Ways to Start a Campaign


A FreshHell to Contend With

Bryce's review of The Porcelain Shitter got me thinking about how to begin a good dungeon crawl adventure module. He said, "My main takeaway, I mean after recovering from the stunning effect of nine pages of text, is wondering why 'I'm a caravan guard for a group of religious pilgrims' is still relevant when I’m a level 9." That's a very valid question for level 9, at least in B/X, where I'd expect to be the patriarch of the diocese from which the pilgrims hail and not even aware of this adventure because I am so far removed that I pay the people who pay other people to pay caravan guards.

At the same time, I think there needs to be considerable leeway in regard to the normal complaints about removing player agency.

DM: "You all start at an inn."
Player: "No I don't! I took a vow to never enter a building!"

Obviously, that's as exaggeration, but I use as an illustration. I know as a player we all need to start the damn game somehow and however that is, I'm most in favor of "quickly."

Yes, when writing, one should avoid the taboos, like telling players what they think ("You're intimidated by the knight") or how they react ("You turn around and run away"). I'm not talking about forgiving bad writing. I'm asking, what are some good scenarios can we use to get all the players on the same page at the start of the game?

While there are certainly cliche or over-used scenarios, I think that any opening, well written and used appropriately, can be a good one. Of course starting as a caravan guard on level 9 is ridiculous, but I started as a player in a game that's lasted six months where everyone began at level 1 on an "escort the caravan" mission. Cliche as hell (it was even attacked by goblin wolf riders!), but we all had fun so it served its purpose.

One last thing, I'm talking about the start of a serious, robust dungeon-crawl adventure able to be continued as a campaign lasting at least several months if not a year or longer. Stonehell, Barrowmaze, etc. If I were just planning a one-shot session or the like, I would personally start the players off at the entrance to the dungeon in most cases.



8, 8, I forget what is for
Perhaps it's best to ask the player's how their met. Let's them have a hand in things, and to me (as DM) it doen't matterr too much. As long as they don't get carried away and expect me to start riffing off their backstory too much, I can adapt.

Good question..


So ... slow work day? Every day?
The ol caravan guard trick serves its purpose because it brings all the characters together and puts them in a situation.
I always prefer situations over 'meeting at an inn'. Meeting at an inn can prove awkward...what if the players don't really roleplay with each other and form a group? What direction does the players have? Usually that's when a DM says 'an old man begs to speak with you about...blah blah blah...or maybe its the barmaid" or whatever. It serves its purpose but I always had a rough start with it.

I think the next time I have the party meet in a inn, I'm just going to have them roll initiative and say they find themselves in a drunken brawl. Or the inn is on fire.

But yeah...situations work for me:
Level 1-3--find yourself in a prison, the ol caravan guard, jump to freedom from the pirate ship, wake up on a deserted island...
Level 3-5 You find a treasure map and get a group together, typical hired by someone, your nephew is missing, hired to find the best trade route through a patch of wilderness
Level 6-8 You hear rumors of something, typical hired by someone--cause the party is somewhat famous by now it makes more sense, you are cursed and need to find a cure or remove a cursed item, you win a warehouse deed!, your trainer/teacher is missing
Level 9+ you are given land and need to clear it out, you get your uncle's castle--its haunted, the city of Illanter is under attack and seek your assistance, you are a envoy on a quest for peace with a rival nation, strange meteor hits the ground, floating castle, a portal to a different plane is discovered, someone in hell wants revenge, etc.

I feel situations work because you aren't necessarily taking away player agency...you are thrusting them in a situation which they can either try to puzzle out or ignore.


So ... slow work day? Every day?
The beginning of a campaign only needs an explanation. The "agency" is presumed by the fact the players have gathered together - the players apart from their characters have demonstrated the agency; and since they're all gathering to play, the "fake-because" to kick off the game is mostly irrelevant. Player agency over character actions really only starts after the beginning. Sure, a DM could offer players multiple starting points; but like a pair of new boots, how the character "feels" and what feels right for it is hard to see until then.

I have no problem with priming the pump by a DM. I do that myself. In that campaign, for instance, the caravan guarding was the last time a decision was made on our behalf.

Which reminds me - I need to fire up the personal machine and log into discord!
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8, 8, I forget what is for
Hommlet and The Keep on the Borderlands both start with the premise that you show up at the village/keep with the intent of finding adventure and riches.

Against the Cult of the Reptile God gives you a few rumors and starts you at the outskirts of the village.

In Search of the Unknown gives you a few rumors and says that you found your way to the entrance of the dungeon.

Bringing the party together really doesn't have to be more complicated than that. The players have gathered together to play, so starting with a scenario where you don't all know each other and have a common purpose of adventuring just wastes time.

This is different from having a hook. Ideally, a hook should be something that makes the players want to send their characters into the adventure. If all a hook does is explain why the characters happen to be in a particular place at a particular time, it is a failure. That is why the caravan guard hook is so unsatisfying. Starting the game as an employee drudging along with a caravan for a wage is kind of the antithesis of adventure; caravan guard is the think you want to get away from, whereas a proper hook is something you want to go toward. This can depend on your players preferences, but riches and magic are usually a safe bet.

You want a good start to an adventure? Give the party hints about an exotic location steeped in mystery and filled with vast riches and forgotten magical secrets. Hint at a place that the players will want to explore, and which promises to advance their characters with experience, loot and magic. As long as you make sure they have some options for getting there, you won't have to forge anything,

Two orcs

Officially better than you, according to PoN
I tell my players they are either friends or allies and know each other either through professional or familial connections.


A FreshHell to Contend With
The Village of Hommlet and The Keep on the Borderlands are both good examples of what I'm seeking: an opening to a "town and down" dungeon-delving campaign.

Hommlet: "Your party is now approaching the Village of Hommlet . . . Thus your group comes to Hommlet to learn if this indeed is a place for adventurers to seek their fortunes. You all hope, of course, to gain riches and make names for yourselves."

KotB waxes poetic for about 500 words of read-aloud background. Buried in there is the sentence: "You are indeed members of that exceptional class, adventurers who have journeyed to the Keep on the Borderlands in search of fame and fortune."

Both basically say, "You're poor bastards arriving in town looking for adventure. Have at it."

I think if it's good enough for VoH and KotB, it's good enough for me.


Should be playing D&D instead
I am totally comfortable being heavy-handed with the players in the very first session. Unlikely meetings, wild coincidences, right-place right-time are all totally acceptable to kick off a game IMHO. My last game started with "you are in this town to attend the funeral of an old army buddy. Those of you who aren't veterans are on your way to this monastery because you've heard rumours of a valuable book, [some more bullshit]." As long as you make it clear that when they come back next week, they're on their own in the world, you can get away with front-loading a lot. It helps to focus things to say "this is what the campaign is about in general."

It worked pretty well actually - http://www.tenfootpole.org/forum/index.php?threads/lotfp-nsfw-some-other-modules.181/