The Question: When you’re starting up a new campaign, how do you go about creating the first session? I’ve never had a knack for this myself, unfortunately. I don’t think there’s a magical formula for a great first session, but I’d love to be proved wrong!
I usually try to combine three elements: enough setup to carry the party into the next few sessions, enough introductory stuff to give my players a sense of all of the PCs in the party and at least one good action scene, usually fairly early on. This seems to me to be a fairly workmanlike approach — serviceable, but not nearly as good as it could be.
Do you have a formula you’ve used across multiple systems or genres? Do you vary your approach by campaign — and if so, are there any elements you don’t vary?
The PDF: I’d like to do something a bit different with this discussion post: use your answers to create a PDF about different approaches to crafting the first session of a campaign — along the lines of how Have You Ever Kicked Out a Player? led to How to Kick Out a Player and Respect Yourself in the Morning (one of TT’s top 25 posts). Maybe it’ll work, maybe not — but there’s only one way to find out, right?
By commenting on this post, you grant me the unlimited, non-exclusive right to use your comment (verbatim or conceptually) in a free Treasure Tables PDF on this topic. Please let me know how you would like to be credited in the finished PDF. If you prefer not to have your comment incorporated into a PDF, just let me know in your comment.
As suggested in the memorable Star Wars RPG from WEG, I provide the characters to the players in advance and put them in media res. That puts them in the track and motivates the group.
Since my campaigns tend to have story arcs, I usually treat my first session (and first adventure) as a “pilot.”
With a pilot, I look to establish the following:
1. Tone. If the campaign is gritty fantasy, then the first session must feel gritty. If it’s a James Bondian campaign, then the first session will start in media res, with the PCs (already a team) at the climax of a previous mission, with lots of conflict and hair-raising stunts and escapes. A four-color superhero campaign would start with a crisis (airplane in trouble, dam bursting, minor supervillain attack, bank robbery) with the PCs bursting in on the scene.
2. Establish characters. The PCs should be highlighted and primary character subplots launched.
3. Self-contained. The pilot needs to be self-contained, to give the players a quick idea of the campaign’s tone and flavor. It also gives them a sense of accomplishment early on. (And if the players decide that they don’t like the campaign and want to do something else, at least an adventure was completed).
4. Big Bad influence. If there’s a story arc Big Bad, then the PCs should either cross swords with him or feel his influence in the pilot.
5. Reworking. This actually happens after the pilot. Based on how the pilot ran, I may adjust things for the rest of the campaign based on what worked and what didn’t. This goes for PCs as well. Subplots can be dropped or added, character sheets modified, or, in some cases, replaced with new characters.
Walt’s approach and mine are pretty much identical. I look at a campaign as a series, and the first adventure is the pilot. Pilots have a formula that establishes the characters (both heroes and villians), sets the overall tone of the series, solidifies the rules of the series (i.e. – in the series 24 one of the rules is that the entire series season takes place in one day), and the pilot should have unresolved issues as a hook to draw people into the series.
I also agree that the pilot’s adventure should be self-contained, but it better lead to a series hook. If the party catches the evil mayor at the end of the pilot, they should then discover the letter from the Governor that may be proof of a larger conspiracy.
My best advice though is to “Pull out the Ninjas!” with that pilot adventure. Throw something fun, fast, and furious at the players. Just like a television pilot, you need something so spectacular that the audience says “Damn! I have to wait a whole week now to see more?”. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice some of the plot in exchange for big fun. If you can get that kind of reaction with the first adventure you are off to a great start.
If I get my preference, I have 3-6 first sessions, depending on how many players I have. If some players want their characters to be close companions before the game begins, however, that’ll bring down my number of first sessions. I really enjoy if I get to roleplay for an hour or two one-on-one with each player to start off a campaign.
First, we talk about their character and their character’s past, then I immediately throw them into an action scenario designed to be a breeze for someone with their specific abilities. Next, I establish their individual motives in the game world. If they’re seeking revenge, honour, wealth, or whatever, I start them down that path in the first session with a personal subplot that will stick around into the group sessions. Finally, the session culminates when they’re right where I want them in order to be meaningfully introduced to the other PCs in the first group session, and hopefully led there by their subplot.
I find a one-on-one does wonders for getting the players into their characters, and they love it too. It makes their characters feel like individuals to them, and and it makes them feel like they could do a one-on-one side-trek with me anytime as might naturally arise out of a living, breathing character.
An alternative beginning to the first session is to start in medius res. Instead of going around the table, asking the players where they are and what they are doing and then funneling them into a particular scenario, start with the scenario first thing.
Combat is probably the easiest thing to do. Something like:
“You are all in the market. A shout suddenly rings out and you see a drover slumped over, his draft horses going wild from the smell of blood and the bizarre creature he was transporting suddenly break out of its cage. What do you do?”
Ok, so, that needs a bit more detail, but you get the idea. It gives the players a chance to shine on their own and actually gives them a decent reason to meet each other.
VV_GM reminded me of a point I should clarify.
When I said “self-contained,” I didn’t mean that there shouldn’t be hooks to launch the story arcs. There definitely should be (just as VV_GM says), unless the campaign is intended to be episodic.
So I guess I’d take what VV_GM wrote and make it my Point 6. 🙂
Continuing with the pilot theme, I always prefer to “pitch” the campaign to my players beforehand. Also, it might be a “spin-off” from a previous campaign.
I prefer to have the players make their characters together, so I try to schedule enough time for the players to meet, if they haven’t before. I also prefer to begin the adventure immediately after PCs are done, allowing time for the players to introduce their PCs (and themselves, if need be) to the group.
The adventure should provide a hook for bringing a party together, in case the players don’t come up with one. (“So you’re all captured by slavers…”)
I try to structure the adventure so that new players will see the game mechanics illustrated over time, avoiding an info dump before play starts. I also try to limit the variety of challenges, owing to the fragile nature of new PCs in most RPGs, as well as a new player’s unfamiliarity with her PC’s capabilities. Still, the adventure should show what the PC -can- do, and not be boring to veteran players.
I also like the idea of recasting or other tweaks, but if the players didn’t like the pilot, then I simply don’t “greenlight” the series.
I’ve used several methods for a first session, even (pains me to admit it) the cliche bar meeting scene. I’ve even had new players steer my opening so that they meet and band together quickly.
But every really successful first adventure I’ve ever run has one thing in common. It puts the PC’s in a highly dramatic situation from the first word that I speak. Not necessarily in media res, because I don’t always give them any chance to actively do anything. An example of the PC’s being acted on, rather than acting themselves was an AD&D campaign that started with them being executed as pirates. But the ropes were deliberately left too long, and when the trapdoor opened, they fell all the way through to the ground. They were then informed that they were officially dead, and now secretly worked for the crown.
Another method is to put the PC’s in a situation so bizarre that they have to really think about how they’re going to react. Borrowing from Benjamin, I once started a Ravenloft campaign with a quick encounter for each player one on one. One by one, I took each player into a separate room, and afterwards, cautioned them not to say a word about what took place, until they had all had their turn. The encounters were all identical, and took place in a run-down hotel, deserted except for the skeletal servant that woke them from their moldy beds with a tray of rotted food and soured drink. After everyone had their session, they all discovered that they had the identical experience, but never saw each other inside the hotel. That was their introduction to Ravenloft.
The point, I guess, is that there should be an immediate sense of tension, and the players should have to start *thinking* in character right away, even if they’re not acting. (you can bet the players in that pirate campaign were trying to think of ways to escape the hangman!)
This is excellent stuff so far — we’re well on our way to having enough material for a solid PDF. Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far, and keep ’em coming! 🙂
(Amaril) Roleplaying Tips covered this very same topic in a downloadable supplement.
I hadn’t seen that before — thanks for the link! I’m aiming for something shorter and more unified with this PDF. As many great tips as there are in the RPT download, it’s long enough to keep some folks from reading it, IMO — and to be daunting to new GMs. I definitely see room for a different, TT-flavored take on this topic.
I tend to take the first session of a Campaign pretty light. The first session of a campaign is like the pilot to a TV show. When you look back on the TV shows you love, the pilot was never be as good the episodes that run after the show is established and the characters are fully developed. So why should my first session of a campaign be much different?
My goal is not to hook my players into a multi-year campaign on the first session. They just have to want to play again next week.
I do a few things before the first session that give me an idea of how I am going to write the first session.
First, I do a 20 questions with my characters so that I have a pretty good feel for who they are. This allows me to open their first scenes with them, doing something personal with their character. If a characters indicated they like to start the day with a horse ride, then that is a good start for their opening scene.
Second, I have the party agree if they know each other before the game starts. If they do, then I can start from there, if not I need to write how and why they meet.
The last thing I factor in, is how experienced we are with the rules. If we are playing another D&D game, then I can get right into some detailed encounters. But if this is our first game of Burning Empires, then I want the session pretty light, because we will be looking up rules and having to explain a lot of things during the session.
Taking all of that I have only a few objectives in the first session:
1. Introduce each player.
2. All players must have met each other by the end of the session.
3. The first story arc is started.
4. There is a combat.
The first two is to establish the players and get them comfortable with each other and into character.
The third is designed to get them excited about what is coming in future sessions.
The fourth is because combats are great places to work through the rules for newer games and, nothing like Combat focuses the players attention to the game.
If I can achieve those 4 things on the first session, then I can build from there.
One of these days, I’ll get around to running a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game that’s set in London in the 1970’s. I’ve got my pilot episode more or less worked out. The basics run along these lines:
– Definitely run group character creation, with the players giving me ideas about any particular niches that they want to fill.
– There’s a dream sequence that will lead into a major fight scene with all but one of the players temporarily playing bad guys.
– The (foreordained) result of the dream sequence leads to actions involving one of the other cast members
– And, from there, the cast members get tied together.
The theme of the first season for the show would be along the lines of learning about the supernatural and coming to terms with it — which the players would know up front.
I generally believe that your first session needs to have as many elements from your setting as possible while still remaining believable. These elements should be both what’s unique to your setting (ie, warforged in Eberron), and things that are just going to crop up a bit in the ongoing campaign (which is why you fight a lot of rogues with connections to pirates in Savage Tide).
The big reason, of course, is to showcase the setting, and to get the players in the right frame of mind. If you’re running a gothic horror game, and the first session involves fighting goblins, well, you’ve pretty much set the players in a typical “let’s play D&D!” mindset, as opposed to “scary things from beyond are trying to chew my face off!”.
You can’t just slop the elements on, though. If you were playing Eberron, and in the first adventure I fought a warforged artificer, dodged some living spells, had to escape from an airship that was on fire, and get into a crazy swordfight on the towers of Sharn (all the while getting involved in the draconic prophecy and accumulating Dragonshards), I think it might be a bit much. But then again, maybe not.
Really, I think it’s safer to just pick about three unique things to the setting to showcase in the first adventure – if we’re playing Dark Sun, I might throw the fact that wizards are outlawed at the party, along with maybe a mul or a half-giant, and, say, some Templars. Or severe dehydration.
My dad (not a great GM, but I liked this piece of advice) told me once that every first session, you should: a) Kill off a PC, b) Give another PC a +1 sword, and c) Make sure everyone that survives gains a level (and let the guy who lost a PC start there, too).
a) If you kill off a guy in the first session, you show the group that you mean business. It means they’re less likely to think that you’re fudging die rolls. And, by doing it now, when they’re not all that attached to the characters, you’re not risking having a player angry at you. In fact, if you play it right, you’ll have some laughter.
b) giving a PERMANENT magical item that has only limited value (a +1 longsword, while nifty, isn’t going to break the game) whets the players’ appetite for more. If you give away a bit of treasure in the first few encounters, you can be stingy later on – they know you’re willing to give out the goods, even if it turns out that you’re actually giving them far less than the DMG says you’re “supposed” to (I typically have the PCs meet those wealth requirements, but with a lot of one-use magical items).
c) If everyone gains a level at the end of a session, it ties them to the setting. Once you gain a level, you become more interested in that character, and you’re more likely to remain in the campaign.
The first session sets the tone.
If the players expect to see some action (i.e.: those gernes where “weapons” are the first consideration of inventory…) then I absolutely open with a fight. It’s action-flick canon for a reason.
Say what you will, but a combat is a great place to establish your character-under-fire.
It also earns you a good rep as a GM since even if the campaign fizzles at least the players got in on a good fight and didn’t have to sit through copious backstory on day 1. Save it for session 2 when people are interested in returning.
For the first couple of sessions of a supers campaign, I am planning on using a style called “Drive-In Hero” after a convention/tournament game that I read about (sorry, it was in a print magazine that has never been made available online). In this style, you separate the PCs and switch between them after short scenes, often ending with mini-cliffhangers. This keeps the players active, without having to wait for a long scene that they are not involved in, and also allows me to show them more of the world they are playing in (in small chunks) without using long-winded exposition. Think “The Towering Inferno,” or even, to some degree, “Heroes,” and you get the idea. You can even work short cut-scenes into this format.
Because the world’s backstory gives no reason for the PCs to know each other before the game starts, I will use this style to have them fight crime in the streets (and maybe see or hear about each other) while I build up to the larger threat that will cause them to have to work together.
Some of the worst first-session GM’ing I have ever seen was in a Rokugan game. The GM told us: “You are all in this place and these things are going on. Interact!” We all stared at him like deer in the headlights. What do you mean, interact? Do you just randomly start talking with strangers on the street? It is *creepy* when someone just spontaneously starts talking to you for no apparent reason. It’s 1000% worse when the people involved have swords and may KILL you if you offend them.
In your first session, your players are not ready to *act*, they are only ready to *react* to what happens around and to them. Give them some things to react to. In one of the best games I ever ran, I actually went so far as to print out first-session objectives for each of the characters. They were vague enough that they didn’t give the events away, but they told the players what things I expected them to react to.
In this game, for example, the characters were a middle-aged gypsy rogue, a mercenary scout, an old drunk fighter, the young son of a noble, and an incredibly ugly ranger. Their objectives were thus:
Gypsy: Find someone to help recover the wagon that broke down on the road.
Scout: Rescue a damsel in distress.
Fighter: Find work.
Young Noble: find something to do.
Ranger: Get out of this horrible town for a day.
Now, that’s a little simplistic and obvious and I’m sure others can do better. The best things you can get your players to react to is each other, but this isn’t going to happen spontaneously. You have to spark that by having them react to something else first.
My advice is simply to do what good books, plays, TV shows, etc. do. Introduce conflict. Plot *is* conflict. It can go from having a big fight (which is, indeed, a conflict) to giving them all different instructions for retrieving the same item.
I’ve found with experience that it is not a good idea to set up a situation in which the characters must all work together: it kills roleplaying right off the bat and makes your party into a homogenous mass. Instead, give them something to argue about and 2/3 of your session takes care of itself.
DNAPhil: This is kind of unrelated to the actual topic at hand, but your “Twenty Questions”…do you actually have a set twenty questions? If you do, and are willing to share, I’d love to see them.
Topic: As for the topic, I’m thirding Walt and VV_GM’s comments and approach. I think the comments made by Jennifer Snow are also very important.
In my most recent first session (check the blog for more details), I made the three unrelated characters the victims of an attack in an inn. Unsure of how to react, they began to bond together out of sheer confusion (The attackers were mistaken as to their identities).
What I like to do, unless I’m going to run a campaign were the characters are more than first level is do a solo sort of prologue or pilot for each of them to get them to the same general place. My GMing style is a little unusual as I don’t force characters to do the same thing if they don’t want to, this makes them a little more realistic.
Once I get them to the same place and we begin the first group session I start off with a quest that groups a bunch of people together by chance. An example of this is what I’m going in a current campaign set in a custom world.
Lions have come into the city and carried a child off, the council is gathering people together to make search parties to find and rescue or bring back the remains of the child.
This lets them meet under the pretense of chance and gives them a chance to interact as they try to help each other or follow along grudgingly just so the city doesn’t turn on them.
I haven’t started writing this PDF yet, so there’s still time to comment.
Thank you again to everyone who has contributed so far — this is going to be a fun project, and hopefully a useful freebie.