How to open a campaign - explosions or a slow burn?

I’ve listened to MMP episode about opening scenes (link) and I personally love opening campaign with explosions and cutting right to some action.

But on the other hand AW game tells us that first session should be slow burn, we are suppose to meet character and see who they are and where they are in control and where they are not.
This is also one of the improvisational theater rule “humans first, aliens later” - you first have to craft the character and establish who, what, why, when, where before you can go on.

So what do you prefer and why as campaign opening? (for one shots no questions ask - explosions, then more explosions, then drop some nukes)
Question is not related to any of the systems or games, just a general idea.

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Explosions. This is partly because I can never guarantee a game will actually survive, but also because I distrust lengthy preambles to what is ultimately an entirely improvised exercise. I think character will be amply revealed by danger, by the choices they make under duress. That said, I don’t have proof or rigorous justification for these feelings; it’s just an instinct.

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It depends. Mostly, I treat games with any significant ‘Session Zero’ as being the introduction that AW calls for, so you can just jump in with a bang. Masks and Dungeon World are explicit about getting the actual action of the game right there in your first session of play. Zombie World and AW both are explicit about following the PCs around to establish the things you’re going to break.

In a game that’s principally about scarcity, you need to establish how it affects everyone, and what folks will do to mitigate it. Masks and Dungeon World, D&D even, are about characters who actively head into the world to take action.

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I strongly agree with @JimLikesGames—it depends on the game. Not necessarily the system but the game itself.

DW works best with an explosion to start (or at least a ticking bomb). Stonetop (which is just a drift of DW) more or less requires starting slowly, because the home village and the PCs’ families and neighbors are what they are adventuring for.

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I’m not sure I think these two things are really that mutually exclusive – sure, sure, you can only “start” with one thing, but I think in both cases, the first session should try to both have an action-filled jumpstart AND a slow paced meet-the-party. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable. You either set up an action sequence that ends in a tantalizing but not really immediately actionable ‘cliffhanger’ or you spend a little while getting to know people and then you blow something up.

Either of those is accessible in a single session.

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For me, if there’s world building and discovering the world through play (like in AW, The Veil, or the like) then probably slow burn. If we have a pretty good sense of the world or the premise is more tightly defined (like Masks or a game with an established setting like Star Wars), then an explosive first scene would be my druthers.

Also, if the character creation process has felt a little draggy, then I immediately want to go into high octane.

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Great question!

I always report that favourite beginning is to have a tense situation which is closed room and just the player characters in it and requires quick but morally unclear decision making.

That way you allow characters to fully go into heavy roleplaying situations defining group dynamics AND you avoid a dragged out opening.

To give an example from my past campaign on the Gauntlet:

Characters stay together in a shared room in a hostel. They don’t know each other yet. A knock at the door wakes them up. Somebody pretends to be the owner of the hostel and demands to be let in. Then a person who hid under a bed reveals themself and begs the characters to not hand them over. At the door and outside at the window are very nasty looking headhunters who are after “the supposed thief”. They threat to attack in five minutes if the characters don’t cooperate and they appear much stronger than the group of characters.

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I always think about it from the perspective of my old screenwriting prof - start as close to the action as possible. Yes, you want to establish who a character is and why you should care about them, but within 15-20 minutes, you need to throw them into the deep end. Now, that’s for an 80-120m movie, so that obviously happens differently in a game with more time. Maybe it’s the first hour, maybe it’s the first half of the first session, maybe it’s the entire first session. However, once we know why we should care, that’s when a lot of screenwriting tells us the stranger should ride into town or ominous hordes should start marching in the hinterlands or whatever.

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I used to be all about the slow burn, but as I’ve grown older and found myself running more one-shots and shorter campaigns or adventure scenarios, I find that in order to have a satisfying ending, you have to usually have a more explosive beginning.

A slow burn is great if you are building towards something…but most importantly, if you actually get there. If you never get there (wherever there is), than the players better be hooked by things like the roleplay, investigation, exploration, and general poking and prodding they will do during a slow burn, otherwise it might feel doubly wasted on them. But if you open with a big boom, and then give them the satisfaction of some sort of resolution fairly quickly, that’s a feeling of completion that I think often gets lost by campaigns folding, players dropping out, real life getting in the way, and other factors that are all too common.

If you and your group play every week for months or years at a time, that’s not going to be as big a problem, but I feel like even then, making sure to tell complete arcs is more important than the hobby as a whole gives credence to, or at least more than lip service. I think a lot of folks have turned to shorter form games – and Blades in the Dark’s “skip the boring planning thing” is a natural evolution of this, too – because of the probability (as opposed to possibility) of telling a complete arc in a more condensed format.

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It depends.

For example, are you more interested in playing a game, telling a ~story via a said game, something in-between, or something else?

If your emphasis is more on a story, then what’s the story? In every proper story that I know of, decision drives actions, or vice-versa.

Then there’s tone, and other considerations; should “The Scarlet Letter” start with explosions?

Or, how about this, for example, if you’re stuck, or to get this notion. What if “The Scarlet Letter” did start with explosions?

There are also perils in each. Bells, whistles, and primary colors are a cheap way to engage, but the tendency to overstimulation, thus creating an expectation of “more” to get the same effect, like an addiction.

On the other hand, the slow burn runs the risk of being too slow, thus leading to lots of drool on the table.

Finally, are those the only options?

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A campaign probably has more in common structurally with a book or a tv series than with a film, so looking at how they open things is perhaps a better guide. And they do tend to start off with something dramatic happening to hook attention in the first few minutes! But then they pull back or move forward and slow things down significantly.

Another consideration is that in most RPGs, action sequences are actually a bit slow to play out. Because they tend to be played out on a granular level, there are a lot of rolls even in a PbtA system, which means a lot of time to really move through the sequence, which means that they don’t necessarily serve an explosive impact by themselves.

I think there might be value in asking each of the player an interesting and impactful question about the setting of the game, and expanding each answer into a short monologue, something like the beginning of the video game Tyranny. Most video games, after all, start with a cutscene not a full blow action sequence, and if they do use an action sequence, it’s usually a stripped down version of the full rules.

And yes video games are a better structural model for RPGs than non-ludic media, because they’re both games.

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A thing I’ve introduced in Last Fleet (not sure if this is an innovation or just new to me) is a method where you start with explosions having just happened.

That is: you ask a series of questions to understand what bad thing just went wrong, how you only just stopped it, who got hurt, who was heroic, etc etc.

Then we start play in the quiet aftermath of that.

The reason I do it that way is, Last Fleet is fundamentally about the characters and their relationships, not just explosions. I find that starting with explosions can tend to suck the air out of the social/emotional part of the game. But without any explosions, there’s nothing to talk about. (Well, there’s stuff to talk about, but no reason you’d talk about it right now.)

So that’s my first session method, relevant to a number of similar games. Quickly define the thing that just exploded, then talk about it.

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Yes! That is a great way of handling it!

This is an interesting question, and I’ve noticed that I’ve been having trouble answering it.

After some thought (and reading the excellent discussion so far) I realized that I have a different perspective on this. For me, the choice isn’t between “explosions” and “slow burn”, but between having dramatic issues in play at the table or not.

Is something significant at stake, early on - even if it’s just being hinted at - from the start? That’s what I want, even if it feels subtle or slow moving at first.

In terms of pacing or style, I tend to prefer “slow burn”; the opening scenes of a typical game I am running might be fairly slow, thoughful, or exploratory. However, I want there to be a clear dramatic focus and some kind of important issue on the table right away. In that sense, the intention behind strong opening scenes is closer to “explosions”.

So, the surface presentation is “slow burn”, but the subject matter is closer to “explosions”, if that makes any sense. I aim for an emphasis on the “burn” rather than the “slow”, in other words. There might not be explosions happening or violence, but the slowness is suspenseful and intense, rather than meandering or aimless.

Thinking on it further, in many games I play, there are multiple protagonists or storylines. In that case, I also aim for a variety: if one character’s opening scene is ponderous and suspenseful, maybe the second character’s scene is fast furious, whereas the third one’s is upbeat and comical. This contrast helps keep the interest high and helps us explore different aspects of the setting, its themes, and characters.

Overly “explosive” beginnings work well in other media, but I’m not too fond of them in a gaming context, where I find it takes some time for everyone to enter the imaginary space, inhabit characters, and “feel” the game.

However, this may vary dramatically from game to game, as well; in an OSR context, for instance, I believe it’s usually best to leave pacing in the hands of the players, so I will present the scenario and then sit back. The players themselves might then choose to start abruptly or to move slowly - however, most often, there will be some significant planning, discussion, or downtime, until an objective is chosen and play starts to ramp up in intensity.

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