Launching any role-playing campaign is a careful balance of characters interacting with each other, presentation of the setting, and initial motivation to explore the greater story. Recently I had occasion to begin running a new Legend of the Five Rings campaign for veteran role-players, and I decided to do something different.

There’s a trope among role-playing games that characters often begin their adventures in a dark tavern, approached by a mysterious stranger. It’s a very pointed way of saying “hey, here’s some plot,” but leaves little opportunity for actual character development or role-play between party members. Most all of my players have enjoyed the world of Rokugan before, but this campaign is set several hundred years before the world they experienced, at a time when society had yet to be shaped by the events that would come to define it for later generations. More than characters’ background deeds or the stats on their sheet, I wanted to give them an introduction to the world in a way that would inform themselves and each other about the type of character that was entering the game.

As you approach the three small villages which make up the township of Memura, the hot wind blows across a once-well-traveled road. Where other areas of the Empire are suffering from torrential rainfall, this formerly verdant valley is caught in the grips of lingering, lasting heat and many farmers can’t remember the last time water fell from the sky. The grasses are sparse, the trees withered, and crops a pale shadow of what is needed to sustain so so many hungry mouths.

Walking along the long road, you see a curious sight in the distance. Three peasants are chasing a fourth, cursing him and throwing stones as they run through the dry rice paddies. As they grow near you see their quarry is missing his left hand—a sign of bad fortune and ill-tidings in Rokugan, which is what likely prompted this harassment, if not many others like it.

How do you react?

Each of the players engaged with the above scenario individually and publicly, in front of the rest of the group. It’s not that each one of them saw the exact same scene, or that they happened to be walking down the road at the same time, but rather I wanted to give everyone an experience of what life in the small town was like, and to give them an opportunity to develop their character beyond their stat sheet without also having to juggle the complexity of learning other characters.

Several characters interceded in the peasant affair, one even going so far as to report the occurrence to the local lord (who was less than moved to action). At least one kept walking, disinterested, while another started doing some digging into the circumstances that resulted in the peasant’s missing hand.

In all cases, both the players and the characters were introduced to the small towns known collectively as Memura, and each other player had an idea of who the other party members were, without an artificial-feeling “first meeting” scenario concocted by me. Ultimately the party has formed up and are about go off on their first adventure together. I take it as a real success that the party grew together organically, and that the setting and world-building is part of the foundation of our chronicle rather than a bolted-on afterthought.

Header image from Legend of the Five Rings, a collectible card game
and role-playing system currently developed by Fantasy Flight Games.