This is Part 2 of a guest post by TT reader bignose (Ben Finney). In Part 1, Ben covered prep and what happened during the game; now it’s on to what he’d do differently, what worked well and the resources he used. Thanks, Ben!
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Things I’d do differently next time I need to introduce GURPS and/or role-playing to a new group:

• Try to get the players together to discuss it, rather than trying in one-on-one meetings to garner interest. This was constrained by mismatched schedules, but it was a significant (months-long) delay to have to discuss things pre-game with everyone individually.

• I’d try hard to get together for a dinner or something and spend time discussing with all of them, to keep the interest alive. I lost a couple of potential players because it was simply too long between when I got their interest and when I said we were ready to set a date.

• Try to find a group of all newbies. While the players worked well together, the fact that one of them had RPG experience meant the tendency was for them to defer to him for ideas. I had to work hard to get ideas from the newbie players, and perhaps would find it easier if there wasn’t a clearly dominant player.

• Choose an even simpler adventure. “Time of the Tyrants” was great fun, but it really needs two or three sessions to do it justice, especially with a group learning how to play. We crammed it into seven hours, which was draining on all concerned. They won their victory fair and square, but I had to strip the ending down a lot to get to the resolution.

• Have at least one large map ready for a full-blown combat, even if I don’t use tactical combat rules (which I wouldn’t do with a new group in any case). Simply being able to see relative positions of situations was very important, simply for helping the new players keep track of what was going on. A scribbled pencil map, and using dice for miniatures, was sufficient, but would have been better with simple figures and a prepared map.

• Use a table big enough to have the GM screen off to one side, so that I’ve got somewhere to keep all my notes accessible but hidden, but don’t have a barrier separating me from the players. Moving it as far to one side as I could on the small table was nevertheless a big improvement in getting the players’ attention and involvement.

• Drink and eat stuff without so much sugar in it. Crashing from asugar high several hours into a session isn’t good for the momentum.

Things that worked great, and will be repeated:

• Using GURPS. The fact that its core mechanics are simple, can be essentially explained in a minute, and that it encourages as much up-front calculation as possible to allow pre-figured quantities to be used in play, meant that I could do all my preparation work and run from compact index cards for everything without extensive referral to the rule books.

GURPS was also useful in its flexibility and descriptiveness. The players were able to guess what most of their abilities meant, once they knew where to look, because they’re named by what they do for the most part. The adventure chosen involved time travel, 1930s pulp heroes, ultra-tech bad guys, and dinosaurs; the consistent handling of all this by GURPS meant that they never got tripped up by weirdness in the rules, and were able to explore any conceivable option and have me quickly describe a playable game mechanic for it.

• I converted all GURPS statistics and mechanics to use SI (metric) units, since we don’t live in the USA. This was invisible to the players — they never knew it was any other way — but it made things much smoother, as they were able to understand measurements without needing to convert them all the time in their head.

• Stripping back the rules, and fudging results to keep the story moving. During initial discussion about game style, all the players were concerned about any exciting scenes slowing down and devolving into arcane rules discussions — the experienced roleplayer because that’s what his previous games had been like, and the newbies because that’s the stereotypical image. Keeping it light meant that I could hand each player as much game-mechanic involvement as they wanted, and fudge the rest.

• Using a one-shot adventure with disposable, GM-created characters. Their first session isn’t the time to be getting the players into long abstract discussion of how abilities will work in play, before actually playing a game. The characters they play will be useful for inspiring them, but they shouldn’t be tied to their initial character choices until they have some play experience.

The introductory adventure should also be playable in a single session; getting the rush of a complete adventure with aresolution is a big motivator to wanting to play some more.

• Making a variety of brief flavour material available in summary form to the players about their characters, and just as importantly, making it clear that it was all optional — they were to come up with their own characterisation using the material as inspiration, not doctrine. They were empowered by this, and made great use of their characters right off the bat.

It also got them immediately interested in “fixing” what I had done with the characters by making their own next time — just what I wanted.

• Starting with action straight away, as a way to get the players immediately using the game mechanics to learn by example. The fact that I gave no plot introduction until after this scene was over worked in my favour here: the players had no information to work with except their characters’ immediate situation, so they were free to make quick decisions about what to do without considering what this meant for the plot.

It was also obvious to them that I wouldn’t let any of the player characters get removed from play without first understanding what the hell the story was; but it was also clear that they didn’t yet know quite what the consequences would be, so they made their decisions earnestly, and learned quickly.

• The bait-and-switch. I can’t take credit for this, it’s part of the adventure as written: a trip back to the Cretaceous to photograph dinosaurs turns out to have a totally different purpose when they discover what’s waiting for them there. Done right, in a way that doesn’t make the players complain “This isn’t what we signed up for,” it gives the players a sense of discovery and surprise, and they feel like they’re also in control of the goals: they choose to abandon or de-emphasise their initial goal in favour of pursuing the more important one.

It does need a decent initial hook though. It was clear that “You go back in time to photograph dinosaurs” didn’t have much appeal for the newbie players; it was only with the “… and, of course, something goes horribly wrong and you have an even bigger adventure” that I managed to get them to agree, without revealing what the twist was. When it was over, of course, they thanked me for the plot twist; but if I had to do it again, I’d make the initial hook something more appealing.

• Shredding a linear plot into component scenes, and creating hooks for each scene to progress the story without dictating what the next scene must be. I was able to spin a consistent story that went wherever the players wanted, and while many of the scenes went unused, I was glad to have all of them there as material to immediately draw on for progressing the story.

• Describing scenes, locations, characters, and creatures using suggestive bullet-point phrases in the formal descriptive structures shown above, rather than blocks of prose with mostly abstract or visual description. This was a gold mine of creative inspiration during play; rather than confused looks and distracted players, I had them hanging on my words as I talked about sounds, smells, temperature, textures, and insignificant but evocative details.

I was also able to pick and choose how to characterise NPCs based on their external descriptions using many facets, which naturally involved the players in interacting with them rather than waiting for a description to be fed to them.

• A big climactic conflict or combat scene. Keeping the rules simple meant all the players were itching to test their capabilities against the bad guys, and this was definitely the high point of the adventure for everyone — not least because it proceeded at a faster pace than any other combat I’ve run. 🙂 This pace allowed me to spend more time on colourful descriptions of actions, sparking off the ideas the players expressed before and during the combat.

• Pictures, props, and anything else to look at or handle. The focus and ideas this gave to the players made them immediately more a part of the environment, and made them react far more as their characters might. When describing how nasty a dinosaur’s claws were, they weren’t thinking impassively in terms of game statistics: they were looking at the actual claws, and reacting viscerally to it as their characters would.

This game was a blast for me to run, even though I’m exhausted as I write this. I got a lot of help online from discussions and articles, and I hope that this write-up can help some future GM plan a successful introductory role-playing session for a group of newbies, using GURPS or any other simple, flexible system.

Thanks for reading this far, and good luck in your gaming!
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When Ben emailed me his post, he mentioned that he’d drawn on a variety of resources on TT and elsewhere in prepping for this session. Intrigued, I asked if he’d mind telling me which ones, and he did:

Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, by Robin D. Laws, helped me to be open to the kinds of play style I could expect.

• Articles all over, including TT, that urge the GM to give up on total control and let player responses become a first-class element in steering the plot.

Lead With the Cool Stuff, which encourages putting good stuff early rather than saving it all for the climax, inspired me to start the story with a punch rather than exposition.

• More generally, discussions about making RPGs play less like novels, and more like TV and movies, were very helpful. (The TT post How Your Players See NPCs, and a Bad Metaphor addresses this.)

• I read a bunch of articles about literature organisation as applied to RPG preparation, many of which were at TT. (I’m drawing a blank here. Any ideas?)

• The extensive discussions about creating concise index cards at TT gave me the confidence to put most of my effort into that form: Tools of the Trade: Index Cards, Use Index Cards and a Cork Board for Game Prep, A Variety of Ways to Use Cards for GMing and A Template for Writing Location Descriptions.)