If I am running a pre-planned role-playing scenario, how and when can it work to start the session in medias res? The narrative technique can work so well in literature, film and video to increase dramatic tension both in the short term (i.e. the immediacy of the action) and the longer term (why were the characters in this situation in the first place?), and I am wondering if and how to incorporate as a GM technique in general.

While I can easily imagine setting a scene just so:

GM: Everyone ready? OK, shots ricochet off the pavement and building sides as you three sprint through the darkened streets of this industrial district. Debbie has got the flash drive with the files and is leading. Craig is just behind her, and Wilma is lagging by ten steps or so. You can hear the shouts of the goons chasing you, and it sounds like there are several on paralleling streets, along with the ones two blocks back. Across the next intersection, a major artery, is an overpass, and what looks like a maze of local streets.

But in an RPG context I don't know whether this just sets us up for immediate demand for a long exposition as to the who, what, why, etc. of the opening scene, rather than focusing player interaction on resolving the scenario. In literature and film, the more passive role of the reader or viewer makes it simple for the author or director to defer such exposition, which might unfold in pieces or in a single coherent exposition much later in the narrative.

What I want to avoid is the players needing to understand the history and reasons for why they are in this scenario in the first place. So I would rather not have them start by asking, for example, "what is on the drive?" "What city is this?" "Why did we chose to hit that company for its IP?" "For goodness sakes, I am playing a concert flutist! How did I end up in this scene?!"

The answers I am looking for will draw on your own experiences, underscore how and why in medias res can prove rewarding for players, and possibly include dos and don'ts for the GM.

Obligatory Order of the Stick in medias res reference.


13 Answers 13


Let the players make up all that stuff!

How about letting the players fill the rest of the exposition? So following from your quote:

Wilma: (shouts) "I'll cover you. GO!" I turn dive behind the garbage cans in the alley, drawing my gun. That first goon is going to have a nasty shock. The rest will get suppression fire.

Craig: (over comms) "Debbie, turn left on the freeway! We'll hijack a car."

Debbie: (over comms) "No, we're close to Clown territory, if we get there we can get backup and come back for Wilma. Follow me!" I jump and head straight for the backstreet with the Clown markings.

Here you are allowing the players to come up with interesting ideas about what and how things unfold. You can then incorporate whatever was made up into your game.

I started several games just like that: No one had characters, states, or background: just names and a situation. Things moved on from there as they described themselves, what they were doing, and what skills they had.

The main rules we had were don't be a dick and never knowingly contradict someone else's story. These are fairly simple really. Also, because you are creating the world as you go, whatever you say is what happens. So, it's best to leave things open ended and not closed. So, in your example, what would be the point of Wilma saying "I take out my nuke grenade and blow the alley so the buildings collapse(1)." In that respect, an idea of what style and themes you wanted to play helps: is it a gritty noire cyberpunk setting or a super hero show a la Arrow/Flash/Daredevil?

One of the games we ran several times started with

You are at a wake.

That was it! No setting, no 'nuffing. Everything was build up from the ground up. Try it next time you have a couple hours to kill with your group.

As mxyzplk stated in a comment:

This gets to the heart of it. A real narrative game is one where the exposition isn't required because it's collaboratively generated. Tacking a single narrative technique on an otherwise simulationist game will be more problematic.

The first point is indeed spot on.

As to the second point, it still work even in a simulationist game if your idea of role playing is building a collaborative story where both GM and Players have input as to where the story goes and generate content on the fly. On the other hand, if the GM does not allow this and/or treat the game as a "GM vs Players", then in medias res cannot work as the players are denied full knowledge of the situation. Clearly, if the characters lack said knowledge, that would work as Nvoigt's fine answers suggest.

(1) Although, I can think of a fun game based off that too!

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's not really exposition: that's role play. What I want to avoid is the players needing to know "what is on the drive?" "What city is this?" "Why did we chose to hit that company for its IP?" etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:27
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ @Lexible: Indeed: let them make up all that stuff! That way they do not need to know, they make it up as they go along. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:28
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This gets to the heart of it. A real narrative game is one where the exposition isn't required because it's collaboratively generated. Tacking a single narrative technique on an otherwise-simulationist game will be more problematic. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 17:27
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure it's the GM that would be the sticking point: judging by the question, OP would be happy with improvisation. But if the players are not used to/ expecting it, this isn't going to fly. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 15:19
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @TimLymington: The last part addresses simulationist vs narativist arguments and does not directly relate to OP. Clearly, in all cases both the players and GM must be on the same page. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 15:41

The narrative technique can work so well in literature, film and video

That is because none of those who make decisions are put into the situation abruptly. Those three are passive arts. It's a technique for passive observers of the action. It's only "in medias res" for those who do not need to make any decision.

To capture that feeling you need to make sure that your players either don't need to make decisions (which would go against the general notion of a "game"), or can make decisions based on the information they have. Even if that's zero information. That means that decisions they make must not negatively impact them later.

Across the next intersection, a major artery, is an overpass, and what looks like a maze of local streets.

As a player you probably want to know from me where I want to go. And despite all action, I'm paralyzed. How would I decide? As a player I'm lacking information my character probably has. That's frustrating. I would not want to regret my decision later, knowing that my character would have acted differently.

Again there's two options. You can make sure that my actions do indeed not have any consequences. For example start the same event, not matter which street I chose at the intersection. However, actions without consequences are somewhat boring.

What works somewhat okay (although it should be used rarely because it gets old fast) is making sure that the character does not have the information either. You wake up in an alley, feeling drugged, not knowing how you got there. You blink and you see you are standing over a bleeding corpse with a knife in your hand. You cannot explain what happened, the last thing you remember is you rang the door bell. Something like that.

One of our DMs used to do that and I have to say it's really cool. Once. A year. It's like spice. Tastes great, just don't spice up every single food with it, or you will hate it.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ "...making sure that the character does not have the information either." That is a really useful technique, thank you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:54

It's important to note that while in literature the two are often synonymous, in medias res does not mean "without information" but rather "in the middle of the action". In my experience, this is actually a fairly typical way to start off Action or Mystery games. The key is not to provide a high action situation with no information, but rather to provide information within the context of an ongoing scene rather than through exposition (commonly referred to as "box text").

When I use this technique, I generally gather information about the characters and then look at circumstances under which these disparate characters might reasonably meet. If none presents itself, I look for sensible opportunities for chance meetings. Once I find a situation, I pick an appropriate moment in that situation for something to go wrong and drop the players in at that precise moment with minimal background beyond what they already know about themselves. As the scene progresses I fill in more details.

An example from actual play:

Me: Okay. Bernie, you and Funkle Skeleton are driving back from a long night trying to score a gig...

Funkle Skeleton: How'd it go?

Me: Better than its going to be going if Bernie hits that truck veering across the road. Roll Drive. Dice are rolled. Bernie pulls the old sedan out of the way just as the truck barrels by, only to be stopped short by one of the many solid oaks in the forest this road winds through.

Mikhael: What about me? Where am I?

Me: Cursing, you haul on the wheel narrowly avoiding the oncoming sedan as another shotgun blast blares behind you. You wonder which farmer Jones is more upset about; you stealing his truck or finding you halfway to naked with his daughter.

Mikhael: "It was a misunderstanding, I swear!"

As you can see, using this narrative method relies heavily on the GM, and ideally several other players, having good improvisation skills as well as players who enjoy an adaptive environment. It does not work so well with players who like to micro-manage the environment in order to control the variables, so to speak. It does, however, definitely start things off with a "bang".

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for providing only the information that is needed, as part of the scene. By avoiding a large expository info-dump and getting straight into the action, this is exactly what the OP wants, albeit in a form the OP didn't predict. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 0:15

I've used the in medias res start several times, and I've found it works best when player characters have a succinct, easily-described goal in the midst of action that can also be easily delineated. The goal keeps players focused and gives them enough that they're not too frustrated by the relative lack of surrounding information.

As the action unfolds, that surrounding information gets revealed a piece at a time. Ex:

  • You're on the main street in the old mining town of Goldspar, and you start taking fire from both sides of the street.
  • After you wing him in the left arm, the shooter hiding behind the saloon door tumbles into view. It's Eagle-Eye Pete, and he's one of the Dirt Devils, the gang you were hired to eliminate from this town.
  • As you run toward Tallow Street, you remember that Duncan O'Malley, the man who hired you, told you there's a hidden stash of dynamite under a wagon on Tallow Street.

This does require some flexibility as a GM, because it's important to keep revealing information along the way. Maybe the GM's original concept was that the dynamite was hidden in Coal Alley, but in order to keep the action and the information flow moving, it's better to put it in Tallow Street because that's where the player character is headed.

As the action unfolds and more information is revealed to the players, slowly they gain enough sense of what's going on and the back and forth between players and GM attains a more familiar rhythm.


Preface: I love the in medias res technique in literature and I am fascinated by its potential uses in gaming. I even named one of my campaigns In Medias Res because that's how it started. Despite that, I am skeptical that it is a general purpose, out-of-the-box tool for everyday use. There are both player management issues and narrative design issues that I will address in turn... mostly separately, because they do intertwine.

Player Management: In brief, I would never spring an in medias res type setting on players without at least informing them before hand, and ideally getting an affirmative buy-in from them. There are some players who will be very uncomfortable with the entire idea, and in my experience they are correlated strongly with players who enjoy designing histories and preexisting relationships and plot hooks for their characters before they even begin playing. It is difficult—not impossible, but difficult—for a player with strong preferences in that direction to tolerate or think/role-play their way around a glaring disconnect between their built-up history on the one hand, and the present game situation on the other hand. On the other hand, there are some players who will positively adore it—in my experience, this correlates well with players who do not like to come up with detailed pasts, either because they are too busy in real life, or because they draw more meaning from played events than from past events.

This is not a value judgment. This is simply an observation that players crave in different measure exactly the information that is removed from by this technique. Some crave it not at all, some need it like they need oxygen. This is also not absolute, it is merely a trend that I have noticed.

I will also note that it's hard to tell unless you have direct gaming experience with someone; simply knowing their literary preferences is not really enough. I am an example of that: As I said, I adore the literary technique and gobble it up. I also prefer to design histories for my characters, and I doubt that I would put up with any of my own experiments unless I really trusted the GM.

So I would absolutely brief the players and... effectively ask permission, as the first step.

As the second step, I would start asking what sort of constraints they would be comfortable with, and what sort of guarantees they would require in order to make this viable. In your example, I might expect something like, "You're not going to make us the bad guys, are you?" Or, "You're not going to screw us over and have us targeting or accidentally killing the wrong people?" Or perhaps, "We need to know that our characters will have access to decent information, and we don't want this to be a prelude to just getting mobbed and captured." This is going to be highly situational. And I would be asking things like, "How much scripting will you put up with, and for how long?"

One real-life gaming example split the ticket: One of the players was effectively starting in medias res literally in the middle of an action scene (chased through a forest) with complete and total amnesia. But I handled this by advertising to the group that there was a great narrative role for such a character and if anyone wanted to volunteer for it, great—otherwise, I'd make it an NPC or just restructure so the character wasn't necessary. A player who had less time than the others to do detailed character work took me on it and laid down some conditions like, "I am not the bad guy," and "No icky romances with unknown family members," (this made sense in background) and similar. I agreed publicly in front of the other players, requested maybe half a game-session of light scripting/pressure on that character—enough to get in contact with the rest of the PCs—and we were good to go. (The other PCs had no memory issues and did not start in medias res.)

Had I tried to shoehorn other players into that role, it would have gone worse. Terribly badly in a few cases.

Narrative Concerns: Even with partial (as above) or full player buy-in, there are still concerns about how to structure the game as a whole. RPGs are not linear literature like movies, books, or plays. And another respondent points out that in the middle of things does not mean without information. I would put a finer point on that and say that RPGs are not linear media precisely because the players are not spectators, the players have agency, and using the in medias res technique creates a direct and very strong tension between the characters who are merely in the middle of things but are not without information, and the players who are both.

I will pause to point out that this is exactly what you say you want-- you want them not to [need to] know things like what city they are in, who they are fighting, what the MacGuffin is, etc. But consider, beyond notions of player buy-in, beyond notions of the players thinking this is unfair, of how exactly the players are to exercise the agency on behalf of their characters that makes this a game without having access to the knowledge of the characters?

This is a thorny problem, but there are some techniques that can work to some degree. One is the full-party or single-character amnesia that I used as an example, and another respondent suggested. Here, the problem is solved directly: There is no knowledge that the players have access to. They are all agency and no history.

But a subtler technique is to (again, with an appropriate degree of buy-in) let the players establish their character histories and then play the event of, or the immediate aftermath of, the game world forcing a radical change in circumstances.

One example from play is from a Nobilis game, where the characters are sub-demigods with mortal pasts, existing in a mythic headquarters. The game typically assumes this ascension to demigodhood took place in the past and that the characters are established in their role. I decided to play from the moment of that ascension forward—there was suddenly a host of new information to assimilate, new characters to understand, great events happening in the game world into which the characters were swept up without knowledge, etc. It was not "bullets whizzing past your head," abrupt, but it was close enough to call the game In Medias Res. Even for that, I got permission from the players.

This structure can be replicated across genres and in greater or lesser degree:

  • A group of modern day citizens are exposed to a super science experiment gone wrong—this is a superhero genre game where the characters are very suddenly super-powered mutants.
  • A group of frontier scouts comes back from patrol to find a smoking hole where their border fort used to be, and they don't even know where the frontier is now.
  • A group of soldiers at a border outpost has to repel an attack from a stealthy, unknown enemy.

Notice, by the way, that all of these scenarios are in some way reactive as opposed to the pro-active situation you describe. The questions all naturally focus outward—not, "Why are we doing this, where are we?" but "Who are these enemies, what just happened?"

And notice that to a degree, you can either play through the entire event, or you can open a little later with, "You've been fighting off an attack on your base for half an hour, here's the state of the battle."

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 I really appreciate your take on preexisting characters, and the implications for in medias res. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 20:45

In general, I would say that starting in medias res can work well, and is a useful perspective to consider when starting any game, at least as a contrast to the way you otherwise had in mind to start. That's because, in my experience, one of the greatest obstacles to player involvement in an RPG background, is lack of familiarity and density and remoteness of background information. Start by telling me the history of the world in any great detail, and I won't be able to remember it, and will have a hard time paying attention.

In contrast, I think there is a certain amount of information that is needed for any situation, and the clearest line between the two is what information is needed to make decisions. That's partly determined by the game system being used. In your example:

  • You start with bullets nearly missing PCs. That may work for a narrative-style game, where that's just a cue in the puzzle of what to think and say to do about it as players negotiate a cool-sounding story. But if the game is simulationist and detailed at all, then starting that way means you will need to at least provide more tactical information so the combat game can be meaningfully played by the players. And, you probably should be clear about the player contract about when events in future will be dictated by GM invention/dictate versus simulationist game mechanics and player choices.

  • You also referred to an industrial district, a flash drive with "files", "goons", and a context of being pursued and attacked. As a player, this would leave me with a ton of questions, all relevant to what I would say my character would do in the next instant of the plot. E.g. What sort of industrial district? What city/country? What date and time of day? What weather? Do we know who these goons are or what their abilities are like? What were we doing that led to this? Did we just pull off a covert theft of the drive, and so do we have an escape plan? Or are we just in the wrong part of town, or were we ambushed by people probably wanting these files? What are these files and why do we care about them, and what do the goons have to do with the files? Do we expect any third parties are present or will appear soon, such as civilians or police or our backup team? What are the nearby buildings, terrain, roads and road traffic like? Do we have any vehicles nearby? Any subway or sewer entrances?

Now, it's possible to bypass and deflect such questions intentionally in some contexts and game types.

For example, I have started characters in a magical dream sequence without telling them that was what was going on. The times I have done this, it's worked well except for a little bit of balking from certain players at first, along the lines of what I pointed out above. They soon chose to go with it for long enough to get interested, and it provided an engaging plot hook teaser as well as an interesting way to gradually provide a bunch of information that they were interested in learning about at the time. But it also caused some confusion and groans before they figured it out. They were then relieved when I resumed my usual straightforward style.

I've also run scenarios which start as tactical action scenarios, and then the context gets explained later. I think it's important to give the players enough information that they can both understand what's going on as well as they need to to make tactical decisions, and to feel like they have some ability to affect what happens, and not just being dragged around in a story someone else made up. However that's my preferred orientation to games - some players and games are more about being dragged through planned stories, or about players taking turns making up stuff that other players are then supposed to riff on. What I think works best for the simulationist, sandboxy game types I like, is to discuss with the players enough background about why their group works together, who they're aligned with, working for, and/or opposed to, and the general context, and then choose where to start them. For example, if we've agreed we're playing Star Wars and they're a covert team for the Rebels, then it could work well to start them in the middle of an operation planned by someone else, at the point where something has already gone wrong, and they need to respond to a clusterfudge and the original plan has to be abandoned and so isn't important (so it would've been a waste to have the players plan it and then have their plan become irrelevant) and then it really makes sense to have them start with dealing with an immediate situation. However I would still make any relevant information available as it's needed.

I've also started games where players have to deal with their surroundings and immediate threats and challenges without any real explanation and lots of mystery, and they need to deal with the threats and then explore and figure out what's really going on. I've done "you're all in an asylum and don't realize it" and "you're all in an interrogation facility and don't realize it". These have worked pretty well, though sometimes the players haven't ever figured out what was going on and/or taken a long time just interacting with stuff without engaging the high-level plot, which was fine but if one wants players to get to the plot, then they may need some obvious reveals such as information to find, or people who come to them and explain.

I've also started out many games by just dropping players into a situation with little background, such as you've all booked passage on a ship from X to Y for your various reasons - here's what the ship and immediate people nearby are like, some of whom are very interesting people in the middle of a plot which is about to involve the players, but maybe that's not what you mean by in medias res, per se, though to me it's essentially the same thing but without the extreme mid-action start, and without the PCs already committed to a certain role in a situation. I like this type of start, but it doesn't force the players into a certain alignment, which is a disadvantage if you've prepared a lot of material with that assumption. Not good if you don't want to allow them to pick their own sides and plans.

Problems I've had have had to do with:

  • Players not knowing enough to be able to make informed choices about what to do. By not providing much background, players have made assumptions which weren't appropriate, because they didn't know any better since I hadn't told them enough of the background. This has been frustrating for them and me sometimes because their ideas made sense as far as they knew, and I had to explain a bunch of stuff to show why their ideas weren't appropriate to what I'd made up and their characters should know, but that I hadn't told them. That can be a bit of a mess.

  • Players not doing what I expected, and wasting a lot of time. This was down to me wanting to use my usual sandboxy GM style but having planned a bunch of stuff that I assumed they would quickly find. Instead they ended up studying a room of an NPC who had vanished and not figuring it out, but trying various other things, and me letting them do that for too long, not wanting to artificially prompt them. That may be more of my GM style not working for pre-planned adventures with a new group of PCs.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 Dronz, your whole answer is great, but I adore the bit right up front about creating player knowledge of the imagined world through interaction... "Start by telling me the history of the world in any great detail, and I won't be able to remember it, and will have a hard time paying attention." <— Love it! \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 15:28

Roleplaying is a situation where the players are both the creators and audience improvising at the same time. Other forms of media the creators know what the reasons are,or, effectively have time to develop/discover it, and craft and edit that long before the audience gets to seeing the results.

Because of this, you end up with three choices when you want to do in medias res for roleplaying games:

Stupidly clear goals

The usual one for this is the Shadowrun shootout scenario, or a basic fight. The goal is utterly clear, although I find this is usually the least satisfying unless you're just going for gonzo action.

Informed Players

The players are informed ahead of time what the general scenario is and when you drop them in medias res, they are able to adapt and perhaps improvise to fit whatever you declare to be happening. "You were on way to deliver the secret plans... and we start the game with the Imperials boarding your ship!!!"

This can work easy if the setting is an established one the players are familiar with, or even with a few sentences of the situation and some clear ideas on the character sheets (Lady Blackbird would be a good example).

Player Narration Authority

Some games just allow players to narrate facts, or encourage the GM to ask questions for the players to fill in during play, that create the "reasons". Apocalypse World does this—you might start with the characters hiding in a junkyard, pinned down by snipers, do some action, then ask one of the players, "So WHY WERE you guys stealing out of the bandits' territory?" and let them come up with a decent answer.

Depending on the game and the genre, this can work really well and create situations you wouldn't have anticipated, however players who are poor at coordinating or GMs who aren't skilled at improvising can have a lot of problems with this style of play.

I tend to use the latter two options, although only with groups I've gotten a really good feel for as players, otherwise the slow reveal of info pays off a lot less in tabletop RPGS than most other media and I find it easier to just focus on conflicting choices for players.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 Thank you! I like these three ways of framing an in medias res play... and the link to Lady Blackbird. :))) \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 17:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ The other game which does In Media Res well is Poison'd - you're pirates who just found out the cook poisoned the captain, and now have him surrounded on the deck. Who's the new captain? What do you do with the cook? Meanwhile the British Navy is fast approaching... \$\endgroup\$
    – user9935
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 0:48

I think the two rules are:

  • You (GM) must not punish the players or characters for decisions taken in player ignorance of character knowledge that you withheld for the purpose of drama (where that knowledge would have allowed them to make a better decision).
  • You must not leave the players unable to make a decision because they feel that it depends on character knowledge that you withheld for the purpose of drama.

The second rule is what prevents them from needing to ask "what's on the flash drive". The first rule is what makes them confident enough that they don't need to ask, that they actually won't ask everything "just in case it matters". They know that any decision they're called on to make cannot possibly require information about the scene set-up that you haven't presented.

So, in your example you might punish them for running into the intersection without checking for traffic, because ever since we could walk we all learned that was dumb. But if (unknown as yet to the players but known to the characters) the drive was stolen from their own mob boss and it's his goons chasing them, then you're not allowed to punish them for running to him for help. You have to intervene before that happens, and give them this highly relevant information so that the player doesn't direct their character to do something absurd. Or else you have to design into the scenario that it's "OK" to go to him -- the characters can reasonably recover the situation from turning up on his doorstep with his stolen gear in their hands and his goons in pursuit.

One way to follow the rules has already been covered: go narrativist, have nothing in mind in advance, let the players and yourself improvise all the information in play.

Another way to follow the rules is to create a scene in which all that information genuinely is irrelevant. If they're being attacked by orcs while carrying an important message, the content of the message needn't affect how they handle the orcs. They just need to know what direction they're headed. There are more examples of scenarios with limited goals in other answers.

However, because my second rule depends on the player's comfort with acting in ignorance, creating such scenarios depends very much on your group. The difficulty can vary from "easy, because your players will roll with whatever" to "impossible, because one or more of your players cannot take a single step without knowing everything the character does". Amnesia provides an out for this (withhold character knowledge in order to withhold player knowledge), but unless you're running a game of Memento: the Forgettening you really can't use this trick every session.

A third way to follow the rules is to progress as far as is possible with the opening scene, and then when the players reach the point of needing to ask "what's on the drive?", you flash back to the scene where the characters learned what's on the drive. You group might spend the entire session on a relatively short scene plus its associated flashbacks, but as long as tension is maintained that need not be a problem. Just make sure there's stuff that can happen in the alley between flashbacks.

The extreme form of this (albeit clichéed in film and TV) is where you present the in medias res opening, run just enough action there to create tension and interest in what the heck is going on, then you flash back "24 hours earler..." and run the whole build-up to the scene in chronological order with players and GM co-operating in the knowledge that everything already seen in the opening is inevitable, but every detail unseen by the players is up for grabs. Then they get a "second view" of the opening scene, this time with full character knowledge. That may also prove to be the climactic scene of the scenario or merely the end of the beginning of the scenario: either way you pick up from where you left off the first time through.

I'm sure there are many other ways to follow the rules, but I think you have to design with those rules in mind as the pitfalls you need to avoid.

Finally, you need player consent for the decisions you've taken on their characters' behalf. This is true for any opening scene: "You meet in a bar." "What? My character is a strict prohibitionist and would never enter a bar under any circumstances. I'm outta here!". So it didn't occur to me at the start to make it a rule, but using this technique the characters are probably in a bad situation partly of their own making. As with my second rule, you'll see a lot of variation among players how happy they are with the whole idea of that, and so you need to be sensitive to just how dumb you're ruling that they must have been to get here. Some games already grant (to differing extents) the right to place characters into a scene as part of the game rules. Others don't in which case it's a matter of play style.

Some players will be perfectly happy thinking "Ah. So I'm on the boss's doorstep and now you tell me the flash drive is his. Another fine mess you've gotten me into. OK, well my character isn't completely stupid, so I must have thought this was the smart thing to do, which means I have a plan with a chance of working. What must that plan be? Right, here's what I say...". Other players will think, "What? I wouldn't go to him if he's the one after me, that's stupid, I'd hit the mattresses. I can't make sense of this. Your game denies player agency and you're a horrible person". When you have the latter players you have to be more careful messing about with the laws of time and space and character knowledge.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 Thanks, Steve! You have really thoughtfully woven together a lot of ideas. Thanks also for the 24 hours earlier + callback to the pick up... that sounds like potential fun. For some reason yours notion about continuing in medias res until a player needs to ask a question popped a game mechanic into my head: the players/characters get X amount of Brownie Points™, where X increases the longer the in medias res scene is taken and run with before needing to stop for clarification. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 15:34

A system like Roll for Shoes, where your character develops from their actions, might work well with in medias res.

More generally, building a character creation system around in medias res might work. Each player's actions in the game have mechanical impact on the character they are creating.

Asking about detail, or narrating that detail, might get you character points invested in that area somehow. Shooting a gun and doing something via it makes your character better at shooting, or more militant in general. Saying you shoot and miss doesn't have that effect.

This is distinct from a system where that happens all the time, in that it could be purely a character creation mechanism.

Such a system, where character advancement is tied to information generated or asked by players, naturally limits the amount of exposition players get. They are in a sense burning resources when they ask "what is on the drive" prior to the end of character creation.

You could extend this to an advancement mechanism: XP is earned, and you spend it to both dictate something happening (like a story point), and mechanically advance your character (in a way compatible with what you dictated). Except at the start of the game, the characters are bags of XP they must spend, and as such they just dictate things that both flesh out their character and produce story.

There are many systems where you can spend XP to take control of the narrative (even just forcing a success, nullify a failure, or the like). The difference here is that all XP expenditure is both narrative control, and advancement, instead of one or the other.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 Nice! Thanks for the pointer to RFS. I like the idea of character emergence from roll play. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lexible
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 20:47

There are already several great answers. I will only add some highlights from my experience that demonstrate successful use of in medias res.

In medias res is a tool I have used many times at gaming conventions. You normally have a four hour slot, so you don't have the luxury of slowly building a story arc amidst an organically growing group of adventurers. As you mention, it has the advantage of dropping the players right into the midst of the action, with the backdrop and character backgrounds being completely delivered by the GM. This works well as convention players are extremely focused and arrive ready to play; sometimes they have actually paid money — not to me of course :) In this setting, there is little laissez faire, discussions about dinner arrangements, the finer points of obscure rules, putting "finishing touches" on character sheets or other distractions. It's really kind of nice for a GM, and convention players even play well with highly directed stories. I literally have run what turned out to be 8 hour play tests that later finished easily in 4 hours at a convention.

However, in a home game, this might present some if the issues other posters have mentioned. The players may feel their sovereignty is diminished. I could see it used successfully to introduce a new campaign or even a chapter of a campaign, but perhaps you might solicit player input. Otherwise, it would take a group willing to play along. For those that believe the quantum ogre is on par with Asmodeus, you probably need to take a different strategy, as in medias res is a directed story in it's highest form. (Heck, you are telling them what their players have done up to the point you start!)

I ran one home game that had several actors largely outside of the players sphere of activity that worked like a combination of in medias res/directed story and sandbox/ emergent story. It turned out to be a lot of fun and the players enjoyed the intersection of their choices and actions with the larger story and how they impacted the ongoing narrative.


Prior to my use of in medias res as a campaign start, I took time to develop the characters with the players. We discussed back stories and even picked equipment.

The players were familiar with their characters. The game began with, "You have all been slaves of the hobgoblin king for many years. Your only possession is your loincloth. A mighty swordsman has just freed you. Having been told to 'run', you and several other freed slaves are doing just that."

Despite their disappointment at having 'wasted' time picking gear they never received, they knew the answers to many questions and picked up running.

Having the time to pregen characters with the players, and learning what they wanted to play as characters, both helped us to answer the questions you fear will slow down your fast-paced start.


One solution is take the in medias res scenario one step further and tell your players they are suffering from a form of amnesia. Therefore there's no need for long exposition by the GM. In fact the players themselves have to discover who and where they are while reacting to a dangerous situation at the same time.

Quoting from the 2000 film Memento, where the protagonist suffers anterograde amnesia:

Leonard Shelby: [running] OK, so what am I doing?

[sees Dodd also running]

Leonard Shelby: Oh, I'm chasing this guy.

[Dodd shoots at Leonard]

Leonard Shelby: No... he's chasing me.


RPGs are all storytelling games, so tell the story of what happens before the start of play and then just start the game at that point and expect your players to get on board and work with you to tell a good story. As long as you are true to the character's behaviour and aren't unfair to any one person (you may have to gauge how far you can go this from knowing your mates) this works really well and can move games past "boring bits". You are the primary storyteller. I often avoid "shopping trips" and "training" time with this for instance, sometimes moving on months of game time. I just want to play the interesting bits.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't accomplish in medias res, it eliminates it. Mentioning skipping boring things like shopping trips and training make it seem that you didn't read the question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair comment. Depends on what you are wanting to accomplish. In media res has two main uses I can see in a rpg storytelling setting, first to move a long story/campaign on quickly past things that are of no interest, to get to the action; and second as a device to establish tension in the story. I admittedly concentrated on the first use, which is not the use you were primarily talking about, so sorry for that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Protonflux
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 10:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .