The Dungeon Master’s Handbook: 3 Rituals for Getting the Session Started

You and the players are gathered around the table, the dice are ready to go, notes and character sheets shuffle around, and anticipation hangs in the air. But what do you say at the beginning of the session to get the ball rolling? Use these 3 rituals at the beginning of every session to get the players in their character’s mindset, get the creative juices flowing, and jumpstart the session.

Character Information

As everyone is getting settled in and the players begin to grab their character sheets I like to ask them for some information about their character. The first thing I ask them to do is look over their character sheet for a minute and take note of any abilities or items they want to try using during the session. Then I pass around a note card and have them write down their characters’ current Hit Points (HP) and Armor Class (AC). If we’re playing online I just ask them and write it down myself. I don’t use this to track their HP during the session but I do use it to reference the characters’ AC during combat to help move it along. Those seconds it takes the player to look up their AC every round add up. My other goal for this is it gets the player used to looking for their AC and HP. I’d rather the first time they check for that information is NOT during combat 20 minutes or more into the session.

Character Questions

This next step is quite fun and I’m sure your players will enjoy being able to be creative while adding their pieces to the world you’ve created for them. I like to ask the characters a getting-to-know-you question. I like to use questions like ‘What’s your favorite color?’, ‘Did you have a childhood pet?’, or ‘What’s your favorite gift you’ve ever received?’. It’s a small thing to do and it accomplishes two separate goals. One is getting the players to start thinking like their characters. The second is getting information about the characters that you can use later in the session or the campaign. Using the examples above I would use a favorite color in the description of a sunset, perhaps an NPC has a pet of the same breed, or maybe an NPC is in the same profession as the gift you received. Adding in little details like this makes the players feel more connected to the world and, by association, to the game.

A good source for questions is the video from Ginny Di titled ‘50 Character Builder Questions for your Tabletop Character.’ There’s a link in the description that has a link to a list of all the questions if you don’t want to watch the video.

The Story So Far

After those two rituals are taken care of it’s time to start recapping the story so far. I like to ask a player to volunteer to summarize what’s been going on and what happened last session. This helps me understand what the players remember and, more importantly, what the players think is crucial to the story. Then I will do a short recap of my own repeating what the player said as well as reiterating anything they didn’t include. If the session is a continuation of the last one (like a cliffhanger or something similar), I find it best to describe the scene as best as possible and then give the chance for a couple of ability or skill checks by the players. The goal is to get the dice rolling as soon as possible.

Secret Surprise 4th Ritual

My secret fourth ritual is one of the ‘8 Steps of D&D Prep’ from Sly Flourish’s book ‘Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.’ Step 2 is to create a ‘Strong Start’ for the session. Starting with some action allows everyone to get focused on the story quickly. The best way to do that is to have something the characters will react to or will want to investigate further. A fancy noble person could bump into the party and threaten to arrest the characters for something harmless. Then later during an important meeting, there is tension in the air as the noble person is needed for an important decision involving the characters. Perhaps the characters catch a glimpse of a couple reported missing days ago being harassed or chased by monsters. A friendly spirit guides the characters to the dwelling of an old magic user wanting brave heroes to carry on his legacy. If only they can retrieve a stolen amulet from the Spired Barrow of Marrone the Corrupt, an exiled priest who wishes to control all forms of life. Use the characters to start with action and you will have the beginnings of a fun session!

Notice, these rituals do not focus on the game system you are using. These can be applied to a variety of games like Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Worlds Without Number, and many more. Try some or all of these in your next session and let me know how they work for you. I would like to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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