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I'm designing a campaign for a group of friends. One of the main plot hooks is a bunch of mercenaries that want to bring them to an oracle which gives them the first indication of the Big Bad. When they first encounter these mercenaries, I would prefer the players to trust them implicitly rather than have them go through three sessions determining if the mercenaries are lying this time.

I plan on having them start out in prison with secondary characters of their own. Their actual (campaign)characters would also be in this prison and be led away just before something happens to the prison. The players (as the secondary characters) would see this and when everything goes sideways, they meet the mercenaries who arrive too late to save the primary characters.

The players would have to try to get out of the prison, but it would be impossible for them to survive this -- thus these secondary characters perish -- after which they continue play as the primary characters.

This scenario gives them the chance to get to know the mercenaries under distress, which hopefully allows implicit trust when they meet them again later on. I know this is pretty railroady, but I prefer to DM that way in my first session of a new campaign, in order to make the setting clear.

Getting my players to make two characters is easy, but I would hate for them to spend the better half of a week making meaningful decisions about their character's backstories (they tend to do that) and then have them killed off in the first half of the first session. But, telling them that they don't have to bother, however, will spoil the whole story immediately since I tend to be pretty adamant about good backstories. That would cause them to not give a damn about the first character and the worst prison escape attempts are the ones where the person just rolls over.

How do I get them to invest enough time that they'll try hard enough to survive that they get to know the mercenaries, but little enough that they're OK with the character surviving less than a session?

The system is Starfinder and the setting is very loosely built on the one found in the Core Handbook.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi, which game system are you playing in? You mention it's a slightly adjusted Starfinder setting, is it the Starfinder system you're using as well? It matters, since the system influences how players relate to their characters. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 26 '18 at 9:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, the system will be Starfinder. I wouldn't mind killing off a D&D 5e as much since it takes less time to make a new one. I'll add it to the question and change the tags. \$\endgroup\$ – DonFusili Jan 26 '18 at 9:30
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Tell it to them straight

I see no reason not to just say: "These characters won't be around long, don't sweat the chargen too much". You can go hush-hush all you want, but it will all go down in the first session anyway.

You do not even give out spoilers with this. You do not have to say what happens to them or why. Revealing it will also let them know why do you not require as long a backstory for them as you do for other characters. And knowing this allows the players a bit of freedom too, to go overboard with personality quirks and such. You don't want to play a character with a stutter for 2 years, but it might be fun for 1-2 sessions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I will probably change the campaign to go with Racheets answer, but if I didn't I would have gone with your idea. I was probably overcomplicating things for half a session when I have months of other stuff to prepare. \$\endgroup\$ – DonFusili Jan 26 '18 at 12:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Short of openly stating it, it would be pretty communicative to just say that those characters are exempt from character progression and don't gain experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Driscoll Jan 26 '18 at 17:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would use a term like "Prologue Session". Makes it clear the characters will only be played for the first session for story purposes but doesn't give away why or what will happen. \$\endgroup\$ – MartianInvader Jan 26 '18 at 18:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or tell them that they're going to be playing a set of NPCs for the first session. That way, they don't know in advance that these chars will die, only that they won't be playing them after this session. \$\endgroup\$ – rosuav Jan 27 '18 at 17:48
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Forget the disposable characters

“You have a long and trusting relationship with the Flaming Skies Mercenary Company. Here’s a summary of them. Work it into your backstory.”

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    \$\begingroup\$ Trust is earned, not given. By outright telling the players "You have to trust these people", you remove the players' right to make their own decisions. What's the point in roleplaying if you can't develop your own character? \$\endgroup\$ – royalmurder Jan 26 '18 at 10:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @royalmurder they get to make their own decisions after the game starts, roleplaying would be terribly boring if you had to play every character from birth. Even then, they would still have to accept the setting and NPCs the GM provided for them to make all those decisions. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jan 26 '18 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @royalmurder this option still includes player choice. "How did Flaming Skies earn you character's trust?" is a choice each player gets to make, in a similar vein to "How did your character end up in this rag-tag bunch of misfits?" (that is, the party) \$\endgroup\$ – Caleth Jan 26 '18 at 12:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Honestly, if I was one of the players, I would be actively trying to avoid drawing conclusions based on the experience of a past character and other forms of subconscious meta-gaming. Sometimes I do this by giving my second character biases that directly contradict the experiences of the first. I think that the "work this trust into the character's backstory" has the highest chance of success - though it's not as subtle and potentially not as effective as the OP's plan, if it works. \$\endgroup\$ – TheTinyMan Jan 26 '18 at 17:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ From personal experience trying something vaguely similar to the scenario in the question, I really recommend this. I started to answer something similar until I saw this. It is worth noting that this is more a frame challenge than a true answer though. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jan 26 '18 at 18:56
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Do you really have to kill these characters?

Since the players are already invested in them, it seems a shame to waste such a powerful hook.

Rather than killing them, putting them into some sort of long term peril rather that the main characters have to rescue them from gives you a ton of leverage for adding drama.

They'd still be removed from the game midway through the first session, but you'd hint to the players that if they play their cards right later in the story, they might be able to rescue them.

If it was me, I'd use them in little vignettes alongside the main campaign to drop contextual information to the players that their characters don't have.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like this idea and there's a big chance I'll adjust the campaign to incorporate it, but I feel like it doesn't answer the question as asked. So I upvoted, but will be accepting a different anwer. Thank you for your input. \$\endgroup\$ – DonFusili Jan 26 '18 at 12:12
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Use Pregens

Pitch the doomed party as a 'session 0' of sorts and provide the players with pre-generated characters. You want to invest your time in a tangent to establish trustworthiness of an organization? Invest your time, not your players' creativity.

Players won't develop as much of an attachment to pregen characters and you can ensure that none of them have a spectacular way to escape (or that they do if you don't mind the pregen becoming an NPC, possibly a new recruit of a certain mercenary group?).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I know as a player I wouldn't want to spend ANY time making a character whose fate was already determined. In effect, this part of the campaign is a story prologue you are writing for them, not a game at all. So you may as well write the characters too. \$\endgroup\$ – fluffysheap Jan 27 '18 at 8:54
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The issue you have is that you want them to be prepared to lose characters, but don't want them to know that they will be losing characters. By what little I can infer, your group rarely suffers from character deaths, so it would probably be very safe to say something like the following:

"This campaign will be a lot more dangerous than previous ones I've run, so character deaths will be much more likely."

This should readily prepare them, without you explicitly telling them that you're going to kill their characters. The difference in difficulty posed by having a more deadly world could also justify getting a TPK in the first session as well, meaning your players may never need to know that you intended for it to happen. Finally, it gives some further justification as to why you want them to prep multiple characters.

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In a similar vein to Racheet's answer: I'm running a one-shot prior to a main campaign starting, which will culminate in some PCs "waking" the BBEG and (probably) getting killed/turned in the process. This is mostly to test my worldbuilding (it may be a non-starter) and give myself some hooks to get writing, but also for all of us to get comfortable in DnD 5e before embarking on a full campaign. To that end I've been up-front with the players and said:

"Look, these 4 PCs aren't intended to survive this one-shot so don't get too invested in them. They could survive and could return as NPCs/PCs, but if they do we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

That way I've tried to give them some hope for the future without devaluing their time creating the PCs. In addition, this way I could have a survivor of the expedition the "main" PCs try to find for help, or some of the "throwaway" PCs ending up joining the BBEG, or some flee and become part of the "main" part forming when the main campaign starts, or a number of things I can work off later in the game. If the players still go off and spend weeks crafting an elegant backstory and then complain I'll point to the fact I was totally honest about my intentions (and the main campaign won't be as lethal), though admittedly I would feel bad and be more inclined to try and spare them somehow.

If you can work it so it is possible (but highly unlikely) for them to survive it may help motivate them if you decide to be open about it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If you are at all familiar with web comics, and specifically Stand Still, Stay Silent, what you and one other person here suggests is totally reminiscent of it. The first chapter happens 90 years ago (from the time of the main story). It explains the world, and the BBEVirus. None of the characters survive it, being 90 years ago, but it is still a necessary first episode plot exposition. \$\endgroup\$ – CGCampbell Jan 26 '18 at 18:23
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Have them make multiple sets of characters.

Then tell them you'll be having them switch characters from time to time, and you don't expect extensive backstories for each character, as they'll be making them as they go along.

Suddenly, you kill them! And then they switch to another set.

This way, the investment into their characters isn't a problem, because there isn't much investment!

Then take the extra characters and sprinkle them around your world as flavor or something?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Dark Sun and Paranoia both require the players to make multiple characters for this very reason! \$\endgroup\$ – Shawn V. Wilson Mar 16 '18 at 22:19

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