When I’m starting a new campaign, I’m a big believer in the “proto-session:” a session where the group gets comfortable with each other and discusses what they want in the game. It’s a session where you might play, but the group will probably just hang out.
A proto session can provide social interaction where each player feels out his place in the group (especially useful for a new group or if you’re bringing a new member into a longstanding group). It gives you a chance to establish yourself as the grou’s leader and hub. And it provides a time where players can ask questions or contribute ideas before they “have” to start playing characters – this starts the campaign off with the message that this is their game too.
Here are some tips for your proto-session:
1. Know Thy Setting
Know what you’d like in terms of setting and campaign type. The group doesn’t have to submit to your ideas, of course, but if you start off by confidently putting ideas on the table, you’re giving them something to build on – and chances are, they’ll be happy to add to your ideas, not rewrite them. You’re giving them a framework, which typically makes players much more confident about their own contributions.
2. Be a strong host
You are leading this campaign. Tell them what time the meeting will be, and where (later, it’s good to lead a discussion about times and places that suit everyone’s needs). Provide the food. Welcome each person as they come in.
Be in charge of when the group transitions from hangout or eating time to discussion time. Have ideas about session length, break-taking, what system you’d like to use, what rules you might like to change. Propose your ideas, then open the floor to hear what they want. Create a space where everyone’s ideas can be heard.
You’ll be letting them steer the campaign once it gets going, but to do that, you have to be the one who owns the car. That’s a metaphor.
3. Relax Before They Arrive
Game mastering is a Zen. Before the group arrives, do something that relaxes you. Don’t prepare your notes – you should have done that far in advance. Dump your miniatures box out on the floor and reorganize it. Tidy the play space. Make yourself a favorite food. When you begin with a calm mind, you can be a calm leader.
4. Ask for Ideas
Ask for plot elements they’d like in the game (it helps to write them down on your Big Picture Outline). Probably everyone will have something. Don’t worry: using a player idea won’t be like spoiling a surprise – it will be fulfilling their fantasy. When it comes around, they’ll be as excited as if it were a surprise, since it’s their idea! More than likely, they’ll be interested to see how you’ve interpreted it.
If it’s an idea you already thought of – even better! Praise the idea as if it’s new, and secretly pat yourself on the back for being on the right track to begin with. But remember – the ideas the players suggest are more important than the ones you planned!
Choose a game system together. This is actually a way to give the players a lot of control over the feel of the campaign, without necessarily having to change your story ideas too much. And if you only own one game system, see if there are any “house rules” they’d like to set up.
5. Relaxed expectations
Playing tonight is totally on the table, but communicate that you won’t be bummed if everyone just ends up hanging out. The players will probably adopt this same attitude. This can relieve a lot of tension for players who want to talk their characters over before jumping in and playing them, or who don’t want to rush into a new system.
You may want to do an experimental encounter or two – this can especially help the kind of players mentioned above. Have everyone make a quick character – doesn’t have to be the right character – and play an action scene. The word “experimental” will set them free to just play, and they’ll either be closer to knowing what kind of character they want, or end up liking what they made. I once had a great campaign start from an experimental encounter where only two group members showed up and threw together characters they didn’t even like at first!
6. Keep it short
Finally, keep the business portion of the evening short, so that the purpose of this night feels primarily social. Be sensitive to when people are ready to leave. Let the meeting wind down without getting into super-long discussions. You want them to come back next week wanting more.