend that I don’t offer you anything. Pretend, instead, that I just hand you this game in which you are suddenly pulled from your own time along with a mysterious stranger. You end up in the past. She screws things up. And your attempt to rescue her screws things up more. You get back to the present and now things are just different enough to really f$&% you over. You keep time traveling and you keep making things worse. You need to fix things. Basically, undo the crap you f$&%ed up. That seems cool, right? A tightly focused, character-driven, adventuring logic puzzle. Fiddle, tweak, change, try to get things back to the way they were before that first accident. But just when you are getting into it, I say, “nevermind all that; see that dragon? Spend the next 30 hours getting powerful enough to just kill that and don’t sweat all the little things you messed up.”
The problem with False Starts is that they usually do one of two things. Either they bury the coolest, most exciting things about the game behind several adventures of pointless busywork. Or else, they draw the players into an experience they genuinely come to enjoy and then it pulls the carpet out from under them. False Starts either bore your players or else they betray them. As a general rule, neither boring nor betraying your audience is a very good idea if you want them to actually enjoy what’s going on.
The start of any story – that includes an RPG campaign – is basically partly a sampler and partly a promise to your audience. The promise is that they will do really cool things like un-exist Cthulhu and save the world. The sampler is that the adventure will feel epic and fantastic and you’ll be changing the entire world with the power of time travel and friendship. A False Start either fails to provide an accurate sampler or fails to make a good promise. Or both.
So why is the False Start so seductive? Well, the False Start promises a really good moment. Seriously. That’s what most GMs see in False Starts. They see an amazing, set-piece moment. The moment when everything changes. They want that moment. That awesome, awesome moment when the players, surrounded by the blasted remains of the world they used to live in find the recording that shows f$&%ing Cthulhu bursting out of the ground in a spray of lava and raining destruction on civilization. That moment when the players realize they are going to have to fight that thing. That they are the only ones who can. And they see all the awesome adventures they are about to have laid out before them.
It is a GOOD moment.
But guess what? That moment is actually also a really great moment to just start your f$&%ing campaign with. Just send Chrono Trigger and his girlfriends right to the future hellscape in that first time travel accident and let them see f$&%ing Cthulhu destroy everything. I mean, why not. That’s a pretty powerful f$&%ing opening, isn’t it? You thought you were going to have a normal day, didn’t you. Nope. Cthulhu. Apocalypse. Fix it. That’s what you’re doing for the next six months. Here’s a time machine. Get to work.
GMs think that that moment – we in the business call it an inciting incident or a call to action – GMs think that moment somehow gets more powerful if it’s a surprise that comes after a few weeks of being strung along in a completely different direction. It isn’t. Not at all. If your players are going to find that s$&% cool, they won’t find it any cooler after being bored to death by a completely mundane and dull game experience for two months first.
In point of fact, False Starts can actually RUIN that moment. Seriously. Bored players – the ones who don’t feel like your campaign is really delivering anything amazing because the False Start is just kind of s$&% – bored players might be worn out and fatigued by the time that moment comes around. Instead of seeing the campaign suddenly turn great, they might assume you’re going to take that great moment and turn it into more of the same boring slog. Yawn. And betrayed players who are actually having a lot of fun doing what they are doing? Those players are not going to get excited when you change the whole goddamned campaign into something they aren’t sure they will enjoy as much.
Now, that won’t always happen. Players might just happily go along with it. They might have been enjoying the False Start but they might also get very excited about the actual campaign once it’s revealed. But why would you want to take the chance that they won’t? Seriously. If you have a cool idea for a campaign and you’re pretty sure your players will really love it, why would you ever want to risk boring them or betraying them with something else first? Just run the cool thing! Start the campaign when it starts.
You wouldn’t. That would be stupid. False Starts are terrible.
How False Starts Make Awesome Games More Awesome!!!
Let’s go back to Chrono Trigger for a moment. If False Starts are so terrible, how is that Chrono Trigger is such a beloved game? Well, it’s because the False Start made a great game better. What you have to understand is what the False Start did for the game. And really, it did two major things.
First, it let the player play around with time travel and see what it could do. In the first few hours of the game, you learned how to travel through time using time gates. You learned that things you do in the past can change the future. You learned that you can even erase people from existence by changing their past. You learned that time travel can be dangerous, but it is also very powerful. But it isn’t all powerful. It has to be used properly or else it will have dangerous consequences. That’s important because, when you see Cthulhu destroy the world, it might feel like an insurmountable task to somehow stop that. The game does a pretty good job of driving home the scale of Cthulhu and his destructive power. And if you just got hit with that right at the beginning, it might feel the game was setting you an impossible task. Or, at least a boring task of just grinding enough levels until you were powerful enough to break the world. But when you see Cthulhu, because you’ve played with the time travel thing, you actually see a glimmer of hope. Time travel COULD fix this. And because YOU are the one with the power to travel through time, that means YOU are the one who is going to have to fix it.
Second, it let the player get emotionally connected to the support characters who provided a connection to the world. See, the problem is that Chrono Trigger is a silent protagonist. He’s a blank slate. He’s got no motivations, no personality, and no relationships. That’s so the player can step into Chrono Triggers’ shoes. It’s a fairly standard trick. The problem is that Chrono only feels what the player feels. So, when the world is threatened by Cthulhu, the player isn’t particularly attached to the world. They are going to save the world, sure. That’s what the point of the game is. That’s how you win. But there isn’t much emotional weight behind that choice. It’s just an electronic world and the character is barely a part of it. The False Start gives the player time to build a connection with the girl and the other, different girl. Saving the girl and being saved by the other, different girl establish emotional connections. When the girl ceases to exist, it’s a wrenching thing to see. The game makes you watch her get basically torn from existence. Later, at the trial, she stands up for you. Calls you a hero. She turns against her family for you. And you see she’s headstrong, but she’s also had a troubled life. She doesn’t have friends. He family is emotionally distant. You sympathize. The other, different girl is brash and clever. When you jump off a cliff, she’s going to jump right after you. But she’s also going to invent a jetpack on the way down and save you both. By the time you see Cthulhu, you have built an emotional attachment to those two characters. And seeing their reactions to Cthulhu and their terror for the world and their resolve to save the world, that draws you along. The emotional connection you have with the two characters creates a conduit so their emotional attachment to the world affects you, the player.
But, none of that actually matters. I mean, it does matter. It explains why the False Start works in Chrono Trigger. But the details aren’t important. The important bit is that the False Start actually makes Chrono Trigger better. THAT’S the key.
False Starts make awesome games better because the False Start – the part before the campaign’s real beginning – the False Start does something to improve the game. In the case of Chrono Trigger, it empowers you so that when the real campaign starts, you are willing and able to take on the challenge. And it connects you to the characters and the world so that, when the real campaign starts, you’re emotionally invested in the outcome.
Here’s the deal: you can’t just do a False Start because you think that MOMENT is going to be cool and that the False Start will make it cool. You should only use a False Start when you can state clearly and categorically how everything that comes in the False Start will improve the game when it starts for real. And it has to be something you couldn’t get any other way.
It’d be impossible for me to list all of the ways a False Start could make your game better. So I’m just going to look at a couple of the big ones and trust you to think through other ones.
Characters and Connections
Some campaigns are more character-driven than others. A character-driven campaign is one in which the personal relationships between the characters, their connections to the world, and most importantly, their personal goals and motivations are in the spotlight most of the time. The characters hopes and fears and desires are always pretty close to front and center. Now, you might think that I just described all campaigns. You might think that what I just described is the very essence of role-playing. Well, it isn’t. In fact, that character-driven crap isn’t very important for lots of players. The relationships are incidental. They are something that happens while the party is adventuring. But there’s no reason to worry too much about them as long as the party is willing to work together. And most relationships only go as far as “the party mostly trusts each other and the heroes are willing to work together.” And that’s fine. It’s actually pretty normal. That’s standard in most fantasy RPGs.
Likewise, the characters’ goals and motivations aren’t usually terrible important. Characters might have goals. They might be after money. Or power. Or glory. Or want to serve the greater good. As long as the heroes’ various adventures offer treasure and magical items and a chance to brag and involve evil people being thwarted, it’s all good. In fact, it’s pretty standard in fantasy RPGs for the players just to adopt the goals of the adventure or campaign as their personal goals.
The same can be said for the characters building relationships with the world of the game and the people in it. In many games, it’s an incidental part of the game. It’s something that just happens along the way. And that’s good enough.
Sometimes, though, you get a group of players who really want to focus on their characters’ personal stories and relationships and hopes and desires. Or they want to really lose themselves in the world of the game. They want to get attached to the world. They want to care about it. And so, you structure your campaign around that crap. You build a campaign that’s small-in-scope-and-scale and fill with recurring characters. You adopt a plate of spaghetti structure and use the characters’ own goals as the campaign’s major plot threads. And then everyone is happy.
But sometimes, you’ve got a campaign structure that you chose for various other reasons and that doesn’t quite work with that character-driven, relationship-building crap. For example, suppose the entire campaign is about saving the world from f$&%ing Cthulhu. Once Cthulhu is looming on the horizon, other concerns tend to get pushed to the back burner. For obvious reasons. Character relationships and personal connections to the world are going to be a lot harder to build when the party is racing to save the world from destruction. And bringing up your personal goals might be seen as a little petty and selfish.
A False Start campaign can help because it puts off the parts of the campaign that are going to overwhelm all the personal goals and backstory-sharing and relationship-building for a while. The players can establish their personal goals and relationships during the False Start. Once the campaign starts for real, those goals and relationships are already part of the game. They’ve been established. So, when they come up later, they don’t seem like petty distractions that come out of nowhere. They are a necessary part of the characters’ ability to work together. And personal goals can be completed on the way to saving the world or whatever. Because now, they aren’t just selfish desires, they are unresolved issues that are holding the characters back.
Before you run off to start your False Start campaign, please note that this is a very specific use of the structure. This isn’t just about “giving the characters time to establish goals and form relationships.” It’s about giving them a chance to establish goals and form relationships IF AND ONLY IF something in the campaign is so huge that it would overwhelm all of that crap and push it to the side. The False Start isn’t a short-cut to building a character-driven game. It’s a way to build a character-driven game into a game that normally isn’t character-driven.
Establishing the B-Plots Before the A-Plot Gets Too Big
Honestly, that thing about personal goals actually works for any set of plot threads. That is to say, if a campaign involves a major plot thread and several minor plot threads, a False Start can give you the chance to set up the minor plot threads before the major plot thread barges into the game like a giant and impossible-to-ignore water buffalo pooping everywhere. If the False Start period is used to establish a few smaller plot threads that are going to get resolved throughout the course of the campaign while the party is pursuing a huge, major plot thread, that provides a balm against the minor threads feeling like silly distractions. It’s not a guaranteed cure. But it can help.
Starting Wrong by Starting Right
Another reason to use a False Start is that it’s not a False Start at all. Sometimes, it’s entirely possible that the only way to start a campaign right is to start it wrong. Wrap your brain around that.
See, there’s a certain type of campaign structure that I call the “Layers of the Onion” game. Basically, the game is about solving some big mystery. But the mystery is covered with lots of layers. Periodically, throughout the game, the players make big discoveries and those discoveries reveal another layer of the mystery. Usually, by revealing that everything that the players thought they knew was a lie. Or at least, was a very incomplete truth. Some players eat that s$&% up. I LOVE Layers of the Onion games. And yes, I will be talking about them. And Save the World campaigns. I’ve got a lot of these articles coming.
In such a campaign, a False Start is actually entirely in keeping with the structure of the campaign. The False Start basically involves the characters walking around on the surface of an onion-like mystery that they don’t even know is there. The true start of the campaign comes with the first revelation. The one that peels back the first layer.
But those are just some examples of how a False Start can make a game better. The problem is that a good reason isn’t enough to make a False Start work. Execution is everything.
Pulling off a Good False Start
Remember how terrible False Starts are? How they can make players feel bored or betrayed? Well, guess what? Just because you have a really good reason to believe a False Start will make your game better – like the reasons I explained above – just because you have a really good reason, that doesn’t mean the False Start won’t still suck. Unfortunately, good intentions in a leather sack are worth a sack. If you don’t actually execute the False Start well, your game is s$&%. Sorry.
So how do you execute it well? You have to think about three things. First, you have to think about why you’re using a False Start and what it’s actually supposed to do for your game. Are you using it to give the players a chance to build relationships? Are you establishing minor plot threads? Do you have some other reason? Fine. Great. Now, how the f$&% are you actually doing that. That s$&% doesn’t just automatically happen. You have to make that s$&% happen. See, a False Start campaign is actually two campaigns. It’s the campaign you’re going to run and the one you’re running right now. And they both have to work. They both need all that s$&% that campaigns have. Like a shape. How is the False Start shaped? And how does that shape – and the plot threads that make up that shape – how does that shape do the things you want it to do?
And that brings us to the second thing. Second, remember that your False Start needs glue. GMs f$&% this one up a lot. Holy f$&% do they ever. They figure that because their real campaign has this strong motivation pushing the characters through it – something like saving the world – they figure that the glue that holds the real campaign together will somehow magically imbue the False Start with the glue it needs to hold the party together. Or else that whatever initially holds the party together in the False Start will somehow keep working when the entire goddamned campaign changes. Guess what?
You need to know what is keeping your party together during the False Start and you need to know what is keeping them together after the campaign starts for real. Remember, they are both campaigns. They both need this s$&%. But I’m going to give you a little secret here. The False Start might just be able to solve this problem for you. But only if you look in the right place. I’m just going to give you a hint. Remember when I said that personal relationships are the weakest glue you can rely on because they are established by the premise of the game and not built organically through play? What if your game spends several adventures building personal relationships organically through play? Might they then be strong enough to rely on to keep the party together later on? Of course, you still need something to hold the players together until they build those relationships.
But even if you have a good plan for how the False Start will do all the wonderful things it’s going to do and you’ve figured out how to keep the characters together during the False Start and after the campaign starts for real, there is one more thing that you have to worry about when you design a False Start campaign. The False Start can’t suck. It has to be fun to play. And there is a precise level of fun it has to achieve. It has to be almost-but-not-quite-exactly as much fun as the real campaign. If the real campaign measures ten barrels of monkeys on the fun scale, the False Start needs to hit about nine-and-a-half. If you don’t pull that off, you fail.
My Last Secret
I’m going to leave you with a secret. It might break your brain. Originally, I was going to spend an entire giant paragraph or three on this secret. But I don’t have to. Because your Christmas present is going to be a very special article in which I’m actually going to show you an actual campaign premise I just wrote for a new campaign I’m starting next month. One that grew out of a very tricky Session Zero. I’m going to tell you all the things the players said and how I translated that into a premise that they were falling over themselves to accept. And I’ll be talking about the secret I’m about to reveal in more detail then. So I can just drop the secret right here.
Are you ready? Here’s the secret:
I have never run a False Start campaign without telling the players that it was False Start campaign right from the get-go.
I’ll let you think on THAT for a couple weeks.