A column I wrote for Game Geek 9:
Have you watched TV lately? If so, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that in media res is all the rage. For example, check out any episode of The Good Guys on Hulu. The beginning of each episode isn’t necessarily the beginning of the story. It’s usually nearer the end of the plot, and most of the episode takes you back to the events as they unfolded leading up to the opening scene.
In media res hooks the viewer right away. It sets up an exciting situation to generate interest in what led up to that point in time. I am compelled to watch the entire episode of The Good Guys because I want to find out how Jack and Dan are going to survive the exploding dynamite while pinned down by enemy gunfire inside the storage container.
Just as in media res hooks the viewer, it can also hook the player when used in an adventure. Care must be exercised, however. The type of in media res used in many television shows, for example, often won’t work in an RPG scenario. This is because most of the episode is an extended flashback, and flashbacks in an adventure can be railroad tracks that rob players of meaningful choices.
For an example of in media res that would work in an adventure, consider the classic Thundarr the Barbarian episode “The Prophecy of Peril”. At the beginning of this episode, Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla engage in a pitched battle against the wizard Vashtar’s hench-robots. Our heroes have stolen a magical gem from Vashtar and are trying to escape his citadel. Thanks to some timely exposition from Vashtar, we learn that the gem holds the secret to defeating him, and that this is why Thundarr and company have taken the gem. Thundarr, Ariel, and Ookla escape Vashtar, and then the trio spend the rest of the episode acting on the plot hook the gem represents.
This is a type of in media res that can work in an RPG scenario. Let’s break the idea down into some necessary components.
The Ultimate Goal
Every adventure has some sort of terminal objective. The PCs have a goal they wish to reach. They want to reveal the prince as a traitor. They seek the fabled tome of knowledge. The stars are ready to align and unleash the Old Ones unless the Elder Sign is affixed to some dread portal. When designing an in media res adventure, determine the ultimate goal and at least one step crucial to meeting it that can be combined with an action scene. Here’re some examples expanding on the previous three sample ultimate goals.
Reveal the Traitor: The PCs start the adventure in shackles in the rolling brig of a galley bound for an infamous slave port. Fortunately, one PC has a handy means of escape, such as a hidden lockpick. The PCs must free themselves, overcome the villains on the galley, and return to civilization.
Find the Tome of Knowledge: The PCs have just recovered a piece of an ancient map leading to the lost ruins in which the tome lies hidden. Unfortunately, their exit has just been detected by the feral man-apes that guard the map’s location.
Stop the Old Ones: The PCs sit in a stately study about to meet a famed scholar who can help them learn the location of the Elder Sign. The scholar enters the study when deranged cultists burst in through the skylights.
After the initial conflict is resolved, it’s time to fill in the players. The exposition portion is the PC background material that happened “off-camera” and led up to the opening conflict. It should include all of the information the PCs would have reasonably had that led them to the precarious position in which they just found themselves. For example:
Reveal the Traitor: The PCs had been on their way to meet a lady-in-waiting believed to have evidence of the prince’s perfidy. When the PCs arrived at the rendezvous in the upstairs private room of an inn, they found not the lady, but an ambush by a press gang. The PCs were overpowered and woke up in the hold of a slave galley. The PCs must act quickly. The lady said she had evidence that the prince planned to imprison his recently deceased brother’s heirs as the first step to seizing the throne.
Find the Tome of Knowledge: The PCs were hired by the Golden Key Scholars to retrieve the tome of knowledge. A fell plague sweeps the land, caused by some evil sorcery. The tome of knowledge holds the secrets to stopping the plague. The PCs were given one piece of an ancient map that led them to a ruined library deep in feral man-ape territory. Now with the second map piece, the PCs have learned the last known resting place of the tome.
Stop the Old Ones: The PCs recently rescued a maiden from the clutches of sinister cultists. Evidence on site revealed that the cultists were part of a larger group seeking to unleash an unspeakable evil. One of the PCs knew the famed scholar by reputation, and the heroes sought his advice. Once the PCs defeat the attackers, the meeting with the famed scholar can go on as planned, assuming the scholar lives.
Conflict & Resolution
Here’s where you run the bulk of the adventure just like you normally would. The PCs already have their plot hook and adventure background. Build on the events, villains, and hints contained in the opening scene and the exposition.
This sort of in media res technique works with nearly any type of campaign. Whether you’re running an epic adventure path, a one-shot module, or the ultimate sandbox, you can adjust your scenarios so that they start with an action scene.