Last week in this column, I began to explore ideas to keep a gaming hobby vibrant amidst increasing demands on time presented by things like children, conflicting work schedules and the like. Adulting can take a serious toll on a gamer’s opportunities for group gaming.
As gamers, we persevere against this ebb and flow. The first step (or the one that worked for me anyway) is taking a leadership role when it comes to keeping your tabletop RPG hobby going. To play the game, you have to run the game. Down the road, in the grand tradition of D&D-style gaming, other players may take their turn behind the screen, but for now, chosen game in hand and with a location for players to muster, a new gaming group is ready to embark on their adventure.
The group’s first adventure has a lot riding on it. As the avid gamer-cum-Game-master with designs on spinning this one-shot into an ongoing gig, you’ve got to present a fun engagement lasting several hours that includes action, humor, drama and excitement for a mixed-bag group of individuals – some of whom may never have played a TTRPG before or gone months/years/decades since last rolling any polyhedral dice.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression
Throw your players and their characters into some sort of action right off the bat. Begin their adventure in medias res, prompting them to interact with the game world right away. Start them in the middle of a fight, a battle, a war! Put them at the mercy of a powerful foe, or as prisoners at the moment of a prison break or revolt. For a more social encounter, have the party begin during an audience with a king/queen/lord/ruler/council during some sort of negotiation. Task them with navigating a fancy party after they managed to slip inside. Or drop them in a challenging situation, like on the banks of a raging river, with friends/allies in peril trying to cross it. Place them on a ship while it’s sinking after a disaster.
This approach accomplishes a few goals. Chief among them, you’re bypassing the sometimes awkward moments of many a first adventure that places the onus of moving the story forward completely in the players’ hands. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the tried-and-true gathering of adventurers in a tavern and going around the table for each player to describe their character and introduce themselves to the rest of the party. It works, and thousands of campaigns have started in this manner.
By starting off in the middle of a situation, though, you’re immediately instilling the notion that the game world is a living thing. The characters don’t spring into being at the start of play, and you’re giving them context to interact with the environment right away. Players have wildly varying degrees to which they’ve imagined their characters. Placing them in a situation quickly puts everyone on an even field. If a player put a ton of thought into their character’s personality, backstory, appearance and so forth, they can certainly draw inspiration from that to engage with the situation. Players who simply rolled some dice, chose a race/class/background and are satisfied with that have an opportunity to start developing those other facets of their character against the backdrop of a circumstance.
It’s a time saver, too. Maybe you’ve only got a two or three hour window to wow these players and get them hooked. With the classic tavern approach, you’re chewing into that time with rather mundane situations. Even if you introduce the hook early on, there’s time the players will spend deliberating on what to do, if they should pursue the hook, wanting to go shopping first and any number of activities not relating to the adventure at hand.
Granted, if the players are having fun and the party wishes to take their adventure in those directions, there’s nothing wrong with that – a fun time is the ultimate goal after all. But thrusting your group into action without giving them time to think or deviate from the immediate situation gets them engaged with the adventure very quickly.
Here’s an example that I’ve used with two different groups so far, both of which had a mix of player experiences with D&D and none of whom had played 5E yet. The very first thing I had all the players do when they sat down at the table was roll a d20 and write the number down. Next, everyone rolled up characters, which took about 15 minutes. Then I read this short introduction to them:
War is being waged in the Northern Sanction!
“The encroaching threat of snake men from The Scale Hills has driven the kingdom of Cardus to desperation. They go to battle against their tenuous allies, the kingdoms of Ardenia and Haldrim, to gain possession of their Heartstones to use their power to repel the snake people. These aggressions escalated into what is called the Prism War.
Hoping for a swift victory, Ardenia and Haldrim conscript any able-bodied folk they can to push Cardus back. Small bands of irregular units are peppered throughout the alliance’s front, and you are thrust into such a unit with a handful of others.
You had dreamed of discovering an exciting life filled with danger and adventure, but it seems that it has found you instead. Already, you have witnessed more death, destruction and danger than you’d even bargained for. The forces of Cardus have pushed beyond their borders and close to the very gates of Gray’s Keep, the seat of power in Haldrim. Queen Aeleth, in Ardenia, is seen as the weaker of the two, and the war chiefs of Cardus’ strategy is to hit Halgrim first in order to defeat the stronger of its two enemies quickly and decisively, possibly allying with the orcs of Urshok.
Their forces have marched from Waldren and threaten to strike the town of Stolver on the morrow. Your unit has been assigned to the defense of Stolver. You spend the evening steeling your resolve for the bloody business soon at hand …
A blast of magical energy strikes the overhanging roof of the small building you’re cowering under. Debris crashes down next to you, nearly crushing your small group. From down the dirt road, amidst the haze of dust and battle, a group of enemy soldiers spots you and rushes ahead.
What do you do?”
The d20 that I had the players roll earlier was their initiative rolls for this battle. Both groups handled things very differently, and both their adventures beyond this first session were astronomically different.
But one thing both groups shared was an opportunity to take action immediately. There was a bit of confusion, which I built into the encounter on purpose. It didn’t matter how anyone imagined their character or where they came from – they were adventuresome folk in the wrong place at the wrong time and thrust into a war they didn’t choose.
And they all loved it.
The battle would become known as the Slaughter at Stolver, which the party would learn later after they awoke from magical comas a year later. No matter what the characters do, they’re bound to get overwhelmed in the combat sooner or later. At some point, an enemy unit led by Warduke shows up and it’s curtains for the fledging adventurers. Everything fades to black …
(Anecdotally, the second time I ran this, the first character to act – from a player who had never played an RPG before – started off trying to join the enemy forces and loot the town! I actually thought he was going to turn on the rest of the party right from the get-go, but he wound up sneak attacking the bad guys on his next turn. Never fails to amaze me though – new players love the idea of stealing money.)
Don’t worry, they waken in safety on a tropical island and find out they were the only survivors, in some kind of stasis but with the spark of life still in them. So a group of heroes take them from the battlefield to a remote island to hopefully revive them.
This whole process took about one hour, from rolling that d20 to waking up on the island. I like to think of it like the soft open of a film or series. The audience (players in this case) are tossed directly into a situation, in the game serving to set a tone of excitement, action and drama. Then the scene cuts away, and when we come back, things start off in a different way. But the characters, and players, have been introduced to the world and from there, who knows what will happen? Seriously, does anyone? That’s the beauty of TTRPGs – not even the GM knows how the characters’ story will unfold!
The island has problems of its own, of course, which serves to facilitate another handy tip for keeping a gaming group going when adulting threatens to encroach on your hobby. So be sure to come back next week and find out what that is.
And until then, stay nerdy!