15
Jan

Action Intro: Explosive Exposition from Scene One

Many games start quietly. A letter summons you to a castle for a civilized meal and a mystery. The train hisses to a halt outside the sleepy, frontier town. And there’s the inescapable, pervasive meeting in a tavern. Sound familiar? Yawn. Skip it! Sidestep the storybook staple and throw your players straight into the fray with an action-packed introduction!

WHO ARE THESE GUYS AND WHY ARE WE SHOOTING THEM?

The action intro is a dynamic scene (often a combat scenario) where you place characters immediately into a seemingly dangerous or high-risk situation with very little context. It should feel suddenly exciting, like you’ve turned on a movie just as the first lively incident begins. Your players will be dumped into an energetic spectacle and will be able to introduce their characters through their actions and reactions, all while figuring out what’s happening based on the clues you give them.

Your choice to use the action intro can set the theme and the expectations for the rest of the game, so select it only when you think it contributes to the feeling you wish to evoke. Atmospheric horror, slow-burn mysteries, and campaigns centered around puzzles or politics may not mesh well with this technique. But even then, it could be adapted with a focus on some element you want to highlight. Starting your moody sci-fi game with an explosive decompression or a micro-meteor strike may be just the thing to demonstrate the cold, cruel dangers of space, for example.

SET THE SPINE-TINGLING STAGE

Your opening scene can be a fight, a harrowing situation, a moment of high-stakes, or any other spirited occasion with an element of peril, even a humorous one. Here is a list of examples from which to draw inspiration:

  • The treasure chest at the bottom of the ice dungeon opens to reveal an orb of unstoppable, blazing heat.
  • Slave-takers attack the pilgrim caravan and start forcing captives into cages made of bone.
  • The pirate ship is sabotaged and the brig where the heroes are trapped begins to flood.
  • The volcano near the village explodes into a fast-moving pyroclastic flow.
  • The Baron has just received a message from a known spy at a lavish ball and must be prevented from leaving and reaching his carriage.
  • Arsonists disguised as monks set several buildings on fire while their leader kills his way towards the temple.
  • Wall traps start closing in within the clockwork mansion.
  • A pen full of livestock animals breaks open on the airship, leading to a wacky roundup before they can damage the delicate steam engine.
  • A hand of cards turns suddenly tense when the man with the eyepatch bets a gold bar.
  • An entire block of the city collapses into the sewers below, as undead creatures emerge.
  • The steam locomotive derails on a tall, trestle bridge and starts to slowly tip over.
  • The cuddly, pet monsters belonging to all the children in Naiveburg have been monster-napped by Team W.I.C.K.E.D. who flee on motor-scooters.
  • The supervillain the heroes have been tracking appears on every screen in the city with an ultimatum as his army portals in from another dimension.
  • A stealthy robbery of a high-tech skyrise is suddenly disrupted by a massive explosion, far below.
  • The disguised spies must make the rest of a high-class, catered dinner go off flawlessly to avoid discovery while they search for the assassin.
  • An orbital laser bombardment begins without warning, and the closest escape ship is many kilometers away.
  • It’s the final round of an amateur mech tournament and the opposition starts to cheat.
TRADE VOICEOVERS FOR VIVACIOUSNESS

Dropping players into the action intro uninformed (or at least with whatever limited pre-game knowledge you have provided) gives you as the GM a very nice set of opportunities. Firstly, you can set a theme, tone, and/or central focus of your game or campaign. If your game is all about caste-based injustice, show an example of it right away. You want a game full of flashy magic spells? Set the precedent. If it is about finding a lost empire, have one of the enemies fight with a strange dagger that becomes the first clue.

Secondly, you can give the players information about where they are (and why, and when, and who, etc.) by dishing out bits of data with each description. If your party is doing battle atop Egyptian chariots for their intro, you as the GM can pepper your prose with hints about the surroundings as they speed by – “As you duck beneath the colorful canvas of the market stalls, your horse team plows through a cart of what used to be clay pots of beer, which sprays festival-goers with a refreshing mist of alcohol, followed by unpleasant shards of ceramic.” Fill every corner of your speaking time with details that the players can use to envision their situation.

This is probably the only time in the campaign where you have full command of the action, so script it exactly as you wish (once the players start playing, they often throw wrenches into any and all works).

YOU ARE THE SPECIAL

The heart of the action intro is the first appearance of the characters. These are the stars of the show and should each be given a fair turn in the spotlight. As audience-participants, often portraying these roles for the first time, it is up to the GM to direct this and make everyone shine. The description of their entry should be memorable and the hand-off (where you give them control of their actions) ought to be at the point where they can steal the scene.

How are your protagonists arriving on the scene? Are they already in the center of the gladiator pit, back to back and bleeding? Do they all drop into the vampire’s feast-hall with a three-point landing and a shower of skylight glass? Or do we collect them, one by one, during a mad-cap race through the busy pirate port? When they take their first action, you can describe it for them or describe the situation and let them have the reins for the first time. This moment is critical because it needs to fit with who the character is and (if possible) bind them to the rest of the group in as meaningful a way as can be achieved.

Whatever the character is good at, engineer an opportunity (or several) for them to show off during this sequence. Stealthy ninja heroes ought to erupt from the many shadows or from beneath a perfect disguise before they strike down the enemy. Viking berserkers can kick through a flimsy door. Mischievous hackers splash their logo onto the poorly secured data-screen in the cop car before remotely killing the engine. In the beginning, you want to encourage success – even making it automatic, if you feel that would be right.

EXTREME EDUCATION

Experienced roleplayers who know the game system well should have no issues with jumping right into the mix. But what if you’re trying mechanics for the first time or have very new players? Action intros can still work, but will require more of a guiding hand. They can even be used to teach the rules, if scripted carefully.

Option one is to take complete control of each character during the intro scene, describe what they do, and give a brief demonstration of what they’re capable of and who they are. This method is intrusive because it doesn’t let the player play, but it might be useful for total rookies who are completely out of their depth or in situations where play time is very limited, like a one-shot game during a convention.

Option two is quite the opposite – give the players outright freedom to use the full set of rules as soon as they arrive on the scene, then teach them as quickly and efficiently as you can. This method’s downside is that it will almost certainly slow down the pace of your action-packed opener, but gives the opportunity for players to ask whatever questions they need to about what they can do and how they can do it. A variation on this is to demonstrate what you want them to do with an NPC who goes right before their turn, so you can model what you expect from them.

Option three is a blend of the previous two, and it is what I would choose in most cases. With this option, the GM begins to describe the character’s arrival and then hands off control at the first moment of decision – “A tattooed woman with a silver spear leaps from the rafters with a barbaric war-cry! You know her as Valagara of the Wastes. Where does she land and what does she do next?” From there, the player takes over.

To speed up the pace with this third option, consider only teaching one game rule per round of play, and leave the rest to the shared narration between GM and players. The first player swings a sword – teach them the basics of a melee attack. The second character shoots a bow – teach them ranged combat. Overwhelming new gamers with rules right at the start will take away from the fun of roleplaying a character for the first time.

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