GM Tech: Starting Your Game

The very beginning of a new campaign can be rough. The players are new to the characters, both their own, each other’s and the important NPCs. They may be new to the world, the system or even the group. Meanwhile as the GM you have to manage all that, set expectations, answer questions, and get your plot hooks into the as-yet-unscarred skin of the future saviours of the world.

Here’s some handy tips to make that easier for you.

Hello World

You’ve put a lot of work into your setting, of course you have (unless you’re winging it like I do all too often). You’ve mapped out the major world powers, designed an interesting magic system, written a mythology and a pantheon of gods. All great stuff, but how much of it do your players need to know right at the beginning?

Not as much as you’d think. When giving information to your players, keep in mind that you’re allowed to tell them stuff later in the game. Even if their character would know something, the player doesn’t have to (especially at the very beginning). If something comes up in play that their character should know, just tell them it. You can make them roll for it if, and only if it’s not clear whether they would or not.

Give them the bare bones they need to decide who their character is: what does a fighter look like in this world, or a thief or a mage? If a thief who works for the Underworld Smuggling Ring would know that there’s a network of tunnels between towns on opposite sides of the border, tell them that during the game when they need to sneak out of the kingdom; during character creation they only need to know that the Smuggling Ring exists and that they move restricted goods between countries.

You don’t start in a tavern

It’s typical to start a new RPG campaign with the party all meeting up for the first time to be given a simple quest that will turn into their first adventure. This seems to make sense, the players are seeing the other characters in action for the first time, so your first instinct will be to have the characters in the same position as the players. However, if the characters can have knowledge of the world that the players don’t, why not extend that to what they know about the other characters?

A common pitfall for a newly-formed party is for the characters to not latch onto each other, for the loner rogue to not get along with the aloof wizard and they sort of drift along with the group only staying together because the players are sat at the same table. An easy fix for this is to simply tell them that their characters already know each other when the game begins. If they’re a typical adventuring party then they’ve already had a quest or two as a group. If they’re fresh-faced recruits then they went through the academy together.

Have the players work with each other, with your input, to decide what their relationships are like. Maybe two of them are siblings, or best friends since childhood, or one of them hired some of the others. Make sure these relationships criss-cross. If you have a pair of siblings and a pair of friends in a party of 4, have at least one relation that binds the two pairs together.

Sponsor a newbie

You know the kind of player. They show up to games, but sometimes you forget they’re there. They sit there quietly, watching the other players and rolling the dice for simple attacks when it’s their turn in combat. Maybe they’re new and unsure about the system, or otherwise not confident about roleplaying a character. There’s nothing wrong with being that kind of player, but for a GM it can be disconcerting to have someone sat at your table where you’re not sure if they’re having fun or not.

If you want to engage these quiet players, teach them the ropes or bring them out of their shell, it can be helpful to enlist the aid of the more confident players in the group. When setting up the relationships described above, try and group up confident players with shy players with a slight power imbalance.

If a confident player and a shy player are siblings, then have the confident player be the older one who takes the lead. Perhaps a couple of shy players work for one of the more confident ones, or they idolize her as a hero. Be careful the confident players don’t abuse this position of power to make the shy players do something they don’t want to do or to take over completely; giving orders is fine, but the shy player should absolutely be allowed to disobey without harsh consequences, and if they tell the shy player what to do each and every round of combat then you should take them aside to ask them to ease off.

A Whole New World

That’s it for this collection of tips, but feel free to add anything you like below. What have you found important for getting a campaign off the ground? How did your recent campaigns start, what worked and didn’t work?