The Edges of Sessions – Starting and Ending Sessions Well

In this post, I’m going to talk about starting and ending sessions, both for one-shots and ongoing games. While between them is where the play happens, a good start and end really help to make sure that the session hangs together – especially if you’re playing online. When you get together to game, you want everyone to focus on the game, and having a solid start gets everyone to focus on the game at hand, and engage fully with what’s happening in the session. Similarly, a good ending is useful to ensure that players leave the session engaged and enthused.

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Starting a One-Shot

If you’re at a convention, start with the obvious social stuff – introduce everyone, make sure the players know the length of the session, when you’ll have breaks, anything else they need to know about the physical game. Check people are comfortable where they’re sat / their online tech is working, and adjust if necessary.

At this stage you want to give an overview of the game. CATS is a great tool from the Gauntlet for this, but just an overview of the game and genre is helpful – don’t assume everyone has read the sign-up sheet. Key things to address include how deadly the game is, and how heroic you’re expecting the players to be. Some games have obvious genre confusions that can come up – for Vaesen, for instance, I like to stress that the PCs are on the side of industrialisation and humanity against the mythical beasts, and in a Glorantha game I make sure I usually cover why you hate the Lunars so much.

At this stage, cover your safety tools. An X-Card is a your baseline minimum – explain it, check everyone understands, and give examples of its use. Allow players to identify any lines and veils, there and then or privately to you, and check that everyone is on board with them.

Choosing pregens can be tricky – I find at cons players are likely to be super-polite about picking them – saying unhelpfully “I don’t mind who I play” and hoping shyer players come forwards. Things you can do to make this less awkward:

  • Have the pregens out as everyone is arriving and encourage players to look through them. Spot if anyone is particularly keen on one and suggest they take them
  • Be explicit about system mastery required – e.g. in 13th  Age, Fighters and Wizards require a bit more engagement with the system than Rangers or Clerics – say this to help players make an informed choice
  • Deal the pregens out randomly, one to each player, and then encourage players to swap if they want.

Then, get the game going – a brief opening scene, and then I like to get the players to describe the opening titles for the game – each showing their PC doing something awesome, with as much – or as little – description as they like. Sometimes, players naturally join these scenes together, which is awesome. Sit back, listen, be an audience, and help everyone get their describing chops warmed up, ready for your opening scene – which will of course be pacy and actiony and exciting.

Starting an Ongoing Game

Obviously, a lot of the above doesn’t apply to an ongoing game. Often, the best way to begin is with a recap. This can be tricky – I’ve tried a few methods, with varying results

  • Just recap yourself. This can help you signpost threads or key moments that might be relevant in this session, but does mean you have to remember the last session just at the time  when your brain is probably full of the next one
  • Get a player to recap. This can be awkward, if it isn’t clear who is doing it, as other players chip in – I’ve tried rolling a d4 to decide who has to recap, which was fun but not as focussed a start as I’d always like
  • Do an opening montage just as above – get each player to describe their key scene from, e.g. “Previously on Vaesen” that they’d show at the start of the episode.

With all of these, I think the key message is to have a routine that works for your game and your players. After this, it helps to tie up any loose ends, and do any “start of session” system stuff that needs to be done – e.g. Star Wars/Genesys rolling Force Points, any start of session moves in PBTA. Again, a routine for these helps, as they are easy to forget.

Another start of game ritual is asking players what their PCs have done since the last session. More and more games have downtime systems, but it can be as simple as asking them what they’ve spent their XP on, or what new spells and abilities their new level grants them.

Ending a Session

Firstly, better to end early than late. Especially in a con slot, but even in an ongoing game – finish after a big challenge or scene, rather than adding an extra half hour of less interesting stuff. As above, a cut scene can be a good way to foreshadow the next session.

In an ongoing game, after the end of the session’s play, I like to check in what I think the next session might look like – in some cases this is up to the PCs (are you going to go after the bounty on Tatooine or try and find the missing droids on Cloud City?), sometimes the players (do you want a more low-key investigation session next week, after fighting all those giants?), and sometimes it comes from the GM (I think next session Gringle is finally going to come after you, and you’ll spend the session dealing with the fallout from that – how does that sound?).

At the end of any session, it’s really good to get feedback – especially online, where you miss the post-game social element out completely. A good structure is to ask for stars and wishes from the session – and if that sounds a bit corny, or a bit like marking your homework, just roll with it. It’s become part of my standard approach and it really helps to both improve future sessions and celebrate awesomeness. It also establishes a balance where everyone at the table is responsible for enjoyment, not just whoever is facilitating the game.

The first few times, you might have to lead or model this discussion, and expect to encourage everyone to chip in. I’d recommend persisting with it – this can be both a really powerful tool to improve your group’s play culture, and also a safety net for anything that was tricky or just annoying in the session. It’s especially good for online one-shots; often, at the end of a session you can feel a bit drained as a GM, as the session just ends – having a quick discussion about it helps to sign it off and appreciate it for the future.

So, lots of ideas for starts and ends of sessions routines. What do you do to begin or finish sessions? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.

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