Imagine Places First

You’ve listened to the players and you’ve agreed the world in broad terms. Now we can begin to craft a game. But instead of diving headlong into character creation, take some time to imagine the place the characters will come from. Let’s begin with the starting place.

Player characters need a safe place from which to launch their adventures. But it doesn’t need to be totally safe. Most fantasy games begin with a village or small town, but it can just as easily be a nomadic camp or a bustling city. With the latter, start by focusing on the small part of the city that is home.

For my example game, I am imagining a bustling port town on an island. To make the game as accessible as possible to my players, I am going to propose it has a Western European feel to it, all medieval streets and cobbled streets. Pirate captains rub shoulders with legitimate traders, with adventurers needed for all manner of shady dealings.

Why is this a good idea? With a place in mind, it’s much easier for the players to imagine a character to inhabit this new fantasy world. Now we can see how our warriors and thieves might fit into this bawdry port town. But let’s go deeper. Let’s use our imagination to bring the place to life in our mind’s eye.

Imagine you are standing outside a public house on the dock front. What do you see? What do you hear? Bustling dockers and cackling prostitutes, the sound of seagulls, the smell of sea water over-powered by the stench of waste thrown from the windows of the upper apartments. Walk around in your imagination. Perhaps step inside the pub. What’s on the sign, who do you see when you walk inside?

The point is to become submerged in the place. If we are seeking deeper Otherworld-immersion, then the place to start is with our imagination. And the trick is to begin when we next sit down with our players.

Players are prone to mechanical thinking. They often start with the character creation section of the rulebook, and they think mechanically about this or that ability. No thank you.

Begin by roleplaying in your new village. Tell them they are 15 years old and out about town. Ask them how they are dressed. Are they ragamuffin street urchins in, well, rags… or are they walking alongside their mother wearing the latest finery? It tells us something about their character. What do they look like?

Have them interact with a merchant: “Apples and pears, tuppence a piece or three for a half-silver! What’s that, young fella-me-lad? You wanna buy an apple, perchance?”
If the player responds, go further: “What’s your name, boy?”

And then throw them a little dilemma. I discovered the power of this from running Imagine some months ago but give them a moral dilemma and play it out without rules.

Perhaps a crime is taking place in front of the character – they see someone stealing from a merchant, slipping an item of expensive jewellery into a pocket and sauntering away. What do you do?

The idea is to engage the players in a little bit of play. Perhaps one scene each, go around the table. Play it out and let them ask questions. One witnesses a theft, another is arguing with a parent – what about and why in public? The third is sent to barter for a new sword for their master.

Run each scene for a few minutes each. Ask the players to sketch out some ideas about their character. When you’ve collectively got some ideas, then you can turn to the character creation rules and role them up.

Places ground us into the fantasy. Details bring the place alive. Playing it out makes it feel real and engages us in play. Tweak things as you shift to character creation but try to keep it descriptive and grounded in the world. Let the players ask questions and work together to come up with answers. If it makes sense and seems fun, say yes.

Places first, ladies and gentlemen. Start with an interesting community from which these adventures can take place. It’ll make the characters more interesting, it gets you all playing quickly, and it’ll head off the tendency to think about rules.

Where are these heroes from and why should we care about their home?

Game on!

This post is an excerpt from the podcast episode “Imagine Places First.

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