New Players – New Group – New Campaign
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1190
RPT GM RF emailed me this question:
I’m about to start a brand new group in my AD&D 1e campaign I call ‘In a Handbasket’. All players have Dungeons and Dragons experience, but most have never played 1st Ed.
I have run this campaign twice before. Once for my kids and their friends. Once at my local game store. It took about two years each time. Both groups seemed to enjoy it.
I’m not sure why I feel so nervous this time but I am very excited to share this story with a new group.
Most of the players don’t know one another and frankly I don’t know any of them well.
What tips do you have for session 0 with a brand new group?
We will have four hours where I expect to present the overarching world description and their current predicament, then we will roll up characters together and probably get an hour or two of play.
What should I do to be sure I am starting with a good foundation?
Thanks for the tip request, RF!
Here are some of my thoughts….
I’m a weirdo and am not a fan of Session 0.
Blasphemy, I know. Heh.
First off, does zero really exist? Them fancy maths-people say nothing exists, but that’s always been a head scratcher for me.
But I do like to think of my first session, regardless of activity, as Session #1.
And if we start as we would end, then Session #1 has a few outcomes we want:
- Players get to know each other a bit and feel more comfortable in their own skin
- Players have characters they like and are starting to understand
- Everyone learns how the party got together and why
- Characters (and players) get hooks and set upon at least one path forward
- You’ve set expectations on table behaviour
- You play the game for as much of the session as possible
With outcomes bulleted out, let’s talk a bit about each.
Make Folks Comfortable
My last Session 1 happened in a busy and noisy restaurant with a group of strangers.
I had almost no space for my kit, couldn’t hear my players, and everyone was distracted with meals, customers, and the server checking in on us.
It went awesome.
Of the four players, two of whom hadn’t played a tabletop RPG before, three chose to return for Session #2. We had a great time.
The event was a grassroots D&D Day organized by a couple of local people excited with our awesome hobby who wanted to get some gaming happening in our small city.
To help make folks comfortable:
- I put their first names and character names on tent cards. Knowing a person’s name gives you more confidence when interacting with them.
- I did a round table of introductions so people had their first chance to speak up and address the group early on in the session and get that over with. I gave each three easy questions to answer:
- Your name
- How long you’ve been playing TTRPGs or D&D
- What kind of characters you like to play, if you know
- I introduced myself first with a bit about what got me into RPGs, the games I enjoy playing, and what to expect in this session.
Then I laid out some very basic table guidelines.
I don’t use a social contract, X card, or other devices.
My preference is to lay the groundwork to facilitate open communication, transparency, and respect for individuals.
If someone has an issue, and understands how to comfortably raise it, and the group expects that to happen from time to time, then we don’t need a long list of behavioral house rules.
So I basically laid it out like that.
We addressed concerns as a group as they arose, aiming for best possible outcomes for each group member. I make the final call, especially when there was no clear answer, to keep the game and fun moving forward.
One last item here.
People get more comfortable by playing, not by watching.
- I started gameplay as fast as possible, with about 5 minutes of beginning exposition.
- I ran even non-combat gameplay through table initiative — going around the table again and again prompting actions.
- When players spoke to me about how they interacted with another player, I asked them to address the other players directly.
- We kept encounters short and chewed through as many as possible to build momentum and a variety of situations and challenges.
- I complimented players often on aspects of the game large and small so they’d know what to do again.
I think the same approach could work for you, RF.
Do a quick walkthrough together of the character sheets.
I usually use pre-generated characters for new groups.
I create “shells” with core elements filled in, such as class, race, and equipment.
This helps players start playing faster, and takes care of some early heavy lifting.
Bring more characters than there are players so players have choice.
In case of character death, you can also get players back into the game fast with another pregen.
In my public restaurant game, I had each player roll a d20.
Highest rolls picked characters first. Then I walked them through the “zones” of the char sheets: stats and skills, combat, equipment, and personality.
Next, I asked players to add a couple of personality traits, pick a name, and do some character tweaks.
Small customizations help players walk their sheets better and make characters feel personal.
The First Encounters Teach Players the Game
The initial encounters were pre-planned.
First one got characters meeting each other and the party formed.
Next one got them using senses and perception skills.
Then we got into movement and some action.
Then a short combat.
Each encounter basically targeted one zone on the character sheets for tutorial and use.
For example, when I introduced a skill challenge, I used that moment to explain skills, how stats and modifiers were calculated, and how to make skill checks.
Rather than explain all the rules up front and have players’ eyes glaze over, I ran just-in-time learning type encounters to start.
While full character creation exposes players to the nuts and bolts of a game, I’ve found most of the information goes over their heads and isn’t retained.
And unless players understand the consequences of their character creation options and choices, they don’t learn a whole lot.
I’d rather let gameplay be the teacher. And then invite players to do some character refactoring or building a new PC between sessions.
Bringing a herd of cats together tries any GM’s patience.
And new players might not know how to help the GM help the party come together.
So I like to tell three stories before Session #1 ends:
Story #1 The Current Situation
At some point we transition from GM control of the characters to player control.
And once players take control, I like them to remain in control.
So I create a situation or starting encounter where I dictate certain aspects of the characters’ context and how they got here.
Then I turn it over to the group.
By outlining what’s happening in the game right now, players get instant details on setting, potential plot, and what they’re about.
So that’s the first story I tell: “Where are you and what’s happening right now?”
Story #2 Party Origin
How did the party come together?
I used to let players decide how the party forms.
Problem with this though was players wouldn’t follow my script and become a party!
So I now start campaigns with party assembled.
And first encounter now becomes about sharing that story.
I might ask players to collaborate on this. But often I’ll have a strong campaign premise, so I tell this story for the group instead.
There’s a complete process I follow to create Party Origin Stories in the Adventure Building Master Game Plan.
And the outcomes we want here are:
- What is the party’s purpose or objective?
- What do the characters have in common?
- Why do the characters work together and stay together?
More tips on getting the party together:
- The Unification Event — How To Get The Party Together
- How To Bring A Diverse Party Of PCs Together?
- 6 Ways to Assemble the Party and Kick-Off Your Campaign
- Story Sparks Part I – New Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together
- Story Sparks Part II – More Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together
Story #3 Character Origins
Now players have some idea of the current context and how the band got together.
Next, they can figure out how their character reached the entry point of the Party Origin Story.
This makes it much easier for everyone to weave stories, characters, and campaigns together.
Compare this to a table where each player comes with their own weird backstory and you have to fit the pieces of the puzzle together for sensible campaign kick-off. Tricky!
With the spirit of getting to gameplay as fast as possible in mind, I tackle the origin stories along a specific timeline.
First we choose pregens and customise them a bit.
Then I narrate the Current Situation.
Then we play.
After the first encounter, and players have walked in their PCs’ shoes a bit, we talk about Party Origin Story.
Then between sessions we finalize Character Origin Stories.
During Session #1 players can start forming ideas and make notes. But I’ll use between session time to finalize.
Hooks & Path
We want to end Session #1 with players clear on party, adventure, and campaign goals.
A lot depends on your campaign premise.
I’d run an amnesia start different from a divine quest beginning, for example.
During Session #1 players need help more in transitioning between encounters than sessions.
So focus on that.
Put clear hooks in each encounter about choices on what to do next.
- Where can they go?
- What’s interesting in those places?
- What are some rewards they could pursue?
- What can they do to get those rewards?
I’ll use lots of temporary “burner” hooks to get players from one encounter to the next.
End the session with everyone in agreement on what they’ll do now so you can plan the first encounter of Session #2 with confidence.
Use in-between session time to work Character Origin Stories and the Party Origin Story into side plots, personal character goals, and overall campaign integration.
This helps you create a clear path forward to get players excited about the next session.
Different people have different backgrounds.
So we can’t expect everyone to be on the same page in regards to gaming etiquette.
I try to establish myself as a friendly facilitator and referee from the outset so people can relax, knowing a gentle guide will help them navigate the unknown waters of group dynamics
Avoid pointing fingers when an issue arises.
Instead, turn the issue into a separate object or concept not related to the person who triggered the issue.
This way, you can all discuss what’s there in the middle of the table without making it personal.
This helps keep defenses down and openness up.
For example, I had one player who would interrupt others a lot.
If memory serves, during a game when I’d had enough I said something like:
Oh hey, that reminds me.
Something I like to do is move the spotlight around to each of you, so you all have equal time to have your character do stuff.
If possible, when it’s not your turn, listen attentively, research the rules, or have a quiet side chat.
This lets the spotlight player and I hear each other, focus, and efficiently get things done so we can smoothly move to the next victim, er, person.
Rather than call the player out, I raised it as a neutral situation.
Tuned-in players will connect the dots. But they’ll also see how I’m trying to not escalate things and they’ll comply to keep co-facilitating the fun.
Trickier and more personal stuff you can handle between sessions.
Over time, the group will eventually normalize and form their own set of unwritten table manners.
The trap to avoid is being inconsistent.
If we don’t set the expectation of dealing with problems in the open, then when you suddenly react to rude behavior it’ll feel like you’re being arbitrary. It’ll feel like you’re targeting the offender.
But if you be the parent as required, things like table manners soon fall into place via healthy group experiences and consensus.
Play As Much As Possible
As mentioned, I try to kick-off gameplay right away.
This gets people into a comfort zone quickly.
It also helps players orient themselves with you, their fellow players, the other characters, the system, and your campaign.
After introductions, pregens, and setting up the current situation, I’ll open things up for players to state their actions and ask questions.
However, the Current Situation story I tell always builds up to an in medias res encounter.
Meaning, I start in the middle of a situation to further jump players into the game.
In my D&D Day session, I had the players waking up on a beach, survivors of a shipwreck.
Locals from a nearby keep had descended to the sea with food, water, and blankets to help the characters, other ship passengers, and ship crew.
This got players roleplaying right away. And it had them dealing with a situation that offered lots of common sense choices. (e.g., You didn’t need to be an experienced player to figure out what to do.)
The locals introduced themselves and answered the players’ questions. (By not providing much backstory or information up front, this prompted players to ask Qs to orient themselves, which further helped get them into the game faster and in-character better.)
At session end, ask players for feedback.
- What did you think of the game?
- What did you like most?
- What would you like to see more of?
- What would you like to see less of?
- Next game is [Date]. Can you make it?
Spend the last few minutes of the session asking for a group discussion on how things went.
Set a timer if needed so you carve out some post-play chat time.
Keep the chat informal and take notes.
We are always learning how to improve our craft.
Player feedback can help that a lot, plus help everyone have more fun at every game.
And you set the expectation of doing a retrospective and soliciting player feedback each game. Without this habit, it will be tougher getting meaningful feedback from your group ongoing.
What Are Your Session 0 Tips?
These are the main things I focus on to make the first session a success:
- Help players get to know each other and feel comfortable
- Players like their characters and understand how to navigate their character sheets
- Players understand how the party got together and why
- The group is clear in each encounter and at session end what to do next
- Players have a shared expectation on table behavior
- Play the game for as much of the session as possible
How about you? What Session 0 tips do you have to help RF out?
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