Monday, October 9, 2017

The First Game Session, or "Herding Cats is Hard!"

OK, you've got your players, and they have their character sheets. You're all gathered 'round the gaming table (virtual or actual) and you're ready to start them on their grand adventure. You get their attention from behind your ST screen and the conversation quiets so the game can begin. All eyes are on you. No pressure.


You said it, Jen.

The first game session sets the tone for everything that follows. You're introducing the players to your style of running games, they're getting to field test how well the dots on their sheet translate into the character they want to play, everyone's getting a feel for the setting and the rules and maybe even each other if you've never gamed together before. That's a lot of first impressions to balance, and we haven't even factored in everyone's play style and player personalities, let alone character personalities and how all of this clashes in the moment.

Running a Mage game can feel like herding cats sometimes. So, here's some tips on how to bring your gaming catnip to the table:
  • Have a "cheat sheet" of minor story ideas (AKA subplots in the writing parlance) to throw at your players. Not everything in Mage has to be world-shaking horror. Smaller, street-level problems and moral quandries are especially good for the first few games, building up to the bigger stuff later on. My very first game with this new Mage group started with helping a kid who was being chased by two suited thugs, and escalated from there.
  • Encourage your players to form their own bonds of friendship. If your mages are in the same chantry like mine are, odds are good they've seen each other at least once, and may at least know each other as acquaintances prior to game start. Who knows who, and for how long? They don't need to be the best of friends right at the start, but they don't have to be perfect strangers, either.
  • Set the atmosphere. Don't forget to throw in a little something for all 5 senses. What does the night air smell like? What sounds fill the air, both near and afar? Perception and Alertness checks aren't just for what the characters see. Important clues can come in any form, from the coppery taste of blood to the squish of something under their shoes. For Awareness checks, describe that feeling of hair standing up on the back of their neck, or the power emanating from something or someone.
  • Don't have your players roll for every little thing. The rules are there to help move the story along, not to get in the way of a good time. Simple or obvious tasks don't need a roll unless there's some circumstance that would cause them to otherwise fail. For example, unlocking a car door normally doesn't need a roll, unless that player is unlocking their car door in a hurry before a Nephandi descends on them with death and terror.
  • When the rules get in the way of telling the best story possible, fudge 'em. That's why there's a screen for those running games - all your players need to know is that you're rolling dice. That doesn't mean you have to stick to that result. If you just rolled all successes on a damage roll, and that result would kill that character, scale it back to just incapacitating them.
  • And while we're on the subject of killing characters, this should never be your goal. Put the characters through hell, absolutely, but character death just because of a bad roll is anticlimactic and punishes the player for something beyond their control. Fudge those rules, or at the very least, check in with the player to see if they're OK with the character dying. Offer to have them go out in a blaze of glory, or make one last proclamation (or death curse!) before their character passes into the Great Beyond. Character death should have impact, either in-game or, even better, emotionally with the players. I still tear up thinking about the "last will" I wrote and read aloud to the group my character sacrificed himself to save.
Last but certainly not least, don't forget to have fun! Games should be fun, whether you're playing or running. Mage is a storytelling game, so as long as you and your players are enjoying the story and having a blast, that's a win!

Now you, too, can herd your own cats - er, players!

Next up: How do you follow that first session? Where do you go from there? If you have specific questions, and I mean any kind of questions about running a Mage game, drop them in the comments below or over at my chronicle thread on the Shadownessence forum!

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