How do you research a game that big? I was struggling with that for a long time, finding it difficult to even begin getting reasonable research done that involved such a wide canvas in time and space. What I eventually decided, and told my players, was that it was effectively impossible, and we should stop worrying about it. And that, I think, is the biggest thing I had to do as a GM to get this game off the ground: make my players comfortable enough to dive into a very big pool and improvise dramatic scenes.
Don't worry about getting all the details perfect, I said, we're not at the table for perfect. The objective was to create a loose framework to explore the characters, and that works the same way whether the storyline is told over the course of a few years or a few centuries. You sketch in the edges of who those characters are, capturing where they start in the present period that frames the whole story, and a bit about where they are in their "signature" eras. The objective is to fill in the important changes between now and then, and play out the most important moments "on screen".
The way to get the ball rolling was to start small, and I decided, again, rather than invest a lot of time in creating a dense opening episode, that the thing to do was to start loosely and not worry about it being a bit messy. I took a page out of APOCALYPSE WORLD and started by asking a lot of questions, spending a little time with each player at the table so that they had a chance to inhabit their character and add some improvised details to the world.
The present day era in the game is set in Paris, one of the world's most beautiful, culturally rich, and historic cities. I started by asking what each character's relationship / history with the city was. When was the first time they'd come to Paris? What was their favourite place? How had it changed over the course of decades or centuries? Sometimes I asked provocative questions. "You've never liked Paris, have you? What happened here that always makes you uncomfortable when you return?"
Next, I asked them some questions about Smoke, the "fifth Pilgrim", the person who had summoned all the characters to Paris. Why had they come? How did they first meet him? What was their relationship like?
Then I staged two-character scenes that included part of the main cast, showing them running into each other again for the first time in sixty years, and letting that play out for a while to establish the tone of their relationships and let the players "live in their skins" for a while. The second introductory scene ended with a bit of dice-rolling, when the characters ran afoul of some skinheads, but it was mostly a dice-free affair.
Eventually, the session reached Smoke's house, where the characters were eventually all face to face, some of which was amiable, some of which was fraught. Two of the characters, who had long and tangled history together, played out a particularly strong scene where one of them was drawn back into the other's orbit, despite best intentions.
I ended with the provocative reveal that Smoke's intention was to have a little party for himself for a few days, celebrating his long life with his old friends, before he took his life. Smoke claimed that, despite what the others believed, he'd found a way to finally get off of "the Wheel" of reincarnation, a cycle that the Pilgrims believed was an endless (and possibly pointless?) one. He had a secret alchemical formula that would give him the gift of the final death, he said.
And he had enough for all...
My wonderful wife has written a summary of the first session that talks a lot about the characters in greater detail, which I may continue with in another post, but why wait for my outsider view on it when you can read hers? Also, if you like books, she reviews a lot of them. It's pretty rad.