Where do you like to start players? The tavern with forking paths? In the depths of the dungeon fighting their way out? With a sage “organizer” telling them their next mission? When a game doesn’t specify your starting point (and sometimes when it does), where do you choose to begin and why?
Always in media res when I can. Two particular favourites: about to open a door into a major scene (“So, after three days you’ve reached the inner sanctum and you can hear the creaks of the mechanical guardians on the other side of the door. How are you going about this?”), or having just failed something dramatically (“So, that last fight against the villains went really badly, and the three of you is all that’s left of the raiding party. What went wrong? Where are you hiding out now?”).
In either case, the idea is to give the players a chance to answer ad hoc questions and show off their characters in action at the same time as (if necessary) getting the hang of the rules.
I tend to think cinematically, and this is the classic way to start a movie or TV show. It never starts with a protracted briefing or social scene; it starts with action. The downtime scene always comes second. I particularly like this when it’s a new party in a new campaign: I think of the opening like a TV pilot, where the aim is to try and showcase what’s cool about each character at least once in the five-minute teaser, before the opening credits.
Never cared for the You meet in a tavern trope, if you suspect your enemy has agents/minions etc, why chat in a public place where 20+ people can hear every word. Also it encourages pointless bar fights and alcoholism.
Instead I use this, chatting with an existing contact.
Recruitment/Debrief Location : Roll 3D8
3-Crater on a moon / 4-Gallows poles / 5-Hill Fort
6-Cavern made into a Guild / 7-Monolith on a moon / 8-Forest tree huts
9-Astral temple / 10-Odds and Ends shop / 11-Rocky desert amphitheatre
12-Urban alley / 13-Beach near rural town / 14-Jetty, urban
15-Sewer, urban / 16-Bath house / 17-Family crypt
18-Guild house in the Astral plane / 19-Forest trail / 20-Beach on a moon
21-Rural shrine / 22-Library, urban / 23-Family home-breakfast or dinner
24-Chasm on a moon
Starting in the middle of a fight is such a comic book/animated series superhero staple that I always start there when running Icons, even if that fight isn’t directly related to the what the main villain has planned that particular adventure.
On the other hand, when running an investigative horror game like CHILL/CRYPTWORLD or GUMSHOE, I usually start at the crime scene that kicks off the investigation.
Depends on the game, but generally I like to start either in an immediate challenge, or in a fun “tutorial” right before an immediate challenge. Examples:
- Started an In Nomine game with players in a bar filed with hellsworn gang members holding the Angel of Second Chances at knifepoint.
- Started a game about modern slacker magicians in a bar to get players used to a new system, prompting them to use magic rules to get free drinks. After they left, they got mugged.
- Started a Dark Souls inspired game waking up in a tomb, giving just a short time to look around, then launching right into a battle that served as both challenge and combat tutorial.
Lately, I have enjoyed starting media en res AFTER a Apocalypse World style “love letter”. This means they start in the action right after they find out how their last fight / exploration went. This “love letter” is basically a single roll to see if they took any damage they have not recovered from yet and/ or acquired a new item and / or defeated a notable enemy (and gained XP) and / or gained history with another character and / or used up their spells or a piece of equipment. This immediately gives them a chance to customize their playbook and give a slight backstory before jumping into a conflict.
Depends on the setting. Most importantly what form of campaign design one is using. Sandbox v. Plotted, Location Based v. Scene Based, Megadungeon v. Urban Adventure - all suggest different beginnings.
Because I play sandbox games with location based adventure design I usually start my players in some form of extremity that can be mitigated by adventuring. Most often this is something like “You’re down to your last dollar in a rotten cattle town at the end of the rail line”, “The ship’s master hands you your meager pay at the end of the dock, your former berth settling into the muck, along with the rest of the hunter ship, its ribs stove in an angry sea leviathan.” or “Peace descended, the armies disbanded, you’ve recovered from your bender, back pay squandered - in a world without a want for men and women of violence. Scrap yourself up from the taproom floor and find work for your sword arm.”
In my longest running mega-dungeon campaign the hooks was this:
or most recently this:
The absolute best start to a campaign I ever pulled off was the Star Trek Adventures game I ran a couple of years ago. We started on the bridge of their ship, with a discussion of where they were all stationed and what they were doing.
Then they got a distress call from a ship in trouble near the Neutral Zone registered as the Kobiyashi Maru. Cue freak-out and realization this was a tutorial on the rules.
I like putting them on the road, in transit or travelling.
If I am playing something old school my goal is to roll random encounters as soon as possible.
For other types of games this let me ask them questions and use their answers to determine their destination (or details about it, why they are going there, who is waiting for them, etc…)
To echo what @JasonT said: it depends entirely on the game.
If a game assume that the PCs are ass-kicking adventurers (e.g. Dungeon World), then starting in media res or at the door to the dungeon is perfect. For a one shot, I’ll often even set that scene (loosely) before we make characters, then use character creation, introductions, Q&A to figure out what the hell they’re doing here.
I don’t have much experience running them, but as I player I find that the same approach also works for one-shots or short-runs of OSR-style games. We’re here to play Through Ultan’s Door, so lets handwave some backstory and start either at or just past the door. For the beginning of a longer-running, open-ended game, I think @Gus.L “start them on their last copper” approach is perfect. Make them desperate enough to grab on to any opportunity for adventure that rears its head.
For a game that involves PCs getting dragged into adventure from their “normal” lives, I think it’s important to start the adventure seeing a little of what “normal” looks like, and then drop the hook (or what Sorcerer calls a “bang”) into the middle of that. I explicitly tell GMs to do this in Stonetop.
@Jeremy_Strandberg - During my PbF of The One Ring recently, I played a hobbit brewer, who expected to inherit his father’s brewery one day. The system does some things really well but I was disappointed that the game didn’t have any mechanics to push me into the adventure. I thought it should at least have a mechanical bond element that pushes me to help a friend or something to involve an established non-adventurer considering the source material. Instead, my hobbit arbitrarily left his family and work to discover gold. Bleh.
In media res is usually the way to go. If I want them to sit on a tavern only to get an quest to go to a cave, I would rather start with them entering the dungeon with the backstory that they accepted the quest.
They are in search for something, they are trying to survive, they start in a flashback moment that tells something about their characters, they are just about to finish the previous adventure (that we haven’t played), they are accused of something, someone visits them that will stir things up, they are in a club, etc.
I would drag in their background, I would tell them something about the world, I would put them in danger; in the best of days, I would do all three things at once during the first scene.
Flashbacks are a very useful tool. As well as allowing you to start with the action and fill in the back story later, they’re also fun to allow players to fill out their characters’ back story once play is already underway (which is often better than doing it up-front before players have even met their characters).
In our most recent Dungeon World campaign, we really went to town on the flashbacks, starting every session with one. Sometimes they were flashbacks to earlier moments in the characters’ lives. Sometimes they were to completely different places and times, filing in gaps in the overall story — and on a few memorable occasions sending it spinning off in completely new directions.
Some games (blades in the dark?) mechanise this by starting in media res and then allowing players to call for flashback scenes when they realise they should have prepared something.
So yeah, I would strongly recommend starting at the most exciting part of the story, and then filling in the rest as you go.
Your fantasy adventures often begin on moons?? I really need to get into one of your games!
to me the fantasy part of the universe should be explored straight away, not wait 9+ levels etc
in my game Don’t pay the Ferryman - 3 of the 9 playbooks start with the ability portal,
so yes you can frequently go to the moons, underworld or astral plane.
yes you can do it in D&D, but in my game its built in from the start.
also pbta games have less presumption of equal level encounters, so going to dangerous places carries less mechanical baggage
These day the opening session is the only one I really take the time to craft; the rest of the campaign is almost all “play to find out.” My goal with the first session is to set the tone of the campaign by establishing the heroes’ roles in the setting, introducing a few interesting hooks, and providing opportunities to let characters show the table who they are and what they do.
I usually do this by placing them into a stressful situation immediately. One of the techniques I employ is to open up with the heroes already in the middle of an adventure at the point when things are turning against them. Basically I start them at the “boss encounter” of an adventure and go from there.
I also like starting things off with some sort of established patronage for the heroes. They might be performing a task for an group or individual, they may be in the middle of a self-initiated job, or they may be “full-time” employees of some organization working as directed. Whether the heroes maintain the established relationship with the patron or not, that relationship tends to provide lots of interesting opportunities to drive the campaign going forward.
I am usually starting at the characters receiving rumors and having the option to go to a local meetup bar to engage with others or the higher ups, or start investigating themselves (or doing something different).