In the same vein as I Was a Virgin Convention GM and How I Lost My Play-by-Post Virginity comes Part 1 of this detailed after-action report on starting a group with new players, written by TT reader bignose (Ben Finney). Thanks, Ben!
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After talking with some friends about getting a role-playing group started, and gathering a small group of interested players, I planned an adventure to introduce them all to the game and find out their play styles.

The adventure was run today, in a single afternoon; it was proclaimed a success. I thought I’d write this message to share some details of how it worked out to help others in a similar situation.

I used GURPS for this, and discuss some specifics in this text; but the bulk of it applies to anyone considering running an introductory session for players in any role-playing game system.

Asking among my friends I found many who weren’t interested, but eventually came up with a group of three players: one who had played many sessions of various games years ago, one who had played only a single adventure that didn’t go very well, and one who thought RPGs sounded geeky but was willing to try it out.

Through describing the proposed game and style to these people, I found that the approach that worked best was to emphasise the collective, participatory nature of it, and downplay my role as GM. I used the “collaborative story telling” phrase that I’ve heard elsewhere (from William H. Stoddard, but it probably didn’t originate with him); that seemed to best give people an idea of how the game would take place.

Though I had in mind a campaign in a space empire setting, I received consistent advice from that, for a new group of roleplayers, some of whom had very little experience, I should start off with a canned, one-shot adventure using characters that I made for the purpose.

I found some adventures that interested me, and presented one-sentence summaries of them to the players individually. The one that gained most interest was “Time of the Tyrants,” an adventure from Pyramid magazine. I prepped for that.

The adventure and rules were fairly familiar to me, but I only had a week to prepare; it was either that or wait for a month or more, and I wanted instead to get these people while the interest was still fresh.

I spent my time on the following preparation activities:

• Character generation, including complete, action-hero characters, but also including many aspects of the character’s personality, style, and outward appearance: things with zero game-rules effect, but which would be a source of creative material to help the players get into the role.

• Lots of 70×120 mm index cards with adventure information, some summarised from the adventure text but mostly written by me.

• One card for each scene, giving description of the scene, success result, failure result (both of which contain a way to proceed the story), and one thing that must happen somehow no matter how the scene plays out — i.e. the point of the scene in the story.

• One card for each physical location in the adventure that a scene might occur in. A few words for each of: space, light level, climate, dominant colours, sights, sounds, smells, and texture.

• One card for each NPC: one side giving a compact character sheet, and the other giving outward appearance: height, weight, age, features, face, dress, motion, voice, demeanour, and a typical quote.

• One card for each of the types of dinosaur (the adventure features lots of them), with just the character-sheet side filled in.

• One card for each PC, giving the outward-appearance information in the same format, and the other side giving background points, significant relations, and motivations.

• A single card giving recent events in the 1930s, to get the players quickly into the feel of the era. GURPS Cliffhangers was invaluable for this.

• A couple of cards giving weapon statistics for every weapon the PCs were likely to have.

• Photos and images for every creature, PC, NPC, and location. For the dinosaurs, I scanned my cards from the Dino Hunt card game, and freely substituted one dinosaur picture for a similar dinosaur description if I didn’t have a direct match. For the characters, I spent hours on IMDb getting actor portfolio photos. For locations, there is a lot of tagged photography on Flickr and Google Images.

One Page GURPS handout for every player: a quick summary of the game mechanics, and the meaning of the main points of interest for interpreting the character sheet.

This was all a lot of effort, but I felt that my main task was not to learn the text of the adventure as written, or design well-balanced, optimised characters. Instead, I took on the task of being ready for improvisation, coming up with quick answers and bullet-point descriptions with which to help the players understand what their characters were experiencing. I had to stop myself writing things in prose, and instead go for coverage of the material and breadth of sensory descriptions.

As a consequence, I did almost no embellishment of the adventure plot. Instead, the format I chose for locations, scenes, and character descriptions forced me to come up with many ways of describing each of them, rather than a lot of detailed prose on each one. The interesting effect I found was that having the structured format for these items meant that I was forced to be creative, ahead of time when I could afford to take several minutes to think of an answer, rather than not have that answer at all during play.

Being an introduction to role-playing for two of my players, I did decide to change the plot of the adventure in one way. Rather than start with “You have all been called together for blah blah blah, your mission is yak yak, how will you go about it”? — I took a cue from one of the PCs, to whom I had given the disadvantage of “Nightmares.”

I decided that the plot would begin with no introduction, instead immediately describing all the characters naked and running through a dark forest, pursued by a monster that turns out to be a dinosaur; and use the game mechanics to play out this scene however the players decided to react. Then, once the scene had take a few interesting points and required a few game mechanics to resolve, the character with Nightmares would wake up in a cold sweat, realising it was all a dream.

This turned out to be a great success. Having lunched with the players, handed over their characters, let them read about and to each other about who they were and what their backgrounds were, this sudden fight-or-flight scene with no explanation was an ideal way to snap them to attention and get them using the game mechanics in earnest. Maybe some players would be put off by such an introduction, but my players found it a fun, risk-free way to learn how the game would work — and also introduce the plot, because the nightmare led naturally into the “Here’s why you’re here” scene, which I described as a past event, leading to the nightmare as a result.

The rest of the adventure proceeded well from that point. Having got their attention, I was able to keep it by using several different senses of each location, several different external points of each character, and making sure to mix up which of these I would use for each one, so that the total effect was that the descriptions, while short, were very varied and easily memorable to the players.

Using the printed images and photos was also a great aid as well. Putting an image down and then describing the salient points of the location/character/creature meant that I didn’t have to name anything: the dinosaurs never got named, and the characters were often already well described before they got introduced by name. The players all thanked me for this help, giving them something to focus on and differentiate people and places as we charged through the adventure.

Running the game turned out to be more chaotic than I remembered from previous times; this was likely because of a longish hiatus in my GMing, but also because I had to explain the rules as we went along (the new players would never have stood by for a long rules introduction before play, so this was the only option for learning the game).

Here again, the preparation paid off: I had all the necessary game-mechanic details of equipment, locations, characters, and creatures in a box of index cards. Leafing through books happened a few times, but if I couldn’t find the answer in fifteen seconds, I fudged a result. No-one minded, because they were enjoying the steady pace of the story.

I was also able to avoid the impression of railroading the players by allowing them to choose how to proceed, and making sure the appropriate prepared scene happened in the places they chose to go. Both success and failure were defined for each scene, meaning that I knew how much to help the PCs or NPCs in the next scene, and also had a way of getting them there.

I asked the players afterward if they felt like they were in charge of the story and they gave a resounding affirmative. Having lots of immediately-understandable information and clear game mechanics with prompt answers from the GM meant they felt in control of their actions. Having interesting things happen relevant to the places they chose to go, it felt like they were the ones driving where the story went, which was of course true.

Everyone was excited by the idea of playing another, multi-session adventure next time. The newbie roleplayers had found their groove, and were encouraged by their introductory adventure that they asked me for access to the rules to make their own characters — a complete reversal of their attitudes before we played, where they said they didn’t want to do a whole lot of character preparation. This was, of course, the desired result: I’d showed them how the GURPS rules could be used to create interesting, detailed characters with directly-understandable effects on the game mechanics.
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Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow! In it, Ben discusses what went well, what didn’t go so well and what resources he used to help him run this game. Update: Here it is: Introducing RPGs to New Players, Part 2.