Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Prison Break Campaign Start

The other day I was browsing reddit (specifically /r/rpg ) and came across a post where a GM was asking for advice on how to handle how he wanted to start his campaign. His idea was this: the PCs would wake up in a prison cell where the access way was a hole in the ceiling complete with retractable ladder that the guards used for access. The most upvoted response to how the GM should handle this was a stroke of genius. Basically, the idea was to have the players plan their break in character - developing/establishing who they are - and then no matter what plan they come up with have it work, with maybe just a small hitch at the end to see how they handle that. I want to talk about this idea and why I love it today.

Powerful First Impressions
The first thing I like about this is that the first impression the game gives to the players is one of power. Since the idea is that whatever plan the PCs come up with, provided it is semi-serious I'd assume, with work then the game is geared around showing the players that the ideas they come up with to handle problems can, and will, work in this game. This is a powerful beginning point, especially for any players who are new to this GM, because right off the bat it is a declaration that the game will be trying to avoid rail roading and hoping to keep the players involved in the creative process for problem solving.

Work As A Team
The other thing that this beginning does is make the players work together. The situation alone calls for at least some team work to be pulled off correctly, and that team work is important. Along with cementing the idea that the player's ideas can work - and that there is no one right solution - this also gets them working together. Even if the individual characters haven't met before waking up in the cell they now have a connection and a bond from sticking together. Other game elements can help reinforce that bond and it will further help bring the group together to form a party, which is one of the hard parts of starting a new campaign anyhow. Speaking of forming the party..

An Air Of Mystery
One thing the GM didn't mention, and that has me intrigued, is why the players are starting in jail anyhow? Now, this could just be the GM deciding that they really like the Elder Scrolls series - which always has you starting off imprisoned - but there is a lot more to it. One of the fun things you could do here is have each player decide what they did to get thrown in jail. The answers could be a lot of fun, and again give the players some power over the game world. Maybe the fighter got thrown in for drunken brawling in the tavern while the Thief was caught pick pocketing the captain of the guard. Only, maybe the brawl was started by a corrupt guard wanting the fighter out of the way. It doesn't matter, but the reason the players give can be a great way to show more about their character, and in an unexpected light while still giving the GM the chance to have a "hidden" reason related to a metaplot for why they were imprisoned.

Like I said above, maybe the fighter thinks they're in jail for drunken brawling. In truth though, maybe the brawl was started to get the fighter in jail so he'd be imprisoned when the king rode through and couldn't recognize him as a long lost son - thus securing the king's brother stays next in line for inheritance of the throne. A bit extreme, sure, but it's a fantasy world right?

In General
In general the idea and the solution to the GM's problem of how to handle it make for a very interesting campaign beginning that covers all of the basics. It brings the PCs together, makes them work as a team, and shows that they can be creative and in control of their actions and destinies in the GM's world. I really like it, and in all likelihood will be using it the next time I run a fantasy game, or anything else I can think of where it could work.

How about you? Thoughts?


  1. I've started in a prison before, and although we didn't get an exciting jail break - more a blackmailed into a job or the Governor will kill your family style of thing - we did each get to decide why we were locked up. It was great as it gave some flesh to a character's bare bones right from the start.

  2. At a game conference I at this last weekend a ShadowRun session I was in started with an immediate combat. We had just gotten situated with our characters with stats and backgrounds. The PCs were cops. We were tipped off that a violent felon that had escaped prison just that morning was spotted in a bar & we were arriving on scene. The GM whipped out a tactical map of the bar & asked what we did.

    I liked it a lot - boom, ACTION. Got things off to good start in all the ways you mentioned: forced teamwork & we're all scouring our sheets to see what our characters could do all of a sudden & it put immediate pressure on the ranking cop of our group to make decisions.