While more a trope for Super Hero stories, the idea of the first 'real' fight is still a good one for all kinds of stories, especially rpgs, regardless of the genre. It gives a sign of the story moving away from the introduction and into more of the meat of the world. It lets us know that we're getting into the actual challenges that we can expect to face. For the character him/herself, it is a reality check and the knowledge that there are scary people on the opposition's side as well. Today, I want to talk about how this plot point works, and how to set it up in your game.
I'm going to use a standard super hero progression for this example, but it can work for other genres (examples below.) The way this point works is like this: when the story starts off you get introduced to the characters. This usually includes some way of showing what they're capable of but beyond that you also want to show that they are strong in the world. You don't get much value out of beating your character up from the very beginning of things - unless that's your point, like in Kick-Ass - so you put people against the hero who are simply out classed. For a super hero world this could be thugs or regular street gang members. Someone the hero can show off for, feel out their early anxieties of "I'm actually doing this", and begin to get confident in their abilities. Then, after you've established this and gone over a couple stories/arcs where the character is more than capable of handling everything you bring out the first real fight. Often times, especially in super hero stories, this is another super powered beings. Sometimes it is just a more powerful/scary one than the ones the character has been fighting.
What It Does
Beyond the basic things I outlined in the intro about what this first real fight does, this is a real test for the character. The enemy is just as capable as them. They don't have the edge in power and ability that perhaps they've grown used to having and expect to have. In a role playing game, and even in stories, this is often the first real brush up with the possibility of failure and or death. It can be, depending on your group/the characters, a very powerful and character defining moment. So, how do you set it up?
The key to this is to give the players time to get comfortable with their characters. This works best at the start of a game, or when people are bringing in new characters, because even an experienced player will likely take a bit to get used to exactly how this character works as opposed to the other characters the player has played over the months/years they've been gaming. These first sessions are also usually the ones where the GM needs to set the stage for the world and setting, so giving the players some easier fights while establishing NPCs, mood,, and the tone of the game can be a great thing to do.
Now, by easier fights I don't mean push overs. Just people that the group shouldn't have too much problems with. After all, you want the players to get an idea for how their various skills, attributes, powers, and other qualities work together. To do this you want to give them challenges, but ones they can overcome. Play it up too, you want them to feel powerful. After all, that's where half the fun comes from not only in gaming, but in the pay off for what comes next.
I find springing the test on the group works the best. By that I don't mean a random ambush in the local grocer's market - though that is fun too - but more along the lines of a situation just like the ones they've handled before, only with someone a cut above involved. For a super hero game this could be super villains - or super powered toughs - instead of the normal non-powered kind. For a mecha game, this could be a group of ace pilots instead of normal pilots. Modern day games could run into teams similar to them. Fantasy can have other parties of adventurers, or just more powerful creatures that are suddenly thrown in. The point is that the capabilities of the opposition are suddenly equal, not inferior, to that of the group. They have to rely on all those little tricks they found to keep even, or maybe even to just survive the encounter.
Keep The Feeling Powerful
Be careful not to go overboard. You don't want to rob that feeling of being powerful from the players. If you do they may get very frustrated or feel robbed, and rightfully so, with an a-hole GM that set them up just to fail. The idea here is not to make the players feel weak, but rather to show that they are not the only powerful ones that are out there.
Setting Up the Re-Occurring Appearance
The other fun thing you can do with this fight is set up a re-occurring appearance. This is harder in a game than it is in a book or movie- PCs have a tendency to kill their opponents rather than letting them live to fight another day - but can pay off huge if you can pull it off without shenanigans or direct/blatant GM intervention. After all, who doesn't love to hate a villain that keeps showing up to ruin their plans? Especially when they're the first person to give that character a real challenge.