Best Place To Start Is At the Beginning: Creating Great Openings For Your Tabletop RPG Campaigns

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When I began writing fiction, one of the things that was drilled into my head was that I absolutely needed to get the beginning right. It’s the beginning of a story that engages the audience, one that sets audience expectations and can easily derail a story if screwed up.

If one looks back at older books or movies, they’ll quickly notice that it often takes a long time for things to get going. Back before the internet when access to culture in both film and literature was a lot more constrained, people simply accepted infodumps and slow openings because they didn’t have much in terms of entertainment.

Modern audiences, by contrast, have tons of books, films, games, and other forms of entertainment at their fingertips. A storyteller has to grab their audience quickly, or they’ll be tuned out.

Don’t Start In a Tavern, Please…

This is especially true in the case of tabletop RPGs. Most of my sessions run at about 3 to 4 hours, and as such I make sure to get my players’ attention immediately.  But dumping your players into a world without context can make the session feel aimless and wandering, and while some people may prefer a more “sandbox” style of play, in my experience a bit of direction can help contextualize a goal and the journey that the players are taking.

I produced two campaigns, both in my steampunk Cloudrunner universe. Fate Core’s Game Creation Worksheet was an excellent way to have key elements written out, and made the process of explaining it to the players easier. My opening for the first campaign went like this:

Cloudrunner: Skyrise

After a long and brutal war between mages, the surface of the planet has been rendered nearly uninhabitable. The players were called by the Queen of Ablen to man Project Skyrise, which aims to build an airship that can travel above the previous altitude limits that restrict air travel and allow for the colonization of the skies. Two other countries, Scoan Thon and Uclistan are attempting to beat them to it, and whoever rules the skies has military, political, and economic power in the future. The Tsar of Uclistan additionally hopes to use this opportunity to crush the other surface nations.

There are a few things I’d like to note about this opening and what I was trying to accomplish with its design.

  1. Immediate conflict: There has to be something that indicates that things are troubled. This is the basis for dramatic storytelling and is also a good way for characters to relate to the world as a whole. For example, one of my players was a war veteran, another was a close confidante of the queen.
  2. A defined goal for the players to achieve: It doesn’t need to be major. Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting gold or glory, but giving the character a motivation is going to make for better roleplaying than someone who is simply tagging along for the ride. In this case, creating the airship was something that tied into each character’s motivations.
  3. Clearly defined stakes: This is something that I think a lot of people have trouble with in writers’ circles and I think it’s because we don’t spend a lot of time talking to them as we do compared to other elements of fiction. There needs to be a reason why the players can’t just get wasted at a bar and call it a day. Stakes create a sense of urgency and purpose.

The opening I used for my players was longer than this, about a page and a half that took about two minutes to read. I recommend keeping it less than five minutes and even then keep it on the lighter side. You’ll have plenty of time to expand the universe through play and frontloading exposition is only going to be quickly forgotten by players.

Once the session begins proper, you have a variety of options at hand. I often use this time for the players to explore the game world and interact with both it and NPCs. Have the players get acclimated…then throw a wrench into the system.

Have something go wrong, this can be a conversation with an NPC that gets heated or a full-blown combat sequence. Generate some chaos that serves as the inciting event.

This should be connected in some way to the main quest, maybe your barroom brawl attracts the ire of the proprietor. Or perhaps someone snuck out with a McGuffin. Making your encounters linked in a causal chain gives the encounters more weight in narrative terms. This sense of consequence also makes roleplaying easier, creating a more believable world.

Not So Fast!

After this point, you’re in a good position to slow things down. Begin the main quest line, but don’t hurry the players along. Give them some breathing room and the ability to absorb what just happened.

This brings up a larger point, make sure that the story varies in terms of its pacing. The “speed” of the narrative refers to narrative tension. Keep the story moving, because momentum is what RPG sessions are built on, but don’t have the players rocket through the session.

Obviously, sessions that are too slow get boring quickly. But sessions that are too quick are going to be quickly forgotten.That being said, there is another thing to keep in mind. Unlike non-interactive forms of entertainment, one has to keep in mind that players can also control the pacing of the session.

This means that the best approach is to look around and see what is happening at the table. Don’t interrupt roleplaying if people are engaged, but once things start to slow down, begin to speed things up.

A good way to determine pacing is to switch the main activity of the scene. Things like social interaction (unless you’re using social conflict) are going to slow the narrative down. Any form of conflict is going to escalate narrative tension (this also depends on the system mechanics and what they allow for). Exploration can be another way to slow down the narrative, but not quite as much as social interaction because players have more of a sense of movement within the scene.

That being said, even among players, there’s going to be different tolerances. Some people can endure long stretches of narrative immersions, others want to kill stuff. Balancing things is going to be tricky but in a good group there’s an understanding of this.

The end of the first session should also contain some loose threads, give the players something to think about next session. Make it small, something that can be easily remembered.

In my experience, this has served me well in my campaigns. While it can be tweaked depending on the system and player group, making a well-constructed beginning can set the stage for an excellent campaign.