Tell me if this is familiar: you’re playing an RPG, it’s the first session, and you’ve just wrapped up all the background stuff—who your characters are, how they’re related, where they fit in the world. You are ready to really start playing. The GM (maybe that’s you!) opens their mouth and… wait a minute. How do we actually start?
Not every game feels like this, but it happens often enough that I wanted to talk about it. This is something I’ve experienced mostly with very ensemble-oriented, dramatic games. Things like Cortex Plus Dramatic, or Powered by the Apocalypse games. In things like D&D, you have the trope of “You’re all in a tavern, and a mysterious stranger…” to kick things off, plus strong norms around picking-up-what-the-DM‘s-putting-down. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you’ve got “You roll into town” and then meeting someone who starts to show you the town’s problems. In Lady Blackbird or Poison’d you have a single opening scene baked into the game. So, yeah, not all games are shaped quite like this, but even in a game with a stronger or more established start, it can be hard to figure out just where the camera opens.
I’ve been there, in that moment, as both a GM and a player, so I wanted to meditate a bit on what I find works in that situation. None of this is Answers, or Pronouncements, of course—just what I’ve found works.
I find that owning it is best. “Give me a moment, I’m thinking about where we start.” Don’t try to cover, or fake or anything. People will be tolerant, and understanding. Even better: collaborate. Open the conversation up: “I think that I can see Alex getting hooked in if your mentor is threatened, but Lily, why might you get involved in that?” If someone has an idea, see what you can do with it. Maybe take a short break: “Hey, why doesn’t everyone take a break, get a snack, while I think about this?”
Another thing to do is think about what notes you have to hit. It’s often important to put characters in situations where they can interact with the mechanics of the game (in Masks, for instance, it’s no good putting them in a board-room discussion for a long first scene, when the mechanics focus around vulnerability, identity, and punching supervillains). For extra points, put them in a situation to show off their strengths and sell their failures; seeing both parts can be really instructive, and really drive the story. For example in Apocalypse World, think of a situation where the Brainer gets a chance to Open their Brain (which they’ll probably be good at), and maybe a chance to do some violence (which they’ll probably be bad at). In the first case, they get to show off how they’re awesome, and in the second, they get to show how they go head-first into failure, or work around it. So, this means that the mechanics can give you a great step up—in Masks, again, instead of simply asking “what are they doing?” you can narrow that to “who are they fighting, and why?”
If you don’t have a sense of what these characters want before starting, get one. What they want, and why they can’t have it yet, provides a great way to start. If you don’t know this at this point, ask. Often having trouble starting is a symptom of not enough information, so get to know these characters and their situation in more depth. To really do this well, don’t just scattershot ask questions, but see if you can ask questions around the particular area you’re uncertain of: “why you?” or “what’s broken and insufficient about your current situation?” or “what do you need?” or whatever.
Finally, of course, steal. Find a show, a book, a movie, hell, a burlesque act with an opening you like, and just use it. I promise you your game will not somehow be the same, or derivative. In any case, your specifics will have to be different, as you’ve got a different set of characters!
So, to recap: be honest, think about your mechanical goals, figure out what you need to know and ask about it, and steal. Hopefully this will help you. Are there other techniques you like? Anything you particularly like or dislike about these? Let me know!