Your players are going to be discovering what kind of campaign you’re thinking this is, what kind of campaign they want it to be, and learning a lot about the characters they’ve chosen to play - not to mention learning to get along as a group! Especially if you haven’t run a proto session, the first session calls for a careful balance between GM authority and player freedom.
Here are my tips for first sessions.
(Related: here's a video about first sessions)
1. Get relaxed
Game mastering is a zen. Before the group arrives, do something that relaxes you.
Dump out your miniatures box and reorganize it. Tidy the play space. Take the time to fix yourself a snack that you like. When you start with a calm mind, you can be a calm leader – one who is stimulated by surprise rather than being derailed by it.
For me, that means preparing my notes the day before, and glancing over them hours before the players get here . Then I go dump out my miniatures.
2. Plan a strong first encounter
Kind of like “Fake it ‘Til You Make it,” I use the principle of “Script it ‘Til They Flip It.”
You know I’m all about player freedom, but right now they’re clueless about what kind of story this is, because the story literally doesn’t exist yet! What they need at this point is not a choice but something to draw them into the action.
Give them something to react to! This will solve the problem of players who don’t act because they’re not sure what they’re “supposed” to be doing, and the problem of players who act without coordinating with the rest of the group. Hitting them with a dramatic situation doesn’t restrict their freedom – it pushes them to engage with the world and shows them what kind of campaign you’ve got in mind. If they want something else, you can always change it later.
Of course, if you have really mature players, they may flip it before the first encounter ever happens, and you have to be willing to let that happen.
3. Prepare Powerful descriptions
Your players are going to be arriving here from work, school, something irritating that happened on the road, wondering how they’re going to pay their bills, etc.
You want to transition them into the world of your game. But an RPG world exists only in your words. They’ll create their own characters, you’ll create encounters together, but only the GM has the authority to describe settings. So when you tell them they’re in a new location, it’s up to you to give details about what it looks like, sounds like, who else is there, whether it feels safe, dangerous, creepy, exciting, etc. You don’t have to be a novelist to do this; just put some thought into it, jot down some details in your notes (see step 2 of Big Picture Outline for a good place to do this) and then give them these details conversationally, like you were describing a movie scene.
This is crucial in the first location – the players aren’t into the game yet, and you have to jump start their imaginations. Even later on, when they start helping you define the locations, don’t forget to use rich descriptions to make the game world feel real.
4. Solo opening scenes
You want everyone to roleplay tonight – no matter how shy they are, or how much they “don't know what they’re supposed to do.”
My favorite group-engagement technique is to ask each player, individually, what his character is doing when X happens – some big event that shakes up their lives and gets the adventure started. If the PCs don’t know each other, you can have them meet in the next scene.
This gets everyone to explore their own characters a little bit. It also models your future relationship with the players – you’re here to turn their ideas into story.
Third, it gives each player a moment in the spotlight – everyone else will be paying attention because they’re eagerly waiting for their own turn. Instead of asking who they are (like you have probably done as you pushed them through character creation), you’re pushing them to discover who they are by putting them in a situation they have to react to.
5. Get Them Together
One of the biggest pitfall is when your players don’t start working together right away. This can be accidental – because the group hasn’t found its rhythm yet – or it can stem from immaturity – since especially younger players tend to vie for pecking order in the group. When this happens someone can wind up feeling excluded and come back next week with negative feelings toward another player(s).
This can take a GM by surprise, but there’s an easy way to prepare for it. Make sure your first session puts them in a situation where they have to work together. That way, even having characters who don’t like each other contributes to the fun – because they players are all on the same team.
6. Ask Game Questions
This is when the campaign is still warm and malleable. Ask things like “do you have a ship already?” and be willing to “give” them what they want. You’re not giving anything for free, all you’re doing is figuring out what kind of game they want (after all, a rags-to-riches story where they work up to a ship is just as good as a story where they start out with one – the only difference is their personal preference).
You’re empowering hem to decide details about what their campaign will be like.
7. Throw your notes away
Be willing to throw away your notes – not literally (because you’ll be needing them) but throw away your emotional attachment to what you have created, and open yourself up to what they will create.
Now, you’ve been thinking more about the campaign than anyone else in the group, so whatever they think of will probably align with something that’s already in your notes. But this throwing away is an important exercise that puts your notes in the service of the players, not the other way round. Now when one of your Notes jumps onto the table, it will be because it was what the players wanted.