Beginnings are, in my opinion, one of the things I am the worst at. It doesn't matter if it is writing, GMing, or Playing, I'm rather bad when it comes to starting things. Like the oldest of the Fates I like a good ending. You know where you are with an ending. A beginning though? it's a messy thing full of potential that may never get used. Today, I want to talk about how to get your game going on the right foot so it will at least live up to some of that potential.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Whether you're talking about business or design or almost anything else K.I.S.S. is a great addage to keep in mind when preparing for your session. At its most simple form the first session has three main purposes:
- Get the group into the game
- Introduce the group to the characters and their mechanics
- Get the group going in some direction or the other.
That's it. You don't need to introduce a villain, or go nuts with world details. The purpose of the first session is those three things. Everything beyond that is just gravy.
Start The Group Together
One of the reasons "you're all in a tavern" became such a cliche opener to games was because it worked, and it worked well. If your group didn't all come in as friends - and many games don't - then having everyone in the local tavern when the call to adventure came in was an awesome way to get things going.
If you're new to GMing, or new to this particular group, simpler can be better too. The closer - physically in world - you start the PCs off the easier it is for you as the GM. Why? Because all screen time is then focused on the whole group, so you don't have to balance things out.
Or Bring Them Together
Alternatively, if starting in a tavern or jail isn't your style, you can start the PCs off in different locations then bring them together. This is harder, but mostly because it involves planning several starts instead of just the one and time balancing the different players so no one gets left out.
As far as time balancing goes, I find five to ten minutes per player works best. The more players you have, the closer to five you want to be. This keeps things moving and means that - at most - in a six player game you're only making someone wait 30 minutes before they get their turn again.
Regardless of where the PCs start, you want to bring them all to one location. This is important because, unless you are going for a particularly advanced game, you want the group together to make things easier for everybody.
A Bit of Action and an Easy Win
Once you get the group together you've taken care of the first bullet point and it is time to move on to the second one. Depending on your game of choice the "bit of action" may be different, but most systems focus on combat as their mechanical core, and so for most games you can handle this with a small fight.
I recommend making it a fight that the PCs can win. This is done for several reasons. First, it's easier to see what works, and how, when the fight is going well. Second, players are more likely to try things out and thus see some potential limits when the fight is going well. Third, you want the players to have fun and starting off with a win - even a small win - not only can do that but also gives the PCs some reason to have confidence in their characters.
Now, this doesn't mean you can't go the other way. However, when a fight is going poorly players can get frustrated and tunnel vision on things. Remember, this is meant to introduce the player to the mechanics of their character - something even seasoned players to a system will need for their new character.
As a final note, if your system has some particular nuances to the combat engine - like a cover mechanic or overwatch - then it is a good idea to introduce that into this small fight. Test drive the rules, let people see how the game works, and enjoy the time you have with it.
A Reason To Go On
Finally you need to give the players a reason to group up and go on. Most groups will help you with this. They came to play a game about an adventuring group, and so they will band together. Even with that, you still want some reason. Some games are awesome and will give you ways to do this - L5R for example has a lot of games where the PCs are Emerald Magistrates as a way to bring them together - and other games will put more of it on you.
One of the easiest ways to do this - and if you take nothing else from this it's don't avoid a method just because it is easy - is a call to adventure from on high. This can be done through a lot of means, but the most common way is for the PCs to find out about some "big bad thing" that is in a position to cause problems to some local town. They then band together to go handle said thing, and in the process they form a group and go off on your first adventure.
Also, never discount the power of lots of cash. Quite a few players use RPGs as a way to fantasize about a world where they can just solve problems by stabbing it, and then collecting the reward. Posting a huge reward to go off on a quest can also be a great way to get things going.
If All Else Fails
If all else fails, you can just ask your players what they need to band together and go forward as a group. This is the purpose of the game, and if nothing you are trying to do is working then just ask what they need.
I've personally relied on this a couple of times, especially with new groups, when the PCs didn't seem to be gelling or particularly care about getting together as a group. It's not ideal, but it works and the point of this session is to get the group together and moving in a direction.
So What Do You Do?
So how does this work into preparing? Quite simple, make a plan to handle each of the bullet points we have up there. Plan where they are going to start, and for what reason they're there. To do this, consider the characters and backstories that the players have generated. Once you have the start of the session figured out, you just need a reason to get them into that small bit of action we're using. Then, you just need the call to adventure and you're first session is a go.
After the first session you should have some idea of how your players and their characters work, and you have them off in a starting direction. The game is in motion. The rest is simple inertia. Enjoy your game.