It’s all too easy to start your adventure with a meeting in a tavern, a summons to talk to the king, or a messenger offering a commission. That works well enough to get the story rolling, but adventure writers would do better to ramp up the action immediately with a classic cold open.
I mentioned in an earlier adventure review that I felt it would have benefited from a more action-packed intro. That got me thinking about some of the standard writer’s tricks and rules used to get an audience involved with a story. Almost any good writing rule can be applied to RPG adventure design, but some are more obvious than others. The cold open is one of those.
Don’t misconstrue the name. A “cold open” is just the opposite of what it sounds like — it should leave the audience (the players) on the edge of their seats, desperate to find out what comes next. It’s commonly used in television dramas, with a sequence occurring before the opening credits and first commercial break that sets up the story with something exciting or mysterious, finishing with an irresistible plot hook. You can find examples all over the place, but virtually every X-Files episode uses one: characters you don’t know are running through the woods, chased by an unseen beast or entity that quickly overtakes and kills one of them. The CSIs use them in interesting ways, and Star Trek episodes are known for cold opens as well.
Now, consider the following two intros to the same adventure.
Your party has been accused of a crime they didn’t commit. The city watch has put up wanted posters all over the market, and the Chief Magistrate has summoned you to his chambers to answer for your deeds. You’re waiting outside the huge oak doors, surrounded by heavily armed guards, and the trial is set to begin in mere moments.
Your party is strolling the market square buying rations and gear for your next journey when the crowd scatters before an oncoming phalanx of city guards. At their lead is a massive bear of a man, who looks around, spots you and screams, “That’s THEM! Capture those filthy criminals!” The guards charge across the square and will probably reach you in about 20 seconds.
The first version isn’t terrible. There’s some tension there. What crime? How will we defend ourselves? Who’s behind this? But there’s no action, unless they try to fight their way out (and the emphasis on the many guards would make this unlikely). The second version, on the other hand, forces a split second decision. Fight? Run? Talk? Go peacefully? Most of those options are immediately going to lead to a battle, a chase, or a skill challenge. Version two gives the players more options. It also lets them be their characters. The unaligned rogue thinks, “If I’m going to be chased, I might as well steal something,” grabs a gold necklace and takes off. Meanwhile, the paladin stops to talk to the city guard and find out what the accusation is. Yet he sees his friends vanishing into the crowd or running off at breakneck speed. These aren’t just decisions, they’re difficult decisions.
You’ll notice that most Wizards of the Coast published adventures start off this way. Both Keep on the Shadowfell and the Slaying Stone begin with combat encounters (kobolds and wolves, respectively). Ideally, you’d tie the initial encounter to the adventure itself, like the cold open on a TV show sets up the conflict that will play out over the next 44 minutes. In an RPG, that isn’t always necessary. In my 3rd edition campaign, one of the PCs carried an evil artifact that attracted undead. For a few months, I started every single gaming session with a battle against whatever random zombies, wights and ghouls had been drawn to the artifact. Not only did it hammer home the point that this thing she was carrying was really really dangerous, it snapped everyone’s attention to the table immediately and shoved them headfirst into the action. The wolf encounter in the Slaying Stone doesn’t really have anything to do with the story. They’re just hungry wolves, but it works all the same.
Linking that first action scene to a greater adventure can be difficult if your characters are the typical itinerant mercenaries. Don’t be afraid to get creative and stretch the boundaries of your typical RPG session. Have them play new characters for one encounter. These hapless adventurers are attacked by some formless horror that slaughters them all within the first few rounds, allowing the DM to describe the gory results in rich detail. That ought to cue the players that they’re going to face something pretty horrible. You could even run a flashback encounter (an idea I’m blatantly stealing from a White Wolf book). Have the players play their character’s parents 30 years ago. Why not a flash forward (an idea I’m blatantly stealing from myself)? Have the middle-aged PCs wander into a town desolate and wasted, with the few ragged and starving peasants lamenting the victory evil Lord Haarblood won over the good King Wisenawe 20 years ago…then a troop of Haarblood’s Bloodriders stomp the PCs into the dust. What’s at stake in this adventure? If you lose, that will happen.
A cold open won’t save a mediocre adventure, but it will make a good adventure better and raise the chances that the players will get hooked and want to see it through to the end. When in doubt, end the scene with an NPC making a bad pun or wooden quip, then taking off his helm as you shout, “YEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!”
Please use the comments to post your best “What if David Caruso was a cleric in the Forgotten Realms” one-liners.
“Looks like this is one baron who really is…mid-evil.” YEEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHH!