Friday, October 4, 2013

GM's Water Cooler: In Media Res

I've been thinking a bit of late about using more In Media Res techniques in my game. For those not aware, this is a writing technique that begins the story in-progress, and has been used as least as far back as Homer in the Odyssey. I imagine the technique is older than that, with hunter gatherer tribes 100,000 listening to a story-teller speak of ancestral heroes.

Examples abound, such as the openings of Inception, just about every Bond movie ever, and the pilot of Lost, but the best of them has to be Star Wars. 

The audience sees this huge ship enter from overhead, then sees it being hit by turbolaser fire, then sees an absolute monstrosity of a ship enter from overhead, and go on, and on, and on, and on. Immediately we learn three things about the universe we just entered: 1) Our heroes are the underdogs, and 2) The Empire has an absurd amount of power, represented by the disparity in ship size, and 3) the Empire's victory is unquestioned and inevitable. These elements are core themes for the original Star Wars trilogy, and they are communicated expertly in just a few seconds with no exposition at all.

In each of the scenes linked to above, we are dropped in not knowing how we got there. This is easy to do in the first session of a roleplaying game, and much more difficult later on, when plots develop and the players move from point A in the story to point B. In an established campaign, its hard to use this device the further you go.

This is what I'm wrapping my brain around these days. Lets say we have a scenario in which our pulp PCs have discovered that the Nazis are scrambling to Palenque to steal an occult artifact, and the PCs need to get it first lest the Reich run roughshod over Europe. 

The adventure starts with them arriving by plane in some jungle outpost, where the PCs negotiate with a riverboat captain to take them to the temple. Along the way, they fight off pirates and crocodiles. Departing the boat, they cut through the jungle, fend off poo-flinging monkeys and arrive at the temple. They defuse traps along the way, and get to the inner sanctum where the MacGuffin lies, and figure out how to get it without being killed. A melodic German voice from behind them congratulates them on getting this far, and they turn to see a dozen SS soldiers with machine guns pointing at them.

If we use media res, we could skip the parts leading up to the Nazis introduction, and simply assume that our talented and resourceful treasure hunters succeed to that point. If the story says 'the part I want to explore is the Nazi/pc stuff', this might be a better approach. That being said, I can see a few problems the players may raise; the dreaded specter of rialroading being foremost among them.


  • Skip right to the good stuff
  • Move the plot along quickly
  • Reinforce the PCs' aptitude


  • PCs lose out on extra XP/storytelling/other rewards
  • The players lose authorship
  • Missed chance at establishing organic plot details (interaction with the pilot/boat captain, etc)

Ideally, either approach works, and which to use is dependent upon the story you want to tell, and whether your players are on board with advancing the story without their input. Another approach would to start the session saying "You've got the idol. What happened leading up to this point?" The GM and the system being used would have to be able to support the introduction of on-the-fly elements in this case, but it does circumnavigate some of the loss of authorship. The GM could, at that point, even have them make a few skill checks to see how well they did at navigating those player-proposed obstacles, and introduce elements that reflect their success or failure.

What stories of success or failure do you have when using this technique?

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