New games often have an awful lot of information to convey. Many have both a bespoke setting and a bespoke system. Players will want to know from the moment they sit down, what sort of dice are needed? What about character sheets? Some will be focussed on the mechanics, seeking to draw comparisons with similar game systems, while others more interested in the setting, and the role of the PC’s. And then there are many players who don’t engage at all from the outset, reserving judgement until later.
So, how to reconcile of the tension between a tremendous information dump, and not spending the first 30-45 minutes of the game talking about playing, rather than actually playing the game? I personally find that an integrated approach works best, and here are the steps I generally employ as part of a 'pre-flight checklist' before every game.
- Be well prepared before the game. Think about how to describe it, and make sure you have all the props (pre-generated characters, handouts etc.) printed and ready to go. I usually try to have the below list on a single page, with some dot points for each heading to jog my memory about what I’m going to say.
- Talk about other stuff before the game. Most important if you are running the game with strangers – it is important to get to know folks a little before the game begins and try and make sure everyone is comfortable and engaged. I usually ask about other games people have played, or other events at the ‘con.
- Now it’s time to talk about system. Unless you are using a system specifically designed for one-shots (Dread, Fiasco, EPOCH etc.) then you might need to consider making a cut-down or ‘lite’ version of the system and using only the mechanics that will actually be needed for the scenario you are running. I try and customise character sheets where possible so only the information needed for the specific scenario is presented. If combat is a major element of the game, I usually do a short introduction at this point, then revisit it later, when the characters have sheets in front of them, with an example in mind. It’s important to keep this system description as short, and to-the-point as possible, and ask if there are any questions after each main point. It’s likely there will be a recap of skill or combat rules when the scenario calls for this to occur, which should allow for additional reinforcement, and breaking up of the detail.
- Now the setting, where does the game take place? If it’s a high-concept setting then I usually try and have examples of other popular media to draw on and then explain the differences. What role do the characters have in that setting? Particularly flag the way that NPCs are likely to react to them in the context of the scenario, so everyone is one the same page when the game begins.
- Break out the pre-generated characters or backgrounds. These should always be as short as possible, ideally no more than a couple of paragraphs. More than that and it's likely that not all the players will absorb the details. As an example, check out the way I set out pre-generated characters in Sundown, my Call of Cthulhu scenario of the Old West. If you want the players to have more time to absorb the information, you might hand out the sheets at point 4 instead, but be aware that players may ignore subsequent description in favour of looking at their sheets.
- Finally it’s time to begin the game. I usually introduce each character first, either with a dedicated vignette scene, or by framing their arrival at a destination, and asking the player to add additional details, like a description of their character, then prompt them to embellish this with some additional detail and mannerisms. Hopefully this way, all of the players understand each other's characters and are ready to interact when the scenario first puts them together.