May 18, 2015

The Bond Opener

There are a lot of good ways to start your adventure.  If you want to use the Hero Cycle, you have to show the players what normal life is like, before their characters are torn from it by the call to adventure.  In the Three Act Structure, you need to open with exposition and slowly build toward the faster paced first act twist.

Bond movies don't do that.  They open with an intense, high-stakes action scene.  We get filled in later.  Consider Goldeneye, which spends seven and a half minutes on the opener, with extreme sports, explosions, assassinations, machine guns, motorcycles, and hijacking an airplane by jumping off a cliff into it.  Or consider Casino Royale that gives us a flashback framing device with a foot chase, brutal brawl, fast draw shootout, mole hunt, and villain banter in just four and a half minutes.

How do you use the Bond Opener?  What can the Bond Opener do for you?  And what are its drawbacks?

Rules for Bond Openers in RPGs

The biggest challenge of the Bond Opener is that we're thrust directly into the action and we have no idea why it's happening.  As the audience, we're on the edge of our seats, not just because of the high octane action, but because we want to figure out what's going on.  In a tabletop RPG, the audience and the protagonist are one and the same.  You can't keep the players in the dark, but starting with exposition defeats the purpose.  So you have to use an action scene at the end of a chain of events, where there aren't a lot of choices.

Your players have to be  comfortable with aggressive scene framing. You have to end one adventure with "and you return the amulet to the wizard, he rewards you, you buy some healing potions, the end" and start the next session with "there you are on a crashing airship chasing the tiefling that stole the box containing the Duke's will (which you were trying to steal first) when a red dragon rears up over the quarterdeck, breathing fire to scatter the soldiers up there.  It looks like the tiefling is going to run up on the quarterdeck and leap onto its back!  What do you do?"

That's pretty jarring.  But then, a Bond Opener is supposed to be jarring.  That's the point.  It's like those newfangled roller coasters that launch you from the start with motors instead of slowly raising you up a hill.  So just warn your players.  "Hey, I'm going to start the next adventure with a Bond Opener.  That means you're going to start in the middle of the action and have to play along.  Your characters will know more about the plot than you, but for the scene, you just have to beat a bad guy, so you won't need all the details."  The key things to communicate are:

  • We're starting in the middle of the action
  • Your characters will know more about the plot than you do - you just have to roll with it
  • Don't worry about the details that your character knows and you don't.  It'll be an action scene, so just focus on defeating the opposition and achieving the procedural goal.  It's like a Bond movie. 

A Bond Opener is almost always the climax scene for its own adventure.  In Skyfall, MI-6 is concluding an operation to retrieve a stolen chip containing sensitive information.  They've located the chip and the thief, and are moving to apprehend the thief and secure the chip.  In Goldeneye, Bond has located his target and planned a route inside.  In Casino Royale, we're watching the conclusion of Bond's origin story - how he became a double oh agent.

In 007 films, the opener usually foreshadows the plot of the film and sets the tone.  Casino Royale opens with a paranoid mole hunt, then progresses to a deep cover operation where it's not clear who the bad guys are and whether there is another mole (Spoiler alert!  There is!).  Goldeneye opens with egregiously over-the-top action and then doesn't fail to deliver with a freakin' tank chase and a brawl on a catwalk a hundred feet in the air.  (Spoiler alert! Somebody gets killed with liquid nitrogen.)  The opener is almost staid by comparison.  Skyfall opens with Bond getting shot, and ends with another important character getting shot.  The magic of cinema!  Try to work this kind of tone setting and foreshadowing into your opener if you can.  It's not absolutely necessary, though.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Bond Opener

The main advantage of the bond opener are totally obvious:  It's exciting!  It sets a clear beginning to the game session, and gets the players invested quickly.  It can also help players new to a system get a feel for it before the main adventure starts.  It also lets you develop good hooks:  When the opener ends, the players know what they want their characters to do next.  The terrorist escaped with the chip - what do we do next?  The mole is dead - but are there more?  The Russian is dead, but what is this mysterious GoldenEye program?

Another advantage is that a Bond Opener can set the tone for the adventure and foreshadow plot events, like it does in the 007 films.  Feel free to use this narrative device.  When your players catch the parallel, you'll feel like a literary god.  Oh wow, there's a whole conspiracy of Quori we didn't know about.  Just like in the opening scene with the tiefling out of nowhere!

Neither an advantage, nor a disadvantage, is the fact that the Bond Opener implies a whole adventure happened off-screen.  The players get to make up the details.  Some will enjoy this part; others will ignore it.  You, as the GM, shouldn't sweat the small stuff.  Don't worry about XP or treasure (or conversely, using up resources or other costs, such as Sanity points, Network pool, etc.).

A drawback of the Bond Opener is that you have to basically write the adventure that it's concluding, and then only run the end.  That's hardly that big a deal, since you don't have to do more than make a rough sketch of the first 90% and then run the last 10% in a tense thriller scene.  In the running example, we can assume that the PCs got aboard an airship to steal the box containing the will as it was being transported somewhere by couriers.  It hardly matters how they found which ship it would be on, or how they infiltrated the ship.  This is mostly a drawback because you might think, "Hey, that would be super fun to run!  Why am I skipping that?"  You're skipping that to get to something equally awesome and to set up a great opening scene.  It's totally worth it, but it might feel like a bit of a waste.

Another drawback is that the Bond Opener has all the drawbacks of aggressive scene framing.  Check my post on scene framing for some advice there.  As an Opener, though, there won't be as much of a problem with "but we wanted to..." since the players haven't technically started their adventure.  Hopefully they'll be swept up in the awesome action, and won't be too worried about what came before.

Framing the Follow-On Scene
If you have opening credits for your game, wait until the dramatic conclusion of the Bond Opener, then click "Play."  Otherwise, that's where you call the scene over, and jump-cut to your exposition.

GM:  Wizard, your spell works!  The elemental ring sputters and coughs, then flares back into life.  Everyone, you feel the ship lurch out of its dive.  You're pressed to the deck with the g-force as it pulls up.  Rogue, your turn!
Rogue:  I stab the dragon in its weak spot!  30 damage! 
GM:  It falls, spiraling down toward the sea five hundred feet below.  It looks like the tiefling has nowhere to go, Fighter.  Your turn! 
Fighter:  Power attack!  I smash the Tiefling!  25 damage! 
GM:  Your blow knocks him back, and he falls off the quarterdeck.  Fighter, as the tiefling and the box both fall off the ship, you have to choose:  Grab the box or grab the enemy agent.  
Fighter:  Screw that guy.  I grab the box! 
GM:  The tiefling falls away, diminishing to a speck before he hits the water.  Nobody could possibly have survived that.  [Roll opening credits.]

The follow-on scene should be an exposition scene that bridges the action scene with the current adventure.

You can step directly from the opener to the exposition scene, or make another framing cut.  By using another big cut, you remove a lot of the "cruft" implied by your Bond Opener.  What happens with the airship?  Was anyone hurt?  Do we get any treasure?  Did we have a stateroom on the ship or did we sneak on?  That doesn't matter - we're cutting to the next morning:

[Opening credits end]  GM:  Alright, next scene.  There you are, back in the Duke's manor the next day, with Gregor the castellan.  You got the box open.  Here's a handout with the will on it.  You'll find it has surprising implications, and it might give you some ideas who that tiefling could have been working for...

(You don't have opening credits?  That's OK, I only have them for one of my games.  It's totally worth it to make them though!  Want to know why?  It relates to the "magic circle" - a storytelling device.  I'll write a post on the magic circle for you next week.)