Life is like a grapefruit

In medias res

A while ago there was an episode of the DnD podcast from Wizards of the Coast that had a tip for DMs to start every session with the players rolling initiative. This usually indicates that combat, or at least some action sequence, is about to play out and initiative determines the order that the characters act in. The idea is that by having your players start the session in medias res, literally “into the midst of affairs”, they will be more engaged in the session as a whole.

In the most recent session of my regular game, we did exactly that. The first action we all made was to roll a D20 and get into combat. It really did focus us on the game, and the entire session felt more focused and more tense.

This should not be much of a surprise as the technique has been used in films 1, video games 2, literature 3 and plays 4 for exactly the same effect: It gets the audience focused on the subject matter and engages them immediately.

While some video games are already using this technique, mostly to engage the player in a narrative without requiring an expositional cut-scene, MMOs and MUDs actively avoid it. In most multiplayer games, there are timing restrictions on logging out of the game. This is to avoid harassment or cheating where players can just log out to avoid a battle that is going badly for them. In fact, most games (including World of Warcraft and EVE: Online) encourage players to get back to a home base or an inn before leaving the game. In World of Warcraft, players are even given an experience bonus for doing so. While this is definitely a great solution for cheaters, griefers and other player problems, it also means that players log in to a safe city with no action. Imagine the increased level of engagement a player would experience if they logged in to a city under siege, or an attack on the space station you’re docked in!

The implementation would require a little care. The character would need to gain some form of protection for the first few seconds after entering the game to avoid instant death, and to give the player time to orient themselves. Similarly, the action might need to be just a little way off, but with enough cues that the player feels the pressure without necessarily being right in the middle, just in case a rogue cannon or ogre’s club happens to land where the character appears.

Level-appropriateness of enemies is also an important consideration. In general, cities or bases in these games can be assigned a level range; the range of levels that you expect characters staying there to have. At the very least, you can expect a minimum level cap. It is important that characters can get out of the city if they choose to, whether that’s through a city-to-city transit system, or just running through the waves of enemies laying siege.

I also don’t think that having this happen for every login would work as you would lose the tension that you’re trying to build, however for games like World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online, where the narrative has set up that regions and cities are being fought over by opposing sides, it would be an extra level of engagement to know that when your character wakes in the inn they stayed in for the night they might find themselves in a burning city with enemies storming the streets.

It has long been the case that narratives use in medias res to engage and stimulate their audience, and it is clear that it works for table-top games and single-player (narrative-led) video games. So far, I don’t know of an MMO or MUD that uses this technique, but I believe it would create a much-needed break for character of all levels from the dreaded grind and would engage players in a way that no game yet does.

Further reading: 5 Great Examples of in medias res, in medias res (Wikipedia)

  1. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Pulp Fiction, Michael Clayton ↩︎
  2. Monkey Island 2, Final Fantasy X, God of War ↩︎
  3. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey ↩︎
  4. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream ↩︎

Posted on 2009/05/05 in game development | Tagged dnd, MMO, MUD, Player | 3 Comments

3 thoughts on “In medias res”

  1. Joakim says:

    2009/05/06 at 03:16

    Great stuff, thanks! I’ve been thinking about some ways to enhance my storytelling and this looks like one method I could use every now and then.


  2. Dominic Hamon says:

    2009/05/12 at 22:47

    Glad you like it. I think it’s effective as long as it’s not overused.


  3. marty says:

    2009/09/09 at 12:56

    Ineteresting, but I don’t think it would work out that well in the PbP games…

    Sadly, I don’t know anyone around the forestpark, ohio area that plays D&D, so I have no table top game…


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