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One Astonishing Trick to Engage Your Players

Last time, in the Chapter One column, we discussed the Three-Act structure often found in stories, film, and even adventures for your RPGs. While a Three-Act structure is a key element in creating an adventure that is both satisfying and complete, it helps to have a couple of big sign posts by which to guide your story.


Two of the biggest sign post are essentially bookends. Between these bookends we will build the scenes we need to make a complete adventure. What we want is an Opening and a Closing scene. The key to making these scenes successful is to make them as strong as we possibly can.

Identifying Your Bookends

As you began thinking about your adventure, back when it was just a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea, you no doubt pictured some of the action or events that would be occurring as your players went through it. These imagined scenes are excellent candidates for Openers and Closers because they are already strong enough in your mind to represent the adventure itself. All we have to do now is build them up in such a way that they become almost iconic events within your adventure. To do that, we only need a fairly simple set of Guidelines.

First, we need to determine which of the potential scenes are the two coolest. Here we are defining ‘coolest’ as the most engaging, powerful, and fun for the players to take part in. We want them involved and invested in the story as quickly as possible and we don’t want them looking around for ways out of the plot you have in mind.

Less Talking, More Action

How do you tell which two are coolest? Generally speaking, scenes which are mostly dialog or exposition are not cool enough for this purpose. Sure, it can be fun for the GM to relate the 5,000 year history of the Kingdom of Grax, tracing the lineage of the Child King back through his ancestors, and explaining how the hard-won battles against the Sky Giants of Prang changed the world forever. The problem is, it’s only fun for the GM. Almost like showing off. “See all the hard work I put in crafting this story,” he asks. Meanwhile, a certain percentage of your players have drifted off and are now considering whether Doritos and Cool Whip are a viable food combination (Hint: They are, believe it or not).

The same can be said of lengthy dialog with NPCs designed to get the PCs interested in the mission at hand and send them off adventuring. The mission briefing is not going to impress anyone with it’s awesomeness in most cases. It might be necessary to get things in motion and relay relevant details, but it is not what we are looking for when it comes to our bookend scenes. Nor do we want a final scene which is predominantly all talk and congratulations for successfully completing the mission as our bookend.

Now, before people start jumping up and down and shouting, keep in mind that these scenes, the Mission Briefing and the End of Adventure Congratulations, are not, in and of themselves, the actual adventure. We didn’t come to town to just to listen to General Vorn brief us on the Kobold situation. Nor did we go on the adventure just to get to the after-party. While these elements are part of the overall story and are often needed in some form, they are not the reason we are here. They are prologue and epilogue respectively. Things that happen outside of the actual story we are trying to tell. They have a place, but their place is not as the Bookends we are looking for.

Strong Visuals

The key elements we want all revolve around creating strong images — the strongest we can manage — for the players. Is one of your cool scenes a bloody battle full of violence and lost limbs? That’s cool and a good candidate for one of our bookends. It’s visual and visceral and, if you can tell it right, likely to stick with the players for a long time.

Or maybe you’ve imagined a junky-looking, old spaceship drifting silently through a debris field in space, seemingly alone until the light of a personal thruster jet illuminates the one person maneuvering outside it. Also very cool and immediately engaging. The visuals will stick with you and players will remember the feeling of that scene as you described it.

The fun part is, while either of those scenes would make good opening or closing scenes, they can both be used in the same adventure as either one of our bookends. They are suggestive of a story all by themselves, and, depending on how you arrange them, can tell totally different types of stories. Think about what sort of story is suggested by an adventure that begins with the battle and ends with the lone ship in space. Then reverse it, begin with the lone ship and end with the battle. Same scenes, different stories. This is why we need to find strong scenes for our bookends. They’ll tell us what the rest of the story in between will be like.

No Rails

Keep in mind that we aren’t setting up a story to run on rails. While these scenes are goals we are working towards and from, we aren’t forcing players to conform exactly to our expectations for how the story should go and where it should end up. If anything, we want the players to start in our opener and organically find their way towards the closer. They get to make all the decisions in between, and fiddle the story around all they like, but it should be their actions that lead them naturally to the conclusion we have in mind. Using the bookends helps us know what we need to include to get them there.

The Opening Scene

The Opening Scene in particular will help us to accomplish that goal. Through creatively crafting that scene, taking the raw material you imagined and pumping it up with further ideas, you set the tone for everything that is about to follow. The tone is the important thing to remember here. From that opening scene your players are going to derive the setting, theme, and purpose of the adventure you are about to send them on. More importantly, they are going to determine what their role is in that adventure and how they are going to participate in it.

SWopeningLet’s take our idea of an opening battle from above and see where that gets us. If it is just a battle, with hacking and slashing and blood and gore, then that tells the players that this is going to be an adventure focused on those things. They’ll expect lots of combat and will prepare themselves accordingly. Warrior characters will sharpen axes and make sure their armor shines. Magic users will prep spells designed to aid in combat or spells with high offensive properties. Healing characters will make sure they have the tools they need to heal other players. Mechanically, everyone gears for battle in whatever capacity they have to do so.

Mentally though, other things are going on. Players are deciding that this story isn’t about delicate negotiations. There probably won’t be an opportunity for them to go to a fancy dress ball. It’s fairly likely that whatever enemy they are fighting will be the main enemy for the adventure. The Rogue is making decisions about just how many times he’ll need to pick locks. While the fighter may be perfectly happy with the scenario, the druid may be less pleased as he surveys the destruction of the land. The opening scene you give your players sets the expectations those players have for what is likely to be important and not important for the rest of the adventure.

Shaping Expectations

If we tweak things a bit for that battle, though, we can set some different expectations. Include a knight valiantly defending a fair maiden in the middle of the field. Suddenly, we’ve got something a little deeper going on here. Is there an opportunity for romance? Maybe she is the princess of a nearby kingdom attempting to reach home safely. Maybe the knight has kidnapped her. Maybe there is political intrigue, or an alliance at stake. One added element has opened up numerous possibilities for the shape of the story.

Suppose the battle were happening in and around some ancient ruins. Or there were large numbers of wild animals involved. Or a King suddenly rides onto the battlefield. Add a third army to the conflict. Have the PCs approached by the side they think of as the bad guys with a plea for support or mercy. The dragon arrives! Any one of these elements casts the battle, and thus the rest of the adventure, in a different light and raises different expectations among the players for what is going to happen in the rest of the adventure. By carefully crafting that Opening Scene you can shape and, to a significant extent, control what your players and their PCs are going to think about the adventure at hand.

Set the Hook

And then, once you’ve got that opening in place, you set the hook of the adventure. Why are they about to engage on this whole thing? What will be their motivation for participating? Why should they care?

You can’t really narrate someone into caring about your adventure hook. There has to be something there to make them want to do what you are proposing. The surest way to do this is to take something they are already engaged in and care about, like a cool Opening Scene, and set the hook right then and there. How you do this will depend on exactly what the hook is, but whatever it is, this is the time to do it. Maybe the valiant Knight falls in battle and the princess is left unprotected. Certainly the PCs will rush to her defense. After that, it’s a simple matter to get them to escort her to her kingdom. What honorable PC wouldn’t?

Or explore the ruins. Or destroy the necromancer. Or besiege the castle. Or pursue the dragon. Or whatever it is you want them to do in your adventure. On the strength of your Opening Scene, you can get players to do almost anything you want them to.

In the next Chapter One article we’ll take a look at the Closing Scene. For now, keep in mind that the Opening Scene sets the tone of your adventure, contains memorable and lasting images, and sets the hook that your players will be pursuing. Using it effectively is the key to starting an adventure your players will be engaged with and keep coming back to the table to enjoy.

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  1. The Greatest Temptation Online GMs Face | The Mad Cleric on Thursday, December 22, 2016 at 8:30 am

    […] to be pretty careful about starting and ending on time.  Especially if I have cinematic ideas for openers and closers, I want to make sure we get all the action in.  I mean, who wants to end a session […]

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