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RPT Newsletter #1,176 | How To Start Every Session With A Bang!

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
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How To Start Every Session With A Bang!
From JohnnFour | Published October 18, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,176


I was excited to play but bored within minutes.
It became difficult to focus. I noticed other players starting to zone out too.
We were on Zoom, making it even harder.
Ideas and collaboration stopped.
It became GM => Player => Repeat. No flow between players. No flow between party and GM.
And the story disappeared. We were playing hit point countdowns.

Then the GM rallied.
Did an awesome job.
And everyone was back into it.

But I was watching, and could see how hard the GM worked to get the energy back.
Energy we began with but lost because of a slow start.
I believe it's more difficult creating positive energy than it is keeping it.

So we want to start sessions off with a bang!
And keep that energy going throughout the session.
I advise doing this in RPT 581 | The First 15 Minutes - How To Kickoff Great Game Sessions.

And here's a simple three-step approach for making this happen each time....


Step 1: Tweak the Last Encounter
You begin as you ended last game.

If standing before a door, you start with clear action.
If in town, you start with a confusion of choices.
Whether conscious or not, our session endings set the stage for our session beginnings.
So our opportunity here is to improvise session finales for Bang! type starts.

How do we do that?

We put the game into Encounter Mode as we wrap each session up.
What I mean is, we are running an encounter and not doing admin stuff. We're not in town shopping or doing other non-encounter, non-dramatic activities.
We break mid-encounter to give us a simple and clear way to start the next session.
Do this one thing and your GMing life becomes much easier because you'll have 100% confidence in how next session will start.
In turn, this lets you lean into prep easier, because you'll at least have control of the first encounter.
So, when you see session time hitting the last few minutes of gameplay, do what you can to enter into encounter mode.


Step 2: Spot Your Moment
We can stop an encounter at any time.

Top of initiative if you're in combat or are roleplaying-in-order works great.
But that's just one option.

Try to find a story hook and dangle that to end a session. An exit hook you might call it.
This will get everyone excited for next session because they'll want to know how the story turns out.

For example, I often end mid-combat. Session ends can wane in energy too. So some fun and meaningful melee in the last few minutes surges excitement.
And I'll stop the session mid-combat when moments like these pop up:

One or more characters finally reach the villain and are about to take a swing.
Someone in an important match-up criticals and is about to roll damage.
A PC makes a successful skill check to perform a combat-changing action.

Knowledge checks make awesome cliffhangers too.
After a successful skill check or question, you give out information that sets up a million other questions for next game.
Perfect.


Step 3: End Precariously

Session-break moment spotted, you now need to execute on delivering the hook that starts next session with a Bang!

First thing I'd do is figure out what type of exit hook I've got on my hands:
  • A mystery where something revealed in the last moments gets players chewing on possibilities (see RPT 1,037 | The Dangling Description Mystery Method Formula — The Secret Sauce To Riveting Descriptions)
  • Physical danger that makes players anxious about potential losses
  • Revelations that spur conspiracy theories
  • A major swing in the tide of battle (pun intended!)
  • Key information turns up that gets players planning between sessions
  • A surprise NPC who appears in a dire state
  • A second wave of foes, or perhaps even a villain, appears to cast big doubts on the outcome
We spot an opportunity to end the session on a high note.
Then we figure out what kind of opportunity it is.
Then we tweak things on-the-fly to support the type of exit hook we've got on our hands to ensure we don't lose any energy and can start next time with a Bang!

A mystery needs a central question that remains unanswered but also at least three details to start player speculation.
Physical danger gets covered by your game system. Use 3 Combat Stories to further enhance this exit hook type. (see RPT 1,158 | How Can You Make Combat Flow?)
Revelations also need three details, but at least two details should contradict each other.
Trigger planning with details that are accurate so players feel confident spending time crafting a plan.
Combat events are best built up with a clue give out in each prior round about the possibility or likelihood of the event happening (e.g., a crashed vehicle on its side starting to burn precedes a session-ending explosion).
Surprise NPCs drop-in best with a simple backstory that explains their timing and situation.

We want to tweak our encounter mid-stream to support the specific type of exit hook we're working with.
With some hooks you need to intensify the danger. Increase the threat, even if it's just perception.
And other hooks need details. True or false, complete or otherwise.
Regardless of type, you want to end mid-encounter in a place where players are on the edge of their seats eager to find out what happens at the start of next session.


You can achieve this in three steps:
  1. End your session mid-encounter
  2. Spot a great moment during the encounter to pause the session
  3. Leverage your exit hook to end precariously

Over to You
Give this a shot and let me know how it goes.
 
Last edited:

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Thank you Johnn,

That is a great tip and right on time. Again.

I had three sessions in a row in which the players loved it, but I was feeling down. The energy level was not what it used to be.
And that is for me most of the fun: to maintain or create that energy, and to feel and see how it makes my players react, sweat and thrive in.

Beginning of a new adventure arc

It is the beginning of a roughly 7 sessions new adventure (later edit: many, many more I fear), so it begins slow and gradually increases in pacing, but nevertheless, I felt something was missing. And your tip made me realize that it was not the design or pacing, but ultimately the energy level.


Session 1
The first session I began with an overview of all the good the party did in the last adventure, things that had changed in town, new friends they had made and new skills and information that they had gathered. They planned their new adventure which had already been clear with the end of the last adventure.
I ended when the party left town and rode into the morning sun with a croud of people cheering them on and the PCs having an easy feeling and anxious for a new adventure coming their way.

GM Comment: It was slow, but I liked that. The ending description elevated all of their spirits as it should do on beginning a new journey.


Session 2
The next session began with a completely different frame: a new party member that was for his own reasons travelling in their direction. I jumped a little back and forth between roleplaying with the sole new member and the party, but after only minutes they met. I could have created a better scene backdrop or NPC involvement in the meet, but after all, I was happy that the group met quickly and the adventure could proceed with a joint party.
I ended when they were mid-river with their packed wagon stripped to a raft dangerously tipping ever so slightly with the current when three (dead?) bodies drifted towards them and they pulled the first human aboard as the third suddenly moved. The last moment was when they realized that it was an orc and he attacked the party druid right away, while arrows flew towards them. I did not roll an attack or damage.

GM Comment: Typical combat commencement cliffhanger. I hadn’t planned for it. The party didn’t reach my intended end, but I felt it was necessary to end on a high note. I picked up on their jokes of underwater orcs earlier and after showing them that the raft is unsteady and then that there can come objects down the river (a big branch that could crash into them), it was the right time for the climax, I feel that it was a natural, nice development to that encounter. It was spontaneous, but it was good. Without it, my session would have missed a lot.


Session 3
And in this weekend’s session (edit: already some weeks ago) I began with the combat. That was easy. But I think I cannot do this all the time. Especially good was that I pointed out difficult combat options for the players, I noticed. Will the musketeer reach down to rescue the possibly dead child from the river, although if he fails all of his gunpowder might get harmed? Will he duck into cover or try to rescue the other possibly still living body from incoming arrows? Note to myself: I need to do this more often!
Anyway, I ended the session mid encounter as their will’o’wisp awoke and instantly splurted out that the survivor’s kid was dead, what they all had known but tried not talk about in front of the still severely injured survivor (its father). The will’o’wisp is a symbol of bad luck in my adventure and I might try to (or even should!) begin the next session with a bad luck encounter already on the road.

In the last moments of play though, I summarized their new information and their current plan of procedure:
  1. As the village the survivor came from is just on their way to the mountains, the PCs decided to leave the town of Old Auheim for the little village upstream called Thistle Bush that had been attacked by orcs and investigate for survivors and other.
  2. The PCs were intrigued by a location called elven bridge the survivor had tried to flee to. They are probably planning to visit it also, assuming that it is still on their way.
  3. The PCs agreed to investigate and to try to rescue the survivor’s wife from the orc camp deep in the damned forest. They weren't yet sure whether they actually could succeed with this.
  4. Finally, they intended to seek the hermit in the skull mountain just east of the damned forest. He was said to live in one of the "eyes" and know about copal creation as a family tradition.
  5. The PCs hoped that this hermit might tell them how to free their will’o’wisp friend Smirny from her copal necklace prison.
  6. Afterwards, they intended to help her upstream past the mountains to a supposed bog where she came from.
  7. And maybe then, as a reward, they would all receive the fulfillment of a wish that will'o'wisp were known to be able to bestow, even though their will'o'wisp comrade neither affirmed nor rejected that notion.
The players all agreed and the plan was clear.

GM Comment: But where would the next session start? That is still unclear, I later realized.
And this is where your tip comes in handy. Ending mid-encounter would have meant here to begin within the small town before they leave it, I believe.

I saw three options for the first encounter / the beginning of the next session:
  1. Still in town, discussion with the will'o'wisp
    In the last sessions, the object of their adventure, Smirny herself, was hardly getting any attention with all of the rest that happened. Now, it was the perfect time to picking up on her. She just awoke (as she does in the evening) and they could talk more to her and I could strengthen the mission content. Also, the adventure would benefit from it, and the relationship with Smirny could be established with all PCs.
    I fear though that the session would instantly begin very slow with roleplaying and then maybe PCs want to prepare things before finally leaving town. I have the impression that we will probably still be in town for half of the session and the pacing will dwindle.

  2. Already on the road, flinging them into a new situation
    In contrast, I could just ask the players during downtime whether there is anything else they would like to do in town and deal with that between session. And then I would start already on the road with a completely new scene, maybe first describing the endless arguing of their two NPCs, before giving them a choice on the road (tbd). On what happens, I may even roll on one of my random table for this.
    Although unconventional, this would jump them directly into a challenging situation and keep a nice pacing of the story. I would make very clear to the players that the whole story is composed of several scenes to which I can jump. There is no necessity for us to play everything (some journeys e.g.).This would stress the encompassing story. But this jump would directly counter your suggestion above, Johnn.

  3. Already at the next village, beginning of the horror
    Or, I start with them coming to the village that was attacked by orcs and begin the horror part. A shockingly long jump to the next place.

In my email to you, Johnn, I asked you what you would suggest I do. Thank you for your answers.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Now, the session is already played. I decided to jump to the middle of the road, Option 2.
And here is how it played out...

Session 4 Or: And then the plan hit the players...
Although I had checked before with my players on whether and what they intended to do before they departed, one of them had a "last-minute thing" he needed to do in the morning of departure... And then, I trashed my plannings and just went with it. We had some more secret information for him, some roleplaying and a quick start and departure from town. I ended up by hitting them with some random and planned encounters, they were attacked in the night (when the short-sighted musketeer held watch) by a group of dire wolves. Although they fended them off, it was a hard fight. A great shift in energy for the nicely beginning session. There were no casualties on the PC's side, but three were wounded, one of the NPCs badly. They used their last healing potion on her. All before they even reached the attacked village. Seeing through the eyes of a wolf badly wounded returning back to the pack, the Druid understood that the pack was under some kind of leadership... this was a great opportunity for me to shift the energy again towards investigation.
(By the way, the remaining dire wolves, led by some semi-intelligent bigger wolf who barked orders to the others, came back later when they were venturing into the attacked village. The wolves almost killed the PCs' horse and their NPCs waiting outside with the wagon and equipment - again threatening the PCs' resources)
So, the investigation part... on their 2 days of travel to Thistle Bush the PCs noticed a strange stone on top of a hill by the road. And indeed, they found their first dwarven waystone! In the first session they had read in the old chronicles of the Dwarven War of a place where the dwarven army went north to circumvent some orcish stronghold and where the king had marked a young tree with a symbol. That was between the third and fourth dwarven waystone, it said. And just a few miles north of that, the king had captured the will'o'wisp in copal. So the PCs had reasoned that somewhere there their companions bog was believed to be. So as they found the first waystone (the 11th west) they suddenly were a great step nearer to their goal.
Also, the musketeer noticed that the huge cracked boulder that had blocked the sight of the moss covered ancient waystone was lying in some sort of grass covered crater, suggesting that it dropped here. Although the others laughed at him, the druid checked and spoke with the boulder. And indeed, it was hurled by something huge, and probably from somewhere colder and more stony. This was already a nice premonition of something the PCs are going to meet later...
We ended the session as the PCs were approaching the village of Thistle Bush. They had taken a long time for investigation in the afternoon, so now they came to the village when it was already dark (which I had intended). And as they saw the first two bodies in the gloom, one hanging loosely from a beam, one tied up and with shredded clothing against another, and then hearing a strange clacking sound of something moving, the session ended with a sense of horror and the PCs asked the faint-hearted NPCs to wait while they prepared to investigate.

That was a nice session, I believe. It began great and ended great and had some emotional highs and lows in-between.


And the following were the next session beginnings and ends, in which you can see how I tried to focus on these for a better energy level.

Session 5
The session afterwards began when the PCs entered the village in darkness and didn't dare to light torches (they believed that there might still be some orcs left - and they were believed to have nightvision...).
During the session, the druid talked to crows that feared many creatures in town with big teeth and greenish. The PCs believed this to be a reference to orcs. Then they came across a few plundering goblins.
And the session ended with the druid skewering a goblin and killing it. It screamed and alarmed the whole village. The bard stormed forward to hit one goblin archer between shots. Alas, he only assumed that it had been only one goblin waiting in the darkness. He was hit right in the chest with a poisoned arrow. Still moderately wounded by the wolves, the arrow near his lung and the poison spreading throughout his body brought him down. He was dying and crawled to some place to hide from more arrows. And the musketeer only heard all this, but wasn't able to see it. With pounding heart he sneaked along a building only to notice in the last moment a vibration. He hurled around and looked up. A 6-9' huge spider jumped down at him. In the last moment, he realized that it was greenish...

Session 6
We began mid-combat between the musketeer and the huge spider, while the druid noticed several more such huge spiders coming towards them because of the loud goblin scream. And the bard was clumsily trying to not die right away. It was horryfing as all of them were in a dire situation and knew that the others were also.
During the session the bard was rescued by the druid's herbalism skills and the musketeer's daring venture alone towards a lone house in the darkness, where the will'o'wisp said she sensed some healing magic. As the bard was not only stabilized by back to moderate health by magic means and the others decided to keep an eye out for the huge spiders and goblins, they heard the loud howling and growling of the wolves attacking the horse and NPCs they left behind (see above). They rushed back and prevented the worst. But by then, the thatched roof of one of the buildings the musketeer had accidentally lit on fire burnt bright and strong. The building would burn down. The PCs decided to bring the corpses in to bring them to their last rest.
Only then, as they were all safely back outside, the cruel will'o'wisp mentioned that she was surprised that they left the man with his magic gambeson and boots. The PCs (and players) looked at each other and then the musketeer gave the bard his belts of ammunition and hurried back into the burning building. And with a crack of falling wood and brighter burning flames, we ended the session on yet another cliffhanger.

It is in sum one of the best ways of preparing for the next session!!
 
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