You might have noticed, in reading my multiple-thousand-word ramblings, that I’m one of those rare creatures that has a good sense of both the mechanical game designy crap and someone who understands how a story comes together. In point of fact, I’m one of the few people in the world who can actually truly claim to true be a storygamer, despite the fact that storygamey f$&%wits hate me. The main reason for that is that most storygamers would prefer to forget the “game” part of that term. They want to be storyexperiencers. Game elements f$&% up their stories.
I’d argue that a good GM – instead of a pretentious storyexperience hipster – needs to understand both and treats the game as a constant tug of war between those elements. And nowhere is that more evident than when GMs start building their own adventures. Now, we’ve been talking a lot about structure – both in terms of the gamey, decision making elements in terms of things like pacing a good narrative. But it’s time for us to start digging in to the nitty gritty, down and dirty parts of building an adventure. So far, we’ve been high-concept and theoretical with all that bulls$&% about motivations and resolutions and structures. And we’ve gotten away from the fact that, despite the fact that an adventure is NOT just a series of connected scenes, an adventure PLAYS OUT as a series of connected scenes.
And by now, I hope to f$&% you understand the distinction.
Most of adventure building, once you get past all the big bulls$&% isn’t actually adventure building at all. It’s encounter building. Scene building. And we’ve covered some of that already when we talked about how to build chases and combat encounters and social interactions. But we’re going to spend more time now on populating your adventure with scenes and encounters and polish up some of the disjointed advice of the past and put it into the context of the adventure. And to get started, we’re going to start with the one scene that every adventure is guaranteed to have. And to discuss that, I am going to have to blow your mind with the most unimaginable bit of narrative structure bulls$&% you’ve ever heard. It’s the sort of thing you can’t get anywhere else. Ready? Here it is…
Every Story Has a Beginning
That’s it. Amazing, right? You had no idea, I’ll bet. But it’s true. Every story has a beginning. And when the story is an RPG adventure, it has an opening scene.
Now, some people like to refer to the opening scene of an adventure as a story hook. But that’s wrong. And stupid. And people who say that are stupid and wrong. Smart people know the difference between a story hook and an opening scene. Don’t you be one of those OTHER people.
See, a story hook is a conceptual thing. A story hook is any element of a story that allows it to connect to any other element of a story. That’s why it’s called a hook. And, once upon a time, you could get away with calling your opening scene a story hook. After all, it was a scene that connected the heroes to the story. But story hook is another one of those badly abused, battered, beaten words that now means lots and lots of things. The family in a character’s backstory that the GM can someday kill? That’s a story hook. The treasure map the party finds during their current adventure that will lead them to a future adventure? That’s a story hook. At least if you listen to the dumba$&es who ruin words.
And frankly, it’s kind of important to recognize the distinction between the story hook (the element that draws the heroes into the story) and the scene that plays out to start the adventure. The story hook is kind of the purpose of the scene. But it isn’t the scene. And honestly, it isn’t even the WHOLE purpose of the scene. I mean, it sort of is. But that’s a gross oversimplification. The sort of oversimplification that makes your adventure suck. So, assuming you don’t want to make an adventure that sucks, we need to dig deeper.
Hence, we’re going to take the phrase “story hook” and shove it into the incinerator like a puppy with a broken leg. Because it’s just useless now.
Scene vs. Encounter
Let’s quickly recap something since we’re going to be talking a lot about scenes and encounters. An encounter is a SPECIFIC TYPE of scene. Specifically, it’s a scene that has a source of conflict that creates some uncertainty in whether the heroes can accomplish the goal of the scene. For example, if the bartender is willing to tell the heroes all about the mysterious Cult of the Dung Beetle that has been leaving unpleasant “stuff” around the city to “sanctify” various “holy sites” in a way only a dung beetle would appreciate, there’s no conflict. There’s no question as to whether the PCs can get all of the information they want. It’s a scene.
But, if they capture a foul-smelling member of the cult and have to interrogate him and the cultist doesn’t want to share information and the party is at risk of becoming violently ill if the interrogation takes too long, suddenly, there’s conflict. The cultist’s resistance and his “sacred power” to induce illness in those around him present obstacles. The party might not get the information they need. That uncertainty is an encounter.
A while ago, we talked about how scenes have purposes: recap, exposition, planning, exploration, decision, discovery, preparation, and encounter. And we made it sound like these were separate deals. But they actually really aren’t. In fact, you can combine them. You can combine the s$&% out of them.
For example, imagine a scene in which a weird artifact sits on the other side of a broken bridge over a lake of steaming fire-acid. And the artifact is a powerful magical item that grants them the power to smite dung-based creatures. You can argue that there are TWO scenes there: the encounter (overcoming the broken bridge/fire-acid) and the discovery (gaining the artifact). And while that is TECHNICALLY true, it usually isn’t useful to draw such nitpicky distinctions. The purpose of the scene is to give the PCs a chance to discover a valuable treasure by overcoming an encounter.
And THAT is really super important to remember when we start building our opening scene. Because an opening scene has to do a lot of things. And it has to do it a lot of ways.
The Three-Fold Purpose of the Opening Scene
So, what is the job of an opening scene? Well, as you might imagine from the bold-faced heading directly above this paragraph, an opening scene has to do three things. And they might sound really familiar. First, the opening scene has to present a goal for the adventure. Second, the opening scene has to provide a reason to having the adventure. And third, the opening scene has to provide an entry point into the interconnected scenes that make up the adventure.
If those things sound familiar, congratulations. You are not a moron. You actually recognized that an opening scene’s job is to actually introduce all of that bulls$&% you already came up with for your adventure. What’s the resolution, what’s the motivation, and how do we get into the structure.
Presenting the Resolution
By the time the party gets out of the opening scene, they should be able to explain to you how they are going to win the adventure. At least, initially. I’ll acknowledge right here that goals CAN change. But we’re going to focus on simpler adventures for right now. And besides, that doesn’t change the fact that UNTIL the goals change, the PCs are pursuing a goal. The opening scene simply has to spell out what the PCs have to do to win the adventure. Generally, it presents them with a problem to solve.
Why? Because it’s really hard to run a race if you don’t know where the f$&%ing finish line is. And frankly, there isn’t much more to say about this. The opening scene has to tell the PCs how to win the adventure.
Providing the Motivation
Now, just presenting the resolution isn’t enough. Remember, the resolution provides the end-point, but motivation provides the force. The impetus. Which is a fun word to say. Now, you already know the motivation. More importantly, you know the motivations are two-fold. There’s the reasons the characters will want to win the adventure and there’s the reasons the players want to play the adventure. And your opening scene needs to address both. And that can actually be a tricky thing.
For example, imagine you decided that the character motivation is a butt-ton of money. And the player motivation is that the players like big combats with powerful mythical beasts. So, you decide that your adventure will involve the players slaying a dragon and taking all of its stuff. That’s just f$&%ing perfect. Couldn’t be simpler.
And then you start your opening scene with a bunch of poor dirt farmers who are afraid of a mysterious force that lives in the woods and sometimes kills their giant dirt-weevils. They don’t know anything about the strange force. They just know it’s out there. And it’s ruining their lives.
Do you see why you’re a dips$&%?
This is a particular problem that new (and even experienced) GMs fall into a lot. They come up with a good resolution and solid motivations and then they decide to keep them a f$&%ing secret. If your players want to fight a dragon and the characters want a s$&%-ton of gold, SHOW THEM A DRAGON AND A S$&%-TON OF GOLD. Or at least imply them.
“Yep,” says the dirt farmers, “there’s something massive living in the ancient ruined cave temple. Just moved in one night. And it’s eating all our dirt-weevils. It’s huge and scary, we know that. And burns down woods and houses. It sure does. It must have claimed the ancient ruined cave temple because of all the ancient treasure in there. So, whatever the fiery giant beast that eats dirt-weevils is, it sure must be a greedy sucker. I wish someone would kill it, but the thing is probably invincible!”
Alternatively, the dirt farmers could just say “dragon.”
The point is: don’t bury the lede. If you picked out good motivations, SELL THOSE MOTIVATIONS. That’s the point of them. The motivations are the things that make the players and their characters want to do the adventure. Keeping them a secret isn’t really a smart move.
Of course, if the players and the characters like exploring the unknown and discovering new things and solving mysteries, then the whole “we don’t know what’s killing the dirt-weevils, but it sure isn’t nothing and it’s in the strange labyrinthine and unexplored ruined cave shrine” is the perfect sell.
While we’re on the subject of simple advice for your opening scene, once you’ve mastered “don’t bury the lede” you can work on “don’t sell past the close.” Selling past the close is a marketing term. You know how, sometimes, when you go into Best Buy to buy a new television and you ask the Best Buy minion to help you pick one out, after you make the choice, sometimes the Best Buy minion keeps telling you about other neat features to sort of drive home how great a choice you made? And you’re like “yes, that’s nice, but I already WANT the TV so just bring it up to the register so I can go home now?”
Do you know why that annoys you? Because buying a TV is the least interesting part of having a TV. You want to WATCH the TV. And time spent on the purchase is time not spent watching it. Well, the opening scene is generally the least interesting part of the scene.
The point is, once the heroes have accepted the premise of the adventure, don’t belabor the opening scene. If one of the idiot PCs is like “wow, that sounds like a terrible and very dragon-like problem you have there. We shall go and solve your problem and take all of its stuff,” you’re done. Don’t have the dirt-farmers keep regaling the PCs with more and more sob stories about how terrible it is to try and grow dirt-weevils under the thrall of a dragon. You’re done. You sold the dragon, now start moving toward it.
Don’t sell past the close. Once you’ve made the sale, start the goddamned adventure. Well, more or less. We’ll get to the difference in just a second.
Providing an Entry Point into the Adventure’s Structure
Once the PCs understand what the goal is and why they want to do it, the third thing an opening scene has to do is provide some clearly marked entrances. And you’d be amazed to discover, given how obvious this seems, how often GMs f$&% this part up.
The opening scene is a scene in the adventure. And that means it needs clearly marked exits. Transitions. Most GMs think of the opening scene as separate from the adventure itself. But the opening scene isn’t the door to the dungeon, it’s the first room. You need a couple of doors that lead out of it.
At the end of an opening scene, the party should know where they can go next. They might not know every option. You might leave a few options for them to figure out on their own. But they should have a very clear idea of at least one good scene to go to next. For example, they should know where the road to the ruined cave temple is. They should know where the crime scene is and maybe have the name of a suspect or a witness.
Now, apart from the mistake of just presenting a goal and motivation and saying “now what, guys?” another mistake GMs make is to make the transitions – the scene exits, the doors to adventure – is to make those things contingent on the players FINDING them. This is especially true of mystery adventures where the players have this opening scene and have to find clues and leads to get anywhere.
Well, dumba$&, if you do that, you run the risk that the players won’t find any. And then, congratulations, your adventure is already over.
You need obvious paths and you need to communicate them well. I’ll give you a perfect example. Imagine the PCs are on the road traveling somewhere and they come upon the scene of a grisly attack. The attacking monster murdered some innocent people and then wandered off. The PCs MIGHT find the monster tracks and it MIGHT lead them back to the lair of the monster. But what happens if they don’t? You, the GM, might have other leads waiting ahead in the village for the PCs. But if the players don’t get that memo, they might stand out in the woods lost for hours. A simple bit of narration like “ahead on the road, you can see the lights of a village. This attack happened pretty close to the edge of the village. And these travelers must either have been coming from the village or going to the village.” That is a nice way to reassure the players that there are more answers in the village and that they aren’t missing anything. Clearly marked exits. See?
But That’s Not All…
So, you’ve built a scene or encounter that offers a clear goal, that sells the adventure to the characters and the players, and that offers some clear starting points. You’re done, right? Well, technically, yes. Yes, that’s all you need to do. If all you do is those three things, you have a good opening. Good for you. Cut and print.
Remember how we (conveniently) discussed that scenes can serve multiple purposes? That you can cram a scene full of things it needs to do? Well, an opening scene is a scene like any other. And like any other scene, your opening scene can do more.
For example, a lot of GMs like to provide information and/or resources. The dirt-farmers might, inexplicably, have a couple of healing potions they donate to the party. And they might know a thing or two about the history of the ancient ruined cave temple shrine whatever. Once the PCs are sold on the adventure, before they leave, you can throw that information out there.
Also, players will often want to turn the opening scene into a chance to explore. Remember that, when we talk about exploration scenes, we mean any chance to interact with the world and learn about it. Poking around the murder scene is exploration, but so is asking the dirt-farmers a thousand dumb-a$& questions about the cave and the monsters and dirt-weevil husbandry.
The trick is this, though: before you start cramming other bulls$&% into the scene, make sure the motivation, resolution, and structural starting parts have already been spelled out. Now, there will be an important exception spelled out below. But except for that, remember: until you put the resolution, motivation, and structural entrypoints in front of the PCs, the adventure hasn’t started. Don’t ask the player to play an adventure before it starts. That’s really stupid.
Opening Scenes Can Suck
It is a common belief that opening scenes have to be really, really good. I can understand the logic. It’s the first thing people see of the adventure, so you want it to be really amazing and exciting and fantastic so they will stick around. But that logic is flawed.
The opening scene CAN be good. It’s okay to have a GOOD opening scene. But it doesn’t have to be. What an opening scene has to be is SHORT. It goes back to that TV buying thing again. A really amazing TV just has to be a really amazing TV. It doesn’t have to provide an amazing shopping experience. And your opening scene is, in some respects, the shopping trip for your adventure. Yes, a good sales pitch can help, but the sales pitch doesn’t matter.
See, what really sells the adventure is the motivations. Especially the player motivations. The promise of dragon. The promise of mystery. The promise of a challenging series of obstacles no one else could ever beat. The promise of an exciting story about a rich world. Whatever it is that you have decided makes your adventure worth playing, that’s what’s selling your adventure. And it doesn’t matter how good your sales pitch is as long as you get that in there.
Obviously, sometimes, the opening scene is married to the sales pitch. If you’re selling a rich, detailed world to explore, your opening scene has to be engaging. It has to present the rich, detailed world. It has to pull at the players. You can’t just toss off a bulls$&% opening with that. But if the promise you’re selling is dragon, once you say dragon, you’re done. Sold.
I’ve seen GMs get hung up on deep, detailed, complex, and – worst of all – LOOOOOONNNNNGGGG opening scenes that read like one of my fantastic articles. But an opening scene is inherently the most boring scene in the adventure. Short is better than good.
Gathering the Party and the Value of a Good Tavern
I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t cover a specific problem that sometimes crops up in opening scenes. How does one get the party together? See, in one-shot adventures or adventures that start a campaign, there arises the question of how to get the party together. Why are they working together and how do they all get drawn into the same adventure at the same time.
Now, this is generally an issue of starting a campaign, but it can come up at the start of the adventure. And here’s my advice: no one f$&%ing cares. We deride the whole “you all meet in a tavern” thing, but the fact is, it is a very efficient opening. It doesn’t ALWAYS make sense, but when it does make sense, it’s as good an answer as any.
The truth of the matter is that all of the interactions in the game that come AFTER the party gets together the first time are interesting. That first meeting is kind of dull and confused and unfocussed. I’ve seen GMs that let the players dick around for an hour in the “getting-to-know-you scene” until it starts to meander and wander. And some players lap that s$&% up. But, for the most part, it’s dull. And there’s plenty of time for that crap later in the adventure.
So, any way you can cover the initial meeting in some quick narration and kickstart the adventure is just fine. Again, that will rankle the auteur game masters. But they don’t even know what an RPG IS.
How to Open an Adventure
Let’s end with a brief (hahaha, as if I ever do anything brief) survey of some of the most common ways to build an opening scene. This list isn’t exhaustive. It’s just a quick and dirty list of some of the most common ways to open an adventure.
The easiest way to open an adventure is with an exposition scene. That is to say, you basically tell the players “here’s the adventure, now get started.” And you can literally do exactly that. You can just tell the players flat-out “you’ve learned that something that is remarkably dragon-like has taken over a treasure-filled cave and is killing dirt weevils. The path to the cave starts just west of the village. What do you do?” I s$&% you not. You can just do that.
That will rankle some GMs. And frankly, I don’t give a f$&%. GMs are pretentious. They have their faces lodged firmly up their own rectums. As I said above, the opening scene is the least interesting scene in the adventure. It has three jobs to do. And once you do those three jobs, it needs to get the f$&% out of the way. Short is better than good. As long as a good adventure comes after the opening, no one will give a f$&%. I have literally done this. More times than you’d want to know. And I run AWESOME games.
If you want to do things in a less “NES Era Instruction Manual” way, you can always go with an in-world briefing scene. This basically works the same way as the narration, but instead of you saying it, there’s an NPC saying it. And a lot of games follow exactly this structure. “You’ve been asked to visit the dirt farmer village by the leader of the dirt farmers. And he explains…”
The advantage of that sort of thing is that it allows the PCs to turn the exposition into exploration. They can ask questions and interact. That’s not strictly necessary for an opening scene (most boring scene in the adventure, remember), but it doesn’t hurt as long as you don’t let it drag on too long.
Some games and campaigns actually have the expository opening built right into the game. Military games or games where the players are part of some organization that gives them missions? Those are perfect for these expository openings. They are called mission briefings. And if your campaign is structured that way, holy f$&% should you take advantage of it.
See, exposition openings are the easiest, quickest, most efficient way to open your adventure. If you can use them every time, you should use them every time. The only problem is that sometimes they go directly against the motivations you’re trying to sell. If you’re trying to sell an adventure on interaction or a rich world to explore or the freedom to make complex moral choices or whatever, a scene that lacks agency is not a good opening scene. Beyond that, though, exposition is the way to go.
The Mystery of the Mysterious Thing!
Some adventures begin with a discovery scene. Some object or revelation provides the goal, the motivation, and the structural entrypoints. The party might discover a treasure map. They might find a strange artifact. Or they might find the scene of a crime. Mysterious things are popular ways to start an adventure, but they have to be used with care. Remember, the mysterious thing has to fulfil all three of the goals of the opening scene: goal, motivation, and entrypoints. A treasure map is a promise of treasure, which provides both goal and motivation, and it’s a map so it inherently provides direction. A crime scene is a promise of a mystery to the players and a chance to bring justice or serve good for the characters. And it provides a goal, solve the crime. But the crime scene also needs clearly marked exits.
The most important part of the mysterious thing is this, though: by definition, it is a scene without motivation. The players haven’t started the adventure yet. They don’t know what they are doing or why. So the mysterious thing has to be tantalizing enough to scream ‘look how motivating I am and look how I clearly point the way toward a goal!’ And that means you might have to tell the players exactly why a thing is strange right off the bat. Don’t give them a mysterious artifact and expect them to be interested. Go right ahead and tell them artifact is very obviously of draconic origin and dates back 10,000 years, long before the earliest records of the Draconic Empire, and isn’t that so mysterious?
The Exciting Inciting Incident!
An inciting incident is an opening scene that is actually an encounter. That is to say, it presents a goal and a conflict and the party has to resolve to conflict to acquire the goal. For example, if the party is wandering through the village at night and they are suddenly attacked by werewolves, that is a VERY inciting incident.
Now, the inciting incident SEEMS like the most exciting way to open an adventure. But, inciting incidents have some problems that make them extremely difficult to work with. And because opening scenes don’t have to be good, you can avoid them. BUT, they do offer you a really solid way to make a promise to your characters. Especially if that promise is about specific types of action. If you want to sell your players on action, starting with a fight really does shout “this is an action adventure, come get your action here!” If you want to sell horror, having the players trapped somewhere when suddenly something horrible happens really does sell the horror. Inciting incidents work really well as “a taste of what’s to come.”
When using an inciting incident, though, you have to be really careful. First of all, the inciting incident has to match the adventure. If your adventure is going to be about the PCs securing a peace treaty between orcs and humans, starting with an orc attack is just plain wrong. Instead, it’d be better to start with them negotiating with an orc. Maybe for the release of prisoners. Or just for safe passage through orc lands. The key is for the incident to foreshadow what the adventure is actually about.
The next thing to remember is that an inciting incident happens, by definition, before the adventure starts. And that means the PCs are unmotivated and goalless. Most encounters happen in the context of the adventure. The PCs aren’t just fighting orcs. They are trying to fight their way through orc lands to get to the ancient shrine of healing. The adventure provides context. So an inciting incident has to be very clear about presenting a goal. You can’t just start the PCs in a spider lair and hope they will kill the spiders and open the web cocoons and discover the perfectly preserved elven prince who is undead and starts the adventure.
Often, it helps to make an inciting incident feel like part of another story. “You’re in the Pits of Way Too Many Spiders because Bungle Mc. Sprungle hired you to get spider venom for his latest invention. And now you’ve found the nest of the spiders. Kill them and extract their venom. He also said he’d pay extra for the corpses of spider venom victims. He’s a weird dude, that Mc. Sprungle.”
Finally, and this is a really tough one for GMs to grasp, any encounter can fail. That is to say, maybe the PCs won’t beat the spiders or won’t get the orcs to give them safe passage. And if that encounter is the opening encounter of your adventure, you could have a serious problem. An inciting incident HAS TO do its three jobs whether the encounter succeeds or fails. The incident itself, NOT the outcome, has to provide the motivation, the direction, and the goal.
Once the PCs are jumped by the orcs who stake a claim to all the lands to the east of whatever and accuse the PCs of being interlopers from the village and swear to avenge themselves on the village for not respecting the borders, whether the PCs negotiate their way out, fight their way out, surrender and escape, or flee, the story is set up. The goal is to bring peace. The motivation is… whatever works for that group. The structural starting point is the village. Or the orc capital. Whatever. The scene works whether it succeeds or fails.
If the party is jumped by zombie werewolves when they arrive after dusk in the tiny Transylvanian village, whether they kill the zombie werewolves or drive them off or escape or get rescued by the village monster hunters Vander and Hallsing, the adventure gets started.
The key to an inciting incident is to create an incident that can start the adventure no matter what the outcome.
In The Middle of the Medias Res
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this one. Some adventures begin in medias res. That’s a Latin term that means “I couldn’t come up with a good opening scene.” An adventure that begins in medias res is one that starts somewhere in the middle of the adventure. The party is in the middle of a fight with the zombie werewolves in their lair. The party is trying to earn the respect of the orcs by going their Trial of The Contrived Dungeon Obstacle Course. Whatever.
This might sound a lot like an inciting incident, but it’s different because the motivations, goals, and structure are gradually revealed to the party as they work their way through the scenes. The first scene doesn’t immediately explain everything. Instead, they have to wait to get all of the info.
This is advanced stuff and mostly it’s a load of bulls$&%. But it can be used to interesting effect provided that, eventually, the party CAN learn the backstory and provided each encounter and scene provides a very clear goal and conflict so that the lack of backstory context doesn’t scrap the adventure.
In medias res can be very interesting if the players like complicated mysteries. Especially if there is some justification for the players not to know what happened. For example, if the players are prisoners with amnesia, it can work. Or if the players are gradually going to discover they are actually the mirror universe versions of themselves and meet their real selves later. There was a Star Trek Voyager episode like that. And it stands out as being one of the few GOOD episodes of Voyager. Also, the Star Trek Next Generation episodes Conundrum and Cause and Effect show very artful use of In Medias Res as part of the adventure.
But if you’re not trying to pull off something like that, don’t do the In Medias Res thing. It just confuses players and it’s very hard to do well.
And now a special mention for the Well-Intentioned Moronic Cold Open Gambit. This is a gambit in which the GM starts with an exciting scene In Medias Res which turns out to be the SECOND scene of the adventure. After the scene is over (usually a combat), the GM then either has some sort of flashback or just outright explains why the PCs are doing what they are doing. This comes from a misguided belief that you should start your adventure with something exciting because that is how you hook players. The GM there does realize that opening scenes are inherently boring. That’s good. But their solution is to put the opening scene after a good scene. And that really doesn’t solve anything. The better answer is just to get through the opening scene quickly.
Long story short: unless starting in medias res adds something very specific to the adventure, just don’t do it. Don’t. Trust me. Start at the beginning.