If you’re running a game that is only likely to last a session or two, you’re probably going to get into the action pretty quickly as a matter of course. In longer term campaigns though, you have the option to take things slowly and build up the intensity as you advance the plot. This sums up pretty well how approach games, regardless of whether or not they are in a combat heavy setting, but I do also like to have at least one fight within the first session of a campaign; on occasion it has even been in the first scene.
This may seem like a bit of a contradiction, but I think there are plenty of good reasons to introduce your players to combat early on. In most RPGs, combat takes up a significant section of the rule book, regardless of how often a payer is expected to engage in it. This is because combat is usually one of the more complicated game mechanics in the rules, and where you will be rolling more dice than when compared to other encounters – if dice are involved at all that is, you could be using playing cards or tokens, but the principle remains the same.
If you’re going to be putting your characters’ lives in danger, with the most complicated bit of the rules, then it makes sense to me to drop this in nice and early, when it’s acceptable to have a small number of low level adversaries without it looking like you’re going easy on the players. Everyone will surely be expected to survive this encounter – I think we can all agree that most RPGs as they exist today have moved beyond the player versus GM paradigm, except when done in jest – and it gives the GM a chance to go through the mechanics of combat at a leisurely pace explaining the details that might get forgotten about in a more high octane combat encounter.
Also, if you’re lucky enough to be playing a very well designed system, the rules that govern combat will be very similar indeed to those used for random tests outside of it. So nice and early on in the game you get to to show them all of the ins and outs, and hopefully it will mean that they should absorb the basics of the mechanics that make up the rest of the game. In my own game I have gone to some lengths to ensure that no matter what the situation, you will be rolling the same dice, and applying them to your skill in the same manner, meaning that what is used in combat will be useful throughout the whole playing experience.
A further benefit is testing the water on who will be taking the lead in your game. This is useful for players too as they get an idea about who will most likely be calling the shots as the game moves forward. It might be a little old fashioned of thinking that gaming group needs a character to be the ‘leader’, but I have found this to be true regardless of whether it was intended or not. it’s not always one person, and it could change depending on the situation, but having someone who is prepared to make decisions that the group is expected to abide by is very useful at moving the plot along rather than letting it get bogged down by a long a circular argument about the best course of action.
Don’t get me wrong, there are games out there that thrive out his kind of role playing, and I love to see it around my table, but there should still be a point when someone has the ability to step forward and make a tough call, rather than letting the conversation do another lap of the subject without reaching a conclusion. Finding that person is easier to do if it is under a apparently stressful encounter – “apparently”, because as discussed, it’s pretty easy to keep people alive until at least the end of the first session – and doing without any idea about how they would react to harsh situations can lead to problems later down the line.
In a previous game I was playing in, one member of the party took on the leadership role from the offing, and then did everything to keep himself and the rest of us out of the action. Not always a bad thing, but since it was a military game, and we were a recon unit, it meant a lot of problems dealing with the chain of command and being able to complete our missions with the aggression we were expected to deliver. The next campaign game I will be running also has a military feel to it, and I will be dropping the players into combat from the very first moment, before even giving them too long to think about who they are or who should be in charge. It’s going to be a pretty intense baptism by fire, and I suggest you all give it a try at some point.