Once you have decided to run your first table, you’ll need to have an adventure to run your players through. The best advice I can give is to keep your first session realistic. By this, I mean don’t build a long story that will take months to complete. Keep it short, maybe a simple “one-shot” to get your feet wet. You need to learn what works and doesn’t work for you as a GM.
This first adventure should be straightforward to give you the opportunity to try out running a scenario. A pre-written scenario is usually good for this, however your own may be a better option. Pre-written scenarios often feel very formulaic and controlling. You have a set path with limited territory to explore if the players decide to go off script. So, let’s build your first game.
Writing an adventure takes time, assume roughly 5x’s as long as running it, so let’s not cut any corners. You should outline somewhere between 5 and 8 key parts in your story. There are lots of articles about the 5 Room Dungeon that you can read so you do that well. However, I am going to share with you tips to building your own first adventure and about how much time each of these parts should take at your gaming table with the players. Since this is your first time, you should also not shy away from using pre-generated character and monster materials you find.
Pregenerated Characters (10 minutes of in game time)
To help you better control your first game, build the characters for your players. This helps you a provide useful and balanced characters that can be intimately relevant to the story. If you prefer not do this, get character sheets from the players ahead of time so you can be ready for what they are going to play.
Build your adventure at the lowest, but most interesting, level. In most d20 type games, 4th level is a good starting point that lets the player characters keep moving through the adventure without a lot of rest stops (i.e. your magic users needing to rest to replenish spells and fighters to regain hit points). Nothing breaks an adventure’s momentum like having to camp after every encounter.
Background (0 minutes of in game time)
This part is more to help you organize your thoughts. These are your notes explaining what has led the characters and non-player characters (NPCs) to the current events and what part of the immediately important history is relevant to your scenario. If you are going to do pre-generated characters, this is a good place to note their names and backgrounds for quick reference during your scenario.
Your notes here will help you tell a consistent and quick paced story. If you want the players to seek out one of Luna’s Tears, a diamond of incredible legend and value, you want to be clear what magical properties it may have, who stole it a century ago, and how it came into the hands of the goblin king who now hides it in his warrens.
Introduction (10 minutes of in game time)
Here is where the players join you in the game. Think of this as the opening crawl for a Star Wars movie. What information do your players know entering the story? Do the characters already know each other? Are you going to be giving them invitations or is there a posting on the tavern wall asking for adventurers? This is where that hook into the adventure comes in. Do not jump into the scenario without some sort of explanation of the setting if it is something new to the players.
If halfway through the game there is something introduced that the players should have known but can derail the game if they do not, then you need to tell them. For example:
- Nation A is at war with Nation B. All citizens of Nation B are assumed to be spies so no one talks to them under severe penalty.
- Dungeons are all constructed by giant worms and the newest dungeons contain their larvae.
- Everyone from a young age is indoctrinated into a faith. To be agnostic or atheist is unheard of.
- In this world or universe, zombies or the undead have never been written about in literature or movies.
Opening (30 minutes of in game time)
Once you have finished the Introduction, you enter the player characters’ opening scene. Probably the most important questions are: where and why do they meet? This is an opportune time to encourage heavy roleplaying, where the players introduce their characters and you introduce your game’s story.
The traditional opening is in a tavern, the player characters are the only customers, so they gather at the same table, when an old man walks in with a ‘help wanted’ poster to find something. But really any similar opening works. The basic mechanics are:
- Player characters meet.
- A non-player character or an event introduces the hook.
- The players roleplay, discuss the adventure.
The Road (30 minutes of in game time)
Preparing to get on with the adventure, the players often want to go shopping, or do some other preparation before hitting the road. It could be haggling for goods, if you want to stick with roleplay, or solving a puzzle. This is a good part of the story to introduce important NPCs that may be critical to the story arc. Let them do this then you prepare for your very first random thug encounter (RTE)! This is where a story-themed event, generally combat, occurs to get the players’ familiar with the abilities of their characters.
This is a combat encounter because combat is what most players come for and the systems reward characters more for combat that roleplay. Build this encounter below the threat threshold of the players’ characters. Why? Because you’re about an hour or less into your session and you don’t want to end the game with a Total Party Kill (TPK). Ideally you do not want to end the first encounter with any character deaths if possible. This encounter is just to get the players a feel for the game you’re running, like a group of street goons. Something not very threatening but challenging.
Adventure Path (2 hours)
You enter the meat of your game here. What is the task the players are supposed to be pursuing? Here is where they start gathering clues, battling through the dungeon, or otherwise pursuing their adventure. This can take place in multiple parts, such as rooms in a dungeon or different NPCs they need to talk with to gather information.
Keep this part moving. Should the players wander off course, bring them back with an interesting noise, a possible new threat the next room over, or a nervous servant that draws them into the next part.
Have your encounters planned with whatever monsters or enemies the players will need to fight ready. Let the players get to as many parts as possible so they can complete the adventure, but do not drag this out. Your adventure needs to conclude on time and spending hours gathering superfluous information or exploring empty rooms will kill your game.
Climax (30 minutes)
Everything has built to this. The characters have gathered the necessary clues and they now must confront the final antagonist or revelation. This should be cinematic as much as possible. Think swashbuckling battles among the ropes of tangled pirate ships or the countdown on a reactor core in the last 10 seconds. If the players can just walk through this, your adventure needs more danger.
Conclusion (10 minutes)
Have a plan for how the adventure ends and how the world changes. In fact, have multiple plans for how the adventure may end and what changes are brought to the world through the characters efforts, if they end in success of failure. Even for a one-shot adventure, the players will want to know what happens in the world as a result of their actions. Prepare least three conclusions: success, failure, and partial success.
Do not, under any circumstances, have the players’ success conclude with failure. The adventure can conclude with the characters’ death or insanity, such as in Call of Cthulhu, but the conclusion cannot be that the villain wins despite all the efforts of the characters. The players’ need to feel like their efforts had a direct effect on the outcome of the scenario and your job as a GM and storyteller, is to give them that satisfaction
This may be a good time to wrap up some loose ends in the story that the players may be interested in, including details that may have been missed or were not discovered by the characters. It is typical for a GM to ‘hand waive’ these details and explain them outside the story. If possible have an NPC, preferably one they have already met, come forward to present these details or read something the characters may have seen days after the events of the scenario such as a newspaper clipping or a news story on TV.
Even as a one-shot, you should tell the players what their reward was at the end of the game. Their patron may give them a bonus for a job well done, or maybe the vampiress decided she needed more servitors for her army. You never know if your first adventure may turn into your first campaign, or if your players are going to want you to run more adventures and would like to gauge how generous you are in your rewards.
Before you sit down with your players, have everything printed that you need (such as character sheets and other handouts). You also want to be ready with what monsters/enemies the characters will encounter in each scene. Tab your books with the rules and creatures they will fight and use sticky notes on the pages for notes you’ll need to remember, especially if you deviate from what’s on the page.
Finally, have everything done several days in advance! Be ready and sleep on your first adventure for a few days. You want to be able to sit down at your first game relaxed and ready. Your players will enjoy the game more if you are ready to enjoy it with them.
With the right amount of preparation and attention to detail, writing you first scenario can be very rewarding.