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RFTD-blog
2014-05-19, 11:02 AM
I was reading through another thread on this forum about the first session of a campaign, and it inspired me to think about not only the first session, but the very first scene. A lot of time I have seen DMs (myself included) plan out these awesome worlds, adventures, and even awesome first sessionsóbut then it comes time to actually sit down and play, and the first scene gets forgotten!

As the very first thing the players encounter, I believe the first scene is very important, especially for new players who aren't sure how the game really works. And yet, they can sometimes feel really awkward, with players staring at the DM like "So...what are we supposed to do then...??"

I came up with a few ideas on opening scenes myself...including such weird terms as delayed megatwist, transformative decision trees, and dual main-quest convergence...plus a couple opening scenes I've executed. http://www.reflectionsfromthedungeon.com/opening-the-door-the-first-scene/

Questions I have:
What are the most exciting opening scenes you played in or DMed? Any that fell flat?

Do you have any techniques for making an engaging opening scene where the players know exactly what options they can explore, leading to a great first session and long-lasting campaign?

What do you brief the players with before the first session?

Obviously house rules and such, but I'm thinking more about the plot, theme, and setting. My current campaign is the first time I ever really gave them anything to read beforehand, 8 powerpoints coming out to about 5 minutes of reading. That's because they are a family clan that starts already ingrained within society. They still wander like adventurers, but they aren't fundamentally wanderers, so I needed them to have a little knowledge of the local landscape to make this "family clan" concept work.

In the past, I've had them answer a simple question about their backstory: "Why are you going to the Northern Winterlands?" and "How do you know Skip, the richest businessman in town?" Both tied into how I designed the opening scene of those campaigns. But overall I try to avoid giving players any homework.

One of the DMs I played with once set up a powerpoint on a projector with the world map 10 feet by 10 feet! :)

TheCountAlucard
2014-05-19, 11:17 AM
With some mood music in the background (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8b9BuP8rkTE), I introduced my players to the Demon City. Sweeping descriptions of a vast, epic setting, I told the players of the cavorting, exulting demons that heralded their characters' arrivals, and how the demons guided them to the mysterious Conventicle Malfeasant.

Not a single die was rolled until all the PCs were there. :smallsmile:

Red Fel
2014-05-19, 12:20 PM
Questions I have:
What are the most exciting opening scenes you played in or DMed? Any that fell flat?

This is actually amusing - I honestly can't recall any. Perhaps, in my more cynical silver years, I've come to realize that while a fantastic opening can definitely make a campaign more memorable, or a terrible one can ruin it early, it isn't necessary to the enjoyment of the overall campaign. In fact, some of the most memorable campaigns in which I've participated had fairly un-memorable openings.

That said... One does come to mind. It wasn't as much an "opening scene" as it was a different spin on "you all meet in a tavern." It was in an ill-fated evil campaign, where the party had been recruited by the Red Wizards of Thay. Spoilered for convenience.
I was playing an incubus. Not the proper Monster Manual entry, but basically just a male Succubus, because I was a teenager, and at that weird confluence of "dude it would be awesome to play a sex demon" and "dude no way am I playing a chick", and because it was mid-level, so the LA was less of an issue.

The DM asked what each of our characters was doing. Only two were memorable. One was our party's Forsaker. He was introduced by the loud noises he made as he systematically sundered every weapon, suit of armor, and unattended object he could find, "just to be sure" in case they were magical. He really, really disliked magic items.

The other was my Incubus, who was introduced with a profound lack of pants. Like I said, teenager. The DM tried to mess with me by forcing me to roll for my... Attributes. I think I infuriated him by rolling extremely well.

Point is, it was less an "opening scene" and more a fun "introduction of the characters." And that campaign went south within two sessions, so that doesn't say all that much.


Do you have any techniques for making an engaging opening scene where the players know exactly what options they can explore, leading to a great first session and long-lasting campaign?

I think you're missing something here - some of what you describe happens before the opening scene. A really great campaign often involves planning before it even begins, communications between the GM and PCs, suggesting what options will be available, what kind of campaign it will be, what will be encouraged/discouraged, and so forth.

That said, making an opening scene engaging is easy - make it interactive. Some GMs may feel inclined to equate "opening scene" with "opening narration," but unless you're a truly gifted storyteller, that's not engaging, it's simply descriptive.

Consider this, as an alternative to "you all meet in a tavern." First, discuss character concepts with the players in advance. Strongly encourage them to have pre-existing relationships between their characters. Get feedback on this before the session begins. Then start the session in media res. Think of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We don't know who the rugged gentleman in the fedora is, but we know he's badass and this place is dangerous. We get to see some serious awesomeness before we even learn his name. Try something like that with your PCs - dive right into the action. If you've done the right legwork in advance, you can grab their attention and not let go. Then, if you want to exposit later, you can do so in the form of a debrief.

Note that, to a certain extent, this will establish your suspension of disbelief. Whatever rules are go for this opening, those are the rules the players will rely upon for future sessions. So if you start by telling the players they can or cannot do X, or that you don't have material prepared, or that they need to be doing Y, they will expect a more tightly controlled campaign. If you let them go wild with the opening, they will likely expect a more sandbox-y campaign. That's how you establish expectations - by letting the players test them.


What do you brief the players with before the first session?

Obviously house rules and such, but I'm thinking more about the plot, theme, and setting. My current campaign is the first time I ever really gave them anything to read beforehand, 8 powerpoints coming out to about 5 minutes of reading. That's because they are a family clan that starts already ingrained within society. They still wander like adventurers, but they aren't fundamentally wanderers, so I needed them to have a little knowledge of the local landscape to make this "family clan" concept work.

In the past, I've had them answer a simple question about their backstory: "Why are you going to the Northern Winterlands?" and "How do you know Skip, the richest businessman in town?" Both tied into how I designed the opening scene of those campaigns. But overall I try to avoid giving players any homework.

One of the DMs I played with once set up a powerpoint on a projector with the world map 10 feet by 10 feet! :)

Some basic things I would suggest include: Rules and restrictions. As you point out, house rules. Also, any campaign-specific stuff, such as "No elves," "No cybertech," "No Tier 1 classes," things like that. Pre-existing relationships. For example, "You are all members of the Brotherhood of Fools," or "You are wanted by the Murder Death Kill Syndicate," or things like that. You may want to add additional notes for individual players (not known to the rest of the group, of course). Major historic and current world events that the characters would know. It's wonderful to do amazing world-building, with a great opening narration, "The Galactic Empire blah blah blah," "It was the best of times blah blah blah," and so forth. But if the characters wouldn't know it, it's useful only to the players, and then only marginally so, since it's knowledge upon which they cannot act. I would advise you to make a tiered list of current and historic events, geographical and political situations, and so forth, based on relevant knowledge and experience. Then you can simply cut and paste the relevant information that each character would know into an e-mail or document specific to that character. Atmosphere. These are detail that's sometimes overlooked. Is it autumn? Are the nights growing longer, and dark things stirring in the woods? Is it summer? Is there a heat wave, or a cold snap; a drought, or flood season? Are they in an area with bustling commerce, or the middle of nowhere? How are the crops? In an ideal world, each player would also receive an individually-tailored pre-briefing specific to his character. The thief might have information about the criminal organization that sometimes hires his talents. The warrior might be following the exploits of a traveling band of sellswords expected to come to town in the coming months. The engineer could be reading journals about the latest mechanical advances to emerge from the capital. The shaman could be detecting strange resonances rippling across the astral plane.Don't get me wrong. A 10x10 map is awesome. But unless the PCs are going to travel the world, or have knowledge of the world to begin with, it's a bit of overkill. Be ready with that sort of thing, of course; the PCs may choose to leave the kingdom in time. But it's a bit unnecessary at the outset.

RFTD-blog
2014-05-19, 02:42 PM
Ah, yes, music, CountAlucard. How could I forget something so powerful and compelling? I like how you started the characters out in a place with such a stark theme as evil demons in a spooky city. It gives them an idea not only a clearer conception of the world, but also of their position in that world, making roleplaying in those first sessions a lot easier.

And interesting points, Red Fel. I enjoyed your differing opinions. Made me rethink the topic again.


I think you're missing something here - some of what you describe happens before the opening scene. A really great campaign often involves planning before it even begins, communications between the GM and PCs, suggesting what options will be available, what kind of campaign it will be, what will be encouraged/discouraged, and so forth.

I think you are right by focusing on what happens BEFORE the game. Communication should begin not only before the first die roll, but before the first session as well. But what do you do if your group or certain players is less interested in the pre-session information? I've had players who are fine to roleplay once they're in the thick of things, but reading even a paragraph of storyline text or writing a page on their backstory is an impossible task before the campaign begins. They just can't get into it until they've had at least a session. I wonder if there's any good tactics to encourage those type of players to participate in the world before they sit down with their dice.


Whatever rules are go for this opening, those are the rules the players will rely upon for future sessions. So if you start by telling the players they can or cannot do X, or that you don't have material prepared, or that they need to be doing Y, they will expect a more tightly controlled campaign. If you let them go wild with the opening, they will likely expect a more sandbox-y campaign. That's how you establish expectations - by letting the players test them.

My favorite part of your post. My only question is, what if you want to fundamentally switch up your DM style, but playing with veteran players? They'll slide back into their old habits again.

Well, I propose that the opening scene is the absolute best time to convince these veterans that the universe's mechanics have fundamentally changed. After the opening bits, they might see any changes to your DM style as arbitrary rather than intentional.

This is another reason why I place so much weight on the opening scene.

Now, about pre-first-session information being available to your players, I have two examples from your list:


Major historic and current world events that the characters would know.

An interesting example of this in action is my own Mumblemouth Clan campaign. They are a smuggling gang, so they know a lot about other gangs and obscure, shady deals going on behind the scenes. However, as young halflings deeply tied into the subculture, they don't understand the regular political culture very well, or the fairly obvious international relations among the kings and queens. This was expressed in an 8-page powerpoint (about 5 minutes of reading with pictures) before the campaign began, and this same mentality of what they WOULD know continues to guide my DMing to this day.


In an ideal world, each player would also receive an individually-tailored pre-briefing specific to his character. The thief might have information about the criminal organization that sometimes hires his talents. The warrior might be following the exploits of a traveling band of sellswords expected to come to town in the coming months...

Another example I have of this idea in action was in my "Nobility" campaign. There was a racial focus, and all the PCs were a different race. Each race also had a secret "racial secret"ófor example, th druid elf knew that the elves were all slowly migrating to the plane of Arborea because the druid circles foresaw a massive ice age approaching in only months time. This worked because each PC was a noble who came from a different region of the wider kingdom. Other PCs had secrets based on their race and region as well.


A 10x10 map is awesome. But unless the PCs are going to travel the world, or have knowledge of the world to begin with, it's a bit of overkill. Be ready with that sort of thing, of course; the PCs may choose to leave the kingdom in time. But it's a bit unnecessary at the outset.

Agreed, it is awesome. :P That's why I mentioned it. I think maps like that aren't necessarily for use like a navigator or captain, but to spark curiosity. "Look at all these cool places we could go!" But yeah, I think the time invested in making a map like that might be better spent focused on execution and planning.

JusticeZero
2014-05-19, 11:24 PM
Honestly, I have the best luck with in media res. For instance: Everyone sits down with their character sheets and the first sentence out of my mouth is,
"Suddenly, the chapel door smashes open and a group of thugs with clubs step through the door. "Kill the groom and take the bride! Leave no witnesses!" One of them reads from a piece of paper.. Make a reflex save! Roll for initiative!

veti
2014-05-20, 12:01 AM
"Four hours into your shift, you come across a particularly fetid heap of organic mass completely blocking the tunnel in front of you. That's not all that unusual down here in the sewers, but if you report back to your supervisor before it's cleared, he'll just tell you to eat your way through if you have to. What are you going to do?"

That's right, the 1st-level PCs are a team of sewage workers, and squarely at the bottom of every conceivable pecking order. Put us in our place at the outset, gave us a short-term objective and a chance to be creative, and let us go.

That campaign went to demigod levels, and I don't think we ever did report back to that supervisor.

Fiery Diamond
2014-05-20, 12:23 AM
Honestly, I have the best luck with in media res. For instance: Everyone sits down with their character sheets and the first sentence out of my mouth is,
"Suddenly, the chapel door smashes open and a group of thugs with clubs step through the door. "Kill the groom and take the bride! Leave no witnesses!" One of them reads from a piece of paper.. Make a reflex save! Roll for initiative!

This is generally how I do it, too.

sktarq
2014-05-20, 05:52 PM
Well the scene for my current game of Vampire: the Requiem went well enough and was a easy spin on a "you all meet in a tavern with someone giving you a mission" so I'll do a breakdown I what I did and why I used those options.

Firstly it wasn't the first meeting of the all the players. The first time we met we discussed what game, home city, themes, moods, people's limits on sensitive subjects, power levels, PVP issues, issues of agency, the War of the Roses, and most importantly for this discussion what kind of group they were/why they were together. Then we went out and made each character just the player and I some different day spending a few hours on it so they had a good idea of their personality and even a gimmick or two already in hand before play started. It also gave me a chance to run down a bit about the history of the setting, major power groups etc so that knowledge that the PC's would have before game the players also start with and I wouldn't have to give an opening history lesson.

Then I picked a place that i wanted to match their mood for the overall game. In this case slightly fake, upper-class tastlessness with viscous desperation, status mad, with an overall sense of foreboding and ignored risk-oh and in Miami Florida. So a somewhat tacky yacht club restaurant suspended over the water looking at a boat storage yard full of speedboats used to smuggle drugs. I put on Miami vice soundtrack as we were setting up but not for early play as i find it distracting but it gets people in the mindset well. However, unless you have amazing timing then a mood sift in the music or game and then things don't match up so I'd generally not recommend it for actual game play. But while people are setting up, eating snacks, waiting for others as background music etc is where I find it strongest. Also during this time I'd recommend a quick one on one with each player to catch up and review backstorys, goals, etc.
I then had the group scattered about the place each being given basically the same mission one on one by various mentors (each player had their own and their own reason to send the PC on a the same "mission". So each one got to describe how they looked, sat, mannerisms, how they interacted with their sires/mentors before anyone met each other. - I this gave them each player a chance to display their characters and give the other players an IMAGE versus a a first action-which seems to dominate people memories more if they are combines. So if you want a very action oriented campaign then I'd say go the other way. Because I wanted a degree of secret politicking and mistrust within the group I pulled each player away to give them the actual mission breakdown as defined by/filtered by their mentors. While largely the same in end goals I gave each a couple different submissions (keep the investigation away from X for example) and different leads. Then had the mentors lead and the players got to meet up and decide what to do. This was because I was/am planning to run a VERY free-form game. I know what is going on with other characters but I'm not going to tell the PC's what to do-so I gave them some options, let them think of more of their own, and reacted. It set the tone and pushed the idea that they would have to be proactive as characters to drive the plot. It also gave them a chance for unscripted interaction and banter which I was encouraging. Also being away for 5 minute blocks gave the other players a chance to throw out what they were hoping for the game, jokes etc which was good to help build OOC bonds between people who didn't necessarily know each other well and could have VERY different IC relationships.
So yeah it is about setting up how you want players to behave in the whole game in one moment. But it is also the only time you as storyteller/GM/DM have total control. So use it.