Help: Akward Session Opening

Started by dreamingjohnny, November 25, 2011, 12:03:25 PM

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Hello, first time poster, I´ll try to be brief with my bakground here so that I can get to the problem at hand.

I've been GMing on and of for most of the last 13 years, (I'll be 25 next month) racking up a lot of experience but also a lot of bad habits that I'm often unaware of. I´ve usually played freeform with a very small group of players (2 or 3), I can safely say that the quality of our sessions was very low and stagnant as we all had to different visions of play to be able to move forward in our gaming.
However a few years back there was a turning point for me, I found new players and a better environment to play in that has helped me back to what I really loved about this hobby.

Right now I'm adamant on kicking some of my old bad habits and I was hoping that this was the place to ask for advice (if not I apologize).

The thing is that a lot, if not all, of my sessions starts of badly.
I usually begin by asking the players to give a short summary of what happened last time, then I start by describing the scene (the one thing that I do well, I think) before expecting the players to take over, thing is, usually they don´t. Instead there is a long akward silence, people are looking in their notes, and then usually someone starts by asking a question or starts describing what they are doing but in a pretty mechanical way, without any feeling or immersion.

But it seems impossible to build up any immersion or mood from the start, instead the sessions gets a bad start when people just look around as if everyone is waiting for someone else to start.

I would really like to change this, so how should I start a session? How do you do it? What sort of things should one include and what should one avoid? Is this common, is it unrealistic of me to expect a session to take of immediately, is it maybe part of the medium that sessions takes a while to "warm up"?

Christoph Boeckle

Hello Johnny (assuming that is your real name)

Welcome to the Forge!

Could you please give us a more precise description of one such an awkward moment? What was the given game (as discussed in your group before starting play) about, anyway? Who were the characters and what was their purpose in this game? What did you really describe, as a GM? Just the scenery or a tension-filled situation? Did you place the player-characters in this freshly set scene or did you leave it to the players to tie them in?
Did the awkwardness persist for the whole session, or did it suddenly dissipate? If it was just a "warm-up awkwardness", at what point did it take off? If it persisted, what did the rest of the session look like and how long did you persist?

I suggest that we keep the discussion of "immersion" and "mood" for later, these two specific terms usually attract a shit-load of arguing that distracts from the initial poster's actual problem to be discussed, because it means something different for just about anyone. But the awkwardness you describe as having experienced in your play? You can nail that one down by describing some more, and it'll be your special brand of awkwardness that we can have a good look at. Once that's clear to all readers, maybe someone can figure out some techniques that you'll find useful (I don't believe in general advice that fits all play, except stuff like "respect one another", we need to know what could fit your particular play goals).

Callan S.


Actually in addition to Christoph's great questions I'd suggest giving an example of your actual play where you and the group (or if necessary, just you) felt immersed and there was a mood. Can be a few sentence or a longer account, eithers fine. I think such an account gives a really great definition of 'immersion', even if a definition that only fits the particular group in question.


Echo the above, plus, if the rest is a game is ok, perhaps discuss how the transition happens to the point where things take off.

I have to say usually I have seen the GM starting the ball rolling.  Getting the players to give feedback is worthwhile but perhaps right at the start is not the place.  What precisely is the purpose of this exercise?

Some people have had success with treating it like a TV series, with the GM giving a "last week on ..." type narration at the start of a session.  You can have a look at my recent character intro's thread for another take on getting the players kick-started.

In addition, there is a recognised problem with asking general questions of a group. You could also point to a player, and demand "what did you do last session" or something like that.  Identifying a specific person to take an action makes it much more likely to get done.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


Hi guys,

Thanks for all of your replies I'll put up answers to all of them come tuesday, I'm a bit bogged down right now, sorry.

Michiel R

Quote from: stefoid on November 26, 2011, 11:44:01 AM
Start with a cliffhanger situation.
I agree.

Or start with some nice fight (barfight), chase (stealing of equipement or some object) or other action.
Its nice though if you make the NPC or something else important in the rest of the session.


Sorry for the wait, I've been trying to catch up with school for a while.

So, anyway thanks for all the replies guy's I'll try to answer as clearly as I can but if there is something more that needs explaining just ask okay, I'm more than happy to talk about my role-playing games as it is and if it can actually help me with my problems than I'll be happy to throw words at it.

Alright first up: Christoph Boeckle

I GM a game of "Hunter: The Vigil" for "new World of Darkness" in which the players play ordinary humans in a modern world that discovers that there is monsters hidden around us that prey on helpless mortals. My chronicle is pretty new, we've roughly played four sessions spanning 4-5 hours apiece, and very slow going, less than 24 hours has taken place "in game". So far there has been no monsters visible, the PC:s are mostly trying to solve a lot of conflicts among their family while at the same time trying to find their cousin that has gone missing.

I currently have four players, two that is very new to role-playing (having played less than 30hours before joining my group), one that is experienced (having played an average of one a week for four years) and one that is very experienced (having played at least twice a week for eight years). They all play very ordinary humans that are all part of the same family. Currently they are trying to find out what happened to their cousin that was kidnapped on her wedding day but their whole family is so wrapped up in lies and petty hate for them to be able to do much of anything.

I've given them a few clues and some motives for pursuing this so I don´t think that the problem is them lacking things to do.

Now I've tried both cliffhangers and action scenes before several times but that only makes situations worse, it usually means that my players freeze up even more, hesitates and really don't enjoy the situation.

Instead we usually start the game with a calm scene, where they are sitting around discussing something or are just done with an important meeting. I usually starts by explaining the scene, where they are, who else is there, the time of day, the impressions that they get from their surroundings, if they are sleep or food deprived I usually add something about that as well. In most of these scenes they aren't in fact doing anything, they are "in between" different more important scenes as it were.

As for how long it persists, well it varies of course but for maybe five to fifteen minutes, and then it gradually goes away for the next thirty after that maybe? It may seem petty but those minutes really aren't enjoyable and when I GM as short sessions as I do that eats away a lot of time in the long run. The akwardness slowly goes away, I can't really say right now what it is that makes it go away, which is part of the reason this is so frustrating for me, it sort of slowly does over the next hour or so.

Callan S.
If I should give an example of a time when the group was really immersed and there was a mood:
Well there was one were the PC:s were involved in a huge row together with their uncles and grandmother, everyone was screaming, fighting or crying. One of the players almost started crying when her characters began fearing that she was loosing her mind. Everyone was very exited, their characters were screaming at each other but at the same time everyone (yes even the one that was crying) was having a good time.
Another would be when they all were gathered at the beach and was talking to an NPC who talked about how he always had felt alone and different but how he hoped that his sister (one of the players) could become one with God (it's really complicated) and that he would be happy to serve her then. Everyone felt sorry for him, but at the same time really creeped out since the God that he seems to want to believe in might be a demon of some sort (they really don't know what to believe right now, but they suspect that there is something evil in the water).
Both scenes were filled with emotions and the players really felt like their characters, but at the same time the scenes where different from each other, one was calm and just dialogue, the other was packed with rage and action.

I usually let the players do the "what happened last time" since it is an easy way to make sure that everyone is ready and has their notes in order (it is getting to be a lot of notes). Also I usually have a hard time remembering where we left of so this serves as a reminder for me as well.

Really everone, that you for your responses, it means a lot to me that I've found people who can help me pick this apart and fix it. I apologize if it was too long or too brief. If I missed some question, or didn't expand my answer enough let me know.

Christoph Boeckle

Hello there

No need to apologize for taking your time, I prefer slow posting.

It's still not clear to me who the player characters are. So they're members of a family, and this family experiences internal strife, plus a family member is missing.
1) Who is this family? What ties do they have to the setting and important events going on in the world?
2) Why are they fighting? Why don't they just move away from each other and stop having any interactions?
3) Why is it particularly important that this cousin is missing? Is the police handling the affair?
4) Are the PCs Hunters? What are they expected to do, really? Solve the family problem? Find the cousin? Who expects them to do these things? (It seems like half the family couldn't care less that the cousin is missing, or is downright happy with that fact.)

What part of this information is known to the players, and what is secret? What parts do you already know in advance, as a GM? Maybe have you decided that the cousin will turn up again at some point and any investigation will have been a red herring. Maybe you don't know yourself what happened to the cousin, yet.

I know I suggested to keep immersion and mood out of the discussion, but your reply sparked an idea. Could you give us a concrete example of a cliffhanger where the players froze up? Or just any situation where thinks are feeling awkward. What is happening in the fiction at the time? (Similar answers to those two examples you gave in reply to Callan would be perfect.)

Sorry, more questions and still no help. But we'll get there eventually!

Michiel R

Actually sounds like nice sessions.
I just thought about the tension span. Amongst other it is used in movies and plays. The tension start slow, with low action getting to know the characters, their environment etc. Then a turning point, a tilt of the normal situation. Which leads to point of no return and excalating actions. Then a conclusion, a resolution. Afterwards with a new puzzle, a new situation to begin the tension span again.

Thats for the theory and could very well go for the players also. Movies and plays often begin slow, to introduce the audience to the characters, make them confortable with the situation and feel with them. Could be the same for the players, start out slow, get out of daily life and into the character.

Quote from: dreamingjohnny on December 05, 2011, 09:17:57 AM
I usually let the players do the "what happened last time" since it is an easy way to make sure that everyone is ready and has their notes in order (it is getting to be a lot of notes). Also I usually have a hard time remembering where we left of so this serves as a reminder for me as well.
Then this could also be a reason, for if you have to get into what happened last time, the players will catch up on possible hasitation (uncounsiously).
(ps. forgive my bad English, I'm Dutch, you maygive me pointers as to spelling and such :) )


Hello there, no problem in this taking a while, I'm just happy people want me to tell them more about my chronicle, usually people tire before I do.

I'll answer Michiel R first by saying that yes actually I know what you are talking about, in order to become a better ST I've read up some on literary theory, and I know some about pacing, first act, first dorway and that sort of stuff. The chronicle is purposefully designed to have a slow start to ease the players, and their characters, into it. However the problem is not the speed, that is something that most of us are comfortable with taking really slow. The problem is that for the first half hour or so of every session people doesn't seem to get into their characters, they don't role play, it is a weird feeling and no one (especially not me) is having a good time.

I´ve tried re-capping myself, the problem is that I think that it gives the players less interactions, besides it risks my judgement clouding past events when I want them to be able to give their own versions, thoughts and feelings on what has happened.

And hey, I've got nothing to say about your language, I'm swedish myself so it can be a chore for me as well to get my thoughts across.

Oh and thank you, I'm quite happy with the sessions so far aswell apart from a few problems such as these.

Christop Boeckle.
Like I said, I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have about my chronicle and style of play, but just so we´re all clear, this is a problem I've had for a long time, so it is probably not something unique for this chronicle or setting. I'm just saying that I'm not sure that I understand what the point of it is.

Anyway I'll try to answer the questions but in order for the answers to make any sense I'll have to explain quite a lot I'm afraid. I also want to add that my chronicle has a theme concerning the evil that men do to women so some of the things that I might have to mention might sound terrible but believe me, the message of my chronicle, or the opinions or me or any of my players for that matter, is not to simply shock or disgust. We deal with terrible things but simply because terrible things are relevant and we deal with them in an mature manner.

1) To explain the family I'm afraid I'll have to start with some parts of the history of my setting. Shortly after the Second World War a man named Bo arrived to Gothenburg Sweden (where the chronicle takes place) having made himself a fortune in shipping during the war. This man, Bo, had earlier in life stumbled over an artefact and back in Gothenburg he started experimenting with it, trying to unlock it's powers. The artefact is a story unto it self but it is basically a Chtulhu-egg, that needs to be incubated inside a woman. So when he starts inviting his probable future bride to help him study it things go wrong and he infects her and himself with the spawn. The woman flees and starts a cult among the poor fishing villages outside of Gothenburg that starts to slowly grow in power.
Meanwhile Bo covers it up and swiftly marries the woman's sister, Selma, instead. Bitter over having lost the artefact he spends the rest of his life trying to find other traces of the powers that he knows are out there. For purely selfish reasons Bo seeks out people in the city that has discovered the cult that is spreading, in his hunt for personal power he helps many of them.
Meanwhile he starts a family with Selma. While Selma could've been a good mother Bo is a terror as a father turning his children against each other trying to find one that is powerful enough to be a worthy heir. Seeing as how selfish he is however he cannot see the value of others and is disappointed in all of his children.
Times pass and Bo and Selma starts having grandchildren, all of the PC:s are among this generation. The scars, lies and such that Bo has spread among his children spreads to their children and the PC:s are born and raised in an environment marinated in the sorrows and defeats that Bo has forced on his own children.

The PC:s however become childhood friends, despite their parents and there upbringing, and now when they have all reached adulthood they still have that special bond or childhood friendship.

So the family is pretty central to the plot, they are the ones that released the monsters that are spreading and gathering followers. Through Bo, who died two years back, they have some connections among the ones that already fight the monsters (their surname usually give some people a pause), and what ever sorcery that Bo released is still in their blood. The PC:s will be out helping other Hunters battle monsters and cultists but they will always come back to their own family and what they have done. There family holds some very competent individuals who already know some about what their grandfather has done, and some people who will most likely cause trouble for them (think of them as my version of Jason Stackhouse from "True Blood").
They will either cooperate with all of them (since they are all family as some will claim) or choose who in the family they want to stay close with.

My idea is that the PC:s will have to struggle trying to hold their family together while at the same time facing the sins of their grandfather and the sins that are already in their blood, they are part Chtulhu thanks to their grandfather. The chronicle will be part angst and old conflicts, part political power struggle (within the family, but also with other hunters) and one smaller part fights with half human half octopus things.

2) The family is beginning to break up now, it's been less than 24hours in. However some people in all the different camps wants to help find the missing cousin which is making them stay where they are. Also some people want to stay close to the PC:s so that they can sway them to their own point of view.

3) This special cousin has had quite close relationships to some NPC:s, so that is why she is so important to them. If you mean why she is important to the story it is because the clues that the PC:s will follow will lead them to discover some of the secrets of their family, three of the four groups of Hunters in the area and some of the first leads they will have on the monsters. They will stumble a bit further down the rabbit hole while looking for clues and then it will be too late to turn back.
Since this is World of Darkness the police doesn't really get involved. They show up and write a report sure. But as long as the streets are relatively free of violence they don't really care about something like this. They definitely don't care for the first twenty four hours or so, those that might be the most important if you want to find someone alive.

4) Well no, the PC:s aren't Hunters yet. They are very normal mortals who knows nothing about the monsters. In the short run they are expected to help there family out. They all know that the police wont do anything to save her. They are not expected to knock in doors guns blazing, but just asking around will be enough to reveal somethings to them that they will have a hard time ignoring. Their own affinity to the monsters will reveal some things to them once they start looking and so will the other Hunters.
In the long run I expect to get them motivated to fight the monsters that are plaguing their family, discover the dark secrets of their family and try to make the different groups of Hunters in the city work together against the monsters and their cult.
The missing cousins mother and their grandmother Selma expects them to help out since their cousin is kidnapped. No one in the family is happy over the cousin being kidnapped, they are just busy blaming each other or have very different views on what they should do in order to find her.

The players knows that we are playing Hunter and at some point there will appear monsters. I have also told them that they are expected to create characters that doesn't try to shy away from the monsters when they discover them. It is okay to be afraid, to cry and question your own sanity, but it is not okay to try to ignore the monsters or just stay your ground, it is "Hunter: the Vigil" after all, not "Hidden: the Passitivity".

I´ve planned some of the things that are going to happen in the chronicle, however just now I'm trying to create good interesting and engaging NPC:s and some antagonists. I've planned for them to later track the cousin to a bar in the harbor district but by then she will probably have been moved. They aren't going to find her for a long while though.

I'll check back in this evening to post some more answers but for now this is all that I've time to write, thanks for the help and let me know what more you want to know.

Neil the Wimp

A question about the social setting of the game and the players. What do you do between people coming in the door and starting to play? I ask because people often need a few minutes of low-pressure socialising and chatting before they can really start doing anything purposeful together. That means that you may want to build that into what you do at the start of the session.

How about you spend the first five to ten minutes on just chatting about what's been happening since you last met, as well as people reminding each other about the events of the last sessions and their plans for this one. This is not the start of the game! When everybody's comfortable that they've had enough catching up (probably when the chatting has dried up), then you collectively agree to start the game. Having an explicit start point might be a good idea, even if it's just you saying, "Is everyone ready to start the game? Yes? OK. Let's begin. PC1, you're in a deserted warehouse with..." and dive into the first scene, whatever it happens to be.
Milton Keynes RPG Club: .  Tuesday evenings.  Come join us!
Concrete Cow 12 a one-day con, 10 March 2012, Milton Keynes, UK.

Michiel R

Quote from: dreamingjohnny on December 06, 2011, 09:07:01 AMI'll answer Michiel R first by saying that yes actually I know what you are talking about, in order to become a better ST I've read up some on literary theory, and I know some about pacing, first act, first dorway and that sort of stuff. The chronicle is purposefully designed to have a slow start to ease the players, and their characters, into it. However the problem is not the speed, that is something that most of us are comfortable with taking really slow. The problem is that for the first half hour or so of every session people doesn't seem to get into their characters, they don't role play, it is a weird feeling and no one (especially not me) is having a good time.
Nice. You have my respect. I really like that kind of stuff, although I find it a bit hard to put it into practice.

In presenations people like asking yes or no answers to loosen the audience and get some response. Maybe its an idea to get more reaction from your players. In stead of discribing a situation and leave an open response from them, give them 2 options to choose from. Like a stranger comming along offering some information for money, will you do it or not~? The phone rings while your visiting someone do you answer~? An aquintance at a party starts threatening some PC´s with a knife to back off their investigations, what do you do~? (stand there and nod or put up a fight).

I also like the option of Neil.