Figuring out how to get a campaign going can be one of the most challenging parts of being a GM. It’s relatively easy to build cool encounters and social setups, and the big climactic events at the act breaks and endgame of a campaign often write themselves. But when trying to figure out how to get brand-new characters together for the first time and drag them quickly into the action, it’s easy to feel like all the obvious starting points to the story the campaign will tell feel overly tame, trite, or obvious.
Your mileage may vary, of course, and every gaming group has different needs. Every single in-game campaign start that might seem basic or antiquated to a person who’s been playing D&D for decades (like me) is going to absolutely be the essential best campaign start for some first-time GM somewhere. And even grognards like me might be totally fine with the timeworn meetup in a local tavern that’s launched tens of thousands of campaigns. The game can be just about anything, and so can incorporate just about anything.
Campaign starts are a necessary evil for fantasy RPGs. Arguably, they’re a necessary lawful evil, insofar as they follow well-defined rules but often do so in the worst way possible. Many too-familiar campaign starts can come to feel like a handshake agreement the GM sets up to give away a plot point they know they won’t be able to otherwise sell. They make the players feel obliged to say things like, “Why yes, we’ll talk to this mysterious old man who’s heard a rumor about trouble at the abandoned abattoir out of town,” ignoring obvious contrivance for the sake of getting the story going. (One of the most common campaign starts builds on the hook of the NPC in need, which I expressed my thoughts on previously.)
Getting Things Going
If you’re at the point where too many of your own campaign starts — or the starting points of specific published adventures you’d like to run — are feeling flat, the following campaign starts can be used as setup for lots of different types of campaigns, or can serve as inspiration for unusual campaign starts of your own.
All Fired Up
Sometimes it’s fun to subvert expectations by turning a tired trope on its ear. Rather than having the characters meet up in a tavern for the first time and hear a rumor meant to draw them into the campaign, have them getting ready to meet up in a tavern — except the tavern across the street explodes before they can get introduced. The process of rescuing victims and helping to put out the ensuing fire brings the characters together, even as the cause of the explosion can tie into their first adventures.
Another classic campaign start that’s easy to turn into something more interesting is the wandering NPC selling a map to an old ruin. Certainly, there must be treasure there! But then the characters quickly discover that this NPC is one of many NPCs selling copies of the same exact map in multiple settlements across the land. The question of who’s running these NPCs and why they’re trying to bring multiple adventurers to the same location becomes an initial mystery in the campaign — or perhaps even the central mystery — that the characters need to solve.
Who’s on First?
One of the most abrupt ways to kick off a campaign is to have the characters start off in a combat encounter in a cool location of your choice. Except they have no idea where they are, who they are, or how they got there, except for a vague sense that they know and trust each other — and a stronger sense that everyone else at the site is trying to kill them. When the fight’s done, the characters’ memories start to slowly return, and the magic relic or other McGuffin that caused their amnesia becomes a secret that feeds into the rest of the campaign.
A group of characters who don’t know each other learn of some secret connection between them — the same seemingly mundane trinket that each picked up at some point, a tattoo they barely remembering getting after a night of drunken revelry, an NPC they all interacted with as youths, and so forth. An unseen connection can provide a core throughline to the campaign if the reason behind it connects to an NPC or other force intentionally wanting the characters to come together. Or it could be just be a happenstance moment that the characters can look back on with a sense of “Isn’t it wild how we first met?”
Piece by Piece
If time and your gaming schedule permits, it can be a lot of fun to start a campaign as a series of short adventures for small numbers of characters, who then come together to create the party as a whole. Two characters accidentally meeting in a tavern or caught up in a monstrous attack and bonding while they fight back to back often feels more dramatically palatable than some sort of “the gang’s all here” full-party meetup. You can run this sort of small-start scenario quickly — for example, three sessions in which two different characters meet up, followed by a full session where all six characters come together.
Alternatively, you can have different characters interact with each other during many mini-sessions, slowly building up the relationships that will define the party. As an even more interesting setup for those who are comfortable with this sort of roleplaying, bringing the party together slowly can let the players decide that their characters really don’t like each other after their first interaction, letting subsequent interactions fully build out the characters’ eventual adventuring bond.
Hunters and Hunted
In a party where some of the characters are notable do-gooders while others are a touch shifty, having the campaign kick off with the good characters hired or inspired to track down the scoundrels can be a nicely novel approach. The trick with such a scenario is making sure that common ground can be quickly found to bring the characters together — for example, the scoundrels convincing the do-gooders that they (truthfully) have been set up or are wanted for crimes they didn’t commit. Likewise, the good characters could realize that the reason or patron behind their hunt only gave them half the story for their mission, and that delivering up the other characters is no longer in their interest.
For players who don’t know each other well or who don’t like surprises in their story setup, talk about this potential campaign start in session zero or even earlier to make sure it doesn’t present any problems. But if you’re playing with a group of friends you know well who have enjoyed similar unexpected twist scenarios in your games, try telling some of the players that the campaign is going to start out with the party wanted by the law, then tell the other players that the campaign will initially be about them working to track down some notorious criminals. Then reveal the more complex setup in the first session.