The Color of Adventure XII: Planning the First Night of Your Game
First published 6/5/2001; last edited 12/20/2004
Here we are, the final article in our series on writing and running your own adventures. At least for now. It's always possible there will be more later, but for now other things have to come first: getting married, moving, adopting little alien Cornish rex cats... Little things like that. So for now I'll leave you with a few ideas for how you can plan for the very first night of your roleplaying run.
Logistics (Where, When, Who, How, Setup)
Figure out when your run will be--not just the first night, but in general. If you don't pick a regular time right away and make sure your players can make it, you might not be able to get everyone together again. Plenty of promising games have died an early death this way. If you can't get everyone in the same place at the same time on a regular basis, you have a hard decision to make: play with a subset of your desired players? Run multiple gaming runs with different people?
Where will your run take place? You'll need the basics: power and light, shelter, and possibly heat or air conditioning. You want a venue large enough to hold all of your players comfortably. You want surfaces for people to roll their dice on without losing them, whether it's a floor or a table or what-have-you. Seating should be comfortable, since players will be sitting for hours.
If players get distracted easily then pick a location without distractions: a room without TV and without non-players tromping through. If necessary move books, magazines and newspapers out of the area. Unplug the phones, and make sure everyone turns their cell phones off if possible (make them leave the room to use their phone if it isn't possible). If someone's allergic to some type of pet then the game shouldn't be held at a house with that sort of pet.
You also need a location that all of your players can get to in time. If it's a two-hour drive out of town, then you need to take that into account when scheduling. You might also want to make sure that your location has a kitchen, or at least access to drinkable water. Make sure your venue will be available when you want it.
What will you do to set up the area for the game? Make sure there is seating for everyone, even if it's just a pillow or rug on the floor. Make sure everyone has light to see by and can see the GM. If you want to do anything to enhance the mood (candles, music, etc.), then set that up ahead of time.
How to Draw the Party Together
Make sure you have some idea ahead of time for how you'll bring the party of player characters (PCs) together.
If you have very few PCs (two to three, maybe), you could probably get away with the semi-traditional people-running-into-each-other and deciding to hook up. If you have more PCs than that it gets very silly very fast, which can ruin your mood unless you're running a humorous campaign. This is usually what GMs fall back on when they haven't come up with something ahead of time.
Have all of the characters already know each other or even work with each other pre-game. If you have a huge number of players (say, 10 to 12), this is one of the few ways to get them together without things devolving into ridiculousness and giggles. If you don't want the characters to know much of anything about each other, you can hook them up just barely pre-game.
Put some effort into coming up with specific personalized ways and reasons to get the PCs to work with each other. This requires players who create interesting characters with a little depth, and this requires you to know what the characters are like ahead of time. Your players might be able to help you with this, depending on how much you want them to know about each other's characters. This works best for a small or medium-sized run; the more characters you have, the more room there is for things to go wrong, and the more effort it takes to make things work.
Have the game start off with a plot that forcefully throws everyone together long enough for them to develop ties with each other. For instance, they're all kidnapped, wrongfully incarcerated, etc., and have to work together to deal with the situation. This will work for a run of just about any size, but requires you to have players who are willing to put a little effort into keeping the group together. Either that, or the set-up has to force the characters to remain in close proximity to each other until they get used to working together.
You may also be able to mix-and-match the methods a bit. This is an area where it helps to know your players' playing styles a bit, which will take a little experience. If you know that a certain player is very contrary, then you know you have to put extra effort into integrating his character.
That Very First Scene
If you really want to make an impression and get your players excited, then plan that first scene (or those first couple of scenes) a little carefully. Do you want to draw them in and get them psyched? Then make things exciting! Make those first scenes action-oriented. Nothing draws people in like action, adrenaline and movement.
Keep in mind that there can be a difference between combat and movement, depending on your game. Some games have slow, clunky combat systems. If this is the case, then try to skip hand-to-hand combat (ranged weapons might work, depending on your system), or have combat occur strictly between NPCs (non-player characters) and narrate it rather than rolling dice.
Alternately use a different kind of movement, like a chase scene, kidnapping or other tense action. Even an argument can become "action" when you remember to describe or act out some of the ways in which NPCs move while they talk. An aggressive stance, leaning forward excitedly, a little hand-waving, and so on can turn simple conversation into movement.
You could also narrate the first scene. It doesn't even have to be something that the characters are present for. Narrate a tense, exciting scene that has something to do with the plot they're involved in. For instance, if they're going to be solving a murder mystery, narrate the murder--although of course, without giving away who the murderer is. You could play up the victim's fear, the shadowed figure of the murderer, and any details that the PCs would pick up immediately upon investigating the case anyway.
How to Keep Things Moving
There are several situations in which play might seem to drag a bit; this ideally isn't something that you want to have happen a lot on the first night of your new game. Sometimes the players aren't sure what to do next. Sometimes the GM isn't sure what to do next. And at times, the PCs are working on something that isn't very exciting.
First, remember that you get to see everything behind-the-scenes. This means that you miss a lot of the suspense and pressure that the players (hopefully) feel. So don't overcompensate. It's good to keep things moving; it isn't good to not give your players any time at all to think or relax (unless you're doing it intentionally and for a reason).
Try to plan your first plot such that it doesn't have any really boring parts--no long periods of research, etc. Make it a comparatively simple plot.
If you're feeling overwhelmed and aren't sure what you're doing, then find a way to buy yourself some thinking time. If you're capable of thinking during a combat, you could always throw a small combat at your group. No one will be upset, though, if you have to suggest that people go get a snack. Run outside to think for a minute. While people are rolling their dice or getting food, think about what you're going to do next. Flip through your notes.
Instead, you might be unsure of what to do because you've run out of ideas. Draw a tarot card for some inspiration. Keep a stack of interesting NPCs next to you while you game, and have one of them show up, call someone, send a package to the party, etc. Similarly, keep notes on possible future plot threads next to you, and work one in a little early if you have to. (For future games, this is where it can come in handy to keep multiple plots going at once. If one has slowed to a crawl, jump-start a different one.) You might keep some instant plot hooks nearby, although again, this is more useful for later episodes; your first night should stay comparatively simple.
If the players seem lost, then you can do some of the same things. Throw an interesting NPC at them, or a thread from a future plot. Draw a tarot card and take some inspiration from it as to how you'll give your players another clue. Jump to another plot. If one player is thinking about what to do next and the others aren't doing anything, then switch the spotlight around to another player while the first one thinks. Switch the spotlight around a bit on general principle.
If the PCs are doing something dull then turn it into "down-time." There's no need to roleplay your way through it; just state that it happens.
Another way to keep things moving is to make sure that your players feel immersed in the world. If they feel totally wrapped up in things then even simple conversations can be totally engrossing. One of the best ways to make the game an immersive experience is to remember to use all five senses in your descriptions. You don't have to use them as a catalog for each scene description. Just remember to occasionally throw in an interesting scent, sound, taste, etc. Nervous GMs often rush their descriptions, which can make a world seem shallow. Write yourself a note that reminds you to describe things and put it somewhere obvious.
You can also promote an immersive world by populating it with interesting, three-dimensional people who have their own background stories, plots and conversational interests. For a few hints on doing this with a minimal amount of effort, check out our article on Bright Spots of Detail and NPC-Building Questions.
Setting the Tone
Think about the tone you want to set. If you're planning on running a dramatic game, then consider how you'll evoke that in the very first run, and preferably the very first scene. The same with a horrific adventure, a humorous adventure, or anything else. The players' expectations for what attitude they and their characters should have toward the game will be set at the beginning, so you want to make sure they've got the right idea. If things are silly and humorous they won't be able to take your horror run seriously, even if you try to make things serious later.
This isn't to say that you can't vary the tone of your run from night to night, adventure to adventure, or even scene to scene. But in general your players and characters will take a heavy hint about how they should be acting from that first run. So do what you can to set the tone right away.
What Sort of Play Do You Want to Encourage, and How?
If you don't want your players to think that they should solve everything with combat and put all their experience points into combat-related abilities, then make sure your first plot isn't combat-solvable or combat-heavy. Or have things happen that make it clear that it's dangerous to draw weapons in public or to get into fights.
If other words, think very carefully about the sort of play you want to encourage or discourage. Make sure that your first night and first plot reflect and reinforce these things. Most of the stories I've heard of runs going out of the GM's control came about because bad habits developed early; don't give those habits time to develop.
Be in Control
Also make sure that you're in control of your game. This does not mean ignoring your players' wishes or imposing your idea of where the game should go to the exclusion of what anyone else wants. ("Control" does not mean "power trip.") But it does mean that your rulings are final, you make the decisions, and you adjudicate the action; you have to make that clear from the start. If you have the sort of players who like to run all over you, then once they get started they'll never stop. You need to be in control from the very beginning.
What You Should Have with You
- A notebook with blank paper, for noting things like character names that you invent on the spot and other things that you improvise.
- Possibly a rough map of the in-game area; if you're playing in the modern world, grab one from a bookstore.
- Several pens and pencils; an eraser; transparency markers if you get a plastic-covered map or draw one on transparencies.
- Any notes on what you plan to cover, preferably in a three-ring binder so they won't get lost or hopelessly mixed up.
- Any gaming books you might need.
- Dice, if your system requires them.
- A "screen," if you feel more comfortable hiding your notes and dice from the players.
- Tarot cards, runes, song lyrics, or other non-dice means of providing a quick bit of inspiration for your improvisation.
- For the first night in particular you might want to have a one-page overview in bullet-list form of what you plan to cover, and any major points you want to remember
Consider recruiting one of your players to take game notes; it's almost impossible for the GM to keep up with taking notes and adjudicating everything at the same time. Pick a player you trust to take accurate notes and to have some sense for what's important and what isn't. You might still need to note one or two things yourself if they're particularly important, just to make sure, but the majority you won't have to worry about.
This helps you to remember what happened when deciding on experience point awards. It gives you something to check for any dropped plot threads that you can resurrect. It gives you something to look through when you can't remember exactly what happened two weeks ago, or which plot clues you've handed out.
Have the player type the notes up and give them to you at least a couple of days before the next gaming run. These shouldn't be full, detailed notes with lots of description; neither you nor your player is likely to have the time to keep up with these. (Your gaming group might decide that they want to do this sort of travelogue anyway, but it's still good to have the short form for quick-reference.) Instead have him type up only the most important details of what happened. I find that doing it in bullet-list form encourages brevity.
Pass game-note duty around from player to player if anyone feels like it's too much work. This also gives you the chance to figure out who takes the best notes.
How to End the First Night
Try to make the first plot something that more-or-less ends on the first night, to give the players a sense of accomplishment and excitement (this is hard to judge, so don't kick yourself too hard if you can't pull it off). Don't, however, wrap everything up in a neat little package. Leave open plot threads! This will not only give you something to play with right away, but it will give your players something to stew over and look forward to. It'll give them something to be excited about coming back to.
Have a handful of ideas ready for future plots. Drop little hints of them into game. Introduce NPCs that immediately come across as interesting. Throw things in that will make your players say, "ooh, we should come back and look at that later!"
Alternatively you could end on a cliff-hanger. Some players like this better than others; some find it frustrating. It is certainly one way to make sure that your players want to come back the next week, but it can cause you continuity problems if one of your players can't make it to the next run. An alternative is to end just after you've introduced the hook for a new plot; it still gives the players something to look forward to and wonder about, but without the problems of a cliff-hanger.
Setting Mechanical Precedent
Every gaming system has unclear or abusable mechanics. You as GM will have to make the decisions on how to rule on these issues. The way you rule on mechanics on the first night is what your players will expect from then on out.
Try not to off-handedly throw out decisions and tell yourself you'll think about it later. Read through the rules ahead of time and have some idea of what you want to do with them. You can't anticipate every loophole or confusion that players will find, but you can develop an idea of how to go about making rulings that will help to set up the kind of game you want to run.
Do you want to plug abusable loopholes? Do you want to make the rules as simple and easy to use as possible? Do you want things to be as realistic as possible? Are you worried about keeping to the letter of the rules, or the spirit of the rules? Knowing what you want from the rules will help you to keep your rulings consistent.
I know I said this once before, but I'm going to say it again. As long as you're having fun then that's what matters. If you and your group are enjoying yourselves, then it doesn't matter if you're following my advice or anyone else's. If you aren't having fun but you're following all the advice you've gotten, then ditch it and try something else! Roleplaying games are about escapism, enjoyment and fun. That's what matters--not doing things "right." Advice is provided to help you have fun, not to make you roleplay in the "right" way. The right way is the way that makes your game most enjoyable for everyone.
Have a great summer, and enjoy your gaming!
I wish to acknowledge the invaluable help of Jeffrey Howard in suggesting some of the topics that I covered in this article, and in making sure that I covered as many aspects of the first run as possible!