Your First 15 – A Key GM Technique For Great Game Sessions

The First 15 - Grab Attention Fast

RPT Reader Juaquine Silveira offers this great tip and tip request:

I am a fairly new GM, and while I have some skill I still have a lot of questions.

We all know people have short attention spans.

So if you are going to get people excited about your gaming session you have to grab the attention of nearly every player in the first few minutes of a session.

In my experience you need to get each person to complete at least one action within the first 15 minutes of play.

These first 15 minutes are even more important if your group meets for less than 2 hours, like mine does.

What I am wondering is how do you set up and execute your first 15 minutes of a game?

The tactic I have adopted is 2 prong. First thing I usually do in a session is have the party get attacked by some small creatures. Nothing powerful enough to make it a challenge, but something to get them moving, talking and rolling dice. Once that is done they usually start talking to each other.

Second, I will reward a player for asking another character (PC or NPC) about their back story. This gets them role playing.

This approach works well with my group because it breaks the ice with the gaming side of an RPG. Once they are comfortable they really start role playing.

I am sure other GMs use other strategies and methods. So what does everyone else do?

 

1. Start With Action

Juaquine, you took the first tip right out of my mouth. Start with action.

I run action- and combat-oriented games. I try to capture the feel of Indiana Jones meets Godzilla.

So I like to roll initiative and jump into a conflict right away during my First 15.

Knock the GMing dust and cobwebs off, get everyone excited and focused, and kick the session off with a bang (or a pierce, slash or bludgeon).

You also made a good point of not making the first combat take all night.

I aim for 30 mins or less for all my combats (except boss battles or major plot fights).

So anyone trying this tip should ensure the fight that started the session doesn’t also end the session, lol.

In a past edition of RPT, I gave the tip to start sessions with “Roll for initiative!”

Try it. It works.

 

2. Pick Up Where You Left Off

Another great GMing technique is to end sessions with a cliffhanger.

If you do that, then you have probably the best First 15 start point you could ask for.

Cliffhangers work for two reasons.

First, they involve story. Even if it’s just how the fight will turn out. Will the injured PC bleed out? Will the boss escape? Will the descending ceiling crush all the treasure?

Second, cliffhangers create tension.

Our brains want resolution to all open loops.

There’s a whole school of emerging neuroscience that shows how our brains “work” in stories and how they desperately seek closure. Two sides of the same coin, and a very effective way to learn and remember.

For RPG, it’s pure gold.

So you’ve probably heard the cliffhanger tip before. But here’s a couple extra details to get even more out of this GM technique:

 

Setup Communication Channels For Your Players

Coffee, lunch, email, G+ group, Facebook Group, Wiki, whatever.

Your goal is to get players talking between sessions.

And the cliffhanger is going to be a natural hot topic.

The more they talk about that, the greater the anticipation for next session.

The greater the anticipation, the more eagerness and energy in your First 15.

 

Hang The Story

It’s easy to end sessions mid-fight. But try to mix-up your hangings.

Roleplaying encounters – how will the Sheriff respond to the PCs’ revelation? Chairs or chains?

Skills – the thief rolls a 15. The lock clicks once. Trap or treasure?

Chases – the villain kicks the block out from under a cart wheel. The cart rolls downhill…straight towards an unsuspecting pregnant woman and her two children! Rescue or run past?

There is really only one best way to create a cliffhanger, and that’s to hang the players mid-story.

It doesn’t matter what type of encounter it is. You just need to stop the story right at a juicy part.

Like those timeless old radio shows and serial stories do so well!

[Here are some more tips on cliffhangers.]

 

3. Recap The Story

Kick-off your First 15 with a recap.

Get a player to do this so you can work on GM stuff and get your game face on while everybody listens.

I have two conflicting tips for you about this.

One, pick the best storyteller in your group for the recaps. This player will do a great job most nights putting everyone in the right mood and mindset while reminding everybody about what happened last session.

Two, pick a player who needs practice roleplaying, storytelling or speaking up. The recap will encourage them to talk more the rest of the session.

Maybe mix it up. Do what’s best for your group. Maybe rotate the honour.

Regardless of approach, I want you to make your recaps do one thing.

Think about the intros from TV shows. Many do great recaps. They clip key moments, great visuals and big plot points to get you the viewer engaged right away.

Aim for the same for your recaps.

And focus more on the story and key plots than specific details.

Instead of telling how many hit points the big troll had, tell how the troll howled that strange name with his last burning breath.

Instead of telling how Bob made his stealth check and spied on the evil mercenaries last session, tell how Garrus the rogue snuck up on the group’s hated foes and learned the Sheriff is secretly paying them to stop the party.

Instead of covering just last session’s events, recap how the characters started out as weak commoners who fled their burning village, who then survived DeathHell Dungeon and emerged toughened heroes, and who are now on the verge of discovering the identity of the villain who burned their homes to the ground.

Here’s your chance to get rid of all that pesky game rule talk and numbers essential for gameplay, and to tell a story of the campaign so far like a true storyweaver.

Use recaps for story, not numbers.

 

4. ???

Ok, those are three tips from me for making your First 15 awesome springboards for exciting sessions.

What do you do to launch great game nights?

Share your comments below.

Comments

  1. Josh says

    This is actually a great article, and it deals with a very important subject. For me, I rarely GM a session that is going to last less than 4 hours (which I am VERY grateful for, lol), so I will generally start things off by giving a very quick recap of what happened last session (less than 5 minutes long), and by jumping right into gameplay. I will generally start with a dialogue very similar to this…

    “Ok, so right now you are at the castle. You just got back from the lake, you haven’t slept, you are tired, you are dirty, and you are hungry. What are you going to do now?”

    This will generally get the group making decisions, and we will generally have some serious roleplaying going on within the first 15 minutes using this method. However, there are nights when it seems like everyone isn’t quite as into the mindset as they are on other nights. On these nights, if they tend to take quite a bit of time in answering my question about what they want to do, I would tend to cut the ‘awkward silence’ short by saying something like…

    “As you contemplate your next move, you are approached by Edward, who is holding a stack of papers and seems to be looking them over with a worried look on his face…” thus, I may launch right into an encounter/adventure/plot hook if the mood seems right and if it seems to fit well.

  2. John McMullen says

    I’ve only used it once, but I combined action and recap for the start of a campaign: I wrote a brief (really, brief!) piece that set the stage about how they’d all been captured, and gave it to one of the players (some of my players are writers and performers for community theatre) to read out. (I made it brief partly to get to the action and partly to avoid comments on the writing!) The campaign started when the pirate ship ran aground on the island, and all the pirates died, leaving them locked up in the hold–a chance for the thief to get them out. (I would have gone with any idea the thief had; the point was just to show that the thief was awesome, not to provide a difficult skill challenge.)

    Though I used it for a campaign, the technique could kick off any adventure where time has passed.

  3. yosef Bender says

    Depending on what happened in the last session it they were in the middle of the encounter I try to leave the encounter in the cliffhanger drama.

    And start the next session with a descriptive recap of the cliffhanger scene. And like TV series I also hint at important role-playing conversations and happenings that will pertain to this evenings gaming session. Kind of a reminder to the players of events that it previously happened that will be useful in understanding what is about to unfold.

    If it is a new chapter starting a new storyline,or quest as I like to call them. I start out with role-playing using my role-playing prompt system of handing everyone a sheet, with role-playing hooks,
    1.these can be interpersonal relationship prompts, like reminding them of tensions over certain divergent issues that need to be discusse between two characters. even humor prompts for levity, I encourage every player to develop a humorous style for his character that when interacting with other player characters will come out.

    2. More of their own background story fed to them as a memory bubble, within it a major clue that will help them understand their next quest.
    For clerics I like to, give them a vision, or remind them of a prophetic Scripture that is burning in their mind.
    Four magic users, they remember something they’ve studied in an arcane scroll, or history.
    I try to create a puzzle piece for each character, which is usually activated by the revelation of what the actual quest is, so that everyone has something to contribute to the unraveling of the mystery.

    My handout sheet serves another purpose, in that it gives me several minutes of quiet while everybody is reading and studying their sheets, so that I can collect myself set up everything ready for the first scene.

    Because I use a system of rewarding role-playing by giving bonuses to future rolls, I printed up cards that simply say -2 to + 5 and during the role-playing session I immediately reward or penalize players for their acting and role-playing ability, (giving new players lots of leniency for them to come aboard and helping them between game sessions with developing their character personality enough so that they know how to act out their characters part naturally.

    3. with newer groups of role players they need a good example of role-playing and so an well developed NPC becomes the tutor and role model for role-playing, and graciously assist them in acting out dialogue in learning how to get in character, sometimes two different NPC’s with completely different personality profiles need to interact with each other for players to get how cool it is to be in character.

    4. Sensory anchors, if the party has just arrived in a new place be a small town just down the road or a completely new and magical land it is important to link them into the environment through a descriptive narrative that includes all the senses, describe what they smell, what they hear, what they see, the unique taste of the ale only served in his parts, the feel and texture that your soul experiences in that place. I usually have a background prop kind of the wide shot of the place with a few pieces of foreground 3-D terrain to give the players a focus point for their imagination, but it is the words and how you describe it that brings the imagination to its full beauty and if properly done your players will feel your characters are actually there.

    5. Complete surprises the party is walking down a forest pathway Everyone make an initiative roll. (they see and hear nothing but they know some things about to happen) then everything goes dark and quiet, I then described the state of being unconsciousness. Slowly you begin to feel sensation light from the outside world as you open your eyes to find…. themselves somewhere far away, often bound, always hungry, and thirsty, sometimes completely alone in some far off place. But the mystery of where they are becomes the first thing the party is curious about, and needs to be solved. If you like temporal theory, when they are, can also do wonders in a campaign, going backwards in the timeline is quite enjoyable, going forward in the timeline a little more difficult to work out the logic paths but equally exciting recommended only for short periods. the point is to put them in complete mystery, and often the only way to return to their proper time and place is to complete a series of smaller quests.

    Give you one great example of the complete surprise as the DM I didn’t have time to prepare adequate for the next gaming session. The player characters had just finished the quest and I was unable to prepare enough material to introduce the next storyline. So I brought them to a tavern to celebrate their recent victory the bartender offered a special bottle of expensive liquor as they all had their first drink their table filled with a strange light and the rest of the tavern seam to melt away.

    In the morning each character awoke in a nice soft bed, and went downstairs to find out what their Lord desired for their bidding. They all had the strangest dream that they were a adventure slaying monsters and beasts wandering the countryside in search of glory and fame, the dream seemed to stretch on for quite some time as if they’ve experienced whole life, but they knew it was just a dream they were working for one of the overlords in the city of splendor….
    I then set my players down and we play a game of Lords of Water Deep I convert everybody’s victory points into 10x experience points,and when the evening is finished and the game is complete, the player characters find themselves sitting around the table in the tavern staring at each other in wonderment, the bartender walks up, smiles and says that some pretty strange liquor winks.

  4. says

    Having a player do the session recap is pure gold! I think this is a great way to get one of the players engaged immediately so they already get their blood pumping. It also gives me a chance to see what they party keyed in on during the last session. Mixing up the recap person is brilliant as well. I can just imagine the look on my shy players face once I ask her to give us a recap (no worries though, she wont run out the door screaming, she’ll be a good sport about it).

    One thing I like to do is at the end of a session we have a democratic vote for Best Roleplay, Epic Moment, and Combat MVP. Then I give them small bonuses for the upcoming session based on the awards. I feel like it primes the group to bring their “A” game when they see some of the tasty treats others get right before kickoff.