Adventure Writing: The Opening Scene
by Dru Pagliassotti
“Okay, so, you’re all in a bar, and this guy walks up….”
Sound familiar? You know it does. You’ve used it and been in it, I’ve used it and been in it. And, all things considered, it works well enough. But there are other ways to begin an adventure.
As I said in an earlier essay, there are a limited number of plots under the sun … and a limited number of ways to start those plots. When you need to kick off the plot by involving a group of characters at once, then your choices are limited even further. The following opening scenes are all more or less clichéd, but they’re tried and true, they are not campaign-specific and they’ll all do the trick. For each one I’ve described the risks involved in using it and a few ways to twist the scene to make it more interesting, either immediately or in the long run. Remember that I’m not talking about introducing characters because I’ve already written about that; these opening scenes assume the characters already know each other.
Someone Asks for Help: This hoary old opening has been terribly overused, but it lends itself so well to a variety of situations that there’s no surprise that it keeps getting repeated. Who asks the group for help? A stranger (someone local, someone foreign, someone of the same race, a “monster” or alien). A business partner or associate. A friend. A family member. A mysterious message from afar. A mysterious message from the past. A mysterious message from the future. A creation (a golem, a magical sword, an artificial intelligence). Someone offering to pay for the group’s services. Someone offering speculation in a future prize. Someone begging for free help. Someone calling in an old debt or favor.
The risks of this scenario are that the party will simply say “no.” The GM must be certain to have built in a good answer to the So What factor!
Twists for this scene include having the supplicant attacked and possibly even killed while talking to the characters (e.g., a poisoned crossbow bolt, a laser beam, a cranial bomb exploding). This may segue the plot into Interesting Hook or Accused of a Crime scenarios. Another twist is to make the supplicant an enemy of the group, either a personal enemy or a member of a culture, race or world that is antagonistic toward the player characters’ culture, race or world. This makes it more likely that the group will refuse the job, but may also pique the group’s interest and offer the GM a chance to have enemies work together for a while. The enemy can either be honest or could be setting the group up for a fall.
Group Responds to Advertisement: Another hoary old opening scene, and one not very removed from the Asks for Help scene. The advertisement can be brought to the group’s attention directly or indirectly. Unlike the Asks for Help scenario, however, this scene implies that the employer is open about the job (e.g., less likely to be setting up the group for a fall). Moreover, it implies that the group will be facing some competition for the job.
The risks of this scenario are that the party will ignore the advertisement or so offend the employer that s/he/it will simply refuse to hire the group. Again, the GM must be prepared to deal with the So What? factor.
Twists for this scene include having the group answer the advertisement only to witness the employer’s death or walk in on a very recent murder scene, the more unusual, the better. (If the group can find a daily planner covered with bloody fingerprints that shows that the employer was expecting them to drop by, all the better, the PCs will start to worry that the killer will come after them … or that they’ll be accused of the murder!) Other twists could be that the employer is lying to the PCs and sending them to their doom or into a situation far more dangerous than being described. The employer may be the real villain of the game, sending the unwitting characters against innocent victims. The employer could be using the PCs as a blind to distract one of the employer’s enemies while s/he/it carries out some secret action (e.g., the employer is a member of the Mafia and throws the PCs into a situation that distracts the local authorities while the Mafia rescues an imprisoned member or kills a squealer under federal protection). The employer could hire several groups, thinking that more groups will have a better chance of success, so that the groups end up confronting each other throughout the adventure.
Party Finds Interesting Hook and Investigates: Probably the third most overused opening scene, usually tossed in during an ongoing campaign. What is the Interesting Hook? An abandoned baby, a desolate space station, a series of nightmares, an alien artifact, a brooding castle, a raving madman, a ravaged gravesite, a friend who begins to act oddly … this scene has been used so often in books and movies that you should have no problems thinking of such hooks, up to and including McGuffins such as the Thing in the Trunk in Repo Man or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Interesting Hooks that are never meant to be revealed, only chased.
Risks to this scenario are, again, that the group will simply look at the Interesting Hook, yawn, and travel on.
There are few real twists possible in this scenario, since it’s set up precisely to draw the characters into an adventure, which will contain its own twists and turns. However, it’s possible that the Hook was put in the characters’ way by an enemy who intends to use it to harm the characters, either by making it a trap or using it as an excuse to ambush the characters. Others may also be after the Hook, leading to thefts, chases and questions of legal ownership.
Chaos Strikes: Chaos Strikes is similar to Interesting Hook, but it requires a bit less initiative on the characters’ parts. In this scenario, the group is peacefully minding its own business when something confusing or chaotic occurs that draws the group in. Perhaps a fight breaks out and spreads to the player characters, or the group is at a party when terrorists crash it, or is travelling someplace when hijackers capture the vehicle. Whatever happens, it happens independently of the player characters, and it is up to them to decide whether or not to get involved.
The risk is that the player characters will decide to sit quietly in the back and hope they’re not noticed, this risk is exacerbated if there are other authorities in the area who “should” be taking care of the problem (e.g., guards). The GM can probably motivate the group fairly easily, however, by threatening the group’s possessions, one of its members, or innocent bystanders (if the group has morals). Having the authorities attempt to intervene and get obviously blown to smithereens will also help motivate the group (“Well, I guess we can count out being rescued by Security.”).
Twists on this plot are that the characters are recognized or are not recognized as potential threats, the event is staged specifically to target the characters, the event will delay the characters from meeting some vital deadline, or the characters know the perpetrators of the chaotic event (e.g., old friends, a relative, etc.). Perhaps the characters agree with the perpetrators’ reasons for the chaos and end up working on their side. Perhaps the characters will be blamed for the chaotic event and must choose between saving themselves or saving innocent victims of the event.
Disaster Strikes: This is a less-used opening scene than Chaos Strikes, perhaps because few module writers like to start with something as cataclysmic as a disaster. In addition, it’s hard to write an adventure around a disaster, because so much will be happening all at once. However, there are a number of movies with disasters, either natural or manmade, as their central plot, and it’s certainly one way to get the adventure moving. The adventurers are just sitting around, when wham! – something terrible happens. Disasters can be fires, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, avalanches, tsunamis, sinking ships, crashing airlines, perforated spaceships, computer viruses, incredibly deadly biological viruses, the Year 2000 Bug, alien invasions, nuclear war, the Rapture, Judgment Day, and so forth, anything that is sudden and has direct and dire consequences on a society.
There are few immediate risks to the disaster scenario unless the party is powerful enough to leave the affected area immediately. One risk might be that if the disaster has struck the party’s home, characters will be more concerned with rescuing family members and friends than going on whatever the associated adventure will be, assuming it’s anything more than sheer survival.
Twists to a disaster? Perhaps the only real twist is the Whodunit? question, even an apparently natural disaster might have an intelligent mind behind it, as all too many science-fiction stories have suggested.
Characters Accused of a Crime: Several of the scenarios I’ve described may segue into this opening scene, but it can also stand alone. A commonly used set-up is that somebody identical to one or more of the characters is committing crimes, and the hapless character is blamed. However, other scenarios include the characters being framed by an enemy to destroy them; being framed by a huge organization (the government, a crime ring, etc.) to force them to carry out a mission free of charge to clear their names; or actually being guilty of the crime, although they didn’t know it (an obscure law on the books, a lawsuit brought against them by the last monsters whose dungeons they bashed, mind-control, etc.).
The risks here are that the characters may decide to fight it out in court or take their punishments, rather than wheeling and dealing and subsequently being sent on an adventure. The GM must consider the options and try to make certain the characters, no matter how moral and upright, have a good reason not to decide to face a court battle or truth-detecting spell or power.
Several twists I’ve already described in the set-up; being framed, being coerced, being mentally controlled, having a double or clone someplace, etc. Perhaps the characters cannot immediately clear their name and the GM keeps the crime hanging in the background for several games or the entire campaign. Alternatively, perhaps the characters bring the evidence that will clear their name … and the government destroys it, in order to keep the characters working for it. Much depends on how the GM wants to run the game; in cyberpunk campaigns, being on the wrong side of the law is almost a given; in superhero campaigns, being on the wrong side of the law shouldn’t last very long at all.
Old Enemy: This last one is pretty common in superhero games, at least, and can occur in tandem with most of the previous scenarios, but it’s worth at least a brief mention. One way to get the characters involved is to mention either directly or in an offhand way that an old enemy, preferably an archenemy, has escaped captivity, or been rescued, or been paroled, or has suddenly reappeared after apparently being killed.
The risks are few; most player characters will quickly respond to the threat implicit in learning that an old foe has suddenly reappeared. There is, however, a metagaming risk, this scenario can get very old very quickly. Don’t overuse it! Most characters, faced with a prison with the kind of revolving door that the Arkham Asylum apparently had, will begin to kill enemies instead of arrest them, a very unheroic tactic that should be discouraged.
Twists on this scenario might be that the enemy has reformed, had actually been framed the first time around and is able to convince the characters that s/he is innocent, is working for the same cause as the characters for a change, or has escaped or been rescued to take care of important business such as a sick child or parent, something that will engage the characters’ sympathies.
Try mixing and matching these scenarios and coming up with new ones. Any other ideas you have, and make sure they don’t fit into one of these rather broad categories, would be welcome, and I’d be happy to either include them in a follow-up article someday or on my Guests’ Goodies section for others to read.