"Pilot episodes" in RPGs

The other day the eminent sage @RogerBW mentioned in an e-mail that he has been experimenting with adopting for RPG campaigns structural concepts from series television. One thing that he mentioned in particular was explicitly treating the first adventure in a campaign as a “pilot episode”. The idea is run a single representative adventure to illuminate more richly what the campaign is going to be like, with the clear understanding that after the pilot the character-players may make significant changes to their characters, or even replace them, without concern for continuity.

Is that the sort of thing that you do anyway? Do you think that formalising it with the analogy to a TV series’ pilot episode is likely to be helpful?


I find this a particularly good idea in a complex system like GURPS because it’s not always easy to work out what the “business” of a game is going to be like based on a campaign description – and even an experienced player can come up with a character idea that doesn’t necessarily work well. (It’s the GM’s job to spot that, you might argue. And I agree. But I am not perfect.)

So for some years I’ve been saying something like “OK, this is the end of the first adventure, and if you want to tweak your character a bit now’s a good time”. What I gain from calling it a pilot episode, other than familiarity from the players, is the idea that if you want to drop out your character and bring in a new one, that’s also a possible thing – maybe a new character to fill the same role in the team, maybe a completely different one.


That’s not a thing I do.

I’ve done two things that treat the opening episode as “special” in other ways:

I’ve run campaigns where the first episode had a combat situation available, but with safety rails of some sort—for example, an NPC who could step in and save the player characters if they got into trouble. That gives the players a chance to get familiar with combat mechanics, it gives them the measure of likely foes, and it tells that that the campaign features real dangers, but it doesn’t kill their characters in the first session.

When I ran Under the Shadow, I started out with the player characters scattered from the Shire to the borders of Mirkwood to Minas Morgul, and used the first session (it turned out to be the first two sessions) to bring them together as a resistance to Mordor’s victories. I told them that their characters would not die or gain disadvantages that would make them nonfunctional; that they would end up with exactly the traits on their character sheets; and that they would gain no experience. That style of play gave a certain sense of freedom and gave the players a chance to get into character before they gathered in a hidden community of the Dunedain (occupied by the women, children, old men, and disabled people who hadn’t ridden south to fight at Aragorn’s side).

Now, I do think it’s a good idea to give players unspent points that they can allocate to relevant traits as they get a feel for their characters and the campaign. In GURPS I generally go for 5 points.

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As a GM, I have never done a pilot episode in the sense described here, but then my campaigns tend to be short (< 20 sessions) and the system simple enough that I’ve never felt the need.

As a player, it takes me more than 1 session to determine if I need to change my character,

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I’ve played a few of Roger’s campaigns with chances to tweak after the first adventure, and the one where the first adventure was explicitly a pilot episode. I have never done significant tweaking, but the chance to do so is a welcome safety net.

I quite often notice that I’ve missed a GURPS skill or two that a character should have. When I hit this situation, I try to avoid needing to use the default (if there is one) and buy it ASAP out of bonus points from scenarios. That way I can regard it as “always having been there” without clashing with in-game events.

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One of the faults of first edition ForeSight (ForeSight being in general my favourite RPG rules) was that the different pricing schemes for skills and attributes in generation points and in experience points imposed a strong incentive to specialise in generation generalise with experience¹. Some players found low levels of skills so expensive in GPs that they felt compelled to dispense with them in generation, buy them with their first experience award, and suppose that they had always been there.

¹ This was declared to be a feature, not a bug. The only reason I can see is that it was in the documentation.

Cyberpunk 2020 has a similar feature: skill costs are linear during character generation, and something like triangular numbers afterwards (level 1 to 2 costs 2n experience, 2 to 3 costs 3n, etc.). Some skills (piloting, technical, and martial arts) have arbitrary cost multipliers on them as well, again only in play. Just to rub it in, one of your skills is the “special ability” of your character class, and your level in that determines your income and starting cash.

It makes character generation faster, I suppose, if your players aren’t mathematically literate enough to notice the problem or if they are entirely immune to optimisation pressures.