Welcome to the third installment of The Gamemaster. This is where I’ve been documenting my sojourn back into gaming as a first time GM in the game of Pathfinder. To catch up on the series, go ahead and check this out, but they are by no means necessary to enjoy this column, but you may well find them informative. The first installment was about getting back in the swing of things and the second was about character back stories.
Today, I want to talk about the two different “first sessions” I ran and offer some perspective on how I’d do it again if I could.
In the very first session I played, I struggled to find a starting point that made sense. But I’d gone over all of the backstories with the players, collaborating on that process so I knew exactly why each character was connected. And I knew they were on a refugee trail from one city in the kingdom that had fallen to the enemy to a free city still loyal to the missing King. But walking along a road toward another city isn’t all that exciting. My hope was that the players would roleplay with each other, getting to know their characters. This is the point at which they’d been thrown in together. Two characters were already part of a group that wanted to become the resistance and the others had globbed onto the group because they’d helped get them out of the city.
When it became apparent they weren’t exactly interested in roleplaying and the opening scene stagnated, I improvised.
Scouts of the enemy, running the opposite direction with a message, arrived.
A battle ensued and it set the pace for the rest of the session for the players. Everything went smoothly from there, but I knew that their characters interacting with each other was less important to them than interacting with me, with non-player characters, and the battle in front of them.
It was certainly not what I expected, but as I said before, this group was a lot more interested in combat as a strategy game than roleplaying. But having warmed them up with the combat, they warmed up to the roleplaying later in the session and it got to be great fun.
Word spread among a couple of the players after that and an entirely different group heard about my game and wanted me to GM another campaign with them. I agreed and I set out to carve out a completely different piece of the world I created for these new characters to inhabit. They figured out what sort of characters they wanted to play, we collaborated on the backgrounds of the characters and we were ready to play.
That’s when I asked if I could do something a little different. In the last first session I played, a battle was required to bring the players and their characters together and I wanted to skip that awkward bit at the beginning of the first session of this game.
I asked the players if they minded if I started them mid-encounter.
If you were to write a great opening hook to a book, you’d never start with the characters sitting around, waiting for adventure to call, you’d start it mid-adventure. Look at Star Wars. Sure it was the beginning of the adventure for Luke, but the opening shots were a chase between Vader and Leia with little context. She had the plans he was looking for, he captured her.
If they would indulge me, I’d set the scene for them and begin the session in mid-chase. Since the story we’d come up with for all the characters is that they were all reluctantly working together and barely knew each other, it would give them a chance to do that “getting to know you” roleplaying right in the thick of it from the get go.
Now, this second group is much more dedicated to the roleplaying aspects every bit as much as they are the combat, but combining it into a slightly challenging chase encounter from the first moments allowed them to really feel it. I had the map ready, the encounter set up, their characters ready to go. We didn’t spin our wheels at all. I explained they were carrying the body of a beaten and tortured member of the resistance that they’d rescued from the enemy and we’re escaping in the sewers back to their safe-haven. There were a number of guards chasing them, less than a hundred feet away, and unknown dangers ahead.
The difference in experience from the first game to the second was quantifiable. It made me realize how important two things were. First, players need a hook every bit as much as you do. Secondly, it emphasized how important preparation was. If you’re there, ready to go from the start, and you aren’t just spinning your wheels trying to guide them into the first part of the game, it sets the pace for the rest of the evening.
That’s something I’m still working on, though. Coming from a screenwriting and novelist background, pacing is very important to me, and starting with a bang is important, and I didn’t want to do it with them waking up unconscious in a new environment wondering how they got there. It’s a bit cliched, and they’d find ways to make that happen for themselves later.
So, think about that for your next session. Hopefully it helps you think of things in a different way that will make your game better.