Ten tips for the opening campaign session

20 09 2009

If you’re lucky, your players will stick with you regardless of how the opening session goes.  Liken it to being an established author.  If your readers liked your other books, they’ll put up with a few pages of fluff to allow you to get into the story proper.

Beginning writers have no such margin for error, and even good writers will lose some readers this way.  Great writers know the importance of the opening chapter, the opening page and the opening line.

So here are ten tips that are essential for the novice GM and are certainly worth reading even for the established GM.

  1. Prepare the scenario thoroughly – even if you’re a wizard at GMing by the seat of your pants, you can never prepare enough.  Novice GMs never prepare as much as they need.   I’ve often seen a GM handle an early exchange flippantly and then find later they’ve completely mucked up a character’s story later in the adventure.  There will always be a PC that remembers that at the beginning of the first session, the barman said there hadn’t been a dragon sighted in ten years when the GM now states that nobody here believes in dragons. 
  2.  Drop in your plot hooks early on – they don’t have to be too heavy handed, but it’s always a good idea to drop a few clues early on (and a few red-herrings too).  When players uncover the plot, they’ll remember the hint at the beginning and it always seems cool (and makes them feel clever).
  3. Use prepared text if you have to, but if you can, go for the feel of the information in your own words – this way it will feel far less contrived.
  4. Try to get some role-playing in early – if at all possible, let the players feel their way into their characters before they have to roll any dice.  This will allow them to get into character better.
  5. If your party loves combat, give it to them – I appreciate this is the opposite to point 4. above, but don’t make the players do an hour of something they don’t enjoy.  Sometimes a low-level encounter is what gets the players in the groove.
  6. No plonking – never, never, never, never ever just put the characters in a tavern and leave them to it.  Good role-players will naturally decide there is no reason for their characters to interact and poor role-players will feel awkward interacting.  And furthermore, the group will always go in a direction you don’t expect.  At best you get a lot of awkward silence, at worst you end up with a bar brawl in which the key NPC with all of the vital information gets killed/insulted/pick-pocketed by the PCs.
  7. Gel the group yourself – linked to point 6. above, don’t expect the group to naturally fall into a unit.  Give them either a back-story (prior to the session) or give them a common task.  This is where preparation plays a big part. 
  8. Keep it positive – even when the players want to do something ridiculous.  Simply stating, ‘You can’t do that,’ shows you are at best unprepared and unable to improvise and at worst a railroading GM.  When the players want to do the unexpected, go with the flow in theory but divert them back to the task in hand with an event that stops them going off at a tangent.
  9. Remember the five senses – this should apply all the way through, but to hook players, utilise their five senses early.  Smells especially are an evocative way to get players into the scene.  If the smell is described as ‘like something, it also gets the players’ minds working out what the smell actually is.  This immerses them into the world.
  10. Engage all of the PCs – and this is especially true if the opening scene favours one PC over another.  Make sure the opening doesn’t play into the hands of one PC and make all of the others feel redundant – unless of course that is your intention. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list but, as stated before, even veteran GMs should take the time to review the list and make sure they follow the advice.  And it doesn’t just follow for the opening session of a campaign.  Most of the above are appropriate for the first ten to fifteen minutes of any session.

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One response

20 09 2009
seaofstarsrpg

Solid advice there. It can be hard to remember one or more of these points in the heat of the first session.

I am just about to the point of starting up a new campaign so good to be reminded of these things. Thanks.

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