Tips for making a memorable start to your next TTRPG campaign — and not just have everybody meet in a tavern
I understand that for a lot of people, running a TTRPG campaign is stressful enough — we all want to do a good job and make sure our players have fun — so that when it comes to starting off your campaign there’s just no time or energy in the budget left for anything other than the usual start point, the trusty everybody meets in a tavern approach. I’ve used it. Heck, campaign 2 of Critical Role used it! There’s a reason — it’s a space where people have plenty of varied motivations for visiting, and strangers with similar interests but different backgrounds have a decent chance of coming across one another. If you do just want to say that the party meets over pterodactyl egg omelets in the local eatery, then it’s absolutely a solid choice.
But you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. There are indeed multiple approaches to how this can work. Most of them will work in almost any TTRPG, but I’ll be using D&D here due to its ubiquity.
Hold a session zero to help plan a great start for the campaign
First off, if you don’t usually run a session zero, seriously consider starting the next game you run with one. One of the things they allow, in addition to setting expectations and establishing people’s boundaries, is to establish prior relationships between characters. Maybe everyone’s already met, and that means you don’t have to establish that during the campaign itself. I can’t stress how useful a session zero is to a DM who wants to get the players all involved and on the same page, and that should be all DM’s in my opinion.
With at least some players and relationships previously established, you can skip the tavern and jump right into the action. There’s a technique called in medias res that starts a story right in midst of the excitement without much in the way of introduction. It’s often seen in books and movies/TV, but it also happens a lot in video games — Knights of the Old Republic starts aboard the Endar Spire just as the Sith attack the ship, meaning that it’s an in medias res opening. This is a fertile technique for opening a D&D campaign, as even if you haven’t done a session zero it jumps right over any of the awkward why are we all in this place, what are we doing, what are our motivations aspect of starting a game session.
Skip the tavern and start with the action
You can use in medias res in a variety of ways to start your campaign. If you’ve done a session zero and established how the party knows one another, feel free to just open the game by telling the party to roll for initiative and tossing them into a fight scene. If your party doesn’t know each other yet, you can always have them all be at the funeral for a figure they all know — were they murdered, leaving the party to team up and solve who did it? Perhaps they left a behest to the various future party members to go to their old family estate and clear it out of Kobolds, or each of the players were orphaned as children and this person left in their will a tantalizing clue as to the identity of the person or people who were behind it.
You can have the game start with one of the PCs waking up to find that a strange Goblin is trying to affix a weird helmet to her head but can’t figure out how to get it on over her prominent Tiefling horns. The rest of the party are all unconscious on slabs in the same room. Now, while the characters will have backstories and histories and their own motivations, those will all be dealt with separately. At the moment, the immediate threat — why are we unconscious in a room, why is there a Goblin attaching weird helmets to our heads, where are we, and how do we get out of here — have to be dealt with. The “getting to know you” conversation at a tavern can happen later.
The different places you can start a campaign are endless. Heck, you can have everybody show up at a carnival to find out who stole various aspects of their personalities when they were kids. That’s a fun one.
So don’t feel like you have to abandon the old standbys — taverns are great places to have a campaign start — but if you’d like to do something different, do it. Have the game start inside the digestive tract of a cosmic whale that ate the ship the party was taking through the Astral Sea, or inside the frozen ruins of an ancient city that the players remember as a living, vibrant place not seconds before, as they awaken from stasis chambers after an unimaginable passage of time. It really can work, and it’ll make the times you decide to just start things around a table with some drinks feel more vibrant for the variety.
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