The phrase “In late” implies that the reader/gamer doesn’t care what already happened leading up to the drama before they arrived. They couldn’t give a fig about the politics that caused the strife in your world– mostly because they have no understanding of your world, and thus have no stake in it. The gamer would rather be “In late” and fast-forward through the trailers and credits, as it were, than listen to you monotone several pages of lengthy setup before the first battle.
“Out early” has similar implications, giving readers just enough information to know the conflict has been resolved at the story’s conclusion, but we can skip that for another time.
So in no particular order here are 4 “In late” techniques you can use to punch up your game’s introduction.
1) Skip the opening description.
Your world is amazing. Truly it is. I’ve seen it– Naked elves as far as the eye can see. Skyscrapers so tall and smooth and phallic there isn’t a player on earth dense enough to miss the symbolism. And the vivid, evocative descriptions of rolling hillocks, wavy plains, rollicking meadows, rolling rollicking waving prancing hillocks dancing trekking…where were we going with this?
The multi-paragraph (and sometimes many pages) of game introduction can be thrown out completely. I have no doubt you’ve put a lot of work into your campaign. Good dungeon masters are the hardest working folk I know. But as far as the players are concerned, the ubiquitous ultra-verbose game intro will be forgotten at the first tavern brawl. This storytime seems to take place at the outset of every game I’ve ever joined. It’s a pre-warning for players to stop scribbling on their character sheets, to settle in and crack a Mt. Dew, and wait for the action that will inevitably follow the rolling rollicking hillocks…whatever the fuck those are.
So, how long after the first battle (or Saw-like torture scene) before you introduce the players to the complex world you’ve created? I’m glad you asked…
2) Make them want to take a breather, to learn more about your world.
Freely given answers are soon ignored. But questions asked are rarely forgotten. Also, your luck numbers are 87 – 12 – 5 – and 13.
My point is this– if your players have been through a jarring incident or a bloody battle, they begin to get a feel for the dangers of your world, and they start asking questions. Who the hell were those masked bandits? What noble did we piss off to get a price on our heads? And for the love of Pelor, why are all those elves naked?
In the most recent game I ran (Litches and Witches) I started the party off in a crumbling, claustrophobic box canyon, with hundreds of strangers fleeing south like the world was ending. Because it was ending.
The whole intro was them fleeing to reach the life-boats that would take them to another planet. You’d be amazed how attentive they were, narrowly escaping their crumbing world to arrive on a strange plane, waiting in line with other refugees while the inspectors “purged” some of those held in quarantine. Or the inspectors would deny them access, seemingly arbitrarily. Or give the refugees positions of authority, depending on their race, noble background, or bribes. With a sense that they had barely avoided death, and with a future not yet secure, the players were very attentive to anything I had to say about world circumstances.
3) Skip the introductions.
In my experience players will call each other by their character names if and when it suits them. Like when they’re trying to get a party member in trouble with the authorities. They may also scrawl “For a good time, call Belth’or” on an outhouse wall. But by and large my players don’t bother with their comrades’ oft unpronounceable names.
I find that forcing the players to make awkward introductions during the first meeting can also be an invitation for disaster. Sometimes the players invent excuses for why they shouldn’t get along, instead of why they should hold hands and whistle in harmony while they frolic through my skull-littered wasteland. And if everything goes perfectly well and all your players are able to compose themselves like blood-spattered gentlemen, this process still wastes time.
When should your characters get to know each other? When does Sir Dickmount of Swaggerty-Moor finally get to make the rest of the party snigger with yet another poorly thought-out character sheet?
4) Frame the character introductions.
I’m not suggesting you hold the players’ hands during roleplay, but you can smooth over the stutters in the game’s flow by asking the right questions. Put them in a setting where it makes sense for the party to band together. Would you introduce yourself to four equally bizarre strangers, who happen to be at the same tavern as the one you picked to incinerate? Personally, I won’t introduce myself to my nextdoor neighbors, and I’ve been stalking them for years.
Set up the introduction. Frame the scenario and combine it with your “In late” intro. Have them interrogated by the local constable. Have them slated to perform on the same stage, to entertain the Lord who just captured them. Have the drill instructor call on them, one by one, just before making them do more push-ups. However you frame the scene, be sure you include questions like; “What’s your name maggot?!”, or “What cesspool did you crawl out of?” or, if you’re playing the bardic performers angle, ask what their stage name is. Make it interesting for the other players. Make it part of your world narrative, and your players feel like they’re part of your story and not being dropped headfirst into it.