Last session, as GM you introduced the players to the world just before setting it on fire. You gave them a glimpse of the villain’s plans and showcased the stakes of failure. Now, you’ve set the Player Characters loose in a brave new world so they can begin to get or learn what they need to oppose the villain or change who they are. No matter whether you’ve given them a linear quest line (A then B then C) or will let them choose between pursuing three different options (A, B, or C), you can keep the following tips in mind to nail the major beats of the second session.
After the events of the first session, the PCs know the world they’re used to is in danger—or has already been destroyed—and although they may not yet realize it, they are not alone in their struggle against the villain. There exist others who possesses some of the qualities the PCs do not yet have, whether that be martial or physical strength, emotional maturity or knowledge, societal connections, or even magic items/talismans. The PCs may already know of these others, or if not, these others come to know of the PCs.
These mentors and allies are familiar to us in film: Ben Kenobi in Star Wars or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Now, it’s your turn to create a memorable helper for the PCs, one who can help guide them on their path but will not or cannot overshadow them. And if the PCs don’t know what to do next, the mentor can help guide them to the first location or subplot, or give the PCs insight into the qualities that they currently lack.
As you’re considering who this character might be, don’t forget that you can potentially pull a character from the PCs’ backstories or the background of the McGuffin itself. In our discussion of the first session, we had examples featuring the PCs whose town was burned down by orcs, the tramp freighter crew who have an arrest warrant on their head, and the samurai whose relative has been kidnapped. In the first example, the mentor or ally figure could be the witch whose hut the PCs had been in when the orcs first arrived, or it could be the knight that one of the PCs had squired for before she became an adventurer herself. In the space opera example, you might invent an insider in the sector police force who’s sympathetic to the PCs, or a mobster who has moles in the force. As for the samurai, perhaps the seneschal of their castle might be sympathetic to their plight and will devise an excuse for them to leave the castle, or the lord’s own daughter favors one of the PCs and will try to convince her father to let the PCs go. In each case, consider what the mentor or ally possesses that the PCs do not, in addition to why the helper figure cannot simply solve the PCs’ problems him- or herself.
Finally, you should consider whether you’ll need to develop a stat block for the ally/mentor figure or whether you will want to just wing it if they get involved in combat or oppose a PC (e.g. in social encounters). I also like to include some notes for what the NPC looks like, how I should portray the NPC (personality, strengths and weaknesses, quirks), and the NPC’s underlying motivation.
You don’t have to decide now whether the ally/mentor will survive to the end of the campaign—ideally, that will be decided by the PCs’ actions—but you do want to make them someone the PCs will care about if the villain ends up going after the helper, or if the helper ends up betraying them in the end.
The moment the Player Characters leave behind the known world should be a significant one in the campaign. They’re committed now—they’re part of this story and they’ll have to navigate the new world. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the Crossing the Threshold moment. The hero enters an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules are not known: Luke Skywalker descends into the Mos Eisley Cantina or Frodo tries to keep his head down at The Prancing Pony.
First, though, the PCs have to get to the new location. This can be a test of their current abilities as an environmental encounter, but if you’re pressed for time or can’t think of a suitable traveling challenge, you can hand-wave it away as a screen wipe to the next scene. The journey doesn’t have to be a smooth one, and it’s possible the PCs might “crash land” at their new location with considerable disadvantages or complete unpreparedness. The more complications you want to throw in, the more you raise the tension and give the PCs a chance to struggle and grow.
Once they’ve arrived at the first new location, it’s the GM’s job to highlight the newness of it. To this end, you’ll want to create a set piece encounter that illustrates how this new realm is dangerous or how the PCs’ old behaviors will get them into trouble now. There might even be threshold guardians who do not want to let the unworthy through—it’s up to you to figure out what the guardian’s criteria is, but it could well have to do with some of the PCs’ internal struggles rather than simply their physical abilities. Roleplaying, environmental, or combat encounters (or some combination of the three) make the most sense as scaffolding for the set piece encounter, but it’s important that the PCs feel the weight of their decisions (they got themselves into trouble) or shortcomings (they are not yet worthy) through the obstacles of the scene. If the PCs fail or only narrowly succeed, all the better to show them that they are truly fish out of water now. But this (near) failure shouldn’t be the end of their story. No, this just drags them deeper into the thick of things.
The final and most important thing the PCs get to do during the second session is tackle the first subplot to bring them closer to their goals. I’ve written an entire article on creating subplots for RPGs, which you should check out if you haven’t already. One of the subplots you’ve created using that method will serve as the meat of this session and help end the session with a bang. As the PCs tackle their first real challenge and achieve the first part of their goals, they should uncover some of the answers they were looking for or gain some strength or item they were lacking. However, just as many new questions should be raised, or they become even more keenly aware of their deficiencies.
If the PCs don’t successfully complete the first subplot, that’s okay (provided they survive, anyway). It just means that you’ll have to improvise and take advantage of the moments the villains get to drive the story in Sessions 3, 5, and 7 to let the PCs try to make up for their losses. And if the PCs did succeed, they’re going to have a potentially angry villain to deal with in the next session.