Of course The Heroes met in a tavern. Original they are not. It should likewise come as no surprise that Wizard went in for the Session One exposition dump. As you may have gathered from Wizard Quiz, The Heroes’ resident arcanist is a big believer in in-depth backstory. It’s not hard to understand why.

When you first sit down with a band of brand new PCs, it can be tough to get a read on the personalities gathered around the table. When it comes to that all-important first impression, you’ve only got the general-purpose “you may describe your character” to go on. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time connecting with, “You see a human in his mid-thirties. He’s got brown eyes, a lean physique, and wears a travel-stained cloak.” Maybe it’s a personal hangup, but I always feel a certain pressure to make sure my fellow players instantly “get” my character. I’ve only encountered this anxiety in one other medium.

A million years ago, back when I was taking improv courses in college, my troop ran a game that featured playing cards. Everyone took a card, tucked it into a headband, and then began to mix and chat as if at a cocktail party. You weren’t allowed to look at your own card, but everyone else could see at a glance whether you were an ace or a deuce. The shtick was that you were a big shot if you had a high-value card, dropping all the way down to “social pariah” near the bottom of the deck.

“You!” said I to the Four of Clubs. “Servant girl! Pop back to the kitchens and bring round another tray of shrimp.”

“Excuse me?” she said, eyeing me up and down like I was the scum of the earth. “I don’t work here.”

“Oh of course, Ma’am! My apologies.”

I continued that game assuming I was the lowest of the low. I did my best bowing and scraping to my many betters, and was startled to learn at the end that I’d been the King of Hearts the whole time. I guess my classmate didn’t like being called “servant girl.”

That’s the kind of misunderstanding I worry about at the table. If I’m a tricksy rogue, I want the other PCs to show a little instinctual distrust. If I’m a barbarian with a heart of gold, I want my buddies to treat me like a likable oaf rather than a violent savage. Sure, the other players might decide to react against type for their own in-character reasons, but I want that to be a well-informed decision rather than one based off of a misapprehension.

If you’re a talented actor, and if you rely on broad stereotype rather than subtlety, much of this problem goes away. Nail a Danny DeVito as-used-car-salesman impression and people instantly know what to make of you. If you’re a less demonstrative type however, say the ever-popular brooding in the back of the bar PC, then it’s a lot harder to convey your personality. This is something I term “the rich inner life problem,” and it shows up every time your character’s complex identity is invisible to the rest of the table. You’ve got this fascinating character in your head, but no one else gets to experience it because you don’t have the chance to show it off. That’s why I love White Wolf style preludes in my games.

It doesn’t take much. Just ten to fifteen minutes apiece in Session One, allowing each PC to show a little bit of their personality. Everyone gets a brief solo session, playing out important moments in their backstory in front of the other players. This allows the rest of the table to see one another’s characters in action, and to imagine what kinds of relationships their PCs might form.

Discussing characters in Session Zero helps of course, but that’s far less experiential than a prelude. Same deal with a Wizard-style exposition dump. You can observe with those techniques, but you can’t grok. That’s why I think watching other characters strut their stuff in a prelude is the best way to get everyone on the same page. You’re free to set your own tone in a solo prelude, and party cohesion is just a short step from there.

That’s my go-to Session One strategy anyway. What about the rest of you guys? Have you ever tried to run a prelude? How did it go? Let’s hear about all your favorite methods for introducing characters and forging a party dynamic down in the comments!


ADD SOME NSFW TO YOUR FANTASY! If you’ve ever been curious about that Handbook of Erotic Fantasy banner down at the bottom of the page, then you should check out the “Quest Giver” reward level over on The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. Twice a month you’ll get to see what the Handbook cast get up to when the lights go out. Adults only, 18+ years of age, etc. etc.