Starting a brand new story can be daunting if you don’t know where to begin. If you don’t have a story to start, you may want to review The Story chapter for how to obtain one. You will also need some players. If you don’t yet have players lined up, then consider who among friends and family might be interested. Seek out role-playing or gaming clubs or conventions to meet people that might be interested or investigate online RPG communities. Generally speaking, it’s easier to find players than it is to find Narrators.
Once you have players and a story, you should – before the first session – tell each of them the genre of the story/setting and request that they think of a protagonist. It is important that they know the genre so they can think of a fitting character – or at least know what they are getting into. For example, the player who creates a purely social character might feel useless in a combat-heavy story about giant spiders (though, it can be rewarding to make a character who is not necessarily best fitted to tackle the task at hand). Unless “not knowing the genre” is a major part of the story or a feature requested by your players, you should inform them of the genre ahead of time.
Before the first session, the players don’t have to have everything fully developed for their protagonist but they should at least have a two-word, “personality + noun” concept. Something like: “petty pirate”, “adventurous actress”, or “money-minded mayor” (alliteration not required). Some players will come up with ideas on the spot and you may even find yourself negotiating with them about how their detailed idea can exist within the setting. Other players may need some coaching in order to come up with protagonist ideas. They may need to know more details like the goal of the story or the scope of the setting. It’s okay to divulge this information to them. You may want to point them to typical characters in other works of fiction that might serve as inspiration.
At this point, you should schedule a special kind of session. This very first session won’t involve playing the story. Instead, this will be used to talk over the story as a group and create characters. This session is known as Act 0. It will be run and prepared for differently than the other types of sessions.
Starting Out: Suggested Order of Events
- Exploratory Phase
- Preparation Phase
- Narrator tells Players the genre of the story and setting
- Narrator requests Players to think of character ideas
- Narrator prepares for Act 0
- Schedule session
- Prepare agenda
- Prepare discussion notes
- Narrator hosts Act 0 (may require more than one session
- Narrator prepares for Act 1
- Narrator hosts Act 1; Session 1
- Narrator prepares for the next Act
- Narrator hosts the next Act
(Repeat steps 7 and 8 as needed until the story ends.)
Preparing for Act 0
To prepare for Act 0, you will need to draft a synopsis of the setting. This only needs to be as extensive as the story itself. At most, this might mean three pages – one with a summary of information and two more about locations. Players don’t need to memorize the synopsis, it is provided as reference during play.
The summary sheet should contain three things (in bullet form): setting knowledge, a brief history that the protagonists know and pertains to the story (perhaps an ancient legend or the events leading up to a war), and common rumors about the region. The rumors do not need to pertain to the story as long as they help build the imagery of the setting.
The location sheet(s) should contain brief bios of major cities (or districts) and landmarks that the protagonists would most likely know about. The bios should contain a smattering of trivia of the locations, almost like a travel brochure: (e.g. “Known for its spicy desserts, the rain forest city of Hu’Owamoh is a welcoming tourist destination,” etc.). It’s worth repeating: the only locations that should be on the sheet(s) are locations the protagonists would most likely know about and that are within the region the protagonists will explore.
The other major preparation is to study the rules and tools for crafting protagonists and ensuring all the character crafting handouts are ready (see the chapter on Characters for more information.)
Hosting Act 0
Being a special type of session, the purpose of Act 0 is to gather the players into the same room so, as a group, you can discuss expectations about play style, introduce the story, and craft the protagonists.
Unlike a typical session, the whole of Act 0 is considered “out of play” as the story hasn’t technically started yet. Even when the story is being introduced, it should be considered more of a rough preview rather than strict game play.
Since Act 0 has different needs, the suggested agenda is also different. Customize and tweak the agenda based on your needs:
Act 0 Agenda
- Player Introductions
- Setting information
- Create Protagonists
- Wrap Up
Housekeeping for Act 0 is handled the same as it is during any other session except it will feel much weirder – especially if it’s a new group. That’s okay if it does.
The Preview serves two purposes: to discuss the overall goal of the story and introduce the story. The goal of the story is often an indicative element to the genre: “to have an epic adventure”, “to partake in a scheme of intrigue”, “to uncover a dark and frightening plot.” But you can elaborate a little regarding expectations. For example:
Case 1. Ah – so the goal of this story is to go on an epic adventure. There will be high stakes combat with mighty – maybe even impossible – foes. There will be some cool discoveries on the way – if you look for them – but otherwise it should be a fun ride.
Case 2. We are gathering to embark on a most wicked scheme – one that will involve trickery and deceit – for the common good, of course. There will be carefully cautious information-gathering, stealthy spying, and perhaps a touch of some serious sabotage.
Case 3. You ready? No you aren’t. You might think you are but there is no way to be prepared for what awaits. You will be investigating mysterious goings-on and the more clues you discover, the more intense the horror you uncover, and the deeper you’ll wade into the murky mire of madness.
This might be self-explanatory, but you don’t need to go through Player Introductions if everyone knows each other. However, if this is the first time you are coming together as a group, ask everyone to explain their role-playing experience. Make sure to make it a welcoming experience – there’s no shame if this is a player’s first time, quite the contrary – it’s an honor to have them at your table!
Discussing Expectations regarding play style and behavior can be tricky but it is very helpful for avoiding messy social situations in the future. It’s far easier to assume that everyone feels like you do but that might not be true. Talking about these things upfront helps get everyone on the same page as well as offer a chance for players to provide input about certain aspects and open a dialogue. This is meant to be a discussion with input from players and the Narrator. There are no hard/fast rules to this.
The following list is not exhaustive but is a good starting point of things to discuss:
For Setting Information you should have prepared a summary of the setting (as discussed in the preparation section). Hand this out to the players and read through it together. This will allow them to absorb information and offer a time to ask follow up questions.
Breaks for Act 0 are handled the same as they are during any other session.
It is important to Create Protagonists as a group so the players can help each other with ideas as well as get more of a feel of what style of characters the group is going for. Instructions for protagonist creation are in the Character chapter.
Wrap up for Act 0 is handled the same as any other session. You may need to schedule another Act 0 session if protagonist generation isn’t quite complete. If this is the case, you may need to schedule the first half of the second Act 0 session for protagonist crafting and prepare a battle or story element so the players can test their characters out.