Does the first session really matter that much?

I think I’m doing RPGs wrong.
Very wrong.

I keep gathering a group, struggling to sync them, choose (or make!) a system for them, then the struggle begins to come up with a beginning that’s compelling but still full of freedom, hooks and description.

Basically, I have to generate the momentum to kick off a campaign. Then we play. It goes pretty well. We may play again.

We basically never play more than twice. The group falls apart due to personal conflicts or real-life constraints, or anxiety/fatigue on my part.

And I’m thinking. Most RPG “shows” but also personal campaigns of people are… long-term. They get that momentum going and 99% of the sessions run on the energy of the previous one. If they know what the party might roughly do, the GM would have an easier time prepping what’s likely to be explored, and even so, they have a lot of existing material to go on.

Not sure what “the point” is, but my question would be… how do I become less anxious and creatively strained about RPGs? Am I focusing too much on a perfect first session? How do I keep games going for longer?

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I think this is a common struggle. I have no experience in this as I don’t normally run long term games. I might give it a try this summer. There can be multiple reasons why it doesn’t work I think. And it depends on the context.

  1. Is it an existing friend group trying out TTRPG’s or is it a group of strangers that came together to play TTRPG’s? Over time this might shift etc. But it means that the approach to the game is different. The first don’t usually care about what game is played. You come together and spend some time together, and that trumps anything else. It might mean frequently trying out new things. The second will come for this specific game, and if it clicks they will probably stick around.

  2. Storygames vs OSR, NSR, other strategy games:
    Storygames often have a session 0 that kind of sets everything the game is about together. OSR, NSR, strategic/tactical games often have a set game that people can bring their characters in and out of without trouble. In the Storygame approach, you need to show up, since you’re an integral part of the story. In the OSR style game, if a player falls away or a new one shows up, the world just keeps existing.

  3. The perfect game doesn’t exist. There is only your game and what you make of it. Find out what suits your game and your group the best, and go with that. Don’t compare to live-plays or tall tales told on the internet. Making mistakes is allowed, it’s even encouraged! It’s how you learn!

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TLDR: I don’t think it’s healthy to compare yourself to others.

Especially when it involves comparing yourself as an individual to groups involving multiple people, portrayed through stories reported second-hand or with expensive microphones … of great campaigns that had origins from pre-Covid times, or pre-iPhone times, for that matter. Perfect is the enemy of Happiness.

I suspect that the kind of personal campaigns of long-term groups you’re referring to – are usually built on local, in-person friendships that pre-exist the RPG session. Like, the first campaign I played in lasted about 7 months. It was with a group of friends I already knew in high school. I had classes with many of them, and we lived in close proximity. I knew them all before we ever even conceived of playing D&D together.

Finding and building these long-lasting groups takes time. Like, it can take more than 6 months, more than a year or even 2 years. Especially if you are attached to specific criteria like “Let’s play a non-mainstream game,” or if you have to sustain those friendships online, without the bond of a common university or workplace (or shared geography) where you might interact with those people in other walks of life, besides gaming.

If that makes sense?

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I’ll see if I can add anything helpful:

First, I think it’s ok for a first session to feel a little flat. Or, rather, I’ve often experienced good games that come out of underwhelming first sessions. There’s always going to be a learning curve — both in respect to a given game system and in respect to playing said system with a specific group of people. I don’t think the message “be ok with that kind of learning curve” is widely heard throughout internet discussion of the activity. (It may be widely stated, but as @TheBeardedBelgian and @CapKudzu both allude to, the message can be drowned out when we compare ourselves to some outside standard).

Second, I’ve found it to be practically pretty helpful to start small: I generally never plan on a long campaign to start with, but rather get together with a group with the intention of playing maybe 3-4 sessions, with the understanding that if we’re enjoying ourselves we may continue. Over the last few years I’ve been in a couple of year-long-plus games, but all of them started with the intention of just trying something out to see how we liked it. (And in some cases 3-4 sessions turned out to be enough). This approach has the added benefit of meaning that I’m not preparing much more than I’d actually need and so save myself from disappointment that I didn’t get to show off all the cool stuff I came up with.

Third, this may sound paradoxical, but I’ve had pretty good luck playing games with people I’ve met online when the games have been fairly obscure or niche-y. I’ve found people through websites or discord channels that are more focused on niche-y games and have ended up having good experiences with them, with a much better success rate than I see people report as having with random internet groups meeting to play more popular games. I think this is in part that if you want to play a niche-y game it’s because you actually want to play THAT specific game and not have some kind of more generalized “role playing experience” based on expectations that may be coming from who knows where.

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While I can’t speak to @Gardens specific campaign, I think one of the key aspects of running campaigns is to do as little work as you can before starting. Don’t design a game, don’t design a whole setting, don’t key a whole dungeon - don’t even think of keying a whole mega dungeon! If you have ideas you want to explore do only the work to start exploring them, adapt a well known system etc.

This way if things fall apart it’s easier to start again. It’s always easier to bend the game to the players’ interests. Finally it usually result in spending far less time at the start of your first session explaining things. One reason I use OD&D or B/X based systems, and I think one of the things that made the OSR successful, is that these systems were widely known by the community and simple to learn - even if you are making new rules or changes, using a strange setting or something like that, the players start with most of what they need to know. Likewise don’t info dump, your players don’t need to know a cosmology or history - they need to know only enough to get into the session start poking around.

I guess what I’m saying is get to playing as fast as possible with as little effort as you need to do it.

It also helps to build a community, my last campaign was made up of two people I’ve been playing with since 2010, and three new folks who were coworkers of one of them. Alternatively good online communities of players who have played together before helps, because they tend to have fewer conflicts and there’s always a good chance for new folks to drift in?

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All good points. I’ll add to what everyone’s said @Gardens by saying, sometimes it’s helped me to jump into games with other GMs when I feel drained with my own GMing. Not always, but it can help with perspective and might even feel energizing to just be a player and observe someone else’s approach while you recharge.

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Not sure if it’s your case, but in my experience GMs who have a group fall apart because of anxiety/fatigue for them often just aren’t in sync with the players about how the game is going. Often, a GM thinks the game was a bust when the players actually were quite happy with it.

I’d recommending a bit of a post-session wrap-up. Stars and wishes or some similar system can really help. Finding out what the players want can also take a lot of pressure off. You don’t need to stress as much about whether you’ve prepped something that’s going to be of interest if they just told you what they’re interested in seeing.

Also, I think it’s worth a mention that most long-running campaigns have a lot of sessions that just kinda muddle through. The muddling sessions are necessary to find a good rhythm, so don’t give up just because something felt like a slog. I’d compare it to good long-running TV series that usually have some flat-feeling filler episodes in the early seasons, then hit their stride later on.

But, of course, everyone’s game is different, so what works for one person won’t always work for another. Best of luck with your future games.

(edit: And be up-front with players when you think it went poorly. Starting the post-session with, “Man, I thought that combat was gonna be good, but it just dragged on. Sorry about that.” can really help. Maybe they’ll tell you it didn’t drag, maybe they’ll just laugh it off, but if they know you’re aware that something was off, they’ll be more invested in the next session, as they know that’s something you’ll be working to improve.)

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Can you give examples, Gardens, of some of these big opening sessions you have prepped? My feeling is that many users here are chiming in with general advice without first taking the time to clarify your specific problem.

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I’ve had great success by simply running one-shots/modules until something sticks. My last long running campaign lasted two years and started with a one-shot (actually 4 sessions) with strangers I found on r/lfg. In this case (there have also been misses too :wink: ), the group had great energy in play; liked the system and the vibe… and BOOM! A campaign was born. I then had a good idea of the tone/tempo/interests my players, making it WAY easier to write stuff for them.

From there, and to @GusL’s point, I now have a core of players that enjoy playing with each other; making adding new players mostly trivial. This definitely cuts down/out the anxiety of starting a new session.

I find availability fluctuates a LOT in summer so starting a campaign now might be challenging. I’m currently just running modules in an open table kind of way. Hilariously, I get the feeling the game I’m currently running, could EASILY become a campaign if we let it. We shall see…

TL;DR try not to sweat it. Or rather, maybe don’t look for a campaign… run games; have fun and you might find a campaign just falls in your lap!

Best of luck!

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Low expectations are key to my enjoyment of rpgs.

I don’t go into anything expecting it to become the long-term campaign of my dreams. I’m here for goofing around and trying stuff I’d never do or experience IRL. Like reading ASCII art off the battered scanner display of an impossible interstellar freighter; smooth-talking a corprat security guard who’s pointing an automatic weapon at me as my rockagirl companion tries to crack a laser-cage; or fighting a colossal serpent that recently killed my liege knight. Just imagining those situations does what I expect from ttrpgs.

So I’d advise living and playing in the moment. Focus on making each moment of a session as interesting and memorable as you can, don’t worry about long-term stuff. My best games and campaigns have come about when all or almost all of the participants had that attitude. Maybe even set that low bar of success in the first few moments of your first session: something like, “hey, we’re here to imagine some really tense and memorable situations, let’s be daring.”