One fact about your role as Game Master is that you are the one who will have the most initial excitement about a new campaign or series. As it should be. You are the one who conjured this idea from nothing. You’ve done the outlining, the world-building, and you’ve probably been the person most responsible for the Herculean task of organizing schedules. Compared to the players, you’ve been in this game for days or even weeks before any dice have even been rolled. So how do you make them care as much as you?
It’s a daunting task. If you’re anything like me, you sit down for the first session with a binder or tablet full of notes. You pass out all of the lore you’ve painstakingly pieced together, and crickets. Your friends stare at you like you’ve just laid your thesis on Subterranean Fungal Agriculture in front of them. It can be discouraging, but don’t worry. Here are a few techniques I have found to prevent player eyes from glazing over.
#1: Build Together
This is the simplest tool in the Game Master’s kit, but it is one that is often overlooked. Before you type a single word on the blank page which will become your masterpiece campaign, ask your players what kind of game they want to play. Usually, I’ll present a couple of one-two sentence series ideas that I’ve been kicking around. I keep list short, usually 3-5 ideas. This narrows the range of options and ensures we wind up with a game that I am passionate about writing.
It’s important to keep your “game pitch” concise, so you don’t slam them over the head with a long, rambling idea. Consider using pitches like:
A group of space pirates who traverse the solar system seeking treasure and infamy.
A team of supervillains who are forced to do black ops missions for the government in exchange for freedom.
Teenagers who awaken one morning to find that they have inexplicable powers and a timer on their arms that is counting down from 100 days.
Representatives of the free peoples who have been summoned for a secret council in a far-off Elven kingdom.
Did you notice something about each of those pitches? Each is centered around who the players will be playing. That is important. This gets their brains excited about the character THEY are going to create. This is the first step to investing them in the game.
In a perfect world my players will select their favorite pitch from the list, and we’ll be off and running. In practice it usually turns into a discussion, a discussion centered around what their character options are. They’ll come to you with questions and ideas. Foster their creativity. If they pitch something to you that sounds awesome, tell them that’s totally how it works in the world you’re imagining and steal the idea. This conversation is your best bet to integrate them into the world-building and make the game all of you want to play.
#2: The Iceberg Method
The Iceberg Method is a storytelling tool developed by Hemingway in the early 1920s in which he posits that, “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Essentially, Hemingway is saying not to reveal everything to the reader, or in this instance the player. When it comes to hooking players into the world of your game you want to employ a similar style. Only show 10% of the game to your players, but know the other 90%. This tool is especially important during your worldbuilding work. Don’t feel like you need to divulge every last drop of content that you’ve created.
Some Game Masters, myself included, build huge interconnected worlds, with a rich history, several major kingdoms, empires, hundreds of cities, religious lore, and piles upon piles of jargon, and macguffins. Worldbuilding is one of the great joys of Game Mastering. I’ve spent years working on both my fantasy and my super hero settings. I could tell you about the origins of Titan City all the way back to prehistoric times, or the line of succession of dragonborn matriarchs dating back to the beginning of Marvanion, but no one cares.
That information is vital to me in knowing the 90% so that I can make informed decisions on the fly when players ask questions, or travel off the beaten path. When I know the statistics, values, and geography of the village the heroes stumble into, it gives the world a feeling of verisimilitude and endlessness. However, droning on and on about the minutiae of your world is the fast track to boredom.
I mentioned the binder or tablet full of notes earlier. I still bring that to character creation, but I separate the information into easily digestible and relevant categories. In my fantasy games I’ll have separate folders for each playable race as well as folders dedicated to arcane magic in society and a list of worshipped deities and their domains. Inside the folders I will only write one-two paragraphs of information, providing a generalized explanation of the ways those races exist in the world. I’ll provide a sentence about their prominent spheres of influence (kingdoms, villages, empires, outposts, etc.), along with brief general societal beliefs and attitudes towards other races and themselves.
This information is the 10% of worldbuilding that your players need. It will inform their character designs and help ensure that what they come up with fits in the grand scheme of things. It also has the benefit of not making them go cross-eyed listening to you go on and on about elves when everyone just wants to play halflings and tieflings.
#3: Keep the Learning Curve Soft
This point ties into The Iceberg Method, but I feel it is important enough to discuss on its own. For your first couple of sessions, it’s important to familiarize them with the style and pace of the game. Don’t dump a ton of jargon and exposition at their feet when they’re first getting used to the game. They haven’t lived in the world long enough to become attached in any meaningful way, so telling them that the Dark Lord Vergfilatkcsyztik is looking for the Iridescent Prismforge of Dunlakniahguytha but is being opposed by his arch enemy Haerlhavenal the Hubristic, who only has the nickname because of his legendary service to the dragonborn emperor Vespasian, first of his name and the only dragonborn in history to ever gold medal in the Olympic sport of who gives a crap, will only alienate them and make them feel like they’re not really the stars of the show.
I’m not saying that you need to not tell them anything in the first session. Just that the information presented should be immediately relevant to the situation in which the heroes find themselves. A good rule of thumb I’ve found in my own work is to never introduce more than one or two concepts at a time. Whether this is NPCs, plotlines, macguffins, or all-consuming doom.
Introducing one or two elements at a time gives the players a chance to process and internalize the information provided. It lets them place a face with a name and attribute a level of importance to the thing introduced. It has the added benefit of allowing you to play one character at a time. This will cement that character’s personality and you won’t have to spend so much energy on carrying on a five or six-sided conversation with four of yourself and two hapless players who feel left out.
#4: Present Your Promises
Your first adventure with the players should set the bar for the “standard” adventure they will be facing. I call this presenting your promises. I usually use the “Indiana Jones” style beginning. In the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark we find the titular Indiana Jones in the middle of securing an idol in a booby -trapped cave. We don’t who hired him. We don’t if he’s good or evil. We just know that he is the kind of guy who gets into these daring situations and has the competence and drive to escape. After he escapes the boulder, we have some idea as viewers what kind of story we’re about to witness. There will be intrigue, treasure, ingenuity, and more than its fair share of close-calls.
You can do the same thing with your first game session. This adventure might not have anything to do with the metaplot you have kicking around your head, (that boulder never came back for revenge in Indy’s story), but it should be exciting, easy to digest, and emblematic of the style of campaign you plan on running.
If you plan on having a game with a ton of hack and slash, don’t have your first session be a lengthy council meeting where dozens of NPCs and the heroes meet to discuss their plan to overthrow the Dark Lord. Through them into the thick of it from the word go. Begin the session with them standing outside the dungeon ready to kick in the door and bash some goblin brains in. Give them a simple breakdown, “You find yourselves standing before a yawning cave mouth. That farmer hired you to get these orcs off his land, one way or another. The promise of 100 gold coins does wonders to settle the fear in your bellies. What do you do?” If your players are in the game to kick ass and take names, they will thank you for starting this way. Tailor this approach to the interests and playstyles of your own group and watch them perk up before your eyes.
#5 Show Don’t Tell
The last tool I will leave you with today is such a cornerstone of storytelling that it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason it’s still taught. There is nothing more engaging to a viewer than being able to draw one’s own conclusions, using evidence gathered by their own sensory input. That is the pedantic backbone of the advice, “Show Don’t Tell.”
You could sit your friends down at the gaming table and launch into an expositional tirade. Say they run into a vengeful, black knight. You could simply say, “This is Sir Archibald the Bonebreaker, disowned son of Sir Magnificence the Healer, who has sworn to strike down any and all of his father’s patients. He’s so very evil and much higher level than you, so I wouldn’t mess with him.”
Or, you could show Sir Archibald through his actions. “A formidable man in spiked black plate, strides menacingly through the streets. He pauses before a hovel and draws a jagged blade. Without a word, fire erupts from his sword and he slices through the door with one swing. He disappears into the shadows of the house. A single scream is all you hear.”
This is an exaggerated example, but we learn a lot more about this knight by observing him, and the players are free to draw their own conclusions. His presence fills more space in the mind’s eye. You can almost see this fierce warrior stalking the streets, carrying himself with dread purpose. They can see that he has plate armor and a magic sword of some variety, so they can infer how powerful he is compared to them. More importantly, they don’t have all the answers so the players have their curiosity piqued.
I try to be very sparing with long sections of flavor text in the adventures I write. Players usually don’t pay the text much mind, unless it is engaging and providing them with sensory information. Rattling off a long list of facts and names and locations and history is the easiest way to kill your pace and lose the attention of the players. Using your flavor text to show, instead of tell, increases its punch, and ensures that the players will listen all the way through.
These are just a few fundamentals of getting your players to invest in the game you’ve built. Ultimately, player engagement is a skill that you will work on developing through your entire Game Master career. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen right away. Just remember as you’re designing your games and your adventures to keep these basic ideas in mind. Build with the players. Be prepared to only give 10% of the whole story and world, but know that other 90% for yourself. Soften your learning curve. Present your promises, and show don’t tell. Thank you for reading and may all your hits be crits!
Next week we’ll be taking this topic even further and talking about how you can Increase Player Engagement Through Gameplay. Tips and tricks to keep their attention on the game and off their phones or side conversations.