Starting in the Middle of Combat

One of the most popular topics in Role Playing philosophy is the initial encounter of any campaign. The “initial encounter” the event which kicks-off the adventure. Sometimes the heroes are all separate entities in a tavern and  stranger comes in attracting their attention. Other times, they’ve all answered an add at the adventurer’s guild. Maybe they were individually hired by an eccentric wizard. These situations all fall into the category:  “you find yourself at a table talking to some dude.”

Another type of initial encounter “is the party meets each other for the first time,” usually at a crossroads in town. This results in the awkward scenario of describing your character and convincing the other players why your characters should all instinctively trust each other. Because this awkward from both a logical and a role-play situations, it is often hand-waived and the adventure really gets going once they all agree to talk to the NPC that sets up the scenario (see above).

Since these are tired cliches, a lot of DMs have experimented with starting the adventure off with some action, which is a great thing.  Some examples are

  • the party is walking down the street and a stranger runs up to them and falls over dead from a stab wound, or
  • they are all part of a caravan guard and the adventure starts and the caravan is under attack, or
  • everyone is on a boat in the middle of the ocean it suddenly starts sinking…

This is a great way to avoid the awkwardness of starting a campaign and getting going with some adrenaline. I think I’d like to start my next campaign off not right before battle, but right in the middle of a battle. It could start 4 rounds in already, with all the participants having taken a little damage and maybe a dead minion two. With this the players would have to jump immediately into action, and at the same time figure out who is trying to kill them and how to get to safety. If the PCs start off as strangers, it should be obivous to them they are all on the same side. It could be fun making introductions in the middle of battle; it seems like something they might do in a superhero cartoon.

    In a system other than d&d you might be able to get away with starting the campaign just as the characters suddenly regain conciousness (in the middle of fight). They would have either temporary or permanent amnesia and have to piece together what the hell is going on. This extends extend the “middle of combat” idea from the players to their characters. I imagine a game setting where you can define your character’s prototype on the fly. By declaring your character is casting a spell gives them spell-casting ability, or if they run away, they would get the attributes of a rogue, etc. I feel like I’ve seen that kind of character building in a video game.

    Have you started a campaign in the middle of action,  or in some other way that wasn’t in a tavern or meeting with a hiring NPC ? Was it successful? How was this experience colored by being a DM or player?

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    8 thoughts on “Starting in the Middle of Combat

    1. My solution has been just to have the whole party just hired by X dude to do something, and have them in the middle of doing that something. It skips the awkward town scene, and sends them straight to the starting point of the adventure. That way, I don’t have to spend hours trying to get them to the starting point of the adventure.

      Part of me also liked how the old Star Wars adventures did it, with a little script, and starting the players off in a combat right off the bat, too.

    2. In my current campaign, my PC’s have met on the road travelling to a small town for a yearly festival. It’s assumed they’ve had a couple of in-game days to get to know each other. The actual game will open with them stumbling accross a wagon being attacked by bullywugs. The idea is that this will get them working together.

      It’s always good to get into some action quickly, as it gives the players something to focus on other than the fact that they’re starting a new game and/or meeting new people. It doesn’t have to be combat, either, as per your sinking ship example. A rolling boulder/poison dart wall/crumbling pit escape from a temply could work just as well! By the time it’s over, the players are generally comfortable enough, and have found enough of their characters, to interact freely around the table.

      Keep in mind, that these initial encounters can really set up what the campaign is going to be like for your players, or at least their idea of the campaign. It’s a good idea to try and ground it in the theme of the adventure you’re running.

    3. Starting adventures/sessions in media res is always fun and has worked well for me. Though I have not used it to start a campaign and force a group together, though it could be it interesting experiment.

    4. In advance, I had all my players tell mre why they were in the starting town. They did not know each other, but I had them all place their minis on the battle mat in the same general vicinity, allowing them to choose what they were doing (drinking in the tavern, haggling with a shop owner, reading a book by the fountain). A large explosion occurs, blowing a hole in the city walls and a bunch of goblins flood in and start killing locals and raiding the shops/tavern, etc. They decide to take up arms against the invasion. The city guard shows up just as they are finishing up the fight. The group of them were taken to the town leader, who requests their assistance in dealing with the larger threat (a few of the goblins got away with some magic item) offering some sort of payment.

      It worked out nicely…

    5. I once had a group operating as part of a military unit. Each of them was part of a larger division and was only loosely familiar with the others. This was all find and dandy until an ambush wiped out major chunks of most of their units right when the game started, forcing the routing forces to have their backs to a wall. The ensuing battle to somehow escape through overwhelming odds only to be deemed “cowardly deserters” as the ambushes sole survivors pretty much cemented their status as companions.

      I’m not sure I’d do it again though if only because it was really hard to keep the group together initially. Players who all have strong opinions of how something should happen seem especially so during combat which made it a real strain to keep them from running off and putting their own plans into play.

    6. @Esspkay,
      Excellent point. The initial encounter is a great place to set up adventure’s flavor. If one of the special things about your world is wizards live in floating castles, why not have that take place on one of these castles, or include someone obviously involved in such things. If the adventure is supposed to be a whodunit, then the starting with the murder is not bad…

      @Mike
      Ah the old blow something up trick…excellent 🙂

      @Jared
      Was this with players that have gamed together before? I was thinking about this through the lens of the regular gaming group where all the players were familiar with each others’ styles and trusted each other. I think for a con game, that could get hairy.

    7. @Michael
      No, and that was part of problem I think. Everyone at the table was so familiar with each other outside of the game that when it came time to play those who were more manipulative (read, the jerks) won out entirely because they knew how to push the buttons of the other players. I should probably refine my comment a bit by saying I’d be hesitant to try it again, but only because in my current situation it would come down to “whoever shouts loudest gets heard”.

    8. Part of me also liked how the old Star Wars adventures did it, with a little script, and starting the players off in a combat right off the bat, too.

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