The party is gathering for the first time at a town square to witness the blessing of a baby prince, not aware that evil is about to crash in and ruin everything. They have never met before, but the following adventure is too important and too time-sensitive for ordinary introductions.
A fighter is resting against a building in the back, his eye blackened from a fight the night before. A nearby rogue is clearly distracted, smells of manure, and is keeping an eye on a group of thugs while attempting to keep hidden. Both of these characters have a story of what happened to them before they arrived at the town square. This moment before the action truly begins can flavor the first impression and help in building a character’s story. For those who typically don’t write backgrounds for their characters, this is a great way to set up a minimalist backstory that they can play off of.
For the fighter, his moment before was being kicked out of a roadside tavern the night before. He had to sleep under the stars and didn’t receive much rest, but making it to the town square was too important for him. From this moment before, we can see that when roleplayed this fighter could be impulsive and quick to act, but loyal and steadfast in his convictions.
The rogue spent the last day and night hiding in filthy stables, only to find some thugs she owes money to are still looking for her. This moment before the initial meeting of adventurers could establish that the rogue often gets in too deep and has a hard time dealing with consequences, preferring to hide from them instead of facing them head on.
The key to a moment before is that it isn’t openly shared with everyone else. Certainly the gamemaster should know, and it would be a good practice for a GM to ask players to come up with one. That said, it isn’t the nature of a moment before to be shared. It is meant to be hinted at and used to influence how the following scene is played. The fighter doesn’t outright say he was kicked out of a tavern. He shows it by mentioning how tired he is and waving away any attempt to help his black eye. The rogue certainly wouldn’t tell anyone she is in trouble, but she would continue to act strangely due to her concern regarding those thugs.
The moment before doesn’t have to be detailed and could be written in a single sentence. No matter how detailed, having at least the moment before an adventure begins can help you establish a great first impression and set the tone for how you play your character. It helps you quickly decide how to introduce a character in a memorable way, and it can be used as a springboard when writing out a more detailed history.
So what is your moment before?