I finally caught the first two episodes of the HBO Max exclusive series Raised by Wolves. You can watch the first episode legit for free on Youtube here. I recommend you do, because it hooked me very hard. If you’re a fan of Warhammer 40,000 or crazy Sci-Fi with robots and uncomfortable religious cults, I think you’re going to like it.
Anyway, without going into spoilers/plot specific details, a scene in the second episode caught me off guard with how good it was at introducing five new characters in just a handful of lines and nonverbal acting.
Five characters are brought into an unfamiliar setting, and in we get their names, which I’m awful at remembering, but we also get little reactions from each of them about how they’re going to survive this new, incredibly perilous situation they find themselves in.
It caught me off guard because I know now these characters by their beliefs rather than their names, and all it took was a single line or reaction to a line from another character. For example one character immediately gives up her symbol of religious faith recognizing that their captor/liberator frowns upon it. Another character, the youngest, cries helplessly, and one of her fellow captives moves immediately to pacify and calm her. Yet another character scoffs at the situation, and finally a fifth character tells them all to stop arguing, stressing that arguments will get them killed.
These five characters are all children by the way, instantly raising the stakes by this nature alone.
What does this have to do with OSR and RPGs in general? Well not only does the group of children mirror the size of your average party of D&D adventurers, but we don’t have much time for character development, and the writer/director/editor all know we need to grow some attachment or at least meaning to these characters or we’re not going to care about what happens to them – we have to know what’s at risk of being lost so we care more about the threat.
DO THIS IN YOUR GAME. We all lament the lameness/boring aspect of “You all meet in a tavern” and often with good reason, but there’s no reason you can’t emulate the type of scene from Raised by Wolves in your own game, in a tavern, in session 1.
For example, take the “meet in a tavern” thing and inject some fear/danger into it immediately. There’s a couple of easy ways to do this. My first idea that comes to mind is to have the person calling them together – normally someone who needs a job done, right? – have this quest giver poison their food and have a partner of the poisoner somewhere else be the only person with the antidote.
Let each character react in turn to this news. You’ll probably only pull this off once as they will likely suspect someone in the future of trying the same trick, but it’s worth a shot as a way to inject some time and pressure on the players immediately. Character is what happens when obstacles are put in front of someone, and this is a great way for your players to show off their characters and questions them immediately on how their character reacts to personal threats.
There’s lots of other ways to do this – you could have a necromancer curse them at the start of the first session. You could run one-on-one sessions for each character getting poisoned individually and then told to go to the tavern and meet the rest of the team. Although this does take away some of the fun of seeing your player characters interact with each other, it does present an opportunity for your players to get a feel for their characters as they exist “in the wild” or when they have the spotlight on them.
I know in practicality this isn’t new advice – start your campaign with a bang! Right? But focus in on those character reactions. It doesn’t really matter what the threat is as long as it hits them where they live.