When starting out a session, as the GM, do you ask what the players are currently doing, or do you “set the scene”…

When starting out a session, as the GM, do you ask what the players are currently doing, or do you “set the scene”…

When starting out a session, as the GM, do you ask what the players are currently doing, or do you “set the scene” for them?

I haven’t tried the latter yet, even though I wanted to. Usually, a player mentions something about their character that sets the scene for me, and it is usually very “safe”, like standing in their home village or something. In the moment, it is hard to turn this into something interesting, so usually I’ll spend half an hour poking them into the snake pit.

I’m thinking about telling the players beforehand that they shouldn’t say where they are or anything like that, but only answer the questions I ask them, letting me set the scene.

It’s not that I mind not setting the scene, it’s just easier to throw some action their way when you do it.


24 thoughts on “When starting out a session, as the GM, do you ask what the players are currently doing, or do you “set the scene”…”

  1. As a GM, i tend to set the scene, then ask questions. I find it easier to start the game that way, the rest then tends to flow from this scene setting, most often driven by the players.

  2. I’ve done both, and each can work. The players usually pick a neutral start, but i like kicking things off in high gear.

    “Everyhing’s on fire! Why?”

    “Your’e being chased by an angry mob. What did you do?”

  3. I like to put them in danger when I start. What I’ve failed to do so far is ask questions. Why are the monsters chasing you? What are you doing in the Swamp of Eternal Pestilence? That sort of thing…

  4. I like to ask general questions about the PCs and the world first and then drop them in a situation inspired by their choices. I don’t however really let players dictate where they start really. 

  5. Wow Eric Nieudan , I had never thought of how interesting/fun it could be to start them in the danger!

    I usually set the scene briefly then use questions to fill in the gaps.

    “You are in the city of the dwarves,  What was their reason for asking you to leave? “

    Stuff like that. I’m hosting a game tonight, so I will definitely be using the danger plus questions technique!

    Thanks guys!  

  6. I think your technique Matt Smith doesn’t give the players something to do RIGHT NOW. They are unsure what to do. Giving players something to do RIGHT NOW! is really important in a “sandbox” style game because otherwise you are struggling with something. Putting them right in the action works way better i think because it hooks them into the game instantaneous. As you go around and make your moves, also ask them more questions to establish why they are in the danger. 

  7. Adrian Thoen I know that both can work, one from experience, and the other because I trust the advice given by Sage and Adam in the book. I just feel that the neutral starting points takes a lot of mental effort to make interesting on my part, being under pressure and all that.

    Noel O’Connor I might try to set the scene before asking all the questions this Sunday. I’ve long wanted to do an airship-to-airship battle, or having the players start on a steam train being boarded by gnomes with chainsaws 😉

    Eric Nieudan You surely remember how we started the Rise of Ri’leth story arc, which was kind of neutral, but there I asked you directly where you were, and why you were there. It went well, but it was hard to get the game going. I think that I should have opened with “You stare at the body of the murdered woman. Where are you, and how did you find her? And did you do it?” before asking questions. I think it would have kicked things off a lot faster. I’ll try that method next time.

    Tim Franzke In the session we played, where I gm’ed, I let Jonathan Henry set the scene, but I fumbled on the handling. I should have done as Adrian Thoen suggested, and asked what was currently burning the city down.

  8. Good tip, look for an interesting thing the player mentioned about the world. Something you want to find out what happens with it. 

    Put the players in front of it. It could either be a thing like a magical alien meteor that they can start to explore. Or an enemy/creature/person that they can engange with however they want. 

  9. Kasper Brohus The GM section has always been hard for me to read. I think I’m a player at heart. Either way, thanks for letting me know where I can find that, I’ll give it another read through!

  10. There’s an ogre smashing through the stone wall, screaming something about little thieves! What did you steal?

    All the doors to the room you’re in just slammed shut, and a purple gas begins oozing in. Who triggered the trap?

    The swamp stinks, there’s a million bite flies, the wizard’s running a fever, and the fighter’s up to her waist in quicksand? What are you hunting in this miserable stinking place?

    There’s a collective gasp in the ballroom, and the duke looks like he’s about to faint. There’s like forty armed guards running at you, and the princess is muttering that you better get her out of here. Who blew your cover?

    The earth in front of the gravestones erupts, dedicated hands clawing at the air. Corpses moan as they pull themselves out if the dirt. Are you being paid to rid thus graveyard of its curse?

    Felim the Fence is swearing at you incoherently in Gob, and her thugs are surrounding you. Why did the deal go south?

    The constable is reciting your long list of crimes as the hangman puts the noose around your neck. What’s the highlight crime that got you your new hempen necktie?

    Everything seems great! You’re surrounded by breathtakingly attractive, scantily clad people willing to fulfil your every desire. What tips you off that its all an illusion?

    I could do these all day!

  11. Due to time and scheduling issues, I can pretty much only run one shots. So I need a very clear goal and a very solid hook for the character/players. To that end, I usually start in the middle of a fight or with the PCs mid-way to the adventure sight (and have them make an Undertake a Perilous Journey Move). But I also craft leading set up questions that both provide and elicit information.

    For example, I’d ask the players something like “Why have you sworn revenge on the Snake Cult?” or “What foul magics did the Snake Cult Priestesses use when you cleared out that corrupted temple?”. Then I start the adventure with the characters following the trail of the Snake Cultists, who have taken captives back to their lair.

    It’s railroady, but I think one shots need a very clear goal. And of course I ask follow up questions about the answers the players give me and weave those into the story. I find most of my prep work is wording my set up questions. 😛

  12. Matt Smith I’ve only skimmed through the GM advice myself, but I’m an old Feng Shui hand. It’s a game that strongly suggests you start in media res (which, as Robin Laws wrote it somewhere, is Latin for “not boring”).

    Kasper Brohus That would certainly have put more pressure on us. But did you know about the murder when we started? 😉

    Also, a soft start gives a chance for the players to establish relationships and get a feel for their new heroes. I’m not sure that, had you started with the murder scene, we would have come up with the elf dumb and dumber routine we now have for Sinathel & Falafael.

  13. I usually set the scene in some way (Danger!) and then ask all kinds of questions.  It gives the players some context and usually helps them get some ideas in regards to providing the answers.  I then run things straight from the answers.

  14. My group started with the Indigo Galleon and has been continuing on the same plot line since then. We usually just start with a recap. Yesterday though, a new player joined in, and I gave him the opportunity to start off however he wanted before he joined the main group. The player was not prepared to come up with a scenario and just hemmed and hawed for a while. Finally I asked a spectator what the player was doing, and they came up with a scenario that ended up with the PC (a thief) grifting a rich old lady by seducing her. The PC was so offended by that that he finally opened himself up and said, “NO, I am not doing that, I am doing this!” and came up with this great story about these interdimensional thief/monks. 

    I’m not sure what lesson I learned from that… maybe teach your players to embrace the agency they have by punishing them with a ridiculous situation if they don’t? Hehehe… probably not great advice.

  15. Sara Gore the biggest barrier to new players (either new to RPGs in general, or new to improvisation-heavy games like dungeon world) can be drawing blank when they’re on the spot, and they’ve got no context in which to portray their character. Nothing exists in a void, so a few details and context will help them direct their character.

    The benefit of an in media res start, beyond getting the action going straight away and letting the players get used to their moved etc, is that you can ease them into their high level of agency. It’s the same principle behind draw maps, leave blanks. You help direct their creativity with the context you provide through your statements and question.

    “An old lady is getting conned. Are you trying to help her or doing the conning?”

  16. I actually did try to start this thief in media res but he kind of freaked out about that and demanded backstory. For some reason, DW in general freaked him out, and although he’s a D&D player, I didn’t think he had been playing D&D long enough to calcify like that… it was weird.

  17. Guy Sodin , that’s awesome. I had already decided that “storm serpents” were in the storm, but if one of players gave that answer you better believe it would have been “storm squids”.

    My players answers were pretty darn good though:

    “It’s not storm season.”

    “The color of the lightning”

    “The way my tattoo given to me by death herself reacts to the storm”

Comments are closed.