Monday, April 23, 2012

Running the First Session

On RPGGeek, they've started a new initiative called Gamemaster University or GMU. Each week 2-3 contributors write on a particular GMing topic, and then offer an open discussion thread. I like the concept, as it draws multiple perspectives together and allows back & forth afterwards. This week I put together a piece on the topic of first adventures. I'm cross-posting it here.


MasterGeek was kind enough to allow me to contribute to this week’s topic. I run two-three games a week, and at present have four campaigns ongoing. You can see the chronology of my campaigns here in two geeklists, one covering my ongoing fantasy world and the other everything else. As a GM I’ve moved away from detailed rules systems, to games with lighter mechanics. Along with that I’ve shifted to put more focus on story and narrative aspects over game or simulation elements. Different groups and gamers have different needs, and I want to make my approach clear at the beginning.

For the topic “Running Your First Adventure” I’ve focused on first sessions- getting to them and running them. Negotiating the genre and system you’re going to run is worth of a topic of its own. So I’m going to assume that you’ve agreed on that. Now you need to lay out some details for the players.


Campaign Description: Give them a sense of what kind of game you hope to run and what kind of campaign it will be: episodic, dungeon-crawl, long arc, big story, etc. If you’re going to be adding in uncommon elements to a classic genre- like horror or steampunk to fantasy- make that clear. Give your players an idea of the planned campaign duration: a few sessions, a longer arc of months, a year, or open-ended until the campaign wraps up. I’ve gotten into campaigns I expected to last for a summer that ended up going on much longer (and vice versa). A couple of times it felt like a bait and switch because the GM wasn’t up front about intentions.

Rules Guidelines: Outline what rules you’ll be using. This can be a s simple as saying D&D 4e core rules. If you’re playing a game with significantly secondary or optional rules be clear about what you want to use or not use. If your group has invested heavily in the system, consider being more open in those choices. At the very least open a dialogue about that. As a GM my inclination is a narrow use of optional rules and classes to make it easier for myself, but players may have concepts they’ve been dying to play. If you allow that, you’ve earned some GMing goodwill. Think carefully before vetoing options.

Fluff & Crunch: If you have house rules, character creation extra systems, background information, history, and the like for the players, give it to them ahead of time. However, expect that players won’t read that material ahead of time. Some may have, and some may have skimmed it just before the session. But often your background material and set up won’t have been assimilated. Coming in with that realization can avoid some frustrations. Be ready to go over it again at the table.


Will you do character creation ahead of time, as a its own session, or at the start of the first session? Regardless of what choice you make, communication is essential- not just between you and the players, but among the player group. I’ve found letting players establish concepts and “call” roles ahead of time makes things easier in the long run. I usually do this in email- asking them to reply to everyone with what they’re thinking. It helps players who aren’t sure what to run see open niches. It encourages players to cooperate and negotiate about choices. It also fosters a sense of teamwork before the game starts.


Pre-generated characters: These can be a time-saver, especially if you’re planning on running an experimental or short-term campaign. Perhaps the players are new to the system. Perhaps you picked up a great module or introductory adventure which has characters balanced to the challenge. If you do this allow the players some choice or swapping. You can afford to be generous on this and some players have character types they really don’t like.

One pre-gen option is building characters yourself based on player input. This has several benefits. You can balance choices and abilities between individual players. Your sense of what the group can do improves. You save yourself time at the table while still giving the players choice. I’ve done this with higher crunch systems (
Champions, Mutants & Masterminds, Scion), especially with players new to the system or where some have an advantage in rules knowledge. I usually allow the players to swap and shift character details a few sessions in, an option even more important with this approach.


If you don’t create characters ahead of time, you may be thinking you can have the players roll up characters and jump into play in the first session. That’s cute.

Character creation expands to fill the time permitted.

If your character creation is more than a few picks, some assigning of numbers of the like, strongly consider having a session devoted solely to that. Some games, such as The Dresden Files RPG, have made this a necessary and multi-layered experience, assuming a full session for it. Character creation always takes significantly longer than I imagine it will- made even longer if you have new players, a group inexperienced with the system, not enough copies of the rules to go around, more than a few secondary rulebooks, or any need for a calculator.

I’ve found it more successful to have players talk about ideas and concepts before they sit down to roll/create characters together. They may change their minds in the meantime, but they at least have some sense of what others have chosen. I’ve used that to keep players from stepping on each other’s toes.

Use the character generation session to answer questions about the game and ask questions about what the players want. The characters they choose and how they describe them should shape what you bring to the table. Make notes about interesting details they mention, along with their character’s name so you get in the habit of using that at the table. If players suggest a concept you think might not work with the game, address that now-- gently- ask them what they want to get out of the campaign and explain reservations you have. A couple of bloggers I follow have talked about this recently,
The Githyanki Diaspora and Voices in My Head.

Even if a character creation session ends up with time to spare, I usually hold off on running something immediately after. That gives me time to think about the characters and what will work for them. Are there stories I can connect to their backgrounds? Also, even if players know the rules, getting up to speed with new characters can take longer. Just keep that in mind.

The group character creation session offers benefits, but presents a potential problem. If players miss that session, they can feel left out of the bonding. If someone comes in later with a character built outside the circle, some players may suspect they had a mechanical advantage. I recommend having new players partner up with an existing player during character creation, rather than the GM.


Some of what I’m going to suggest is more general GMing advice, but I will try to focus on the first session. Your first session is a chance to set the tone, hook the players and establish how you want sessions to go.

1. Agile Prep: Don’t freak out and over prepare. I used to spend hours getting ready for sessions. But over the years I’ve come to realize that I will use only a portion of that material. Now I brainstorm, outline ideas, and sketch out scenes very broadly. I loosely write out the details of the opposition, focusing on what makes them interesting. Quick Set Up- Incident/Conflict- Choices/Interactions- Second Conflict is a common pattern I use for first sessions. Your results may vary, depending on the rules crunch for your game.

2. Basic Knowledge: If you’re running from a module, don’t worry about memorizing everything. One trick I use is to read through and make a simple outline to refer to during play. That helps you see at a glance how scenes or elements connect together. I also create a list of NPC names and their role as a play aid. Avoid restating things like descriptions or box text from the module verbatim; that always feels flat.

3. Character Sheets: Make sure you have a copy of everyone’s character sheet. It might be rude to say, but that keeps the players honest and makes prep easier for you. You can roughly update changes from time to time over the campaign.

4. Dispute Resolution: Establish in the first session how you want to handle rules disputes. Generally my approach is that during play, if I make a call it stands. Players should, however, feel free to point out and correct rules decisions after the session. This maintains game flow while allowing the group to fix problems. I’m not a fan of flipping back to the rules while we’re playing. From time to time, I’ll also ask players to make a rules call or ask for their rules knowledge. That keeps them involved and demonstrates I respect their skills. How you handle this may vary, but be sure to establish your method through example in the first session.

5. Expect Questions: Know the rules. That doesn’t mean being an expert or knowing every situation or modifier. However you should understand the basic mechanics and be confident enough to make rules decisions during play. If the system uses skills, know what those are. Figure out what are standard difficulties for actions. Most importantly know the basics of combat and conflict resolution.

6. Food Formulas: If you have other rules or house procedures, or even a group contract for behavior, set that up before you even roll the dice. Your group may have guidelines about electronic devices or delicious snacks. Do dropped dice count? Restate those rules before beginning play.

7. GM Methodology: Use the first session to make clear your methods. Screen/No Screen? Dice rolled openly? More or less lethal about combat? Some GMs take players away from the table for secret stuff, some write notes, and some state it openly- relying on the group not to take advantage of it. Show how you’re handling that. If you’re working with a new group, keep in mind they may have very different expectations about that.

8. Have Openness: Be open to the players’ input as you run. If you have the chance, I recommend reading
Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley. I don’t follow his highly improv approach, but his book gave me more confidence about going into a session without everything written out. The key point I take from it is that a GM should respond to ideas in an open rather than closed way. The idea that a GM should say “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” comes from that. You don’t shut down suggestions, but instead accept or offer alternatives based on that. Remember to go to the dice if you’re uncertain about something- use randomizers to help with decisions if you’re unsure.

9. Incidental Details: For anything longer than a one-shot, the first session’s your chance to establish narrative elements. If there are particular ideas or themes (the fall of a kingdom, a decadent empire, man against nature, etc.) try to work those into the first session. Given that there’s so much for the players to take in, keep this low key.

10. Justify Them: Come in with a sense of the characters, especially their names. Try to have at least one hook or moment referring to their character in particular. That establishes you’ve paid attention to their choices.

11. Killing Time!: I almost always have a significant conflict or combat in the first session. It tests out the rules, forces the players to work together and shows the group my running style. It also adds energy and action to hook the players.

12. Launching Mechanics: First sessions should show the players how things operate. If your system uses skills, then have some skill challenges. If NPC interactions are going to be important, then present some NPCs for the group to react to. If the games going to be about mysteries, dungeon crawls or the like, come right out of the gate with that.

13. Maintain Parity: It can be hard, but try to pay attention to how much action each player gets. Players don’t necessarily have to have the same amount of time “in the spotlight” but they should have relatively equal opportunities and chances to do things. Table management may be the most important skill a GM can have.

14. Now This!: Getting the characters together and establishing motivation can be a challenge. So skip it. Begin the session in the middle of things. “You hired on for various reasons to guard a caravan, suddenly in the middle of the night you hear a scream…roll for initiative…” Then allow the players to ask questions and establish where they’re at as they take actions. Throw the players into the soup together with shipwrecks, earthquakes, sieges, shared amnesia, wars, collapsing dimensions, prison breaks, firestorms and the like. You begin right away with energy and worries about motive become secondary. Conflicts build drama.

15. Optimism Engaged: Remember that most of the time, your players want you to succeed as much as you.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent pre-flight checklist for the beginning GM, and great reminders for veteran GMs.