The opening crawl, the perfect campaign intro


As a Level 1 GM, I have not had the opportunity for much table time as a player. So I think I have witnessed three campaign intros at the most in-person, two done by experienced people. Everyone basically had the same sort of campaign intro, which the GM (or DM in one session) was reading and/or explaining things to people, with only one good example of some very good roleplaying, and that was by the DM I played with once and not since.

This also counts online, in both Star Wars and D&D games where I have been around for the opening post.

What am I talking about? The opening crawl.

The Opening Crawl in Gaming

I have yet to see someone who goes to town like I do in my games, and even online I still try and do this. I consider it a big event that serves a few purposes.

Firstly, it puts all the players on the same page right at the start of the campaign without a lot of words. This is the purpose of an opening crawl in the films anyway, which we will get to later when I look at their construction.

And secondly, it is one of those things that gives the Star Wars feel as much as saying “A long time ago in a galaxy, far far away…” does, which you should say prior to the opening crawl anyway. There’s nothing like reading through the crawl to the music of John Williams, paying attention to the timings of course, to give the players the impression that there is a larger story that they are part of and they have influence over.

There’s also the fact that I say the opening crawl rather than reading it, though I have heard of people doing it as a PowerPoint presentation.

Examining the Crawl

So what makes up an opening crawl? What makes it effective?

If you take a look at the original, you can uncover the elements.

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….

Looking at this, an opening crawl can be divided into basically three components.

The first paragraph sets the scene in a rather general way, in other Star Wars films it does a little continuation from what happened in the last episode. In this case, it’s the Galactic Civil War and the Battle of Toprawa, yet these are only mentioned in passing.

The second paragraph details the events that immediately led up to the one occurring now, the background here is rather more specific. Here, we have a brief mention of the ubiquitous Death Star plans being stolen by Red Hand Squadron during the battle, as well as a brief explanation as what this means.

The third paragraph quickly outlines not just what is occurring right now but makes very clear suggestions about what we are about to see. And as we see once the text disappears, Princess Leia is being attacked by those very same agents of the Empire.

So what we have here is a wider picture that gradually gets smaller until it focuses directly on the parties involved. And this is what I attempted when starting the Threat of Peace campaign with my opening crawl.

The Clone Wars is in its third year and its effects have been felt throughout the Galaxy. Entire worlds have been devastated by the struggle between the Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems.

 For the past few months, the conflict has been contained to the Outer Rim. Yet other insidious forces of the Separatists have persuaded the elected leaders of the Mid-Rim world of Cerulea to secede from the Republic.

 In an attempt to persuade the Galactic Senate of her people’s loyalty, Princess Varina has disappeared. The Jedi Watchman of her system, Master Wu-Wei Kevar, has dispatched a special team of clones, Kappa Squad to locate the missing princess….

This set the scene for things very, very nicely, and there was even mention of one of the players with Kappa Squad and their mission to locate Princess Varina.

Constructing an Opening Crawl

So, you are thinking to add an opening crawl yourself? That it would be a nice and easy addition to the start of your next campaign?

Well, you’re wrong. Opening crawls are deceptively simple, much in the same way a man once had to write a long letter because he did not have time to write a short one. And the best person to talk about the difficulty of opening crawls is the Master himself, George Lucas.

The crawl is such a hard thing because you have to be careful that you’re not using too many words that people don’t understand. It’s like a poem. I showed the very first crawl to a bunch of friends of mine in the 1970s. It went on for six paragraphs with four sentences each. Brian De Palma was there, and he threw his hands up in the air and said, ‘George, you’re out of your mind! Let me sit down and write this for you.’ He helped me chop it down into the form that exists today.

I believe that the opening crawl of the Star Wars films is the last thing to be written, don’t quote me on this though. This is understandable as one must know one’s story thoroughly before you can tell it in a much more concise form. The opening crawl is the last thing I usually write for my campaign, as I am not completely sure of things until then.

Anyway, if I didn’t convince you that your writing ability is not good enough to write one, here is how I go about it.

  • Begin very generally when outlining the setting-the-scene events, even though it may be a copious back story that took place over several thousands of years, all an opening crawl is something that outlines the state of affairs as of now that is stripped down to the very bones.
  • For your second paragraph, you can start to get a little bit more specific as these are the events leading up to where you are not, but not very much. There is also room for a bit of exposition and/or background here, but make it short.
  • Finally, this is where you can go to town as it’s your “opening scene”. If you story begins in a battle say this, likewise if it begins while your players are being pursued in an asteroid belt by sinister Sith agents. It needs to be directly about your players, as these are the heroes of this story.

And, remember that tip from George: use small words, people. Loquaciousness is D&D talk anyway.

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~ by katanageldar on March 5, 2010.

4 Responses to “The opening crawl, the perfect campaign intro”

  1. I’ve had great experiences playing the old West End Star Wars. I remember several long campaigns where the opening crawl was vital to setting up, not only the initial set-up of the game, but used for large transitions when we’d take a break and then come back to it.

    I hadn’t thought about these for a long time… truly effective. Thanks for this post. Good times.

  2. Very cool. I will have to keep this in mind next time I am framing a campaign.

    Thank you.

  3. I read an opening crawl for my Star Wars campaign as a matter of course!

    I have always considered doing it with software, but this would be quite frankly, more effort than I think it’s worth.

  4. […] crawl except for the fact that I had much more time to form what I had to say. Much like with the opening crawl, you need to start big and the bring it down to the level of the players. Paint the picture first, […]

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