Congratulations — you’ve managed to rustle up a handful of players, maybe even titillated them with a hint of what’s in store for them. You’ve slogged through the char-gen process and, like horses held too long at the ready, the characters are chomping at the bit for what’s waiting for them down the road. Now, my friend, it’s all on you.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And that axiom holds true as steel in the arena of tabletop gaming. Setting the scene for your players, especially the first scene, is as vital to the flow of a night’s gaming (or a year’s campaign!) as good directions are for someone who’s never been to your house. If you take nothing else seriously that first night, it better be this.
There are all kinds of “how-to”s out there on how to create a great scene. How to describe, how to set up, how to think like an inhabitant of that world, how to yadda-yadda-yadda. So rather than recreate the wheel, I think I’d like to discuss the psychology of creating a good scene and what’s really at stake when you are at the cusp of a new session. These are the things I’ve found most important in creating the proper mindset for myself as a GM. Being aware of these has helped me write better scenes and get things off to a better start than any simple “how to”.
You Are Their Eyes. And their ears. And their hands. You have total sensory domination over the characters. Seem intimidating? Don’t let it be. Get drunk on it. Our senses are the most direct line to our most primitive emotional states. Your characters (in a playing sense) are born the moment they enter this new world, and their first experience will be touching this environment to which only you hold the key. Controlling what your players experience sensually in an opening scene determines whether or not the characters feel like this new world is a benevolent or hostile or indifferent place. While there is such a thing as “being overly descriptive”, you can usually be quite forgiven for being a tad verbose in an opening scene. Choose your words carefully, for they are your sole arsenal. Descriptives issued in embellished, high-gothic style tend to disassociate characters from their humanity; the suspension of reality is quite intense, but for supernatural thrillers, such a veil between the real and the not-to-be-believed is welcome. Descriptives that are earthy and rugged tend to flesh out characters quickly because they call on our own sensory memories. Where you walk the line between the down-to-earth and not-of-this-world is up to you. But the path you take and the way it touches the characters’ “physical” forms can and does determine a lot of the mood of your game.
You Are Their God. Kind of. For now. Keep in mind that this is, literally, the last moment you will have these characters completely in your control. From here on out, they will begin to shape this world you gave them to their liking. Such is free will, and it’s a bitch. Anything you want put in place — be it a mood, a theme, whatever — do it now. It’ll stick. And it’s your last chance. Use it wisely.
You Are Their Mirror. It’s important that you develop your scenes as well as (if not better than) you develop the interfacing NPCs. For one, the setting of the game is a character that gets nonstop, uninterrupted playtime constantly with every single character. Putting time into your backgrounds, descriptions, and details is well-worth it when you consider the amount of “stage time” the scenes themselves get. Also, characters, especially newly created ones in the hands of inexperienced players, have to have something against which to test themselves. Until they actually develop far enough to have interpersonal conflict or to avoid knee-jerk personality blunders, your scene is their mirror. Setting an eerie tone lets the player explore their character’s courage, stoicism, rationality, superstition. Setting an easygoing tone lets the player stir up their character’s wanderlust, curiosity, ambition, knack for finding trouble. Anything you do gives the character something to bounce off of and begin to discover themselves. It is, literally, the first opportunity the characters have to see themselves, through the looking glass of whatever your imagination conjures for them.
You Are Their Door. Everything a player comes to see and understand about this world is through the aperture of you. If you keep too much detail to yourself, they might never “get in” to your world. If you lay the door wide open, they might see too much. Neither of these is a bad thing, just be aware of how each is useful. You might shut that door and brace it shut with only a crack of light and understanding showing, make them work for what they discover, and their efforts to gain fluency in your vision will weave them in tightly. You might let them in full and overpower them, forcing them to draw back and narrow their scope, instilling in them a sense that, no, they are not indeed “paper gods” here. It’s all about perspective. You give them the truth you want them to have. They will call it sacred or heretical in their own time once the gold proves real or the gilt flakes off. And, my, isn’t that fun?
Setting a scene is solely your responsibility, and you just have to own that one. The scene is the partner with which the characters must dance, and you (most of the time) get to choose the music. You can’t blame your characters for being wallflowers if their date doesn’t show. You can’t blame your players for lack of interest if their dance partner doesn’t seem interesting, coquettish, and a suitable match. Take your scene and style her down to the curve of her lashes and the cut of her dress, breathe her into life and make her alive and responsive. The scene might follow the characters’ leads in time, but initial chemistry is vital. Make it spark. Leave them breathless.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression.