The Session Checklist: Ingredients To A Successful Game Session – Part I
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #198
When I’m bored, going to sleep, commuting, standing in line, or walking around, my thoughts often drive straight to some roleplaying topic. Frequently, I ponder “the perfect game session.” I try to envisage in great detail just exactly what a perfect GMing performance would be. As I can’t control the players, their behaviour, or their PCs’ actions, I focus only on the GMing aspect of my imaginary game session.
It’s a tough task, in many ways. Try it yourself. I often catch myself thinking about the effects of a good GMing performance, such as cheering players and mutilated PCs (just kidding!), and not what I’d be doing to achieve those effects. I’m getting better at it though, and some day I’ll have it all figured out.
One thing that has spawned from all this pondering, and from watching too many Mastercard commercials, is a checklist of game session elements that I feel would lead to a priceless game session. Part one of my list is below. Feel free to send me yours!
A Quick Start
I feel quick session starts are critical to a good campaign. They’re like a bucket of cold water dumped over your head– everybody is immediately brought to focus on the game at hand. A quick start carves out more game-play time as well, which is important if you have a lot planned for a session.
Personally, I’m bad with slow session starts. I often wait till the players arrive before pulling out my books and notes, clearing the game table off, setting up the battlemap and figs, chit chatting for a bit, and so on. However, I have managed to create many, many quick session starts over the years and I’m convinced it’s a key ingredient to a perfect game session.
There’s something thrilling about drawing a clear line between the real world and entering game play. Slowly gearing up, with some conversations about the day at work mingled with in-character parleys between eager players muddied with some GM questions and comments, creates a blurry experience that just isn’t as satisfying.
For example, imagine you’re at the movie theatre and the flick starts. Only, the curtain is still down, the lights are bright, and people are still talking. A couple of minutes later, the curtain opens halfway. Then it gets quieter, though the people behind you are still making jokes and dribbling pop out their noses. Then half the lights dim and employees walk down the isles yelling about peanuts for sale. Meanwhile, the movie is still playing.
I feel a slow session start, while not as extreme as this example, has the same effect of diluting the game experience.
Here are a few ways you can start sessions crisply, for full effect and GMing benefits:
- Start with a conflict
Depending on your game style, this can mean a battle, a parley with NPCs, a chase scene, or an intra-party clash. There are lots of conflict possibilities, and the key is to get the players immersed right away in some kind of struggle or competition that their PCs are taking part in.
- Involve all the PCs
Avoid the urge to start a session with side-room conversations, split parties, or one-on-ones. Try to begin with an encounter or event that all the PCs can participate in. Ending sessions with a united party and handling individual PC and player issues between games are good ways to enable a united group session start.
- Have the players arrive early
You probably have a good feel for how long it takes your group to settle down, order food, and get ready for play. Start your session early by this amount of time so you can begin on cue. This might be a good time to have those one- on-ones as well, but it starts to blur the line about session starts, so beware. Maybe do them away from the game table.
If you can’t have players arriving early, then resist the urge to start game play before everyone is ready. For example, if you know your group needs 30 minutes to set-up and get idle chit chat out of the way, and if your game starts at 7, then mentally mark 7:30 as the session start time and don’t try to force the players into beginning when they’re not set yet.
- Slam a book on the table
Mind you, don’t do this out of anger. It also doesn’t have to require the hardest slam you can make. A simple slap of book cover to pine will get attention and alert the players you’re officially beginning the session. If you do this every session, then it also becomes symbolic to session starts and a fun ritual. However, do not expect every player to catch on and read your mind that the book slam means “please be quiet and attentive, we’re starting.” Some people will catch on immediately while others might need some explanation. Be flexible.
- Roll dice
Accompanied with an evil chuckle, a visible wince, or a “holy crap!”, a dice roll often gets player attention. A good variant of this session starter is dumping all your dice on the table resulting in a pleasant cacophony and signifying you’re ready and primed to play.
- Dim the lights, start the music
Borrowing from the movie theatre experience, change the game environment as a sign that things are about to begin.
- Make an announcement
Often, the direct approach works best. Avoid the “shut-up, we’re starting” type of announcement though.
Keep in mind that people come in all shapes and sizes. Some might be less organized than others and can’t suddenly enter game mode. Others, who’ve come for the social aspect, might get offended if they’re expected to stop all conversation for the sake of game play. You know your players best, so do whatever you can to provide a solid game start without upsetting anyone.
One Shining Moment For Every Player And PC
It’s important that you try to provide each player and their character a great gaming instant every session. Regardless of whether a player is the silent type, there to be with friends, new or a veteran, young or old, a spotlight of success is always thrilling and immensely satisfying.Note for the sadistic GMs, the shining moment should be one of player and PC success, not horrible failure. ?
In addition, my feeling is that critical dice rolls do not qualify as shining moments. A dice roll is something that would happen whether the player was there or not. A player can’t control what a dice rolls either, so a wonderful dice roll is too indiscriminate and impersonal a celebration to qualify.
You want to send a message that says thanks for attending, I’m really glad you’re here, good game play, great idea! You want players to be glad they showed up and to enjoy the game. You also want to thank and reward them for choosing roleplaying over other forms of entertainment. If everybody showed up wanting to play board games or video games then you’d be quite disappointed.
Roleplaying allows for a unique form of shining moment. Firstly, you can reward the player and their character as a team. Other forms of entertainment usually don’t allow such a tangible form of personal expression and manifestation of imagination as running a PC does. Second, you reward a player in front of their peers. Definitely a good feeling. Third, you have a position of authority, being GM, and your praise or approval has just that extra bit of impact. You demonstrate your praise and approval by letting a character have a shining moment.
Ways to create shining moments:
If a player puts extra effort into a performance, plan, or series of actions, then disregard your dice rolls and let them succeed. Let them succeed well.
- Celebrate the moment
Keep an eye out for a good success during the game and pause to celebrate. Often, successes last only as long as a player can keep your attention or until the next round of combat starts.
- Add detail
Learn to recognize when the seed of a shining instant has been planted and start injecting detail into it until it blooms into a full-fledged gaming moment.
For example, if a player tries to trip his foe and succeeds, you could supply extra details about the foe falling down and being humiliated in front of his fellow combatants. You could describe the hatred mixed with a new glint of fear in the foe’s eyes. And you could allow the player to hurl down insults and challenges even though their turn might technically be over. You could also describe how the rest of the combatants fighting the other PCs start to guard themselves against the humiliating trip attack (even though no rules-related effect might result–the description is enough).
- Consider consequences
Another way to create a shining moment is to enhance the consequences of a good action. For example, if a player does a good acting job during a chat with an investigation suspect, then you might have other NPCs come over and congratulate the PC on his cleverness, or let him know they now think the NPC is a suspect as well. “I was so swayed by your words that I will avail to tell my lord to watch out for that scoundrel.” Or you might divulge an extra clue, reveal some more of the plot, or grant some kind of group- wide boon directly because of the player’s good play.
After the dice rolling and game effects have been calculated, you can turn a situation into a shining moment by recapping the whole scene in a brief narrative, focusing the point of view on the PC. This is a wonderful technique because it rewards the player, adds the story element back into a session that might be getting technical, and lets you reinforce any information you feel the group might have missed or glossed over.
- Player recap
This is similar to a GM recap, but the player summarizes the whole scene or recent events. This definitely puts the spotlight on the player during his narrative; lets him pick his own words, point of view, and take on what just happened; and gives him a taste of GM control, which, of course, is always pleasurable.
“Great work George. Take a moment to describe what just happened from your character’s point of view.”
One Shining Moment For The GM
Just as the players will feel well rewarded after their shining instant, you should allow yourself to bask in the occasional glory as well. This is a moment where you say to yourself, “Yeah, that was some damn good GMing. All those dreadful hours reading that windbag’s weekly ezine has finally paid off!”This should be a private moment, though there are some occasions when strutting around the table doing the chicken dance and yelling out your virtues are appropriate.
I’ll let you be the judge of just what those occasions might be.Some GMs, especially new ones, beat themselves up over misperceived poor game play. While we will all make mistakes, by learning to recognize and celebrate your own successes you’ll feel better about your GMing (and rightly so!). This also helps you learn faster because duplicating things that are done well is just as important as avoiding repeat mistakes.
GMing moments of success to keep an eye out for and acknowledge:
- Every player is attentive and engrossed in game play.
- There’s great emotion at the game table (i.e. cheering when a villain’s lieutenant is defeated, celebration of figuring out a puzzle, laughter during an NPC parley).
- A combat goes quickly and smoothly.
- You catch your players and their PCs by surprise.
- As the session nears its end, the players ask to keep going.
Can you think of other examples that we GMs should celebrate as shining moments? Send them to me and I’ll assemble a big list. Thanks!
One Cool Reward For Each PC
It’s important for each character sheet to be updated in at least one cool way each session. This is guaranteed to appeal to gamer types and wargamer types, but I feel every player appreciates an upgrade, new magic item, reduced flaw, enhanced ability, additional personality trait, secret revealed, or raised stat score.Behind the scenes though, this is a great technique for keeping your campaigns fresh, exciting, and entertaining.
If you have five players, for example, and each receives one cool reward each session, then that would amount to fifty rewards after just ten sessions! And if you follow previous issues’ tips about linking plot hooks, character development, and world and campaign development to your rewards, then you suddenly have a powerful game engine and GMing tool.
One Plot Thread Measurably Advanced
It doesn’t matter if your GMing style puts the story at the forefront or whether you let the story get told in initiative order, it’s important that it advances every game session.Imagine a campaign that takes places in a 20? x 20? room. Food magically appears in the form of random monsters that the PCs get to fight. The monsters leave behind magic items and other loot, and the PCs use it all to fight bigger and tougher foes as they appear.
Finally, the campaign ends when the GM rolls up a tarrasque, the monster-of-all-monsters, on his random chart.If that kind of campaign appeals to you and satisfies your players, then no problem, skip to the next tip. Otherwise, even if you’re not a plot oriented GM, some story must get told to provide a pleasurable gaming experience. It’s plot that links together NPCs, treasure, quests, and PC advancement. It’s story that provides meaning to the dice rolls.
It’s plot that explains why the PCs struggle against the odds each game session.Unless you play every day and can thus let stories get told very slowly, you’ll need to ensure that at least one of your plot threads advances each session. The advancement must be measurable (i.e. noticed) by the players as well. It doesn’t do any good if a plot is advancing in secret because your players will be bored or frustrated at the lack of perceived progress.
Read the remaining five items on my checklist.
Ingredients To A Successful Game Session, Part II
Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
Dual Plot Campaigns
From Bart D.
After reading the excellent article in issue 196 about stalling, I started thinking about how I dealt with this often reoccurring problem (those damned players never do what you expect them to do :-)). In many of my campaigns I used what I call a dual active-passive plot line.
The first plot line is the active player controlled plot. Most of the time this involves a mission (save the Queen, kill the dragon, toss a ring in Mount Doom, etc.) for which the GM provides adversaries, plot twists, but in which the players have a dominant role to play. They will state the tactics to be used and (for a large part) the pacing. This is also the most important plot line and covers more than 90% of your game.
The second plot line is a passive one in which the GM holds the strings. For instance, in one of my campaigns this involved a long lost brother of one of the players who had not only turned to the evil camp but had a deep grudge against the player-brother and was set out to kill him. The GM controls what small bits of information about these events reach the player and when the NPCs behind this plot start messing around with the players. The actions of the players have little effect on the development of this plot.
The trick is to use the passive plot line when your main active plot needs stalling. For instance, your party enters a town to ask advice from a powerful wizard but you haven’t figured out yet what this NPC can or should say. So, you need to stall. In comes the passive plot. Suddenly, the local guards arrest the player (with the lost brother) on the accusation of murder since a witness has recognized him as the villain.
The rest of the session the players will run around trying to prove that he didn’t do anything or even bust their friend out of jail and forget about meeting the NPC altogether. The real villain was of course the brother but little do they know (for now). This is just like the side plot option in issue 196 but with the advantage of having a consistent story line coming back and back again, giving the players a sense of realism (there are other things happening in the world besides our mission), mystery, and in the end even paranoia (is the NPC a nice guy or another of my brother’s associates?).
One has to be careful though on what info you give the players if you don’t want them to drop their major mission objective, which you might have prepared for months, to pursue the side plot. Give them enough info to realize what is going on but not enough workable info to do something about it :). In other words, build in lots of dead ends and use the side plot sparingly. Never forget that your active plot line is the main objective.
From Robert FV
Ever read Stephen King? Ever see Dark Shadows?
Even if you’re not looking for Gothic monster/mystery type stuff, you can still draw off the ideas. A closed, isolated community is *always* full of secrets, if nothing more than what locals are being unfaithful to their spouses and what town official is a drunkard/womanizer/demonizer.
A closed community is great for in-depth roleplaying. Create a handful of NPCs that the PCs will have regular contact with. Barmaid, innkeeper, shopkeeper, mayor, sheriff, scruffy kid.
How do the local authorities feel about having these strangers locked in their town for 3 months, especially since they’re adventurers (which could have either good or bad connotations to these people)? Will they warn the PCs to stay out of trouble? Will they come to the PCs to help find a lost child? Or will they refuse to let the PCs help find the child for fear of what ELSE the PCs might stumble into?
Populate the dangerous wilderness areas. What are the local legends and monsters? Which legends are accurate and which aren’t?
Every small community needs a “mad hermit” who lives just outside of town. Is he/she really mad? Either way, he’ll eventually be a source of help for the PCs. Or maybe not. Maybe he needs something from the PCs to help lift a curse over the town?
Annual festivals and traditions are also important to these communities. Particularly if you’re playing a dark and scary game. See Lovecraft’s “The Festival”.
Depending on what you have in mind for the community’s overall personality, there is a lot you can do. Have fun. Last night I watched “Arsenic and Old Lace” for the first time. That family, and the movie itself, would be a must in my small town…
Don’t forget some comic relief. How about Deputy Barney Fife?
What’s “odd” about the town? Do they forbid the presence of cats? Why? What about those strange looking “decorations” hanging over the entrance to every building? Are they protective wards, or just the current fad?
Make The Encounter Random, Not The Reward
From Marcus Clay
This is not only a personal peeve for me as a player, but something I got fed up with myself for doing as a DM…rolling the treasure after the encounter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled up a nice weapon or magic item only to realize that had the encounter had such an item the outcome of the battle would have been more uncertain.
Not only does taking the few extra minutes to pre-roll give you an idea ahead of time of what the PCs can scrounge off the bodies, but it also can lead you to fulfilling one of the other recommendations listed before for Random Encounters…answering the question “Why?”. Why would a pack of boars have a magical weapon in their treasure?
As a quick sidetrack here, not all of what is rolled up to be in the treasure hoard has to actually be in the treasure hoard. Instead of a Longsword +2, it could be a boar tusk +2, leading the party to want to discover how a boar could have one magical tusk. The search could help lead the party to a mad alchemist grafting magical items to animals, and the experiments that proved successful are sent out to find other adventurers with magic items, etc. This also allows characters that have unique weapons/armor/magic items the chance to find a magical version of THEIR weapon. Not everyone carries a longsword.
Thorns And Roses
From Andrew P.
One thing I find has worked very well in my roleplaying is to do “thorns and roses.” This is where every single player (and GM) states something good and bad about the game. I got the idea from boy scouts, and have used it routinely for several years now. This allows everyone to see what people want and don’t want from the game. It has helped out our current campaign immensely, allowing two of us to see how destructive our side-talk is without there being a nasty fight about it.
Equipment Tips From d20 Modern
From Callan Sweet
I’d like to add some points in regards to issue #192.
Some of the ideas in that issue are very similar to concepts in D20 modern. In it there’s an “on hand” rule. i.e. you might not have a flashlight written down on your character sheet, but if the GM okays it you can make a roll (which takes your wealth into account) and perhaps pull one out of the trunk of their car, or maybe have a key chain torch, or whatever.
Also, wealth is abstracted. Instead of exact monetary amounts it’s just a score. For items with a purchase difficulty class equal to or under your wealth score you can just buy it, with out having to note down any change to the wealth score. This makes buying the little stuff dead simple, and whatever you forgot you’ve got a chance of rolling for it with the on hand check.
Though some GMs look down on this as their players could buy a million first aid kits (or other cheap things) and it wouldn’t affect their wealth score (although it does eat up lots of time). Personally, I think if players want to emulate obsessive compulsive collecting behaviour in their PC that’s fine, because some people in real life are like that. Though they aren’t as cool as most heroes should be!
I like to think of these ideas as “cinematic money”. It gets players’ eyes out of their PCs’ wallet and onto the issues at hand. However, it probably has more of a place, setting wise, in modern games. Using it in a fantasy game does change the style of game somewhat. However, one has to balance out how often missing the right gear at the right moment had a good impact vs. a frustrating one. If it’s more often frustrating to the group, it might be an option to take. In the end, less bookkeeping means more of other things, perhaps more exciting things, in your game.
Sci-Fi Race Idea
Hello there. Just wanted to point out one thing I remember from my gaming group is when I placed a very high-tech race that did not need to fight because of its vastly superior technology. No one knew what they looked like (always in ships or battle armor when met), and unknown to my players, the PCs landed on a colony world of these people. Well, this race lived in trees, small grass huts, and in caves while planet-bound (seeking not to forget where they came from).
So, the players are walking around in their armor and meet a bunch of seeming savages who are very peaceful. Many events happen and the PCs decide this planet would make a excellent addition to The Empire of Man, so they decided to call back to base. However, their com breaks down, their engines won’t start, and other things won’t work. And no one suspects the natives =).
In the end, I let the PCs leave, but as they depart their ship is caught in an ion storm and all memory banks of their visit are scrambled. As they’re drifting through space I let the one guy who thought they should leave the people alone catch a glimpse of one of the native’s high-tech ships slowly fading away into the blackness of space once more.
It was really cool to have NPC race who could wipe out whole planets but used stone tipped spears to hunt =).