So you want to run a fantasy RPG! This series of posts will guide you in running your first few sessions, getting your group established effectively.
Many new GMs want to jump straight into the game. They'll write out an exciting storyline, bring the players together, and immediately launch into a description of the world and how the players' characters fit into it and where they start out.
And then the game falls apart as the players go in completely different directions.
Running an RPG campaign is like sailing a ship. You have to point it in a particular direction and ensure everyone agrees on where you're going before you start out. You probably won't end up exactly where you planned, but at least you'll be moving and everyone will still be on board!
You can get everyone on board with a session that establishes the ground rules for the game. This is typically called "Session Zero," and it usually establishes a few things:
- The game world
- The player characters
- Player expectations
- The rules of the game (and any variations)
So, you're going to set up a meeting with your players, and you're going to bring something to write on (pieces of paper, notecards, a laptop with a Word document or Google Doc; whatever). And before going, you're going to write down the following four questions:
- What do you want to or expect to see in this world?
- What characters do you want to play?
- Why are the characters together?
- What do you not want to see in this game?
Let's look at this step by step.
Establishing the Game World
If you're playing in a very specific setting, like Dresden Files, you might be able to skip this part.
Some games come with "generic settings," where there are tons of things not quite filled out. Dungeons & Dragons is a perfect example of this; even when it offers a default setting, there's tons of room for different kinds of stories, from urban mysteries to political thrillers to wilderness exploration.
So, when you get your players together for a first session, get out a piece of paper or a blank screen that everyone can see. Ask each and every player, "What do you want to or expect to see in this world?"
It's important that everyone always see the paper or screen. Without doing that, people will repeat previously established elements; with it, they can riff off things they can see on the screen.
Go around as many times as you need until everyone's described as much as they want. Then, read aloud each of the ideas in the list and watch how people react.
If anyone looks uncomfortable with something, say "Hey, [player], you look a little uncomfortable. What's up?" Don't ask a yes/no question like "Are you okay with that?" ask an open-ended question like "What's up?" Often the player's concerned about one aspect of a particular element of the world, so you don't want to accidentally bait them into accepting or rejecting that element as a whole.
Now ask the players, "Does anyone have any ideas about the character they want to play?"
There's no "right amount" of detail that any player needs to have about his or her character. One or two players might be completely undecided until they play. That's totally cool!
However, the more you know about their characters, the more you can tailor the game to those characters.
If the players stare at you blankly, here are a few prompts:
- Can you tell me anything about your character's personality?
- What does she or he look like, physically?
- What was his or her childhood like?
- What drove your character to choose his or her current profession?
- What does your character want to accomplish?
That said, there are two things about the characters you should learn about if at all possible, and if you don't, try asking these questions directly:
- What is each character specifically trying to accomplish in his/her life?
- Why is the group adventuring together? What is their common goal?
Character goals can still be vague or undecided, but as a group you have to understand why the characters are working together. Without that, characters will often work at cross-purposes to each other, which will eat up a lot of the game time. It's like agreeing to play by the victory condition of a board game; if anyone can decide what "winning" means at any point, you can't actually make progress in the game.
So, again, gently ask players if they have any ideas for their characters, and probe to find out why the characters are adventuring together. The latter can be as easy as "We're all muscle for hire."
A role-playing session can include a wide variety of situations, and can delve into topics that some players find deeply uncomfortable (or, worse, the players may have been traumatized by similar experiences in their own lives). To take an obvious example, imagine a player who had unpleasant experiences with an "overly touchy relative" as a child, whose character goes through the same thing during a session. It can leave a very bad taste in a player's mouth, unless the player wants to work through that experience.
So, go through a similar process as you did in establishing the game world, going around the room and asking each player a different question this time: "Is there anything you definitely don't want to encounter or experience in this campaign?"
If the players aren't forthcoming, you can throw out a few examples:
- Detailed descriptions of gore
- Sex "on camera"
- Non-consensual sex, on or off camera
- Sexual violence, on or off camera
- Children getting killed "on camera"
Now, some GMs find this very uncomfortable, and say that they know their players as friends well enough that they don't need to go through this process. Resist that temptation. Someone might have a problem that you don't know about, and/or they might want to delve into a topic that you thought would be taboo. This will be uncomfortable, but that momentary discomfort is worth it to avoid the group collapsing a few sessions later.
You don't need to worry about this right now, but in future if you start a new campaign, when you run session zero you'll also want to review any rules that you've added or changed as you've gained experience playing. Some people modify rules around dying and healing, for example, and it's important to review those at the beginning of each campaign to ensure those changes are appropriate for the new campaign.
Here's a quick cheat sheet of everything I recommend for Session Zero:
- Set up a piece of paper, index cards, or a screen where everyone can see it.
- Ask each player, "What do you want to or expect to see in this world?" Go around to everyone multiple times, if necessary, until everyone's out of ideas. Write responses on the shared document(s).
- Ask the group, "Does anyone have any ideas about the character they want to play?" Write any responses on the shared document(s).
- If it isn't already clear from the previous step, ask the group, "Why is the group adventuring together? What is their common goal?" Either way, write this reason on the shared document(s).
- Ask each player, "Is there anything you definitely don't want to encounter or experience in this campaign?" Write any responses on the shared document(s).
Next, we'll start preparing for your first session!