Top 10 Ways to Start a Campaign
As I prepare to start a new campaign, I thought I'd mention some of the things I like to use for that first session where you are introducing the players to the campaign, and as I sat back after tossing a few ideas out because they didn't quite fit the theme, I realized I should be writing the process down as they might help some of you as you prepare for your next campaign.
So I'll be presenting the top ten ways I recommend for starting a roleplay campaign. These are not in a specific order, as the theme/style of campaign will heavily dictate which is "best" for the campaign.
#1: A Tavern
This option is one of the oldest ones in the book, but it works, which is why it is still in the book. In many respects it's the "default" setting, as it easily explains why people from different places have met to form a party, access to potential jobs, and a feel for the local culture.
Tavern starting scenes work best when you do three things. First, plan a contrived meeting of the PCs, as you need them to actually team up to get the story moving. You will also need lively NPCs that will grab the attention of the PCs, specifically the quest giving NPCs, as you need them to give the prompts to the players.
And third, you need to underline the culture where the tavern is located. You need to set the tone early on as to what this village/town/city will tolerate, any expectations they may have, etc. so that the party knows what parameters there are on their creativity. If this is a town where theft is allowed, show it in the tavern. If people are afraid of the law, show that in the tavern. Whatever the party needs to know, show it in the first scene.
Personally, I've been leaning away from using a tavern, as taverns also create issues for longer campaigns. First, nothing holds the party together externally to the desire of the players to "play a game together," which can lead to party unity issues in the future.
Second, there's little impetus to move the campaign along beyond, "Okay, this bar fight has been fun; we should probably do the thing the GM wants us to do," and that can lead to lagging energy for the campaign.
So while you can use a tavern, there are other options that may fit your needs better. So this post is something of an apologetic for why you should use something other than a tavern to start your campaign.
You can start the campaign in media res, with a battle going on as the party drops into the campaign. This is a great way to start if you are running a "high energy campaign," as it gets the blood pumping with a combat right out of the gates.
This is also pretty common, and there are many ways to do it right and wrong. If you want to do it right, make sure that the combat is themed appropriately. If this is a "goblin slayer" campaign, make sure they are ambushed by goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, etc. If this is a "Necro Nation Rising" campaign, ambush them with undead warriors. You are setting the stage for the campaign in your first scene, so set the stage right.
Also, don't let it drag. This is the first scene, not the climactic battle, so make it fun and intense, but don't let it drag. That will sap energy from the whole campaign.
#3: A Guild/Monastery/Organization
If you want to insure that your party has 1) a reason for party unity, and 2) someone to send them on their first mission, you can start them all as members of the same guild, monastery, or organization. This may restrict some character choices, but this is a setup that you would (probably) only use if you had a heavily themed campaign.
If you are doing a "caper campaign," starting as members of a Thieves Guild (call it, "Danny Ocean's Boys" or something) is a good way to start. If the party is supposed to be demonhunters or monster slayers, you can setup a holy order, adventurer guild, or private organization that purges the world from evil monsters. Use the theme to setup the organization where they begin.
Also, don't forget to introduce them to the guild leader. Who are they working for? Can they trust this person? Does this person have their best in mind? All of this is good to know upfront as they prepare to do dangerous things.
#4: A Portal
You can start by sucking the characters into a portal, taking them to another world. This is very useful in case you want to play around with a setting that has different rules from the world we know, adding a sense of wonder and mystery to the world, so if that's something you like, this could be a great way to start the campaign.
You could even use this to change character creation by sucking in the players, as we noted in an older post. So instead of just building a character for a one-off campaign you could have them play their fantasy selves, gaining magic powers, epic weapons, or whatever you had in mind.
Some game systems do this more easily than others (Zurn and FATE are generally easier than D&D, Pathfinder, etc. as their character building systems are simpler and faster), but if you want to give your players a different start to a campaign, this can be a fun divergence from your typical game session.
#5: In Jail
You could start your party in jail! This tends to work best if you are doing an outlaw or "evil" campaign, but it could also be a setting for honorable adventurers captured by the antagonist for the campaign.
The big thing to remember about this is that the party will not have their equipment. This can rub people the wrong way, and it can also cause issues if the group doesn't buy into this as a starting point. People will have questions: why are we in prison? How did they catch someone as slippery and sneaky as me? What if my character would rather die than be caught? You'll need to plan for these.
But if people go along with it, there's a great jolt of adrenaline that comes from getting out of jail. You don't have all your stuff, so you have to think outside the box. If you don't have what you need to cast your normal spells, what do you do if that's your big thing? Lots of cool questions that can add a strong emotional high to your session when they escape. And that brings us to the big thing you need to know.
The party needs to escape. Success shouldn't be in question - the "how" should be, and the consequences of how they escape can follow them, but they should escape. If they don't...this could be the worst campaign start they've ever had.
#6: A Council Chamber
If your campaign involves being commissioned by a ruler, guild master, or another person of power giving a task to the party, you can start in a council chamber. The setting of a council chamber changes the framework of the players. In a tavern the party feels free to do whatever they want, but a council chamber sets a tone: this is a work setting with tools and resources for learning what the job will require.
Council chambers will have advisors and sages who can give insight to the party on what they can expect, so you need to think through what you are okay telling your players upfront before the campaign begins. You also run the risk of the energy dying at the start as people ask questions and/or you give descriptions and answers.
So keep it moving: you're giving a briefing before a critical mission, not entertaining a dinner guest. Keep the action moving, keep the energy up, and prep the party for what is to come just enough that they know the victory conditions for the campaign.
#7: A Hunt or Festival
You could start the party out with an event that draws them all together. A hunt, festival, or other event that draws people from various cultures and peoples makes it easier to explain why, for example, a dragonborn might be at an elf village, or why a dwarf would be visiting a faun village.
The other advantage is that, if you have a hunt or other such event where specific skills are more useful, you can use this to encourage people to build characters that are gifted in those skills. Need people with piloting for a sci-fi campaign? Do a race of some sort as the reason for them coming to that planet. Need a party with sneaking and detection abilities? Do a big game hunt for a dinosaur in a forest.
Festivals are also great for darker/grim campaigns, as you can start the campaign on a high note right before you drop the party on a roller coaster. Give them a happy festival where they can revel with townsfolk, make friends, and then they see a massive skull rising from the sea just beyond the port. From the landings they see undead soldiers coming up from the water, and the town is under attack.
You can also do a lot of foreshadowing through festivals. Maybe people dress up with skull masks, or wear devil horns, or strewn flowers (that fall and die, a sign of how short life is), or whatever, and use that as a setup for the theme of the campaign. All of this is easily done with a festival or other gathering event.
#8: A Prophetic Vision
Maybe you lead off with a prophetic vision: dreams or visions that show something that the rest of the campaign will unpack/unfold. Perhaps you gave a theme to the players when building their characters - you are all monster slayers protecting a village from a night hag - and then at the start of the first session you lead off with a vision of people dying, a boiling cauldron, and a hunched over old woman throwing teeth and fingers into the bubbling concoction. As they see her, she says, "Soon all shall bow to me, and my thirst for satisfaction will finally subside."
Next, determine if it's a shared vision or if there are different visions for each party member. If so, customize them so that all players learn different things so that they can contribute something useful to the group at the appointed time. Visions are mystical, illusory, informative yet esoteric, telling you things but not the specifics of what is to come.
So if you have a burrowing creature coming up in the campaign, you might say something like, "The earth itself rises against you, baring its fangs to devour you, for dust you are, and to dust you shall return." This gives that foreboding tone, rhythmic sound, and useful info, but not in a way that the audience realizes on first glance. If they think on it often they will at least be prepared for the burrowing creature, but if they don't know when it will come or what it is (as it could be a pit trap, an earth mage trying to slay them with an earth tremor, etc.), it still maintains the mystery.
Plan these out in advance, go over the wording, and then start off the campaign with some wonder and mystery through a prophetic vision or dream.
#9: A Crashing Window
This is a setting that focuses on the introduction of the characters and the whole party getting involved in writing the first scene. You start with one character who crashes through a window. Why? We don't know: turn it over to them, and they get one sentence to describe the why. Are they running off with something they stole? Did they say something unkind to the local barkeep? Are they in a fistfight? Are they dodging the shots from a Terminator robot?
After Player 1 gives their sentence, a second player jumps in and says what their character is doing when that happens, piling on to the scene. They get one sentence, and then Player 3 does the same. You keep going until all of the players add their sentence, and then lay out the rest of the scene based on what they say.
This means a lot of flexibility on your part, as a lot of things may change in the span of those 4-5 sentences, but if you do it right, everyone feels like they are creators, not just players being dropped into someone else's world. Keep in mind that some people don't like doing this: they may not want to be put on the spot to build without many parameters in place, so you'll need to check with your group to make sure people are okay with this approach.
This could also be a great way to start an amnesiac campaign, as the party doesn't remember what just happened, and neither do their characters. For more on playing an amnesiac, see the post from our Let's Play series here.
#10: With the Boss Fight
Now, you need to do this really well, but when you do, it's really cool. You start the campaign with an allied NPC shouting to them, "Look out: it's (insert name of the Big Bad Evil Guy for the campaign)!" And then you describe the dragon or lich or whatever the bad guy may be for the campaign. As you describe it looking at them and advancing closer, you pause, and then you say, "Three days earlier," and then begin the campaign at the beginning.
You've done a few things with this opening. First, they know who the bad guy is for the campaign. This doesn't work in mystery campaigns; a "Who Dunnit Murder" style campaign is not going to work with this. But for most adventure/dungeon crawl campaigns, this can be a great way to set the stage, and to add tension to earlier combats throughout the campaign because the party is always wondering, "Do I opt to spend resources now that I might need in that big boss fight? Or do I take the brunt of this battle so that I conserve my resources for later?"
This can turn a typical "grindy" combat into a constant energy spike: literally every low roll, every expended resource, and every twist in the battle strategy carries with it the weight of knowing what will come. The characters don't know, but the players do, and that can make an otherwise standard combat far more interesting for them.
The energy and excitement of your characters doesn't matter. What matters is the energy level and interest of your players, and especially if you have a dungeon crawl that is designed to go for hours - if not several sessions - keeping the energy up for your group is a must. Pulling back the veil just a bit can keep that energy going.
There are lots of ways to start a campaign, and each will give your players a different feel and highlights different things right out of the gates. To date I've run seventeen different adventures (and about a dozen one shots), and I'll tell you this: starting your campaign in different ways will help to keep repeat players engaged. So don't treat your introduction as just another scene leading up to your climactic moment in the campaign: it's a very important part of a good campaign.
Until next time,