In Medias Levels

Or "Hey! You dropped your New School in my Old School! And it's delicious!" While there's definitely something to be said for the sense of accomplishment one gets from characters struggling through early levels and slowly building their rep and their skills, today's busy gamer may want to start a little further on in the saga. After all, when that fat 9th-level adventure module beckons and your group probably won't be able to stay together for the couple years necessary to get to 9th level, well, you might just be tempted to skip ahead. Because I've been planning an old school AD&D campaign (or "mini-series" rather) for the summer, this is something I've given some thought to.

First off, it strikes me that starting In Medias Res ("in the middle of things") gives the group license to get any number of disparate characters together. For example, if you'd started at Level 1, then it would be hard to justify characters coming from so many different walks of life, or cultures. How did they become friends? How did that Ninja from Kara-Tur get to Cormyr? All before they hit their first level? Starting much further in the party's life allows any kind of backstory, not just for the character, but for the party itself.

And now the delicious New School opportunity this creates...
If it is implied that the characters have such a rich past together, why not exploit it? On the surface, the players can continually refer to past adventures, just as texture. ("You be careful up there, you don't want another succubus barmaid incident.") But in true In Medias Res fashion, as per Homer's epic poetry, the story should look both forwards and backwards. The GM (sorry, DM, must acknowledge the Old School) can set aside time in each session to go into a flashback to earlier levels. Scenes to explore in the past:
-How the characters met. This would flesh out the relationships and recount the untold story of how a certain character joined the group. Especially good for a "mini-series", with each session acting as an episode of the larger epic.
-A tale relevant to the present session. A scene played at the start of a session could provide foreshadowing, or you could trigger it in the middle of the session, say to go back to the first time a certain monster was encountered.
-More texture. In a more open-ended campaign that makes use of this device, the DM should feel free to latch on to the players' references to past deeds and provide scenes for them. I think it would be great fun for a player to have his or her throwaway line to become an actual mini-adventure.

Such scenes could involve dice rolling and combat, of course, and have open-ended resolutions despite the need to have the present (the scene's future) changed. But while the heroes can't die (though a previously unknown late member of the party could get slaughtered), they could come close. The flashback/story ends with "good thing there was a temple close by" or "fortunately, I still had that potion of healing on me". There's no reason not to run it like everything else, shaving off the levels as required by the timeline. You want to be careful not to interrupt the flow of the game, of course, so triggering in the middle of another encounter should probably be kept to a minimum. At the start of a session, like a sort of teaser, makes sense. Or they could be more character-driven, told by characters around the camp fire. The boring old "who stands watch, read my spellbook" routine would become a chance for more excitement without preventing the characters' necessary rest. Maybe the players will even come to look forward to setting up camp.


Sea-of-Green said...

>>starting In Medias Res ("in the middle of things") gives the group license to get any number of disparate characters together.<<

Hey, it worked for Homer. :-)

Siskoid said...

Exactly! And I'm a firm believer in dragging lessons from one medium kicking and screaming into another.

Charisma said...

I tried this a while back and two of the players in the group said, "Well, do we get experience points for wasting time going over the past?"


Siskoid said...

Wow. I'm glad I'm not saddled with those attitudes.

In an XP driven game, I'd still give XP "from the past" to the characters "in the present" (going over their memories makes them learn new things about themselves).


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