March 2, 2016

Ditching the Tavern

We've all heard it. "Your quest begins in a tavern. A shady-looking gentleman in the corner pulls out a scroll and a bag of gold coins." This intro sucks. Let's talk about some new ones.

A Tired Cliché

Sure, starting your campaign in a tavern might seem like a good idea, even a required one, but you're missing a huge opportunity when you do so. The first campaign session sets the tone for the rest of the entire campaign, and provides your players with a first glimpse into your world. If your world is full of tired clichés and predictable plots, the Tavern opening is right for you. For everyone else, you can try one of the following introductions.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night 

"It was a dark and stormy night. You could hear the peals of thunder echoing around the mountains and the stars tick away behind the encroaching clouds for a while now, but shelter is nowhere to be found. Drip, drop, drip, then all at once. Just as the heavy sheets or rain come pouring down and panic sets in, you spot it: a cave mouth with a small flickering fire in the distance. Whoever is taking shelter there might be unfriendly, but your chances are probably better there than stranded in the rain."

Some of the party members travel along the lonely mountain roads together, others travel alone, but none encounter one another as they travel. Each of them experience some variation of the above and make their way to the fire.

Each party member rolls initiative. The highest initiative finds the cave before the rain and gathers enough wood to make a fire. With the looks of this storm, the rain might be last all night, and dampen any good firewood. You light the fire and begin to cook dinner when the first raindrops fall.

Each party member arrives at the cave in order of decreasing initiative, and reacts to each other accordingly. Everyone is basically friendly and forced to share the shelter for the night.

However, something else lives in the cave, something sinister. The DM can decide what this is. Fighting it motivates the party to explore the cave more deeply, where they find an undiscovered ancient ruin, rife with treasure and peril.

All Were Dressed in Black

"All were dressed in black at the funeral of a dear friend. To some, there lies dead a relative, to others business partner, and to others a friend. A single protracted moment of grief permeates the ceremony, and affects none so much as the kin, who weep bitterly as the cleric carries on with his talk of the afterlife, your merciful gods, and the great mountain the dead shall see.

"The quiet of mourning is truncated by a new speaker at the podium, who presents a scroll penned by the dearly departed. As per his last will and testament, the scroll is read: 'If you are hearing this' the scroll began, 'I have been murdered. And my killer is in this room.' "

The great marble gates of the temple are barred while the funeral attendees erupt into an uproar. The party is free to interrogate the attendees to their heart's content, meeting each other in the process. Roll initiative if necessary to facilitate the interviewing process.

When the party has located a suspect for the murder (or, if they have not come to a consensus, are themselves being accused of murder) a shriek echoes about the room. The corpse, suddenly green and puterified, has risen from the casket and staggers toward the guests with murderous intent.

After this threat has been dispatched, the party finds the priest missing and the doorway to the catacombs opened. Exploring within finds a dangerous lair created by the sinister cleric, filled with traps, undead guards, and valuable religious relics.

There Might Have Been Something in That Drink 

"There might have been something in that drink. Last thing you remember, you arrived at the tavern, ordered the evening's special, and then everything went blurry. Looking around, you recognize a few other haggard people from the tavern people just now waking up, but you don't recognize where you are. An old tunnel? An abandoned dungeon? Some kind of ruin? You all must have found this place while profoundly intoxicated and decided to go exploring. How long was everyone out? Which way is out? "

Each party member rolls initiative, wakes up in descending order of initiative, makes a Constitution saving throw to avoid the hangover, and meets those who are awake. Everyone is in various states of disarray: missing equipment, inexplicably in possession of random trinkets acquired last night, possessing random bruises or missing teeth, etc. When the whole party is conscious, they are free to explore the dungeon. The layout is mazelike, but it's exact identity is up to the DM. It does, of course, contain valuable treasure.

Naturally, it follows that once the party escapes the dungeon, they will investigate who drugged them in the first place. This might lead to more misadventures, or clue them into a larger plot.

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  1. An excellent array! I think the first intrigues me the most since it does appear to provide that sort of impromptu meeting of strangers which a mutual merchant protection contract would normally provide. This actually led me to realize that as interesting as my planned campaign beginning sounds (the players have asked to be members of a circus on Starfall's eve, the night the whole setting celebrates the lives of those lost in previous Starfall events), it is really just a variation on the tavern where everyone happens to know each other already, dressed up in a wild backstage New Years festival among Circus folk. I haven't even got a plot hook in mind!

    I suppose I'll mull over these options over the day, see what I can do to achieve a more interesting effect.

  2. I have always struggled to make party members meet, thanks for the advice!

  3. I've been running Western Fantasy for quite some time now, and I have since swapped from the cliche of the tavern/saloon primary over to the idea that all of the party members are together on either a train car or a stagecoach bound for some part of the wastes. I quite like using these because it is small enough to give some real intimacy and allow for a good deal of actual roleplay, and it couldn't be more free in terms of people arriving from different places and coming with various intentions. Likewise, these two both other the possibility of both inside and out-side threats. Perhaps a murder on a train, or the stage finds itself being harried by some unnatural monster.

    A second is actually related to the All Dressed in Black, though I've only done it once. Started off the party as the attendees of a hanging in a city's public square.

    1. I love the stagecoach idea because it reminds me of one of my favorite animes: Trigun. Vash and Wolfwood meet by accident in a bus going across the wastes and get involved with exploring a wrecked spaceship after aliens kidnap some of the passengers. It's only till much later that we learn that their meeting wasn't quite so accidental after all.

  4. My favorite one that I've run so far was when I had the Queen put them in jail on trumped up charges based on their individual back stories. They then had to work together to escape, and then I had a mysterious figure tell them he would clear their name if they only did something for him.

  5. Loved the first one.
    My most successful one was that the entire group started as slaves and sent into the arena to fight for their lives, thinking them fodder for the champions.
    Of course they defeat the champion and this raises some eyebrows. One noble decided to purchase their freedom if they agree to work for him.
    The plot twist? their contractor is the BBEG, and it has taken them about 6 months to find that out

    1. I might have to write an article about making the quest giver the BBEG. I don't know if it's cliché, per se, but it's an overused trick in my book, at least. Case in point, my players almost suspiciously attacked a quest giver once on the assumption that he would later turn out to be evil. Oops.

  6. This is truly amazing, I would love to see a "dm advice" on making BBEGs as well.

  7. i've principally used one of three methods. In the Aramar setting, i used the Home Guard - during the mandatory term of enlistment the characters were either on the same squad or allies/acquaintances. Toril - last time i did i used the Up & Coming Businessman trying to get a group of adventurers together as a sign of being well-to-do and for his further glory. Twist: he's a lich. Further twist: he's also a legitimate businessman specializing in the brewing arts. Also somewhat sarcastic and fond of puns.
    Last time i tried to run during a convention i used the old "you settled down to a game at the convention when everything went black and you suddenly found yourself as your character in the game setting" gambit. That didn't work so well as one of them decided to try attacking the city guard to prove this wasn't real...