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I am about to start a game with a bunch of strangers. I posted a flyer in a friendly local game shop (FLGS) and some folks responded enthusiastically. I talked a little bit to them about what sort of characters they would like to play and we're starting soon. We know what we want to play and what the game is going to be about, but we know very little about each other.

Obviously, the first game session is going to be very important, as we all want to play, but we also need to get to know each other. I assume everyone is a bit anxious about meeting some strangers to spend the evening with.

What should be the focus of that first game session? What techniques can I use to make everyone comfortable apart from plain not-being-an-ass? Can you recommend any tools that could help with getting to know everyone?

Finally, how would I know if my efforts are successful (or not)? What would be the signs of the group gelling nicely (or the opposite) apart from the general enjoyment of the game itself?

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Let people talk

While experienced groups often have a rule that says "keep out-of-characters banter to a minimum", that can go out the window for a fresh group of strangers. Give people chances to chat. That means keeping a big gap between "everyone is here" and "let's start the game", so people can get to know each other. It also means pausing the game for a few minutes if another player has an amusing OOC-tale to tell (so long as it isn't boring other people)

You might even realise you lost almost the entire evening to random banter, recalling other games and brainstorming ideas. That's fine, it means that next time you'll know each other better.

(The last time I set up a new group, it wasn't until the 3rd session that we really got into the game proper, but we did get to know each other quite well)

Consider food before the game

One of the great things that I try to work into every group I can is to include at least one meal in the game and preferably have it before we start playing. If at all possible, get a group member to prepare it or everyone bring something. This gives you a great time to catch up or get to know each other, gives you a bunch of easy topics (self prepped food is good talking material) and helps give you a nice atmosphere. It also gives a natural transition into the game when you call "let's clean up and get started".

Design characters together

For a number of systems it is actually a rule that characters are designed together, at the table. For others it is not. Regardless of what you play, it is important that in the narrative these characters are connected.

This allows you to skip over the awkward "five guys who don't know each other suddenly leave everything behind and go on a mighty quest" phase of the story, which will only be worse if you do not know the other players.

Instead you can jump right into the interesting parts of the story, and everyone has good reason to act friendly to the other players.

I would make it a rule that each character has a positive kind of relationship with at least half the others at the table. (Friends, colleagues, family, warbuddies, whatever, as long as they are in good standing together).

Lead by example

The GM often sets the stage and is a sort of measure of what is good conduct at a table. So make sure to give the right example. This is more of a general advice thing as even with people you know the GM often sets the level of immersion.

But especially with new people it is important to show them that it's perfectly fine to act like a fool with these people you do not know. Talk funny voices, make silly jokes, but also don't be afraid to pour on good descriptions and be serious when required. Others will follow your lead, so make it a good one.

Tools for getting to know others

In addition to this amazing kind of group-building activity called "roleplaying" (You probably heard of it? :P) there are also many other games that you can play that don't take up as much time and let you get to know each other.

Unsurprisingly, pick the ones that somehow factor storytelling into them. My absolute favorite for this is Dixit, as it is easy to explain and lets you see how people think. Other runners up are Cards against Humanity (requires an adult audience of people not easily offended. If you doubt whether or not this game would go over well, do NOT use it. It's as easy to get to know people as it is to sour the mood.) and Once Upon A Time

Games really do bond people together, especially the ones that force them to talk.

Also that other tool

Definately consider running people through the Same Page Tool to make sure everyone understands the kind of game being played. This goes for all groups, but especially when you don't know what to expect, this is a good one. Nothing ruins the mood like different expectations.

Keep in mind that the Same Page Tool is not a survey, it is a declaration! Use the tool as it is intended, or it will not help.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer. I'll definitely try to use these tips in the future. One issue though, I'd recommend against Cards against Humanity for a new group. Humor is in the eye of the beholder, and dark humor is even more fickle. When you don't know people it's easy to use the wrong kind of joke with the wrong set of people. I played a game with a group of people we didn't know and it was fun until it got awkward... Tread carefully. \$\endgroup\$ – HighlandRat Sep 1 '15 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, the "requires an adult audience of people not easily offended" is NOT an under-statement, you really need to make sure it holds for the people. It can easily turn sour, but it has also helped me get to know people really quickly. It's a mixed bag and if in doubt, I would also suggest you don't use it. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Sep 1 '15 at 16:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Five guys who don't know each other..." can be a problem or it can be an important and interesting phase of the campaign, if the DM gets it right. In the latter case, having the players as well as the characters getting to know each other and their various strengths and weaknesses would be a superb addition, and one you won't get often. \$\endgroup\$ – TimLymington Sep 3 '15 at 11:13
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When I'm in this situation, I just wanna talk with my players, ask some basic questions, and listen carefully.

First, I gotta make sure I schedule time for this. The orientation discussion should never feel rushed because it's eating into gameplay time. I have great success with pre-game rituals and this can set precedent for them if you want.

I've got a standard "new game, new group" talk that introduces how I approach RPGs ("collaborative improvisational storytelling") and invites a discussion about playstyles and expectations at the table ("How do we feel about sudden character death?" and "There is a Wombat of Discourse" get brought up). I like to think beforehand about the sorts of vocabulary and ideas I'll use in those talks. Now, a couple more specific structures:

One thing I like to start almost any new group with --students, Ruhi participants, RPG players, whatever-- is the "Who are you? Why are you here? When is lunch?" trio.

  • "Who are you?" in this case, means asking about their experience with gaming and what they like about it.
  • "Why are you here?" is about expectations: what motivated them to join the group and what are they hoping to get out of their time with me?
  • "When is lunch?" can be almost any light-hearted third topic, but food IS super important. Eating together bonds a group and hungry people don't perform well.

If I'm especially concerned about a group where most everyone is a stranger, I might prepare an appropriate icebreaker for bonding. It's not something I've really had much trouble with myself for RPG groups, but with other sorts of groups I've used a set of index cards with simple questions that can be answered at whatever level the person feels comfortable. Examples:

"If you could talk to anyone in the world, who would it be?"
"If you could have any kind of pet, what would it be?"
"If you could have any question answered, what would it be?"
"If you could live in any period of history, when would it be?"

They're easy get-to-know-you questions that people can be flippant or serious about. I handle it however the group wants: everybody draws a card and answers that question, or everyone answers the same question, whatever. (And of course if the group is gelling fine without the icebreaker, I just leave the cards in my bag and we move on.)

However I structure the discussion, I need to listen carefully: they'll tell me a lot without meaning to, about their likes and dislikes, prejudices and desires. Pop culture references they make can give clues to the sorts of genres and stories they'll enjoy, for instance. Tales of their previous games will hint what they want to see more of--and what they hope to never endure again.

"Listening carefully" is also going to tell you when the group's working well together. Signs will be different depending on culture and personalities, but common indications of group cohesion include: listening to each other, thinking about what's said before responding, asking attentive questions, making comfortable eye contact, finding common interests outside of the immediate activity, and supporting someone else's idea over one's own. Warning signs include paying exclusive attention to something outside the group's focus, talking at each other instead of with each other, and being closed to compromise.

I'm never DONE with group cohesion, though. Like any group of friends, an RPG group prospers most when its participants spend time together outside the game to cultivate their relationships and enrich the group dynamic. This is one reason I use pre-game rituals; it bakes group dynamic maintenance into the RPG experience.

The key idea, whatever specific tools I use, is to make an environment that's welcoming and comfortable. To this end, I try to model listening, compromising, and being honest about my own needs and desires at the table, and asking for help in making that happen.

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I like to start with one shots and low-commitment games.* It's a chance to play and try out a few different styles of game, and get a chance to make connections, feel each other out, and talk about what kinds of play you like. It also becomes a chance to see which players are dead set on one style of play, or have boundary issues and want everything "exactly THEIR way", and those sorts of red flags.

After a few games like that, you can then figure out if you want to do a something more long term, and you have some shared experiences to talk about and contrast with.

It's also important to realize that maybe this random selection group may not want the same things and that you can find it to be a "failed experiment" - it doesn't gel enough or there's personality conflicts or whatever. It's better to find this out within a few sessions than put months and months of time into it and then have it fall apart.

I have tried in the past to lay out exactly what I wanted, however, I find a lot of people are selective readers. "We're playing D&D 3.5 by the book" got me a crowd of people who didn't understand 5 foot steps or Attacks of Opportunity, really basic parts of that rules set. In the same sense, the Same Page Tool only works if the group is committed to honesty and towards trying to play together. There's a subset of players who consider everything "up for debate" and that a key part of play is them pushing for their preferred style of play, in spite of having just agreed to play the way the group discussed.

It's better to sort these people out early before you commit time in towards prep, play, and emotional expectations and then have to navigate the interpersonal drama while trying to play.

* My personal go-to games to test with are InSpectres, Hot Guys Making Out, and Lady Blackbird.

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Get to know one another, then draft a Social Contract

Introduce yourself. Tell the group who you are, what you do, how you came to be a GM, why you are interested in GMing for a group of players, and the expectations that you have for the game. Once your players get to know you, have the players do the same thing. Build the bonds of friendship and get to know why your players have come to play your game, and what they are expecting from you as a GM.

Once you've got that out of the way, set up a social contract. A social contract is a contract between the members of your group to handle situations such as absenteeism, what to do when people are late, being respectful to one another, no yelling at one another, not fiddling with their phones when playing, etc, and lay down a few other ground rules that you feel are important as to how you all should deal with one another.

Hash all of that out, get to know each other, take a break to get something to eat at a local fast food place or order a pizza split six ways, and then when everyone is done eating go ahead and start your first session. Food always helps a session go smoother, people are less likely to argue if you're the one feeding them. Even something as small as a pepperoni pizza and two liters of coke can really get the group in a nice feel-good mood.

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The best tool is the game itself

Before the first session but after the GM's interviewed potential new players, confirmed none are obvious sociopaths, determined some players' likes and dislikes, and informed players of some of his likes and dislikes, the GM should make available electronically background information necessary to participate effectively in the campaign and be ready to address comments and answer questions about this background.1

Also before the first session the GM should make a few characters based on what fits that campaign and the preferences players have expressed and make those characters available electronically to all players. The GM should be prepared to address comments and answer questions about these characters, too.2

Thus the GM will have provided information enough so the players know what reasonable characters (please more than one!) look like and, one hopes, enough information for players to make their own characters if they want. Further, if a player doesn't come equipped with his own character during that first session, the player can use a pregenerated PC that fits in the campaign.

Then, at the first session, establish early logistics (e.g. who sits where if that's a thing, where the restrooms are) and a schedule (e.g. break for lunch, when a session ends) then play the game.3

I've found it's better to run a low-risk scenario with pregenerated characters and learn during play that, for example, players' expectations don't align or that severe personality conflicts exist rather than to spend a session on mechanics and have to kick someone out via email. The true judge of compatibility is playing the game.

Time, shared experiences, and similar interests should turn the group into friends eventually, but, before then, everyone's shown up to play a role-playing game. Do that first, then after a few sessions if everyone's still a stranger it's probably time to go grab a post-session meal and learn a bit more about those other people at the table.


1 Ideally, the campaign background contains both a way for the PCs to already know each other and be allies (e.g. relatives, childhood friends, attended the same school, shared a mentor, serving the same patron) and the situation in which the PCs find themselves at the first session's start (e.g. on a boat, in a bar, at the mercy of the Broken Tooth Tribe of orcs about to be executed). This will make the transition into the first session go more smoothly.
2 You knew GMing was a lot of work, right?
3 Online interaction skews toward those folks who enjoy the character building process, but many folks who otherwise enjoy role-playing games don't like that part of role-playing games. Those folks want to play, and the GM does those folks a disservice by devoting a session to character-building. I am dead serious. I've had at least one person in every group I've ever gamed with that found the mechanics of character building a burden instead of a pleasure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, as much as your answer is a "How to set a game up 101", only the last sentence addresses the social issue that I have. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Aug 18 '15 at 21:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @eimyr I answered What should be the focus of that first game session? (playing the game), What techniques can I use to make everyone comfortable apart from plain not-being-an-ass? (lay the groundwork for the game), and Can you recommend any tools that could help with getting to know everyone? (play the game with them). After that you can judge How would I know if my efforts are successful (or not)? and What would be the signs of the group gelling nicely (or the opposite) apart from the general enjoyment of the game itself? I'm not sarcastic when I ask if those should be explicit. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 18 '15 at 21:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Very well. I guess future readers can appreciate this outlook as well. \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Aug 18 '15 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your footnote 2 is right about many players disliking the mechanics of character creation - but bear in mind that many groups benefit from collaborative character creation because it allows them to ensure that the characters' personalities all 'fit' together. There are ways to ensure good party cohesion without making character creation collaborative - Perhaps you could add one or two to your answer? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Aug 19 '15 at 0:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ (Footnote 2 has become 3 upon updating this answer to address GMJoe's Comment.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 19 '15 at 14:42
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I have been through a lot of games and my GM has always made it so that we lack certain qualities that another will have. That way instead of just doing it ourselves we start to rely on those people. So let's say you have a door that's locked. Instead of the mainline warrior knocking it down, have the crafty thief pick the lock. Or have it so that they have to combine powers such as a ranger needing an arrow infused with a spell to defeat a boss. That ranger would then have to team up with a wizard or druid to accomplish the goal.

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