The first combat in a new game can be an awkward affair. In a lot of ways, to use that way over-used cliche, it can be a lot like sex with a cannibal. You aren't quite sure what they're capable of, what they're going to do, or how they'll react to things. They in turn don't know what you like, where the limits are, or whether or not you happen to be carrying a tazer, lighter, and can of pepper spray at the moment. This went a little dodgy somewhere, but you get the idea. It is an awkward affair, and if you're not careful can be very bloody and end a great relationship before it even gets a chance to get going. So, how do you treat them? Well, read on for some advice on how you may want to.
So, let's just continue the sex metaphor for a few more moments. The first combat you run in a campaign is going to be a lot like the first time you had sex, in the broad strokes type of ways. There is a lot of feeling things out, not being sure if they're grooving to what you're doing, and in a lot of cases will be over way before either side expected it to. The reason for this is a simple one, inexperience. Now, there are mitigating factors here. A system you all know, with a group you've established relationships with is going to have a much smoother first combat than a new group, a new system, or both, but in all cases there is definitely that trying things out aspect that can really make it quirky. So, what do you do? Easy.
Don't Fight It
Really, don't. Why would you want to? This is a great opportunity for you as the GM, and you should use it as one. The first combat is a great teaching opportunity, for you and your players. You get to see about what the players can do, they get to see what they can do, and you get to see about what kind of enemies they can take on. Now, generally, I recommend starting with a small but serious fight. Something that you are fairly sure that the group can take down, but that will survive a round or two of combat. Why? Because you need to see how the group reacts to being attacked, and what they do to take down a foe.
So, basically, use the first fight to learn the characters and learn the system. Your primary goal here is for the players to see how their sheets work, but you should also be paying attention to that as well, and - more importantly - how the player uses that sheet.
You always want to start slow with opening combats, especially in a brand new system. I mean, if you know the system backwards and forwards you probably have the threat-assessment down pat. If it is new however, you want to start slow and small. Who cares if they kill it quickly, it is better that than the first fight being a TPK. I'd also recommend not trusting the book's threat assessment rules if they have them (like D&D's encounter rating). Often times those are built off of ideal types of characters, and I've seen a group mop the floor with 5 CR 15 creatures, and then get their butts kicked by a lone CR 11. The only difference? The CR 11 was psychic, and the party was weak against that. The GM wasn't sure what happened until we pointed out that that creature may as well have been custom built to take that group apart. Nobody's fault really, but it is a reason to do your own threat-assessment and not rely on the book's. If nothing else, the book probably wasn't made with your specific group in mind.
Not only are you starting slow, but you should go slow. This is the time when everyone is learning their sheet, and possibly the system. Take the time to answer questions, let debates happen, and be sure to look things up when you don't know. This can happen at any point in time, but if you specifically go out of your way to look for it in the first fight, then a lot of things can be established right at the beginning of the game. Especially where rules can be vague "Does this bonus go on before, or after, the multiplier?" make a ruling on session one, and it doesn't suddenly have to change when you re-read a section later in the game and realize a player/you have been doing it wrong the whole time.
Now, I'm not much of one for pushing forgiveness on other groups, to each their own, but if ever there was a time to be more forgiving to the PCs then this is it. The first fight is so easy to misjudge, so easy to TPK with, that you really want to be watching out for it. A slightly wrong assessment, a bad roll, anything can really set things off to a rough start. So be more forgiving. If need be, set it up in such a way that the PCs can't really be hurt in a story fashion (fake weapons, magic, danger room, etc). Generally I'm not for taking the threat out of combat, but for the first one? Why not give people the time to safely explore their sheet.
For those paying attention to recent posts, the reason for this post should be fairly obvious. I've started/am starting a couple of campaigns soon. Deathwatch is the one with the majority of my attention though. I've never gmed the 40k systems before, and two of the players have. Granted that was Dark Heresy, but still it is there. There is also the fact that they all know the world better than me. The big thing though is how powerful the characters are. Space Marines are 14k characters in Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader terms, and almost all of that is geared towards kicking ass and taking names. I am trying to make the first mission/combat beatable, but also challenging. A hard task with a Devastator for hordes, 2 librarians, an assault marine, and a Tac marine that at start is producing at least 6 cohesion and command tests against a 60 something.
Anyhow, a lot of my thoughts are on introing the campaign, introing the combat, and learning the characters. Hopefully it won't be too annoying of a trend.
Are there other thoughts on the first combats in a game? Good experiences? Bad experiences? Am I off my rocker on this?