Those of you that have been reading my articles for any length of time know that I’m a fairly improvisational GM that believes in prep-light gaming. I generate a lot of ideas and concepts during a game and run with what ever the players pick up and seem interested in. That being said there is one area in which I do like to put time and effort into, the campaign opening. Like a movie with a great opening scene, a fantastic opening to your campaign sets the tone and energizes the players. When I put together a new campaign and begin crafting the opening I like to consider the following three elements:
A great opening should make each player’s pulse pound. GM’s sometimes open a campaign with a lot of setting exposition and description. I’ve done this in the past and watched my players’ eyes glaze over. I like to place the characters in a situation where they have to make quick decisions without the benefit of any real knowledge of the situation. Immediate danger, whether from combat, a disaster or some other hazard, forces the players to act and do something. They can ask questions and you can share details once the initial rush is over. Don’t worry about lengthy explanations, give out just enough information to prompt the characters into action. High-energy, rapid fire events force the players to react and make snap decisions which lead to my second point:
Early events often set the tone for a character for the rest of the campaign. A horribly botched skill attempt, an epic critical hit, or a humorous social interaction can really help define a character throughout the campaign. By ensuring an action packed opening and lots of opportunities for decision-making you set the stage for some truly interesting and organic character development. In addition to helping develop the characters a good opener can also help develop the campaign itself, as we’ll see in the next point:
One of the most important things I consider for an opening is the use of foreshadowing. I always try to work in at least one future element of the campaign. I’ve used a person, an event, even a design element as foreshadowing. I once used black obsidian altars in this manner. In the campaign opener the heroes barely took notice of the altar, considering it nothing more than a background element. Months later, after finding a fourth altar they began to think they were more than scenery. Toward the end of the campaign they eventually realized that the altars were a significant part of the overall plot line. As a rule I don’t try to initially draw undo attention to the element; I like it when the players realize there was foreshadowing in retrospect.
Final Thoughts & Inspiration
Using these elements helps me craft truly memorable opening events for my campaigns. When my players experience a breathtaking, heart pounding opening they bring their best to the table. Since I use a lot of the players’ own ideas, thoughts, energy, and enthusiasm to fuel the campaign and keep me in my creative zone, this kind of opening often powers my entire process. The following is a list of potentially cool campaign openers, a few of which I’ve used in my own games. Feel free to use, mine, or alter as you see fit!
- The heroes find themselves returning to consciousness after having been turned to stone for dozens, maybe hundreds of years. They have been kept as statuary in the garden of a lich but an arcane experiment gone bad has unraveled the enchantments and returned the heroes to flesh.
- The slave ship transporting the heroes has come under attack near the shores of an uncharted isle. The hull is flooding, the crew is being slaughtered, and the heroes are chained up in a sinking vessel. The heroes need to slip their shackles, escape the ship, and make their way to shore.
- The heroes awaken in some sort of temple dedicated to an evil entity. Several dead cultists are nearby drained of life and it is clear that the heroes were all just resurrected from the dead. None of them remember anything of their former lives but a group of zealous crusaders are about to break down the doors to the temple.
- While doing time in the city dungeons a fellow inmate is broken out by a group of professionals. Although they are in and out with their target the mayhem they caused has left the heroes with an ideal opportunity to make their escape.
- The heroes have insulted important people in power and as punishment they are taken to the edge of the wastelands and exiled for their insolence. They are given only the barest of tools and accessories before being cast out.
- The caravan the heroes were part of is attacked while camping overnight. The attackers attempt to take members of the caravan captive but one of the travelers offers the heroes an interesting award to help him escape from the attackers.
- The heroes are asked to deliver an important document to a nearby kingdom via a linked teleportation circle. Something goes wrong when the characters teleport and they find themselves in an ancient crumbling ruin in some unknown part of the world.