On the topic of time-worn cliche…
Browsing through other blogs, I came across this notation by Shane Runkle, on the topic of the omnipresent and frankly tired cliche of the tavern in most D&D-styled games. He laments the prevalence of this as a campaign starter and the tendency of GM’s to simply fall back on basic assumptions. We’ve all seen it happen, at least once in our collective gaming history, where the players have built characters, the GM has sketched out some idea of where the campaign is going to go and the introduction of the characters to each other is left to the ‘you meet in a local tavern’ with little else to propel the game forward.
There are a couple of interesting ideas at work in this.
Shane’s basic premise is pretty solid. If the GM is relying on this as the only compelling reason that the characters are a cohesive group, there are going to be some rather specific problems. For one thing, everyone has to buy in on the basic concept for their characters in the first place. Without that (or without the understanding of the buy in itself), there’s an immediate block in the road. The Admiral deals with this idea himself, in a post from this last April. And another one, less than a month later. (What’s interesting to me is that both Shane and the Admiral make use of the same Tavern Clip Art. Whee.) There are certain, tacit sorts of assumptions at play with the ‘start in a tavern’ opening, which Shane and the Admiral are coming at from different angles.
In Shane’s post, he takes it apart as being a lazy, cliched bit of nastiness; there’s an assumption on the part of the GM that the players have filled in all of the necessary blanks and he doesn’t need to do any real work. The tavern might as well be a blank, white briefing room on the order of what we saw in Men in Black. It exists as a prelude to having bigger and more interesting things taking place, as soon as the characters get the hell out of there. As such, there’s a tendency for the gamemaster to breeze past it, without investing any time in what’s going on. As I understand it, this is the crux of his argument, noting that there are a dozen ways for the GM to spice up the whole introductory sequence so that it takes on its own resonance in the campaign as being the first of a series of great and wonderful encounters.
With the Admiral, he sees it as being a sort of established trope. The players know what to expect with the opening shot of the smoky, crowded barroom, and they have an understanding of what they will do next. There’s a solid cause and effect relationship that moves along the different points. 1.) The characters meet up in a bar, which is either a logical extension of pre-existing working relationship or the foundation of a longer term alliance. 2.) The characters are then approached by a mysterious figure in a cloak, who offers them some lucrative opportunity that serves as the plot hook for the main adventure to follow. 3.) The disparate group of adventurers then depart to undertake the quest, according to the pre-defined rules that govern these fantasy worlds. The problem comes in when the characters reject this bare bones recitation of plot requirements and turn their characters against the adventure that the GM has set up. (It’s a variation on something I talked about in another post, where the character buy-in wasn’t enticing enough.)
Where the two points of view intersect, for me, is that any campaign opening has to cater to the players, as they are still in the process of figuring out their characters or how they fit into the larger adventuring party and the larger world itself. I can’t say that I wouldn’t fall back on the ‘you meet in a tavern’ cliche, but it would be in place for a reason, a bit of familiarity for the players to dwell in before everything started to go to hell for them. If I didn’t feel that I needed to give the players that backdrop to cast their shadows across, I wouldn’t bother. I tend to spend a fair amount of time in the early part of a game trying to get a bead on the specific motivations of the characters, as well as the kinds of plots that the players themselves respond to. In those situations, I’m less likely to force the characters into a situation when I can let them run around and work up the plots they have the most interest in. That way I can figure out what it is that the players want and work with them to make sure that they know what they’re buying into.
As Shane noted, it’s not that the idea of the tavern is a bad thing; it’s just that it can be done badly. The opening of a game has to have memorable instances, and without a dynamic and interesting setting, there’s no incentive to come back the next week.
Whatever form it takes, I can see the value of the well-established opening, but I don’t know as I will ever truly go back to it these days. It remains as a standard for the genre, recalling Aragorn and the Hobbits in Bree (and the updated version in Dragonlance, where the characters return to the Inn of the Last Home in Solace), and it serves well to many as the way their games started off originally. But like many things, I’m no longer twelve years old and starry-eyed at the chance to recreate the different scenes in my favorite novels. I’ve grown beyond the cliches, as it were, and nowadays, I’m looking for something that redefines my experience, rather than wanting to retread the old and familiar.
I guess that’s what I will end up taking away from all of this. The idea of starting a game off in a crowded inn, the smoke hanging low against the rough hewn roof beams and the din of a dozen conversations surrounding the newly founded company of adventurers, is one that appeals to the freshly initiated fans of the hobby. They latch onto this scene as one that casts them into the role of their favorite fictions, and they thrill to the idea of another place and time. As they grow and mature as gamers, they begin to revisit this idea. Starting off at a scarred and stained table in the tavern’s common room brings them back to their first experience with the hobby, and it whiffs of a nostalgia that has already started to fade. And then at some point, it no longer appeals, becoming trite and staid as they’ve already seen it a dozen times over the years. This is the point where it has lost its appeal and stands as the worst sort of cliche.
In the end, you have to know your audience and what they’re looking for in the game. They come to the table with a certain expectation, and for some, the first meeting in the tavern is all it takes. For others, the GM needs to actually try something new to keep them coming back.