After deciding to run a mini RPG campaign templated off the three-act structure, you’ve talked to the players about the type of campaign you want to run, you’ve guided them through character creation or provided pre-generated characters for them, and you’ve even give them personalized story hooks and some background information. Next, it’s time to light the fuse and wait until the Key Event ignites the plot and calls the player characters to participate in the adventure. A great first session accomplishes the following three things: it establishes the baseline for the characters and the setting, it draws the PCs into the adventure with action and conflict, and it gives them their first glimpse of the villain.
Before you launch directly into the adventure, it helps to dramatize what the world and characters are like normally or right now, pre-chaos/adventure. This serves two functions: One, it gives you something to contrast the rest of the adventure with. Compare the party in the Shire with the Fellowship’s journey, for example, or Luke’s life as a moisture farmer with his journey to become a Jedi. Two, it allows you to illustrate the stakes, such as what could be lost if the villain wins (if you have a more plot-driven campaign), or what sort of fate the player characters may be in for if they don’t grow or confront their flaws (if the campaign is more about character development). In a balanced campaign that features plot and character elements, both stakes are important to showcase.
One of my favorite ways to dramatize the world pre-adventure is to introduce each of the characters. Go around the table and ask each player to describe a mundane moment from their regular routine on a normal day. If you have a specific starting location in mind, give them that as a prompt. The players’ descriptions will serve to quickly paint a character portrait of each PC.
In the most cliché of medieval fantasy RPG introductory scenes, each of the players go around and say what they’re doing in the “Such-and-Such Tavern.” Perhaps Jenn’s character, the greedy rogue, is busy counting the gold coins from his previous haul of dungeon loot, while Matt’s character, the stalwart paladin, is drinking a mug of non-alcoholic cider and carefully watching the patrons in case any show signs of ill intent.
Brand-new role-players might benefit from some coaching on what their characters could be doing in the tavern. Think back to the character traits they established during character creation, and then give the player a couple of scenarios that seem appropriate based on those traits. These options give the new role-player some creative control without the pressure of worrying how much about the scene they can or cannot define. It also serves as a model for how the new role-players can describe their characters’ actions in later scenes.
Next, ask each player some additional questions to build up the scene and background. The GM asks Jenn what sort of dungeon it was that her rogue went delving in last, and what specific treasure he sold off for the gold. Next, the GM asks Jenn what went wrong in the dungeon. Perhaps Jenn’s character backstory or the provided adventure hook gives her the answer, but if Jenn feels stuck or has a creative block, the GM can give her a couple of ideas: maybe some of the cultists conducting the ritual in the dungeon escaped, or the party lost a member to a particularly nasty trap. This sets up the character’s emotional state: the rogue is anxious about some vengeful cultists that might be plotting the character’s demise, or he’s mourning his friend and contemplating the very real risks of treasure-hunting.
Finally, use the descriptions the players provided as cues to launch into the key event. If the GM knows that she wants the PCs be tasked by the local lord to deal with a threat (the adventure!), she could just have the local guard walk in and say that the PCs have been summoned, or the PCs could notice an official proclamation in the town square. But since the players so graciously offered up the coin-counting and people-watching descriptions, we can make a much more engaging and challenging Key Event with which to draw them into the plot.
Once you’ve established normalcy, it’s time to shake things up with what fiction writers call the “Key Event.” The Key Event should affect all the PCs, and it should be something that the PCs will all be motivated to pursue or care about. It’s got to make the PCs decide to engage with the adventure and leave their normal world/mundane life.
“Affecting everyone” can mean two different things: either the same thing happens to everyone, or something different happens to each character. To figure out what motivates them, look to their backstories, ideals, obligations, allies, etc. You can even ask the players directly what their characters want, and then improvise a hook that will put that desire in peril. Voila: you now have an irresistible carrot leading the PCs into the thick of things.
A Key Even for the heroic band of adventurers could be a roving band of orcs attacking the PCs’ idyllic village while they’re out talking to the local witch in the nearby forest. For the profit-minded tramp freighter crew, it’s when the sector police put out a warrant for their arrest while they’re trying to wrangle their next job in the star port. For the dutiful samurai, the Key Even strikes when a messenger delivers a letter from their favorite relative begging for their help, complete with a finger or toe assumedly detached from that relative. Whatever it is, the PCs can’t go back to how life was—not without dealing with some serious physical or emotional consequences, anyway. You can read more about the Call to Adventure here.
In a role-playing game, it’s best to make action and conflict inherent in the Key Event. The heroic band of adventurers returns from the witch’s hut and witnesses the last of the orc raiding parties burning down their village, giving them a chance to fight them off and possibly take a prisoner for questioning. The tramp freight crew has to decide whether to abandon the job and then figure out how to high-tail it out of there, fast. The samurai must decide how to deal with the messenger of said letter—do they kill him out of revenge, take him hostage, or follow him back to the people who orchestrated the letter, knowing full well the perpetrators will be expecting the PCs. They must also decide how much to tell their lord, knowing that telling their lord might forbid them from going after the relative.
In the earlier medieval fantasy RPG example, all the PCs are loitering in a tavern, counting their most recent treasure and watching out for trouble-makers. Based on these activities, the GM has come up with an idea for a fun way to introduce them to the local lord. The GM describes how a drunken patron accuses the rogue of stealing his coin purse–the patron claims his coins are right there on the table! The paladin, who’s been watching the whole time, could make a roll to see whether she saw the rogue perform such an act, or roll to see whom she believes. Soon, the drunken patron calls over his buddies, and a brawl ensues. The rogue and the paladin end up on the same side (fighting the drunkards) and in the same trouble when the local guard barge in and demand to know what is going on. The guards arrest everyone and bring them in for questioning. The local lord hears the guard captain’s report decides he has a need for a rogue and a paladin, so the lord summons them to deal with a problem in exchange for clemency regarding the brawl. He’ll even throw in some gold if they do a good job. The rogue is pleased to be out of trouble and getting more loot, and the paladin is glad to be able to mete out some justice. A party is formed, and a quest is issued!
By making the Key Event feature action and conflict, you present a much more fun and interesting way of involving the PCs. Action and conflict usually have the added bonus of being something the PCs cannot ignore, as they could with the simple summons or proclamation. The last thing you want in your first session is your players ignoring the adventure hooks you’re trying to dangle in front of them!
Last but not least, the first session is the perfect opportunity for the GM to hint at the malevolent forces behind the conflict and drama that will unfold during the adventure. The Call to Adventure or Key Event might have been an event orchestrated by the villain or merely the side effects of the villain’s plans. The PCs don’t have to know which of those two it is, just yet. In fact, it’s more important that you leave the PCs wanting to find out more. To do that, the GM can tantalize the PCs with some possible answers to the following questions about the villain:
In the medieval fantasy example, the clues regarding the villain are layered into the local lord’s explanation for the problem at hand: one of his villages has stopped paying its taxes, and when they chased the last tax collector out of town, they shouted that the yields of their fields now belonged to the entity worshipped by a heretical cult. The PCs they get an idea for who the villain might be: the cult. (Now, imagine if Jenn’s character had answered that one of the cultists got away. Her character might be somewhat responsible for the local lord’s trouble, though she wouldn’t want to admit that!) They get an idea for what the cultists want: food and supplies. And they get an idea for how the cultists get what they want: by converting the local populace to their religion.
It’s okay if the GM is less obvious about the clues than the above example, or if the PCs don’t understand the clues just yet—hopefully they’ll make the connection later on during the adventure, and then they’ll have that rush of excitement as some of the puzzle pieces fall into place! In the Kindlefint adventure from the Session 0 examples, the Key Event for the PCs is that they arrive at the town at the same time that kobolds are attacking. But they soon realize that the kobolds aren’t killing the villagers, and the kobolds are quick to retreat once they’ve kidnapped their target: the mayor’s daughter. Now, the players will be wondering what the kobolds want with one girl, and where are the kobolds taking her. These questions pull the players deeper into the plot and make them eager to find out the answers. Some of the PCs even have ties to the mayor’s daughter or the rumors of kobolds in the hills thanks to the personal adventure hooks the GM wrote up. Time to go chase down some kobolds!
When dropping hints about the villain, it also helps to reiterate why it’s so important that the PCs succeed. In the previous examples, the burning village and the severed appendage both illustrate what could happen in the PCs fail to stop the villains (more villages get burned, or more body parts arrive). To help drive the point home for the tramp freighters, the GM could describe another ship’s crew getting arrested in front of the tramp freighters. That’s the last thing the group wants right now! And what does it mean if other traders are getting arrested? Or, if the group decided to flee without picking up another job, the GM could have something happen or become apparent on the ship that makes the money from the lost job even more necessary than before. A part needs replacing, or their food/ammo/fuel supplies begin to run dangerously low. These, together with the stakes set up by the GM and players’ initial characterization of the world and their characters, will drive home why the PCs cannot ignore the Key Event.
By teasing details about the villain, igniting the plot with conflict and action, and highlighting what’s at stake for the PCs and the world, the GM can excite the players’ desire to know more and instantly get the group more engaged and interested in the adventure at hand. Now, the PCs should feel impatient to find out what is really going on and make sure that the bad possible scenarios do not come to pass. They realize what is good or bad about where they started, and they begin to think about what they’ll need to address if they want to change or safeguard what they have. You’ve set them up perfectly for Session #2: The First Quest.