[reprinted from Onder Magazine Issue#1]
You: “Hey guys! I just got this great idea! I want to run a space swashbuckling game with mutants in an old galactic empire!”
Your Players: “Another new game?”
So, you’ve got this wonderful, terrible, amazing story in your head you want to share. Your players have been itching for something new, and you’ve decided to run the next campaign for them. Or, alternately, you’ve been shanghaied into the work when no one else volunteered to run anything. Either way, my condolences, you poor bastard.
Certainly, what follows may end up the stuff of legends—a campaign that is quoted and referenced with awe and laughter for years to come. It might be the sort of game that we all, in our heart of hearts, want to be part of. It’s also possible, however, that the game will turn into a massive fireball of un-fun that will burn itself out on the runway before ever achieving lift-off.
But never fear, intrepid (or shanghaied) storyteller! I am here to help ensure that the blinking, flashing ‘engine #3’ light is really just a false positive, and that the shouts you hear from the passenger cabin are ones of delight, not abject terror (or even worse, boredom!). I will help you navigate past the runway into the wild blue yonder, and even suggest how to pass out the tiny complimentary bags of honey-roasted nuts that are… Plot points… Er…
Okay, the airplane metaphor may have gone a bit too far.
What I mean to say is this: I’ve been a GM of tabletop games and LARPs for over 36 years now. I’ve run (or played) the gamut between epic and terrible, and I’m hoping that my experiences can help you Gamemasters run a better game, starting from the ground up. In this case, the ground is that critical first session.
Oh, and as a caveat: Understand, these are all just notes from my experience. This isn’t meant to be ‘the only way’, or even ‘the best way’. Games work best when their focus fits the people involved with them. Your experiences and your players might be (and probably are) quite different than my own. Please, please, please, take whatever is useful to you here, and leave the rest behind. Make your game your own, and make it awesome.
Now, let’s get to polishing that first game session in a mirror-shine!
Part the Zeroeth: The Prime Rule of Fun!
You: “So, what did you think of the game?”
“I… I mean, it was okay. The rule system was different.”
“And the setting was new. Definitely something I’d never played before.”
“But… I dunno.”
“Yeah, maybe we should try something else next time….”
You’ve heard it before, no doubt. The most important thing in any game is that the people playing it are having fun. They don’t have to be excited at every moment of the game, and the best games have highs and lows. However, if the game isn’t fun—for them and for you—it’s not going to last. Either your players won’t come back or you’ll lose interest or burn out. So, the Prime Rule: If it’s not fun, ignore any other bit of advice or rule in this document. Got it? Good.
Part The First: Know Thy Players, and Build The Excitement
Your Players: “Space mutants?”
You: “You’re okay with that, right?”
Your Players: “Yeah, I … actually kinda dig it!”
You: “I thought you might.”
Your Players: “Can we go without the heavy politics, though? That just becomes a snore-fest for me.”
You: “Sure. I was thinking more along the lines of Shifting Sands.”
Your Players: “The anime? Love that one!”
You: “Excellent! Okay, so think of this game happening around episode six…”
This part’s pretty straightforward. I’ve seen games live and die like this: The GM has an idea that he personally loves, and he designs a game around it. None of the players click with the idea, and while they show up for the first session or two, the energy in the campaign flags, and the game sputters and fails.
The best initial suggestion is to know what your players want, and perhaps just as importantly, know what your players don’t want. Sometimes GMs must be as direct about this as to use questionnaires, but if the players are your friends and colleagues you know, you have at least a few ideas of what they’re looking for in a game. If they’ve been talking excitedly about a new game, that’s about as straightforward as you get. If they’ve been focusing their interest on, say, space westerns? Put that game together. If their passions seem split between several different sources, talk to them a bit. Say you’re looking to put together a game, and see what ideas or properties turn them on at the moment. (If you find some of your players are reluctant to talk about this to a GM, that’s a problem I’ll address later in this article.)
While you’re doing your pre-game planning with your players, also find out (If you don’t already know) as much of the following as is applicable to your game:
- How comfortable your players are with new rules or trying out new things. If they only want to play the same system they’ve played before, it may be time to either re-run that, or adapt the system to the new game (I personally prefer the latter)
- How much of a level of involvement your players want for the game. This would include how often they’d like to play, how long each session can be, or if they want to be able to do ‘in between time’ actions in which (assuming you’re willing) you’d do small scenes with individual players or small groups, etc.
- How much immersion they’d like. Some people like great depth of character at the table, wanting to run all the way through an evening of play with minimal breaks from the story/game. Some would rather have the TV on in the background and interject Holy Grail jokes all night. Try to figure out if your players can be all of one accord on this (or at least have enough compromise to not hamper each others’ enjoyment of game night).
As mentioned before, also find out what the players don’t want in their game. There may be nothing as some players are willing to play just about anything. But there are situations in which, as a GM, I’ve accidentally put something into a game that a player hates; even worse, in one situation, something in my game specifically triggered a bad psychological reaction for one of my players. Since then, I’ve always made sure to talk to players and see if there’s anything that might show up that would cause them problems. Make sure you clarify what they’ve really disliked in games in the past, whether it’s in-character elements (hostage situations or harming innocents) or out-of-character tropes (No-win situations, or the like.) Once these elements come from your players, your part is simple: Putting these things into a game violates The Prime Rule of Fun. So be aware, and just don’t do it.
Building excitement is the next step, and I’ve learned that it can be a fine line. Take time to share your passion about the game with your players, but don’t push too hard. Talk about what you like about the game, and relate them to what you now know about your players’ likes and dislikes. Let Bob know he can play the haughty noble in the kingdom you’ve created. Tell Angie that there’s a school of magic that does the exact thing she’s wanted to do in a game for a while. Show Rick the space battle rules because you know he’s going to start thinking about how best to take on the dreadnought with his little fighter ship immediately afterward. Talk it up, but don’t monopolize the conversation with it. Foster back-and-forth conversations about the game and be willing to add to or alter your plans to help build mutual fun for players. Plant the seeds and watch them grow.
Part the Second: Be Prepared
You: “And so these are the planets of the core system, and the empire is way over there.”
Your Players: “Where the warp-gate is.”
You: “Yeah. And the sun-eater.”
Your Players: “Sounds pretty awesome! So, what’re we doing?”
Your Players: “I mean, we have characters. What’re we doing?”
You: “Well, I figured I’d let you decide that…”
That Boy Scouts’ motto above comes in handy here. While the actual physical prep comes into play later, being ‘game-prepared’ starts early.
The first step is to know your stuff and be aware of the rules. Do you know the rules of the game you’re running? Do you know them enough that fumbling with rule books will be kept to a minimum? Do you have house-rules (and have you explained them well enough to your players) that amend those rules? You don’t have to be an encyclopedia, but fumbling with the rules for a majority of the first session can kill any growing momentum dead.
The second (and perhaps more basic) step is to make sure you have a game. This sounds overly simplified, but I’ve seen many GMs who think they have a game but all they have is a setting or ideas for a few scenes.
Gather what you have and ask yourself the most important questions for game campaign foundations: “What is the story here? What are the players going to do? Can we tell a story together?”
Yes, I’m a storyteller, and I’m biased in this way. But these questions give you a way to visualize where a story might go. Don’t build up the promise of a story/game, bring players to the point of ‘you meet in the tavern’, ‘you meet in the spaceport’, or ‘you meet in the spaceport tavern’ and then leave them to guess what to do next.
Yes, there are ‘sandbox’ games, a term for games in which the setting is all fleshed out, and the whims and goals of the players dictate what will happen in the story. These can certainly work but I’ve found that without a starting goal—especially one that unites player interest—the first session often turns into the player characters stumbling around the spaceport, talking to random NPCs for no reason other than you don’t have one for them.
First sessions don’t need to be railroaded stories with plot points determining every direction or laser pointer dots for player-cats to chase. Still, having a story for the characters to interact with and become part of—especially a story that doesn’t violate the Prime Rule—has a much better chance of having them impatiently looking forward to the next session. While some might find it fun, not many players look forward to a few hours of “Oh, hey, let’s go haggle with that merchant for some better swords!”
In other words? Make your first session as much like the first chapter of a favorite novel as you can. Provide elements of something new and interesting to draw the players in. Insert some hooks and choices to make them want to turn the page or get their characters into the action of this chapter (and the next…).
Part the Third: The Session Prep
“Are we ordering pizza?”
Now, we’re down to the preparations just before the game. This is largely the physical stuff, and if you have a regular gaming group, you can usually skip delving too much into this, as it’s all things you’ll already know. But if this is your first foray into a new space or a new group, there are some things you’re probably going to want to know, for your own convenience and that of the other players.
- Know how big a space you’re in.
- Know if your maps / minis / full scale model of Helm’s Deep is going to fit in the space provided.
- Know if your players will all have space as well; not just for themselves, but for game bags, dice, snacks, drinks, etc.
- If you’re playing in someone else’s house, know their policy on things such as food, cleanup, taking one’s shoes off at the door, parking, and the like.
- Have some idea how long you want your game to run, including the inevitable time to chat both before and afterward.
- You want to be a good guest, because you want to be invited back, but even just at a basic level, causing the least friction possible will be good for your game. Trust me on this one.
And bringing some cake never hurts.
Part the Penultimate: The Game Itself
You: “The last guard falls with the blast reverberating through the trees.”
“Good job, man!”
“I love that ability.”
“Yeah. Then we should go sell stuff. After that… Uhm… Not sure… Why were we here again?”
And so, at long last, we arrive at game day, and everyone’s sitting around the proverbial table (Or possibly an actual table). It’s time to get the show on the road. So… How do we start?
Well, most games open with one of two things: character introductions with each other; or jumping straight into an adventure and presuming your characters have found reasons to gather together as a group.
I recommend the former, even if it’s just a physical description and a name for each character from its player. This reduces confusion that can slow down a game when it needs to speed up (“Bob’s playing a mutant? I thought he was our healer!”). If your players more actively roleplay and show elements of their characters in their introductions, this starter-method can help immerse newer players into the game, and may even provide story seeds for later (Just what is a mutant doing here, anyway?).
Allow time for characters to get to know each other a little if they’re supposed to have connections, but don’t drag it out or allow players to dawdle. This is just the opening scene of your story. Get your players to want to move forward and see what’s beyond that next locked door / airlock / hill / dragon corpse!
I’ve seen some first encounters be an exercise in getting the kinks out of the combat system or allowing characters to stretch their wings and test out abilities they’ve not used before. I used to be against this, as I wanted first encounters to be something more ‘meaningful’ than beating up bandits or nameless mutants. Now, I’ve mellowed to this idea. After all, it’s fun for characters to be able to suddenly rack up numbers, or to elaborate on the deadly grace, skill, and / or power of their proxy into the game world. So let your players have a bit of a ‘Game World’s Got Talent’ moment in their first encounter. I will add this, however: Always try to make sure it leads to something more.
Here I’ll reveal one of the Big Truths™ for Gamemasters and running a good game: You, as a GM, are telling a story in collaboration with the players. If the first encounter allows the players to show their stuff, you’ve set a scene that teaches the players more about their characters. Unlike a book, however, your players already know the characters, so give them something that moves each of them forward.
Give a single plot hook here and keep it a seed or something that will grow. It needs to be something that lets your players know, from moment one, that they’re part of something larger and that there is a greater story out there for them and their heroes.
- Are the guards hassling the locals? Give the players a lead on who’s pulling the strings…and make it someone tougher than they’ve any right to challenge (right now).
- Are there bandits on the local road? Reveal that they’re only here very recently because their normal shakedown areas have become overrun by demons.
So, let’s say it’s an hour or two later. Everyone now knows Bob’s mutant shoots energy beams from his eyes, and Tully’s the real healer but he keeps it quiet because of some kill-on-sight heresy superstition in his background. The heroes are heading to the monastery to confront the leader of the guard, and they have proof that he’s also a demon summoner. Where do you go from here?
Well, remember the Prime Rule: Are the players having fun with the plot? Then continue right on, and let them bring the fight to the guard captain and his legions. But what if they’re not having fun? Then it’s time for course correction.
Keep your eyes open during the first half of the game to see what grabs the interest of your players and what slows the game down quickly for them.
- Are they just not enjoying a ‘research the demons’ angle? Adjust and have them rescue an apprentice scribe who says she’s willing to do the research for them.
- Are they more interested in talking to people than getting out on the road and fighting? Adjust and let them chat with NPCs and morph the guard captain into someone who comes into the village regularly. They might even find something social they can do to discredit or disarm the captain instead of combat.
Sometimes an adjustment may not be necessary at all but a reminder for the players to work together with each other. While one of the players likes haggling for swords or whatever, it does not mean the rest of the game should be about haggling for swords. The game is for the GM and all the players, and everyone can get their moments to shine—just not every game session.
Part the Last: The Wrap-Up
So, the demon-summoning captain gets unmasked a few hours later, and the battle between his minions and the PCs is coming to a close. You can tell your players have had a good time so far, so you’re pretty well-set. Now, two more things can seal the deal to make this game session launch a great campaign.
Leave them wanting more
Don’t give every session a cliffhanger ending. The captain doesn’t have to escape. In fact, while an occasional cliffhanger works great, it leaves a group feeling short-changed if used in the first game session. Now, again, the Prime Rule: If your players like cliffhangers, go for it, but I would suggest something that segues into a new story or a greater plot of the chronicle. Stage a post-climax scene where the local duke contacts the characters to discuss why so many of his lieutenants are suddenly demonically possessed. Perhaps one of the heroes receives a dying curse from the guard-captain that requires travel to holy shrines for healing. It could even be Bob’s long-lost half-mutant father (Roll with it) showing up and saying “I’ve got a problem I need some help with…”
Just give the players something to look forward to next session and some idea of where the game might be going. And just a tip: Personalize it to the characters themselves and link it to things their characters did, and that makes it far better for both collaboration and story.
Check in with the group
This last step may not be for everyone, but I’ve found it sometimes helps if the first session had some rocky moments. When the game ends, assuming everyone doesn’t go screaming for the hills, take a couple of minutes and ask the simple question, “Okay, what was fun? What wasn’t?”
Don’t scare your players with a detailed questionnaire—just start a conversation. If the players don’t have any particular comments, you can always pick things up later. It’s also fully possible that you can pick it all up through regular conversation after the game. Trust me, if your players are still talking about the game days afterward, you’ve either done something very right, or something very wrong. Both can be wonderful learning experiences.
And there it is. You’ve survived your first game! Take what you learn from your players to heart. Temper it with the Prime Rule. Plant seeds and watch them grow into something wonderful and terrible, and I wish you an awesome campaign!
You: “So, what did you think of the game?”
“I got that guy with the extended bluff! That was so awesome!”
“That moment with the demon sun-eater… I thought we were all dead!”
“Hey, can I talk to you about some alterations to my character background?”
“When are we doing next session…?”