RPT Weekly Supplemental #16 — “Tips For Planning & Running The First Session Of A Campaign”

This file was created because of the wonderful response to issue #185’s Tip Request about a GM’s plea for help with planning and running the first session of a new campaign.

Thanks to everyone who emailed me their tips, stories, and advice. New tips for this doc are always welcome.

Cheers,

Johnn Four
[email protected]
Roleplaying Tips

Graphic of logo used as divider

From: Bear

Dear Johnn,

I’m writing in response to the question about running the first session of a campaign. The essence of my tip lies in pseudo-roleplaying, something that happenned in the beginning of a campaign once quite accidentally and that we’ve used ever since.

While my 3 players were working on creating their characters, I asked them to start thinking about their character histories. They decided their characters had all been friends for a long time, since childhood. I quickly (while they were still working on character creation) put them – as children – in a scenario and had them play it out. It didn’t involve anything detailed, or any stats or dice rolling, just a quick roleplay.

It lasted a few minutes and was good for a few laughs. Then I let a few years go by, and put their slightly older characters in a different scenario, etc. By the time their character sheets were completed, their characters were fully formed in their heads, their most recent pseudo-adventure had been recent enough that they could jump right into the game.

We’ve done this since with differing time scales to equally good effect. If the characters are just meeting for the adventure, the DM can pseudo-roleplay some of their histories with each of them individually. Then, the first session should start off with relatively mundane events, so the players can get a feel for their characters and their group dynamic before it’s stressed in a real adventure scenario.

I’ll frequently introduce a new campaign with ending a social gathering of some kind (a birthday bash for one of the PCs or an NPC, a town hall meeting, a send-off for a famous adventuring party, etc) after which the PCs are all gathered together alone. Then I just sit back and let them talk. This is enjoyable for all involved, and once I feel the foundation for the dynamic is established, I’ll start throwing in the hooks. Works every time!

From: The Goblin

This is a tip on running the first session of a game. I run a beginner’s game at a local gaming store. I’ve found with beginners it’s best not to start off with too much of a serious campaign, I’ve found that playing a humourous first session, as opposed to a serious one, gets them more comfortable with you and roleplaying. It will also get them to come back because they have a lot of fun and want to see what silliness you’ll come up with next.

For example, I started my game off with the players in a bar (seems normal) and had a town guard run in and tell them Old Man Jenkins’ farm was burning. They investigate and are later told it was goblins by the mayor (actually a doppleganger, who started the fires, wanting to get rid of the goblins who know his secret). So, they go after the goblins and quite quickly meet one in the woods. Contrary to what they expected, he was friendly and made friends with the party after a party member offered him “shinies” (coins).

They went to the goblin city to find that all the goblins were friendly and somewhat comical. Since then, they’ve got into the major plot of routing out the dopplegangers infesting the area’s cities and have been very comfortable with the roleplaying aspect because I’ve made it seem like there wasn’t so much weighing on saying exactly the right words. I find that throwing in comical relief sometimes can also be a good way to relieve unwanted tension.

From: Ben R.

Hi Johnn,

There’s nothing harder than engaging all of the players in a new campaign without being really obvious or clumsy. i.e. “You’re all answering an ad for adventurers!”

Why not give the players no choice but to get into the campaign? I’m playing in a game at the moment where the GM forced us to get into the campaign and it’s never been easier to get straight into it and do some great character roleplaying. He had us all captured by undead forces, inflicted with mummy rot, and then forced to do the bidding of an evil necromancer in order to get the cure.

Other ideas for hooking new characters might be:

  1. Maybe the country they’re in is having a purge of foreigners/heretics/unemployed/adventurers/whatever and they all get swept up from wherever they are (they don’t even have to be in the same town) and held in a detention centre. Then they have to band together and fight their way out before they are killed/sold as slaves/dumped in the desert/led to some unsavoury fate.
  2. A flood/forest fire/hurricane/any natural disaster forces the whole community to band together. Then you give them a goal to survive or to take advantage of the situation.
  3. The country could be invaded by a hostile force or there could be a revolution and the players get swept up in the consequences. i.e. Local King employs them as spies, they get drafted by either side, invading general kills all their families, or the mayhem gives opportunity for looting or profiteering.
  4. Any scenario your crafty mind can dream up where the players are coerced, bullied, blackmailed, incited to avenge, or forced to defend their lives. Once players are used to working together, 99 times out a 100, it will be natural for them to stay together once their objective is reached.

Hope this helps!

From: Mike H.

I almost always start off a campaign with a small adventure. I use it to bring the team in contact with each other and a reason for them to be on a team.

For example, 4 strangers hired to protect a wagon load of shovels is a favorite of mine. When the bandits attack they open the wagon to see if there’s anything of use.

I get a chance to lay out the feel and nature of the area and some of the goings on. Often, the major world changing events that springboard them into a life of adventure are happening just over the hill. The PCs hear the fight and when they peak over the summit they see their town being slaughtered or are accused of scouting for the barbarians or whatever I am using to propel them into adventure.

From: Otto Cargill

Starting a campaign can often be more difficult than continuing an already established one. This much is obvious since once a campaign is started and characters are formed it is easier to create adventures based on previous events. To help, here are some of the methods I use based on my Weird Wars: Blood on the Rhine campaign set late in World War II.

  1. Find An Event Whether your campaign is fantasy, historical, sci-fi, or horror, there is always some event in that world’s history that you can get your characters involved with. My own campaign started June 6th, 1944 with the characters arriving on the beaches of Normandy. Setting your first adventure around major events gives the opportunity for high energy and exciting intros. Picture your characters helping to shut down the energy shields on Endor or assaulting Isengard and you immediately have setting and motivation.
  2. Make It Different While everyone knows what happens at D-Day, Endor, and Isengard, the events may be different from an individual aspect or because of a different set of circumstances. With my beach landing, the characters experienced the terror of approach, the shock of artillery, and the beaching of their craft. All happened during the true events. However, upon reaching the beach, the PCs found less resistance than the players and the PCs expected. As anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan can attest to, a quiet beach with few guards on D-Day is unusual to say the least.
  3. Leave A Mystery So you have your players expecting one set of events based on their knowledge of the history or storyline and you have just thrown them a curveball. They may have passed the initial trial by fire but you can’t give them the entire ball of wax. For example, my soldiers storm the beaches, take out a machine gun nest and begin investigating the strangely quiet \ trenches along the area. Behind the scenes, an SS Blood Mage has already vaporized the information and evidence in the German command center as well as witnesses who were too low ranking to know as much as they saw. When the players reach the scene all they find are scorch marks, burned corpses, and strange runic marks. This gives them a little scare, some information about the villain, and hopefully sparks enough curiosity that they come back next week for the second adventure.

Be creative and exciting in what you do. Your first adventure can set the tone for your entire campaign and establish most of your initial adventures as well.

From: Jonah A.

Have the players start out in a common but undesirable predicament. For example, captured by an enemy such as a band of orcs or slavers. This method works well as it does not require characters to share any background (but does not prohibit it either), gives them a reason for being together, and gives them a common goal that requires them to work together. Additionally, it inherently makes characters curious about each other, at least in the sense that it becomes essential to know if the others are skilled at anything, if they are trustworthy, etc.

One of the best beginnings to a campaign I have played in was a Star Wars game. All the players found themselves the prisoners on a Bothan slave ship. An imperial patrol ship hailed them and was preparing to board when the Bothan slave traders fled. After the imperials destroyed their escape vessel, the imperial patrol ship withdrew. We assumed that a tow ship would be arriving shortly. The DM then asked what we wanted to do.

From: Maciej G.

How about this idea? Every one of the PCs was convicted and sentenced in recent weeks before the beginning of the campaign). Doesn’t matter what they have done or whether they have been falsely accused. Optionally, you can play the prelude session with particular players where they would commit (conscious or not) a crime.

The campaign starts with the PCs in the same cell with the same objective: to survive prison or to escape.

There is a harder (more interesting) option. Imagine that someone has bought the PCs as oarmen for his galley. After a few days of an extremely hard voyage something breaks the ship apart and it starts sinking. The PCs are attached to the same oar and now they have to start cooperating. A new campaign has begun…

From: Nathan P.

Hey Johnn

Here are a couple things I try to do for the first session of a new game (with examples from the most recent game I ran)

Get a basic idea for the story you want to tell, whether it be just for that session or for the longer term (I wanted to introduce the characters to the game world, let them get their bearings, then dive right into the mysterious attacks on their allies temples).

Go through character generation. Get a handle on your players’ characters, what they are good at and what they won’t be able to do. Talk to the players about their characters. (Neither of the characters were very combat- oriented, but one of them was smart while the other was charismatic and talkative. I noted to keep combat in the game down, but have lots of puzzles and NPC interaction.)

I think a good first session is a “meeting session” where the characters meet each other and discover reasons to work together. This leaves most of the work to your players! (Part of one character’s backstory was that he was kind of a scout for a emple and the place he was scouting happened to be the place where the other character had been captured and taken.)

Once the characters have met and found common ground, you can take the story any number of places. Often, they will come up with some way to go that you may not have thought of but can run with.

I hope that helps!

From: Will V.

Johnn,

The way I normally tackle this problem is to hold the first session for the purpose of creating characters and explaining the setting, if the players aren’t familiar with it. This allows me to oversee the creation of the characters and I can get a feel for the kind players I’ll be working with in my game.

I always insist that the players have some sort of background and I normally ask that every character leavesomething or two open-ended to give me something to work with in the future.

Examples would be an old mentor that a particular character hasn’t seen in a while, or a character who possesses a certain item she received during a tearful goodbye with a lover. Here would the time to come up with an Archenemy, etc. By the time 3 or 4 hours have gone bye you’ll find that you have a wealth of information to work with.

From here I work out the first session, carefully fitting the characters into my overall story idea. My first sessions normally include getting all the players introduced (in character) and some kind of small conflict that relates to my overall idea. After a few more sessions the characters will figure out what that first conflict has to do with the big conflict.

I like to split my games up into “Chapters” and “Sections”. Normally, a “Section” will last one to three sessions while a “Chapter” will last up of three or four “Sections”. I also like to give every Chapter and Section a name. It helps me stay focused on what I want to happen short term (Section) and long term (Chapter).

My first session normally has two focuses, the long term and the short term. I like to think of the whole process as putting together a puzzle with some pieces belonging to me and the other pieces belonging to the characters.

While writing this I came to a new realization that might also help. While going back and proofing this, I found that it was difficult for me to talk about that first session without talking about the future of the game. Like most things, the idea that you have to have a good foundation also seems to apply here.

In conclusion to my newly found realization: You HAVE to consider the future of the game if your first session is going to be that “good foundation.”

From: Jen D.

This is in response to the reader who asked the question about starting the first adventure of a new group.

I have several ideas that I’ve used in the past; some of them I’ve undoubtably gotten from your newsletter so if I repeat something that’s been published I’m not intentionally plagiarizing you =).

  1. Who says the characters don’t have to know each other? Maybe 1 or 2 or even all of the group grew up together or met through some other circumstance earlier on.
  2. Start “in media res” (in the middle of things). Have the group be part of a caravan travelling from one place to another and then have goblins attack the caravan. Nothing like a little bloodshed to promote bonding and friendship =).
  3.  Let everyone have a common employer. Maybe the party has been recruited into the local militia for various ‘crimes’ or just for pay or something. Maybe some wealthy mage hires some people to go and gather some spell components for him, or an adventuring group is holding auditions or looking for new recruits.
  4. Sometimes just throwing everyone into the same city and letting them do what their character would do is a good way for the group to meet. Maybe the thief will automatically be drawn to the big fighter in his new armor and think he’s an easy mark. Or that fighter will listen to the bard in the tavern and feel compelled to rescue her when a drunk patron keeps pawing her. I always like it when the characters meet by acting out their characters/doing something rather than just the usual, “Randar is a fighter dressed in a green tunic that barely hides his chain shirt, he’s 6 ft, brow hair, blah blah blah”.
  5. Center on one character. Maybe one of your group members has just gone above and beyond in their character background/concept–it’s just full of ideas for you to jump on. Well, Jump! Have the first adventure focus on them and their background, drawing the other characters to this one. Maybe it’s just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or that character just implores the party for help (it brings an extra level of depth if the person doing the imploring is a PC as opposed to an NPC).

Work with your players and their characters. If you run into someone who just keeps going “My character wouldn’t be here…wouldn’t do that…wouldn’t be with these people..” try to work with them but if they refuse to budge, then simply say, “roll up a new character, one who WOULD want to fit in.” You don’t want to kowtow someone but they have to learn to compromise as well.

From: Erik J.

Hi Johnn!

Sam P. wonders at how the best GMs launch a campaign. I’m sure many answers will be rolling in, but here are my two cents’ worth:

First of all, apply the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. When you first begin Game Mastering you should limit the scope of the first adventure, and you should ask the co-operation of your players in doing so. In other words, have them make characters that do not require too much work for you. The more complex, the greater amount of data you generate, the greater the room to err.

The characters should be geared more or less towards the same end. The best game sessions have a mix of intrigue, action, puzzle-solving, roleplaying, etc. that fits the wishes of your group. To begin with, however, it’s better to use as few of these as possible in one session, until you become comfortable with each. In my experience, combat is easiest to GM. Anyone can throw another bunch of storm troopers or bugbears into the party’s way.

Since you’re just starting, your first session should probably involve more action than your average session will contain. Warn the players, though, so that anyone making an Hercule Poirot – inspired rogue has time to reconsider the character as more hard hitting.

From: RossK

One of my co-GMs has a first principle for first sessions in a new game: start things in media res.

For example, in a sci-fi game, the scene starts with the ship’s warp core going critical; or the unknown alien vessel is firing; or the PCs realise the bomb they just found is set to go off in 5 minutes.

In a fantasy game, it can be trickier. But the goal is to get the characters and players working together *now* rather than when the “dark stranger” walks into the inn and asks them to do a job.

It could even go like this: the PCs are in a tavern enjoying breakfast. A couple in a booth then stand up and start shouting, waving crossbows/blasters:

“Everybody be cool, this is a robbery!”

“Any of you fobbing plebs move and I’ll execute every last monster fobbing one of you!”

…and queue the opening credits (apologies to Mr. Tarantino).

From: Brian W. M.

Starting the First Session of a Campaign

When planning a new campaign, I think in terms of overall campaign feel. Then I think in terms of getting the campaign moving. How am I going to gather my PCs together? What is the hook that will put the PCs on the adventurous path? What will keep the group glued together. Now if you are starting a campaign hopefully you have floating in the back of your head ideas for major story arcs in the campaign. Use these arcs and themes as inspiration for your campaign startup.

I also feel you need to introduce the players to the campaign villain. Even if they don’t know this NPC is the Villain it’s just good story etiquette to at least introduce him (even if it is as a friend or mentor or thru one of the villain’s lackeys). If not the campaign villain at least the first major level boss, they will encounter (something more than the bad guy at the end of the first adventure). This article assumes that you have an adventure that you want to get the players into.

The Gathering

The key to the gathering is veteran players and any players that have GM’d before. They should know the position you are in and will help pull the group together. Your players will buy into whatever fabrication you create to all be together-any reason will do. Use one and move on to the hook. The gathering will strain the suspension of disbelief to its limit, which is why you don’t linger waiting for PC interaction at this point. This is all OK, your players will remember the hook, not the reason for the Gathering

Some Background Ideas:

Pair or team up characters likely to be together. This increases plausibility.

  • Same race
  • Similar profession
  • Often seen grouped
  • A cop and a criminal (in custody)

Require players to provide reasons why they are in whatever starting location (city, town, prison) the gathering is being held within; although, the burden of why they attended the gathering is still on you.

Coincidence. Have them at the right place at the wrong time.

  • Thrown in the same jail
  • Owing the same guy a favor
  • Sitting in the same bar
  • Stopped in different cars at the same red light

The Hook

Any outside force acting on the gathered players as a group. Combat recommended–if not combat some kind of conflict targeting or involving the group as a whole.

Some Ideas:

  • An Ambush.
  • On players
  • Between 2 other parties with PCs caught in the crossfire

A cry for help (legitimate or as part of an ambush). Have faith in your players to all respond. Another twist is to have a legitimate cry for help from a bad guy.

A pronouncement from on high (loss of free will).

  • A sentence (like exile)
  • A request or demand for aid. “Rescue my daughter.” (“Please” optional.)

Powerful NPC putting a group together to perform X task (again loss of free will) and incorporates the Gathering.

  • A newspaper to research articles
  • A King to spy on neighbors
  • A deep cover spy to report back information
  • A new unit in a mercenary group
  • A dilettante to mount an expedition
  • A college to research anything
  • A guild to acquire any rare item
  • The FBI to consult on x-files

The Glue

A reason for the group to stay together after the Hook. Sometimes provided for in the hook.

Some Ideas:

  • Loot that leads to actual adventure or side quests.

Example sources:

  • From a dead body (party must find a place of safety to split up
  • Group acquires and then loses (or its taken) something important (adventure becomes one of reacquisition)

Example types:

  • A written document the players can’t read on the spot (foreign language, code)
  • A chest or box they can’t open on the spot (and can be taken by Villain’s faction before they open it)
  • A magical or significant item that points towards adventure

Betrayal. An NPC ally, protector, or mentor used in the gathering now screws the PCs and gets away. The adventure becomes one of pursuit.

Ally. An NPC the party saved (from death usually) turns out to be a potential patron, mentor, ally, or just someone with a plot lead into the actual adventure.

Cry for further assistance (reward optional)

  • “You are so brave you must rescue my…”
  • “You are so noble and of such good character I can only trust you to…” – Reward
  • “Seeing as you saved my life all I can offer you in return is this map showing the location of…”

Conclusion

In many cases, it will be easier to start with a close look at the hints the party needs as seeds to the first adventure, and then backwards engineer how to plant the seeds of that adventure and your campaign within the framework of The Gathering, The Hook, and The Glue.

In the aftermath of these initial encounters, the characters will start to interact as they now have common experience binding them and serving as an icebreaker. I usually do not even bother with asking players to describe their characters to each other until this process is complete. I have also found that the players will define much of their character’s personality during this initial campaign setup period and diving right in gives them time to formulate ideas in their own minds about their characters before committing to openly.

Separating the campaign startup into these three concepts really helped me launch my games with faster immersion and better character development; hopefully they will help you as well.

From: Morgan

Johnn,

Here’s a few ideas for what to do on a first adventure.

First of all, have at the very least a basic idea of the backstory for your plot. It helps quite a bit if you can do a little foreshadowing of things to come, or have some hints dropped here and there. There was a very good article on prophecy a few issues ago, if I recall correctly. If you have your backstory plotted out, it’s not difficult to drop some prophetic hints out there to help “reel them in.”

Second, another item of pre-game preparation. Work with the players on the backgrounds for their characters. Try to get their backgrounds involved with the world. Bear in mind that the player or the character doesn’t necessarily have to know the details of what you come up with. For example, a character could be a farmboy from a backwater planet, but the GM decides he has a history that will play a major part in the upcoming war against the evil empire.

Once you have a handle on character backgrounds and such, it’s easier to give them bits and pieces of info, roleplay, and the odd prop to help get them feeling involved.

Third, reducing the fumble factor is even more important, IMHO, for that first game. You want to have your notes prepared and easily accessible, any props ready to hand, encounters prepared, and contingency plans for when those pesky players decide to go down the EAST branch of that road instead of west… The first game, more than any other, should go smoothly. Think of it as your “first impression,” so to speak. Even if you have played with your group for quite some time, and this is the third campaign you’ve run, it’s still the first impression for that campaign.

Fourth, during game play, watch for opportunities to help the players get into character. If you have a character with a predilection for helping the downtrodden, give him a few downtrodden to help out. If you wish, they may even come back in future episodes. Perhaps that old beggar the paladin helped out of the way of a rushing wagon comes into possession of information the paladin would find useful later. Take copious notes of odd events and such.

Fifth, more notes. The players go to a tavern to talk. You didn’t prepare extensively for that contingency so you use your favorite method to craft a fine tavern from scratch (more on this later). Take notes of your creation. Jot down the name of the place, the name of the barkeep, perhaps a bit of description. You never know, if your players stay in that town for a while, it may become their regular watering hole!

Finally, a note on on-the-spot creation. We’ve all had to do it. Tavern names, NPC names, etc. I recommend three things. First of all, a good naming book. There are authors’ tools that are specifically designed to help with character naming. Baby name books are a moderately good source and economical.

Second, I highly recommend AEG’s “Toolbox” book (SKU #8514). A plethora of charts, tables and other randomness. A few dice, and some jotted notes, and voila, the contents of a library.

Third, another product I recommend highly, and, with a modicum of effort, usable with the two aforementioned items. If you have a computer handy at your gaming table, the Tablesmith program is excellent.
(http://www.mythosa.net/Utils.html)

It is easily programmed with custom tables after a small amount of study and a fair amount of typing work. Tables exist already for a variety of things, and can be downloaded from the Table Gallery link on the site.

Hope these help out.

From: Rodrigo C

Hi, I’m from Mexico city and have been a Game Master for about 8 years. The games I have directed so far are Star Wars (West End version, my favorite), Vampire the Masquerade, Sabbat, Mage the Ascension and the Technocracy. I’ve been asked to direct games on strange occasions and many times I have started short chronicles just for the fun of it, or to show “normal” people what RPGs are all about.

So, many times I have faced the “first adventure” situation. I have some tips here.

Make the simplest characters first.

If you are a new Game master, or your players are new and naive, don’t start playing with complex, multiclass, alien or strange characters. Use the simplest templates first so everyone will know what to expect in terms of r leplaying. This will make a rich, simple, and funny chronicle without the kind of conflicts strange characters tend to generate. Later on, everyone will look for the complex characters and maybe that will be the source of fun, but that’s not for the first session.

Use the cliches that work for the particular setting.

Picture the first thing that comes to your mind with the title of the game. This encourages you and your players to give their best and have fun. For example, in Dungeons and Dragons, you should at least use a Dungeon as a part of the first adventure. In Star Wars I always use the same pattern of adventure for the first (and many times only) session. In Vampire games I always play the “feeding” part for the first session (it’s always fun to watch new born vampires trying to feed from humans without breaking the masquerade, they always fail and some storytellers NEVER make their players play this seriously).

Pick a starring character for the first chronicle and “make” everything fit into their story with the other characters.

The “favorite character” should be just the one that you are more drawn to, because you are human after all, and you have your tastes and preferences. It’s easier to make a natural story about a character you like already. RPGs are very subjective (rules are a tool, they should not bind you right?). It doesn’t hurt to have a favorite character the first time, and gives you a leading vector in the first session .

Most action pictures use this principle. There is a leading character whose story we follow and one by one the rest of characters start to join the chronicle. Use as example the Final Fantasy Games, or the first movie of X Men, where you start with two characters who already know each other or who make acquaintances in the first battle and then start to know the rest of allies as they make new opponents. Good mechanics, I guarantee. Also, I recommend to pick the character with the most “social” attitude, like a leader, a commander, an artist, etc.

“In media res”. That’s Latin for “In the middle of action”.

It’s used in all the Star Wars movies and can be extrapolated to every action oriented game. The very first scene of an adventure should involve a combat already occurring, with you detailing the opposing combatants as the action is unfolding. In this particular situation, the characters start to know each other as they get involved in the crossfire as allies, enemies, innocent bystanders, treacherous sentries, spies, etc.

Using this technique will pump adrenaline in your players and lead them to the end of your first session with excitement. I highly recommend this technique. Even people that don’t know me know that my chronicles tend to start with me yelling to the player to dodge an attack before explaining anything. Always make sure, though, that the opposition will be defeated, pick few opponents, with low skills in a certain disadvantage with a sure escape.

Keep the goal of the first session simple.

As simple as it gets. This first goal will be different for every kind of setting you use. For example, in a Dungeons and Dragons setting it could be getting an artifact like a magical compass, a key, or a map. In Star Wars, making a simple Imperial post blown up, capturing a spy, scaping from a planet, contact a Rebel alliance operative to join.

In Vampire, getting your food for the night and not get destroyed in the process (quite more difficult than it seems, believe me), getting acquainted to the Keeper of the Elysium and convince him of giving you the appropriate date to present to the Prince. If you are a Sabbat, locating a Safe Haven.

I wish you luck and fun in every new game you play. All these tips are proven with new and old players, and with many different settings. I hope they work for you too.

From: Michelle T.

I run a 7th Sea campaign in Tucson/Phoenix and on the first adventure (taking over someone else’s campaign), I gave them an errand to simply get them from Freiburg, Eisen, to Carleon, Avalon. That’s it. Just to get them there.

Not five minutes after they arrived, I said, “So what are you guys doing now that you’re here?” One of my players went off to the Explorers’ Society headquarters to see what was going on. After giving him a nice description of the place (stuff they had, maps, who’s there and doing what), I handed him a posted notice of “Recent and Dramatic Events Pertaining to the Explorers’ Society of Theah” with about ten different things (the doings of the Inquisitions, latest Explorer digs, etc).

Next thing I knew, he went running back to the other players to tell them and they started chasing down the ones they thought were interesting. I didn’t even have to suggest it.

From: Cris Jolliff

Beginning a Campaign

Possibly the second-hardest part of campaign creation or maintenance is the beginning. (The hardest, for me, is always the endings. I fear constantly that I will have an anticlimactic ending…but maybe that’s just me.)

As with every other part of your campaign, the beginning requires the use of your imagination. Don’t create a magnificent world, commit it to paper, and then bore everyone to tears with the tired old “you meet in a bar and a bar fight breaks out” introduction. Even the Dungeons & Dragons movie tried that one when they picked up the dwarf. It couldn’t have been more sloppily contrived and many viewers hated that film (though not just for *that* scene).

If the adventure is to be a series of more or less unrelated adventures, make the tales into a story of travel, like those of Sinbad. Journey tales commonly begin with the characters on the “road” already. If they are strangers, have them meet through interaction and role-playing in a wagon, on horseback, in a caravan, on a ship, and so on.

Once they have established a friendly relationship, introduce the conflict (an attack on the caravan/ship/carriage/whatever) and start killing off some unimportant NPCs. The players should take the initiative to defend themselves. The clever thing to do at this point is to contrive some reason for the player characters to continue to journey together, whether continuing the journey they began, or fleeing from a common threat.

For example, a fun way to begin adventures at sea is to shipwreck a group. This generally only works well on low- level characters or in non-magical settings since powerful, magical characters will quickly use magic to escape the “trap.”

It’s important to allow the characters a means of escape (*sooner* rather than later). Remember, you’re just introducing them to each other, not ruining the adventure they planned for so carefully. This is equally effective when characters are ambushed in a caravan. Perhaps the only survivors are the characters who must find a way to deliver the property.

A generous reward from the surprised owner might also be a lead to another adventure, as the merchant passes on their names to another NPC in need of assistance. Perhaps the characters are enslaved and must fight their way to freedom, then eventually wander back to the origin of their enslavement and confront their former masters.

In a particularly interesting adventure I once ran, I introduced an NPC who was to stay with the party for the duration of the game. He was being hunted by a powerful character, but did not let on to the party until the fifth or sixth “random” encounter forced them to examine their sudden change of circumstances.

Their quest became a cross- country journey to slay the powerful bad-guy, releasing the kindly NPC from his terrorist enemy. It could just as easily become a quest to find safe haven for the good NPC. The point of this anecdote is that you can only create the story, the characters must tell it.

Casual acquaintances can be drawn together by common goals, too. This kind of thing works particularly well in organized social settings, such as city based adventures. Have a common benefactor assemble the party to perform some task that requires subtlety (hiring “nobody” characters to perform the task). Finding they are well suited for this line of work may lead to more difficult and higher profile missions, or they might be farmed out to others needing such service.

In one adventure that I ran, the benefactor’s dying wish was for his “friends” the player characters to stop a political threat he had uncovered before falling ill to old age. They were also offered a sizeable portion of a fabulous will to perform the last request. It was a smash hit of a game as the players really dove into the mission with the shared motivations of satisfying the last wishes of an “old friend,” saving the city from an evil usurper, and getting lots of loot!

This next method is really unorthodox, but it works very well with seasoned players who are willing to choose a leader amongst themselves and follow that leader (at least to his death, if not to their own). Start with just one player, the leader. Give him a mission that has obvious “parts” that fall well outside his capabilities (this works best in iconic game systems, like D&D, where certain “classes” are better at specific things than anyone else). Leave it to him to “find” the rest of the party and assemble them.

Allow him some leeway with motivations, such as finding the “Thief” in prison and offering her freedom in exchange for discrete services, or making a sizeable donation (paid for by the leader’s Lord, of course) to the local church in exchange for the “services” of an acolyte in need of field experience. Even offering a mercenary warrior a regular pay schedule (plus a share of loot) to fight for them can be a nice introduction. Have the first player start out on a previous game session, or early before the other gamers show up, and as they arrive, segue into each new character’s “hiring” by the leader.

If the game is to have darker overtones, and the characters being played don’t have an altruistic nature, there are still many ways to motivate them to work together towards common goals. Blackmailing a bunch of criminals into doing your dirty work for you is an excellent way to band together a group…of course, their _ultimate_ goal should be revenge on their blackmailer, but until they’re strong enough for that, you have them at your beck and call.

Characters motivated by greed are fairly easy to motivate. Just remember, if you hint at fabulous treasure, be sure there actually is a fabulous treasure there sometimes, or the players (not just the PCs) will become jaded and not trust you when you tell them “a fabulous treasure awaits you.”

Watch lots of movies. Read lots of books. Check out some of the better drama shows on TV today. Ocean’s Eleven is an excellent example of the Leader plan described above. The A- Team (in spite of its sub-par production) has an excellent introduction concept, where the characters are all veterans and compatriots held together by the common threat of their falsified treason charges. They are a good example of the wandering adventure intro described earlier in the article.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship was created by individuals drawn towards a common goal by a benevolent and knowledgeable leader (Elrond and/or Gandalf could be seen in this capacity). In the movie Sneakers, the main antagonist used threats of jail time for their leader to coerce the characters into working together. They eventually discover the antagonist is into worse things than they themselves were ever guilty of, and band together to double-cross him.

In the book “Earth” by David Brin, the main characters discover they are already working towards common goals independently, and pool their resources to provide a solution to the threat that faces them. In many TV dramas, the characters start out working together, with little representation of “how they got started.” This too can work sometimes.

Here’s another anecdote to help illustrate that idea. These guys have no idea how or why they are together, but, after only a four-hour gaming session, they are sending email plans for future encounters to each other and working out systems of communication to counter some of the difficulties they came up against. They are totally intrigued, and totally into their characters:

“It is nearly midnight. The forest is softly lit by starlight, but no other lights pierce the veil of darkness beneath the great pines. Five figures in close fitting garments move between the trees, pausing only to locate each other and then advance again. Perched high upon their heads, each of the five slender sneaks wears a light gathering monocular.

They approach to within 200 yards of the ratty looking shack and they gather into a small huddle. They quickly discuss the last-minute details of their attack, and one of them, a female, begins to climb a tree on the edge of the small clearing that hosts the little shanty building, readying a VERY large rifle when she reaches her desired perch. The others split up into two fire teams–pairs of soldiers, prepared for nearly anything.

They know that there’s an innocent young woman somewhere in the little building, and they also know that there are at least four heavily armed men just waiting for something like what they are about to attempt. The lead man of each team tries each door in turn. They are unlocked, and the word is passed silently by hand signals to the spotter in the tree. The spotter, after receiving the signal from both sides, whispers a curt “Go” into her throat mike.”

The GM looks up from his reading and announces to the players: “Roll for initiative.”

“Wha…”, “Hey, don’t we get to.”, and “I’m not ready…” are the nonplussed and even frightened replies from across the table. The player whose character is in the tree smirks; she is not in immediate danger…for the moment. Rolling ensues, and combat is dished out quickly and violently.

“The night sky lights up with the blast of small arms fire as the two teams burst through the doors, guns blazing.”

There are more than four men in the building (six, actually) and they all have AK 47s. The chaos that comes from the brief but intense firefight leaves one building dangerously close to collapsing, one very shaken but alive kidnapee, two of the player’s characters on the ground–bleeding and unconscious with multiple bullet wounds–and three others gasping for breath and scared out of their wits.

The GM sits back in his chair and announces, “Stop the exercise, Helmets up! You guys just got two of your team killed! What the hell was that cowboy crap you knuckleheads just pulled?”

The GM, in an aside, describes the furious Handler who is stomping up and down the aisles of the VR Training Laboratory of a secret government agency. The players are unharmed, the entire scenario was virtual reality, and the players’ first exposure to d20 Modern was a violent and shocking introduction to the dangers of being in a gun battle. After that, the player characters are briefed on their first mission by their Handler, who takes down their equipment requisitions after allowing them time to create a plan for their mission.

It is to be an extraction; similar to the VR exercise they just blew. They plan carefully and work together like a well-oiled machine. The first night with the new gaming system is an amazing success.

From: Mark H.

The first step I always take is the character creation process. I try not to let my players create characters completely in a vacuum, but to actually have them already communicating with each other. Ideally, several or all of the characters already know each other. I’ll also know what each character or group of characters plans to do in the short term.

For instance, in my most recent game, one character already knew two others. One of those lived in the city and the other was a new arrival. The middle one introduced the other two just as a matter of course. The fourth character was a courier who was supposed to deliver a letter to someone in the city. Bringing him into the circle occurred as part of the events in the first session.

Once the characters have been made, I move into the first session. That session should, ideally, be a session that has many random events in it. This gives them ample opportunity to randomly run into each other and maybe take part in one of the events together. This also gives many points for a new plot to develop.

For instance:

  • A courier delivers a letter, but the recipient gets poisoned, prompting the courier to meet with police, local alchemist, lawyers, and possibly other prisoners.
  • There is a big (or small) celebration with scavenger hunts, public performances, and (as always) drinking. Maybe a criminal PC steals something from another PC in the crowd.
  • The characters are all attached to someone important, and each of those important people mingle with one another, giving their aids–the PCs–the chance to mingle.
  • A mutual friend/lawyer/journalist/city guard/merchant/ruler (probably, but not necessarily, an NPC) hosts a party/religious ritual/business meeting/has need of some assistance which pulls the disparate groups together.
  • One group of PCs is contracted to find/recruit/kill/steal from the other (this only works if the hunters decide not to harm the hunted).
  • The PCs are all hunting the same enemy/treasure/mysterious event.

There are two quirks about the random events idea. One is that each event needs the possibility of leading to a larger story. Maybe all that’s necessary is that the GM encourage lots of roleplaying and leaves behind various carrots that don’t lead to anything this session. The other quirk is that there will need to periodically be sessions that have many random events. This should up the feel that the world is turning with or without the characters and that not everything is related to the story that the characters have chosen to follow.

Also, keep in mind that the first session is the best time that I have ever found for divulging a limited segment of the world and it’s environment. All of the reading material out there will not reveal the minutia of the culture as smoothly as functioning in that culture. This is also the first opportunity to find the most hideous mistakes made in creating a world or a culture.

From: Mark L. Chance

Here’s a tip for the first session of a campaign:

Always start your first session with action, meaning a conflict or problem of some sort. Once characters are made and you’ve set the initial scene, either give each player a reason or have the player give you a reason why their respective characters are at the scene. Then, once the scene is set, break into the action. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Ensure the characters are the people at the scene most capable of dealing with the sudden problem.
  2. Keep the number of extras in your scene to a manageable number. You don’t want the NPCs overshadowing the characters or diverting too much attention away from the characters.
  3. Have at least a brief backstory explaining why this particular trouble starts at this particular location. It doesn’t matter if the characters don’t have a clue about this backstory while the excrement hits the revolving blades.
  4. Don’t worry if none of the characters know each other in- game. It doesn’t take players long to figure out that, yes, that other fellow is a player character, and we’re supposed to end up as an adventuring group. In other words, the starting action provides a convenient cover for the metagame aspects of party formation.

Starting right away with action has several advantages to the standard meet and-greet in a tavern.

  1. It gives the players the chance to try out their characters immediately.
  2. Action is more exciting than inaction. Keep in mind: Action is not limited to violence or chases, as anyone who has ever watched a spirited parliamentary debate can attest.
  3. The event itself can serve as a springboard into other scenarios. An NPC who witnesses the characters at work may be impressed enough by them to pay for their services. The opposite may be true as well: An NPC witness may label the characters as potential troublemakers or even threats.

Of course, a good example always helps. Here is an initial scenario I used for a Stormbringer campaign several years ago.

The opening scene was a merchant ship sailing to a bustling port city. Each player had to submit to me why they were on the ship and whether or not this reason would come up in conversation. I had a handout ready that described each character and the few major NPCs. It also included tidbits of background information that could be deduced from being at sea with said people for several days. The starting action was a poker game in which the various characters were either participants or spectators. One NPC gambler was a vengeful sorcerer. Another was a wealthy merchant.

During game play, we actually played cards, using poker chips as gold pieces. Conversation was in-character. At an appropriate time, I let slip to a player that the sorcerer was cheating. In-game, I used two decks of cards, one stacked so that I could pull the sorcerer’s winning hands. Immediately, accusations fly. Since only one character saw the cheating, not everyone was inclined to believe him. Even a few rounds of violence erupted before more level heads prevailed.

The poker game accomplished several goals:

  1. It introduced all of the characters as well as a few key NPCs.
  2. It gave everyone a chance to briefly see how combat works, which was important since no one had played Stormbringer before.
  3. The wicked sorcerer was set up as both a villain as well as someone with an axe to grind against at least one character.
  4. The merchant, impressed by how needless violence was avoided, was impressed by the coolness under fire of other characters.
  5. Most importantly, it was fun.

Once in town, the merchant provided my hook to create the party, hiring the characters on as bodyguards for an overland journey. The time in which the characters took care of personal business and made ready to accompany the merchant gave the wicked sorcerer time to plot his revenge against those who had embarrassed him.
Voila! The campaign had begun!

From: Roy D.

Things to consider when beginning a new campaign:

Does the new campaign spin off from the previous campaign?

If so, then transitioning into the new campaign should be relatively simple, like finishing one movie in a trilogy and picking up with the next (think Star Wars). The catalyst for getting the party moving into the next campaign can be as simple as providing transport to where they need to be next. An NPC may provide vital information on an unresolved plot element from the previous campaign.

The party may get a tip from someone on the whereabouts of an enemy or an enemy’s lackey that escaped in the prior adventure. Or, like in Star Wars: ESB, placing the NPCs in an entirely new location after an unspecified period of time.

The main trick is to carry over bits and pieces of the original campaign into the next to give a sense of continuity. The victories/losses and scars/trophies of any adventure help to develop the characters and direct the way they interact with their game world and each other.

Is the campaign entirely new, beginning with brand new player characters?

The first adventure of a new campaign with new PCs should be the point where the PCs meet for the first time. Some exceptions could be if they’re part of the same military unit/government organization/political party or other group where they may have had contact with one another prior to the adventure’s beginning.

Drawing new PCs together can follow the classic formula where, having no prior contact with one another, they are inextricably drawn together into the campaign by a chance meeting with an NPC, or even one of the PCs, in trouble.

The first meeting between new PCs is a great time for role- playing since not only are the players getting a feel for their own character, they are also trying to figure out how best to interact with the other PCs. The game master can mix it up by providing circumstances where two or more PCs with differing world views/alignments may come to odds on how to deal with a given situation. Have fun with it!

Can a short single-sitting adventure or single encounter be turned into a larger ongoing campaign?

Never underestimate the possibilities of any encounter to blossom into a grand adventure. Draw from the obscure reference or easily forgotten encounter to form the basis of any new campaign. That randomly generated encounter with the thugs in the alley can easily be shaped into an all-out war with the local thieve’s guild or crime lord. Turn one of those thugs from the alley into a recurring mortal enemy seeking the PCs destruction. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

From: Noah

I’ve found that first adventures can be really easy or really hard, usually for the same reasons any adventure can be hard. The trick for me was to know the game world well enough that I knew its limitations and advantages in places. It helped me to have been a player in the same game world. Another advantage was to know the players and how they played. Plus, knowing what their characters and their backgrounds were helped.

As a good way to get used to GMing I would just let the players work out what they wanted to do and I would go with the flow. So, I guess it just comes down to basic advice: if you’re new at it, don’t kill yourself trying to do too much. Just ease yourself into it and find your own style before expanding your skills.

From: Mark W.

Hi Johnn,

I find city adventures an easy way for new/low level PCs to get their feet wet. There are a lot of hooks that a DM can use in a city setting depending on what the DM and/or player want to do. Ranging from hack&slash style [taking out a gang of thugs, joining a gladiatorial fight] to more storylinish adventures [spywork, diplomacy, or just job work can be fun in the right frame of mind].

The characters typically are residents of the city/town and as things start I throw out a couple different hooks and see what the players take interest in. They are free to take one or all or I’ve even had parties make a plot line up that I didn’t even think about.

Best thing about this kind of adventure session is that if things get out of hand and there is a good chance that the party will be wiped out I can easily come up with day- savers, such as town guards come to the rescue, a passing cleric or paladin, or an NPC inadvertently finding the clue that’s stalling the adventure. Not that these hooks are new- -I just find that in a city setting they are easier to believe.

As a side benefit, I can use this method as a tool to judge player’s abilities as well as for them to experience my DMing style. As things progress I can change my style to what the players are more interested in.

From: Jason W.

Dear Johnn,

This is in reply to your request for tips regarding the first adventure:

Recently, I started a game and the players being what they are–easily side tracked–I needed a way to hook them fast (in both definitions of the word). Generally, I always run one very short solo adventure with each player to get their character into the group and to get a feel for their style, strengths, and weaknesses. Therefore, I sat down with each character and had them run through an adventure that had to deal with their background or personality.

For example, the paladin who had been staying at the local church was sent on to find a member of the faith who had disappeared; the cleric of the God of Travels wandered into a mage with a centaur slave pulling her wagon, etc.

At the end of each of these adventures, I made sure to have the characters subdued and bound in one way or another. Now, I introduce the characters to each other as each of them wakes to find themselves bound in a dark, dank location. After they’re all awake, the villain for the next several adventures enter and injects each of them with a poison that, if not cured within X number of days, will kill them (see below). He then demands a job completed in return for the antidote.

The major benefit of this format is that the characters are firmly together on one specific purpose and are not likely to be easily distracted. Another benefit is that the NPCs used to subdue the characters in the individual adventures can be brought back later to make for some very personal villains for the characters.

The format’s drawbacks are that it’s a little more time consuming and complex than ‘Help Wanted – Inquire Within’ and if not played up correctly can be seen by the players as stringing the characters along.

Sidebar: The poison I invented for this is Stirge Eggs. The idea is that, to reproduce, stirges lay their eggs inside living creatures to incubate. After a few days’ time, the eggs hatch and the tiny stirges eat their way out- making for a very interesting death to the unfortunate adventure to be injected with said eggs.

[ Stirge info: SRDMonsterss ]

From: Zleviticus

Recently, I found myself trying to answer the same question: How am I going to get the new PCs together on a mission? If you are like some it is easy, just say they knew each other from the start. I don’t like this method as it eliminates some good roleplaying opportunities.

What I did this time is start them like I normally would: no one knows each other. This time they did not have any equipment and needed to buy some, so I used the store as a quick mission for some cash and to set up my MAIN plot.

Sometimes I often think of the big picture. Ultimately, what do I want the PCs to do in the end? Save the world from some sinister plot? Is someone slowly trying to take over the town? I then think of a way to get them going and give them a small taste of what they will be going up against. Not so much “WHAM! here you go,” but more of a taste that they won’t correlate with their current mission and will drop as being unimportant until later on when they say “Hey didn’t the guy at the inn say something like this a while ago?” or “ahh, now I know why those things were collecting those items.”

Another way I like to start things off is to put them in a situation where they HAVE to work together. An episode in the town square perhaps.

Perhaps you can tie their families into the mission. Maybe each of the household heads have been asked to come together for something important.

Finally, I like to go through a monster catalog and mark monsters that the PCs could handle. I then start to think of a way in which I could use them for the first adventure. I think that the old kobold, goblin, orc at first level gets boring and overdone, so I do something different. I have more fun this way and it makes the PCs think “what have we gotten ourselves into!”

From: Lucas D.

Whenever I start a new campaign, I try and get three things done in the first session.

  1. Give the players a goal.
  2. Give them a reason to stay together.
  3. Give them a chance to “show off”.

I try to avoid the typical “You are all called here to the Runn’o’damill inn by the great lord Ineveragame.”

The goal is easiest. Create a focal point for the first adventure that each character needs to deal with. The easiest is a “thing”, whether it is a person, place, or item. At the start of one campaign (my only successful campaign, btw), I used a retired explorer as the focal point. One character was related and had a family business with him.

Another was a thief who was blackmailed by a thieves’ guild into taking back money the old man owed the guild; and the other two PCs were investigating a map dealing with one of the old man’s adventures. Try to come up with reasons for each character to deal with the focal point.

Next, give them a reason to stay together. Put a slant on the focal point. It is missing, damaged, or whatever. Now the characters have a common goal. Find the thing, fix the thing, etc. In the above example, the old man was missing. The characters now have to work together to deal with the problem at hand, hopefully proving to each other they are a good team and would do well to stick together.

How do they prove that, you say? Let them show off their fancy skills and abilities. In the first session (or the first couple at least, depending on how efficient your group is with time), single out each character with a problem their character is not built to deal with. Give the fighter a brain teaser, the mage a physical test, the thief a “something” test (what can’t thieve deal with?). This way, they all get a chance to see what the others are capable of. You can use it for clues too.

Each character has a piece of the puzzle so to speak, but their character is not built to deal with it. The fighter has a magical puzzle box; the wizard has the name of a shady bar only the fighter would know of. They each get to help the other characters with a problem, proving their usefulness to the group.

Well, that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth. Good luck in all your future gaming.

From: Jeff L.

Here’s an idea that I used for creating the first adventure, tied in with character creation and the introduction to a new world.

Most of the players had played games in a published world (Warhammer) but this new game used a combination of rule systems and was set in a brand new fantasy world that I (GM) have created a small section of.

It was agreed from the beginning that the group would remain together and after that the players could choose to remain together or otherwise. This reduced free will slightly during the first session but it made it easier for me to hook the players into a world and leave hints for all sorts of potential adventures. After the first session the free will would be alive and well with all sorts of adventure options.

Character creation with Warhammer has some choice and a lot of dice rolling. I then added the ideas found in roleplaying tips on character creation for developing characters. So we started with character creation and a scenario, what I like to call our movie length premiere. (An entire Sunday, our games are typically three hours).

This meant the players developed new characters. History, family, etc., based in the world they have played in previously. And as the GM I listened to their character creation and invented reasons why they were all in this one inn at the same time, on the world where their character development has taken place, most of them sitting at separate tables and not knowing each other at all.

Then an NPC enters the inn looking for adventurers to help in a lifelong quest.

Here the adventure could be anything. But the one I set for my players was to unify a land on a completely different planet and anyone in that inn that didn’t agree would have to be killed because the NPC didn’t want anyone to know he could travel from another world. Once the PCs agreed the NPC gave them a potion to drink that magically transported them to a room in a village.

The village existed around the fact that, like the PCs, other adventuring parties from wherever have also ended up in this location after willingly, foolishly, mistakenly, enthusiastically (or whatever you decide) drinking that same potion.

The problem with the potion is that the future adventures of player groups also transports to this world. i.e. If the GM was going to take the group treasure hunting and meet some goblins along the way, then somewhere in the world some treasure and a bunch of goblins have turned up.

If a dragon or a vampire that has been harassing a local village was to be destroyed, a local village and a dragon or a vampire turn up somewhere in the world. You get the idea. The catch is the players usually don’t know the details of their adventure in these initial stages and only the GM does.

In summary:

A NPC can bring an unconnected group together, using threat of violence (the additional use of magic or greater powers makes it more feasible for my game). Player agreement means that no matter what happens during that first movie length session the group will remain together, giving you time to develop plot, suggest potential scenarios, and introduce them to the world.

From: Elemental Knight

In the campaigns I’ve run so far, one thing that always gets the action started quickly is dropping the players head- first into a dangerous situation. For example, in the Disney movie “Aladdin”, the first time we see the hero is when he’s running from the guards through the main street of the city. Using exciting locations, and making sure the players understand the conflict they’ve been dropped into, are extremely useful in this situation.

In the campaign I’m currently running, I had the PCs start out on the roof of a moving train, with a robed man on one side and a group of warriors with swords on the other. They found out quickly that the robed man was a wanted Mage, and that the warriors were a group of “Special Forces” anti-mage warriors, sanctioned by the government to kill the robed Mage. The PCs had to choose sides, or be caught in the middle of the battle.

From: GM

One of my tricks is to ask the players beforehand what their character would do in the opening scene. Whether it’s by email, Instant Message, or in person, this allows for a little roleplaying before everything starts.

I always have a “hook”. For instance, in my current campaign, all my PCs, for one reason or another, answered an ad for a group of mercenaries – but I also, then, allowed the players to tailor their first introduction to the new campaign world.

Because this is done before the session where everyone pounds out character sheets and dice rolls, it gets the players thinking about their character and what they can plan for them to be–the first step towards a well-rounded character. Even the hack-and-slash players in the group like this, even if it’s just “Tunk probably comes to the meeting to see who he can beat up.” It’s a chance for them to have my undivided attention for a few minutes.

Those who are avid roleplayers (those who write 15-page backstories) will spend an entire hour, sometimes, actually RPing the first encounter with my NPCs and the environment.

What this allows me to do is to immediately drop the PCs into interaction with each other once we start playing. I don’t have to ask for descriptions and actions, I can narrate the entire “opening scene” without interruption, and spotlight each of the PCs for a moment.

“In the city of Annagar, on the Island of Caldera, is a small inn. At this inn, a tall, black-clad elf sits at a bar. He turns as a red-haired ranger enters, leading a silver wolf….” and so on.

It also gives me a look into the motivations of the characters at the very beginning. Tunk the dwarven fighter might, on his character sheet, be looking for the murderers who killed his wife, but at that moment, all he wants is a good fight. With such an immediate hook for each character, I can drop hints and clues into the first encounter without throwing the entire campaign plot into their faces in the first 30 seconds.

That’s another thing I’ve found useful. My players seem to enjoy being eased into whatever plot there is without the constraints of a rigid plotline from the start (“I’ve called you here to stop the evil organization”). I just try to plant enough clues and little hooks in the first situation to catch them.

An open slate of player/PC decision paths is important in every game, but more so in the first one. Let them choose to follow your plot. If they don’t right away, you can always find ways in later episodes to have it come back to bite them in the ass. Just know the world and people in the immediate area where the PCs are and you should have little problem following where they chose to go.

Don’t be afraid to play by the rules of the world either. If getting in a bar fight would get them all arrested or thrown out of the city, and they start that bar fight, then throw them in jail. (But make it seem like that was the last thing you expected them to do.) If you’ve GMed before, you’ve learned that they can usually get themselves in far more trouble without any help from you than you could ever dream of getting them into.

If nothing else, make the first session detailed. Describe the random street goons. Give specifics (even if you make them up on the spot) of every building they enter. Put 3 alehouses in the city instead of one. Hand out a map showing every major street and location of the city, or every city and large town in the area.

Make your plot hooks numerous and varied and complicated if you want. They’ve got all the time in the world (or campaign) to pick one and follow it. Make them big, or subtle, or both. Go for “cinematics.” You’re going to be buried in plotlines in later game sessions, now’s the time to play around a little bit.

From: Draz

The greatest problem with the first session of any campaign is keeping the PCs together. Why should four PCs, each with their own agenda, journey together? This becomes complicated with evil and good characters, and near impossible while making it appear they have “free will.” If they did have free will, they probably wouldn’t join up. The real question of the matter is “What story hook will bind these characters together while giving the semblance of free will?”

We want to avoid situations in which the PCs attempt to leave the prepared area or quest prepared for them. The solution is not to ask them to take the quest, but to force it upon them. Instead of asking them to hunt bandits (which they may refuse), have the law accuse them of being the famous Four Thieves of Gildenroewen. Now wanted, the four PCs need to work together to escape, find their dopplegangers, capture them and the loot, and clear their names (or keep the loot or whatever they choose).

With this situation, the PCs feel as if they still have free will. They get to introduce themselves to each other, get to use their own unique skills to escape and find the bandits, and get to choose their own outcome. The slight legal restriction you place only limits their travel within a city and prevents them from taking up other quests in the meantime. After this first session, a “bond of teamwork” or at least familiarity surrounds the group, and they can take up further quests together, possibly to find out who would frame them and why.

There are a few other tips to a first session:

Keep it short, simple and easy. PCs want a conclusion and some gratification by the end of the session.

Include a single, good magical item in the loot to inspire the sort of “Ooh Aah” fireworks reaction of wonder and cause battles of ethics over whether or not to return it.

Let them go where they want, within reason. If they want to search the city for the bandits, good. Reward good roleplaying and ideas. If they want to skip town, point out lack of transportation, large distance between towns and guards at the gates. If they STILL persist and steal rides or hide in a wagon, have them succeed but stumble across the bandits (perhaps hitching a ride in the bandit escape wagon out of town!).

Avoid saying “you can’t do that” at all costs. It ruins the sense of free will. Give a near impossible dice roll, or suggest an alternative, but never crush a person’s idea.

Lastly, have some portion of the first session become of greater importance later. The four thieves they capture become greater villains. The magic item is actually one of a set. The thieves were working for a secret cult that mistakes the PCs for the thieves and hires them. Bringing up a feature from your first adventure tends to bring nostalgia to the session.

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Have more fun at every game!

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End of Supplemental #16