Whenever I serve as a dungeon master for strangers at conventions, I learn things that improve my game. But the games where I play Dungeons & Dragons teach me too.
I try to start convention games by giving players a chance to introduce their characters, but sometimes I forget. Not long ago, my lapse hardly seemed to matter. Most character introductions seem forgettable anyway. If you’ve seen one 6th-level barbarian, you’ve seen them all, right? Would anyone notice if I skipped the routine and let the characters reveal themselves in play?
Yes. Playing taught me that I notice.
This year at the Origins Game Fair, I played in several D&D games where the DM skipped character introductions.
In these sessions, learning about the party members could take hours. In my mind’s eye, I would fight alongside faceless placeholders, learning nothing more than that they rolled a hit and scored damage. Three hours in, someone would volunteer to heal and their placeholder would reveal a class. Only by the end of the slot would my comrades in arms come into focus.
I missed the character introductions.
Still, introductions where everyone just recites name, race, and class hardly seem worth the time. I won’t remember those labels, and I suspect names disappear from other players’ memory as quickly as they slip mine.
Instead of stating names, give each player a note card to fold into a tent. Have the players write their character’s name, race, and class on each side. Now everyone can see each character’s essentials.
These race-class descriptions give nothing to inspire interaction between characters, so consider asking players to write one more detail—something visual that invites interaction. I suggest asking players to write one aspect of your character that people can see and that someone might find curious. “During the idle moments at the table, your character may want to ask their companions about these unusual features.”
Before your game, make a sample tent that shows the format you want.
A good spoken introduction presents a character so vividly that it proves unforgettable. It reveals a hook that invites interaction with the character. And it shows a character quickly enough to leave time for 5 or 6 other introductions, plus time to actually play the game.
I’ve wondered how ask players to make such a strong, brief introduction in the moments available. By Origins, I knew the answer. When I played at Teos Abadia’s table at Winter Fantasy, he demonstrated an elegant technique. He asks players to think of the opening credits of 80s TV shows like the A-Team or T.J. Hooker. These sequences show each character in action, and then end with a name flashed across the screen. Teos asks each player to describe their D&D character in such a montage. “Players get concept because they’ve seen those kind of TV shows, and usually they’ll do something that’s really cool.” The format encourages players to describe brief, vivid scenes that demonstrate what makes their character special. To prompt ideas, ask a question like, “Describe a moment from another adventure when your character used their talents to save the day.” The scene doesn’t have to come from game play. Montages can pull clips from later in the season or unaired pilots.
As players first reach your table, and before they even unpack dice, start them thinking about their character’s introduction. Most players appreciate a few minutes to dream up their scene.
Begin the introductions with a player who shows signs a being an enthusiastic role player. Choose the person who brought their own table tent complete with a character portrait, or who already told a story about their character, or just seems outgoing.
If you can spare extra time for introductions and want to encourage interaction, make a second turn around the table where players tell how their character knows another party member. In a post on encouraging role playing, I recommended having players invent a reason their character feels loyalty, friendship, or trust toward another character at the table. Among strangers gathering for a 4-hour game, this seems like a daunting exercise. Instead, ask each player to explain why they trust that another character can help the party. Reluctant players can just restate something revealed during the cinematic montage, but the word “trust” leaves room for enthusiastic role players to invent deeper bonds.
For more from Teos on character introductions, see his post Using Cinematic Montages in RPGs, and this appearance on NewbieDM’s Minicast.
Another great article. This one is timely. In the last adventure I ran, I did not take the little amount of time for character intros. The whole game felt off. No one knew quite who they were adventuring with. Intros are well worth the time. And, if you are going to do them, great advice here on doing them well.
Yes! The Borderlands openings are a perfect example of this and may be a better reference for younger gamers.
Thanks for the mention, David! That table at Origins was really superb – I wish we could play with that table all day long.
What I like about the technique of a character montage is that it already feels like you are playing the game. It’s truly a part of the game, especially if as DM you set the initial scene in a way that leads into the adventure. It sets the tone well, encouraging everyone to get creative and think in a cinematic fashion for the remainder of the session.
A terrific little piece for any DM to read. I took notes!
I like the “scenes from the opening credits of a TV show” idea.
Cut to a female elf in a belly dancing outfit, dancing on a bar. A patron gets grabby, and without missing a beat she knees him in the forehead, he falls back unconscious, and she keeps dancing.
It may be worth mentioning that as players, we can also plan for a generic “fit anywhere” scene. When a DM asks for a character introduction, you can drop it in… “My introduction isn’t about me standing here before you, but what led to my arrival. It started with a few shouts down the street, as I battled a pair of ruffians…”
For trad D&D I’m generally good with knowing Race Sex & Class; if the player wants to add more detail that’s fine but I’d prefer not to pressure them. For something like Feng Shui or a game emulating TV action tropes, this is a great idea.
This article is gold. Thanks for reminding us DMs of another great tip.
Good stuff. Before each session we’ve been doing a little character development by asking a different question to delve into player characters each week. Some of the questions have been:
– In character your first impression of another party member (think Survivor or Total Drama Island)
– Tell us about your favorite possession
– Describe how you dress in the morning to get ready for adventure
– Tell us about your childhood friend
– Treasure or glory… discuss