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In Praise of Cold Opens

It has been just over a year since I started GMing our optimized-for-play campaign of 13th Age, and it’s time that I take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, and what I’ve changed in the process. Let’s start at the beginning, where I’m sitting all alone figuring out what comes next.

Cold Opens rock. If you do nothing else, adopt the maxim of starting in media res: immediately put something the players care about in danger, make the danger interesting, and ask them what they’re doing about it. That doesn’t mean you always start with a fight: we’ve had cold opens that found the PCs asking what to do with forbidden treasure from an offscreen adventure; defending themselves in court; even in a meeting.

The primary job of the Cold Open is to plant a seed that you will then grow into a story as a table. It is explicitly not the first scene in the story; there are already things happening, and now it is time to Be Awesome in response. Instead, it is the first part of the story where what the PCs do is interesting enough that everyone needs to be involved in deciding it. Things that happened before can be decided later, when they become important. If that background is interesting use a flashback and set a scene; if it’s not, just use a simple statement of fact and move on.

The Recipe

So your ideal Cold Open is evocative as all get-out: drop hints and leave blanks, and make the table want to fill ‘em in. But there are some things you should never leave out:

1. Establish the Location

Tell everyone where the heck they are. In a globe-trotting game like ours it defines what resources the PCs have available to them and what major NPCs are likely to be in play. But even if the scope of your campaign is a single hamlet, you should always place the PCs at a definite location. Not only will you be hinting at how tonight’s game fits into the overall narrative (“the abbey again, so I’ll watch out for vampires”), you’ll also give them something concrete to build on (“I’ll move to protect the nuns, as any good paladin would”).

I don’t think I’ve ever broken this rule: it’s the primary thing I strive to do in my cold opens1.

2. Establish the Stakes

Make it very clear what the initial goal is. Give the players something to do right now that will give them a reason to answer the question that every Cold Open ends with: “What do you do?”

Note, though, that this is the initial goal, and not the goal of the night. This is the first obstacle to be overcome, and how that happens will set the stage for the next one. My absolute favorite part of running Cold Opens is seeing how the initial goal plays into what actually happens that night. In my favorite example of this our sorcerer for the world’s Three evil dragons had an initial goal that boiled down to “explain your shady behavior to your friends”, and that night turned into the sorcerer doing increasingly shady things and her friends becoming increasingly wary of helping her out. The first obstacle led directly into the later ones, even though the actual plot (“rescue/kidnap this guy”) had very little to do with the intra-party dynamics of the group.

I’ve broken this one all the time, and it always leads to a slow, aimless start to the night. The cold open should make something exciting happen right away and set the pace for the night. You only get one chance at that, and if you miss it you’re leaving it to the players to find something to care about in whatever setting you’ve given them, and when they eventually find three of them no one’s quite sure why everyone else should care as much as they do.

3. Re-establish the History

As the GM I have the whole campaign history loaded into my brain at all times, and I can recall that the audience overheard two random silhoettes plotting to kill the Dwarf King back in S2E3, but no one else does2. It’s important to make the Cold Open feel like it’s a continuation of what came before, by including a callback or two to previous exploits or open questions. Maybe we see an old NPC in a new role, discover something important about an old mystery, or simply mention why everyone is together for tonight’s run.

But while this is my favorite thing about writing the cold opens, it is very definitely the least important of the trio: a cold open can be all new and still be the start of a great episode, and by definition you’ll have to start that way, so don’t sweat it if you’re short on callbacks. Just don’t ignore callbacks completely, or you run the risk of letting your campaign sprawl too widely and no one will care about those two silhoettes, since there are so many other silhoettes plotting in other windows.

Hiding Hooks

The hardest part of writing the Cold Open, though, is hiding the hook. Oftentimes I want to see some important plot point during the episode, or find out more about something in one of the PCs’ pasts. Sometimes it’s fine to just put them in the middle of stuff and see what happens((A great time to “just see what happens” is in the denouement after a particularly big event. When our party’s longtime cleric met his God and had to be killed by the other PCs, we spent the next episode figuring out how the party worked without their onetime axis.)), but in my one year of doing this I’ve gone from planning nothing but the Cold Open to having a mystery or two waiting to be discovered.

There are two major reasons for that shift: first, my players told me that creating all the time was fun but too much work: they enjoyed having something out there to find out, and they wanted to be surprised when they found it. Secondly, the collaborative creation process was slowing things down at the table, with too many “what ifs” and diversions, many of which would have been cut out of the movie before it hit theatres. So nowadays I will use my aforementioned encyclopedic knowledge and a few Dungeon World-esque Fronts((about which more later, because that’s a post on its own)) to figure out what the baddies are up to, then hint at that in the Cold Open.

The trick is finding how to hint at the hook without violating step two of the recipe: the initial goal should be immediate and obvious, whereas the goal of the night should be a much longer ordeal. Here’s a few ways that have worked for me:

  • Provide an NPC to push a bit of history to the foreground. When an old friend or enemy appears it will stir the pot, and if you make the current situation reflect the old one you have some great potential for flashbacks, callbacks, and real evidence of character growth. Reacting to the NPC’s appearance can be the initial goal, with the relationship’s resolution a goal for the night or an even longer term goal((One of the most beloved NPCs in our game is an orcish priest who began life as a Cold Open callback character, and whose relationship with one PC has redefined everyone’s understanding of that PC’s One Unique Thing.))
  • Let them go home again. This is similar to the NPCs above, but whereas before the NPC is out of their element, this is putting the PC back into an element they have, for whatever reason, left. Are they still at home there? Why did they leave again? This works a treat for exploring backstories and especially for muddying what seemed to be simple origins.
  • Call in an obligation that the PCs owe someone. This works well for employers, old mentors, blackmailers, etc. It puts the PCs into a new situation that they might not want to be in, which can open up some hooks you might not otherwise have access to. The cautious group has to work quickly, or the smash-and-grab team has to be sneaky, or the diplomats have to do a bit of espionage. Change up the roles and let the players see a new side of the world.
  • Make someone mad at them. Probably for something they’ve legitimately done, because most groups of PCs are sketchy at best. This puts them in a spot that they have to get out of, and you can use the external pressure to show how the PCs interact in those situations, especially if the pressure is being applied to some PCs more than others.
  • Give them a mystery. Most everyone likes to solve a puzzle, so never be afraid to deploy one. The hook can be the solution to the puzzle (“I got this note from my boss Mr BigBad with the instructions”), or just as easily an “innocent bystander” that gets tied into it (“we will not let you look at our security tapes for a break in, we don’t want you to see the occult rituals!”). Or maybe the focus is on how the PCs solve the mystery rather than the mystery itself: the method shows a lot about who they are.
  • Drop them behind enemy lines. If you’ve got a recurring villain whose plot needs a bit of exposition, let the PCs into one of her important bases and let them see the goods. None too subtle, but it does the trick and it allows for a lot of neat character asides: long stretches hiding lead to good conversations between bored PCs, and everyone needs to question their motives for being on this crazy mission anyway. Squeeze that information out of ‘em to avoid the one-trick pony.
  • And if all else fails, you can simply call out the plot in question, point out how it’s relevant to the current situation, and make the PC explain themselves. If you need to make absolutely sure no one misses where the focus is, it’s often best to just put it in the cold open, then as soon as you’re done make sure everyone understands that this is what’s going down tonight. I’ve got some more tricks to do this guidance in more subtle ways, but those will come in a later post.

Conclusion

Cold Opens are the pace car of your game: they start you off with a bang and don’t let you slow down. When used well, they can also tie you into the campaign’s grand history, kicktart the story of the night, and point the way forward. Why aren’t you using them already?


  1. Of course, now that I’ve written it down as a rule I’m curious what will happen if I break it, so I’ll probably do that soon 

  2. No really: the player of the PC whose job is literally to be on the watch for threats to the Dwarf King had forgotten this detail