When I’m planning to start up a new roleplaying game group, I typically go through a gamut of emotions and thoughts.
- What should we play?
- What kind of game will the players like?
- What kind of game will I like?
That last one is particularly important for me because I tend to have a short attention span when it comes to roleplaying games. I’m not the guy who runs marathon twelve-hour long game sessions or the guy who’s been running the same campaign for five to ten years. That level of intensity is way too much for me, and I start to lose interest in a game right around the time it starts to feel like work.
When I do get excited about a game concept, I’ll wind up putting a lot of work into preparation, much more so than I usually do. The danger I encounter here is that the reality of the game sometimes doesn’t match my expectations or my hopes. Much like writing a book, the game is never as good at the table as it is in your head.
The truth is that the players are probably never going to be excited about the game in the same way you are. That doesn’t mean they won’t like it, of course, or that they’re not enjoying it if it doesn’t match the vision you had for the game. You have to allow players the space to find the game they want to play. If you’re doing your job as a gamemaster, you should end up in a place where both of you are having a good time.
But that’s when you’re sitting down at the table. Before that happens, you need to get everyone to buy into the experience and pull up a chair. And if you’re not excited about running the game, no one is going to be excited about playing it. Part of your job as a gamemaster takes place before the game even starts. You have to find ways to sell the game to your players, to get them amped up for the experience they’re about to have.
Fun For Everyone
This is equally important for new and old players. Newer players don’t have a lot of expectations; they’re counting on you to guide them through the preliminary process of preparing for the game. They want to know what to expect, but everything sounds new and exciting for them. The biggest challenge with them is giving them plenty of tastes of what’s coming, but not overwhelm them.
More experienced players, on the other hand, like to know what they’re getting into. They’ve played a lot of sessions with a lot of people and it takes a lot to surprise them. While new players are wondering if they’ll know what to do when the game begins, older players are wondering if it will be worth their time and energy. They’ll want to have a much clearer picture of what the game’s going to be about, asking for information that would be far too much for a newer player to take into account.
But the experienced player also wants to be excited for the game. They want to have that same sense of wonder a newer player has, so anything you share with them beforehand has to scratch both itches at the same time.
It’s Not A Homework Assignment
When I run a game set in an original world (something I’ve created), I like to put together a player handbook for easy reference. Now, you have to be careful about this. Players are looking for a game, not homework. I used to run games in a vaguely Nordic setting I called “The Northlands” (this was before Skyrim came out, I swear), and I wrote up an extensive treatment of the setting that I provided to each player. The booklet was an eleven page Word document that detailed the major races, regions, and cities. I thought it was a great resource that answered every question about the setting players might have.
Naturally, most of them didn’t read a word of the damn thing and I don’t blame them a bit. Well, now I don’t, but I felt differently at the time!
As I go about preparing a game for a new group, I’m faced with a similar problem: How do I convey vital information about the setting to the players without making it seem like homework?
The Value of a Player Primer
The answer I’ve hit upon is to make the primer I put together pretty to look at and engaging to read. By filling the booklet with evocative images that set the tone for the game’s setting, players will hopefully get swept up in the aesthetics. After all, you could pick up a Star Wars picture book and get a pretty good idea of what the movies are like just by looking at the images. Secondly, I’m trying to integrate the artwork with descriptive text that provides more specific detail if players want it. Newer players will probably focus mostly on the art since it sets a tone for the game they’re going to be playing, but older players will want the details that tie in with that aesthetic.
By combining the two approaches, I’m hoping to end up with a (brief) primer that sets the stage for the game and gets all types of players excited to take part in it. More importantly, the process of making it has made me more excited for the game and forced me to consider a lot of ideas I’d have simply discarded under other circumstances.
The Drowned Lands
So what will all of this look like? Well, here are a few examples. The game I’m running is an old-fashioned D&D game using the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules and incorporating extensive elements from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I’ve put together custom builds of the game’s classes, dressing them out with equipment and magic items that reflect the nature of the setting. This first image is a write up for a “Drowned Priest”, which is a cleric who worships Cthulhu. The second image is a work-in-progress page from a section devoted to the Great Old Ones, who function as the gods of the setting. I went all out for this, with a full-color image, a distinctive quote pulled from the Mythos source material, and a block of text at the bottom providing a helpful description (which I haven’t written yet). Even if the player knows nothing about Hastur the Unspeakable, they’ll remember this page and draw conclusions based on the image.
Lastly, because I like to package things like this as if they were actual products, I’ve made a cover for the primer that will (hopefully) encourage players to open it up and have a look inside. The whole idea is to stir the player’s interest. Even if they read next to nothing, the layout and imagery will give them a sense of what kind of game they’re getting into.
Obviously, this approach won’t work for every gamemaster, but I hope it gives you a sense of how you can get excited for your game while building it up in your players’ minds as well.