Last week, on the Forged Front, I discussed players thinking about party dynamics before the campaign even starts in attempt to really make it easier for everyone to ease into the long haul for the campaign without having to wonder why their character would put up with another character for any length of time at all. This week, I want to discuss that very first session with the newly minted characters.
One of the theories about how the universe started is with a Big Bang — namely that an explosion caused the universe to expand (and cool) to its current state. This can be applied to campaigns in a variety of manners. If you take a look at a lot of modules and adventures that have been published, they all aim to start fast.
In one memorable D&D adventure (WGA4: Vecna Lives!), the players temporarily control high level wizards that are investigating a small tomb and collectively get crushed by an even more powerful adversary. (If I recall correctly, the final encounter in the dungeon likely won’t even last 5 rounds.) The PCs then get hired to find out what happened to their respective friends/mentors.
Another module series (Desert of Desolation) begins with the party being accused (right or wrong never gets established) of shenanigans against a court wizard and volunteered to be sent into the desert to deal with troublesome bandits. The action starts right after the party gets walloped by a sand storm.
At any rate, modules generally seem to take on one of two approaches to start though. They either start with a very quick encounter (typically combative in nature) or an introduction that quickly leads to an encounter. The general principle seems to be that action hooks you quicker into the story, and you can start asking the usual sorts of questions (how, why, where, etc.) after the dust settles. The art in this is you don’t want the combat or encounter to be completely throw away — it should illustrate themes you want to convey for the rest of the campaign.
I have two additional examples to provide from my own experience.
The first is something I used to start a fantasy campaign, which started with the PCs finding themselves arrested in a dungeon. After getting their bearings and noticing their surroundings, they are freed. They are lead to first to some baths to get cleaned up, given formal feast attire including signet rings with the symbol of a jester on it, and then led to a feast. At the feast they get to mingle briefly before meeting their host, who apologizes that the nation’s ruler (a dragon) could not meet them personally, but inquires as to how they got arrested. After implying that the guests have an important role to play for the kingdom, the host moves on to greet others. If I recall correctly, I implied that the dragon might not even exist.
At the end of the feast, they wake up in an inn and it slowly dawns on them it was a very vivid dream that they just had. However, when they sort through their stuff, they notice their packs now contain the garb they wore at the feast and they all have the signet rings as well. It also dawns on them that the inn is way too quiet for being at that time of day. When they get downstairs, they see a ritual circle drawn out on the floor with the symbol of a jester and with a little investigation, they are the only ones alive in the inn. Everyone else has died apparently with a smile on their face. And with that … the PCs are faced with what are they going to do as they hear cries going out for the city watch.
(Editor’s Note: Having played in this campaign, can I just say what a joy it was to panic every time we ran into anything jester-related in the campaign after this event? The initial meeting was a shock, but we were constantly on the lookout for those darn signet rings everywhere we went!!)
What I liked about this start was that it hinted at something big going on without answering why the PCs were chosen and left them with an immediate mess on their hands to deal with. How they chose to proceed would shape what directions the campaign would grow. From time to time, I would introduce an NPC that was part of the dream as well.
The second example is an idea I’ve been toying with using as the start of a space opera type campaign. The PCs are passengers that happen to be looking for transport in a shipyard. They are about to interview for passage on a particular ship when one of the crewmembers runs past basically screaming, “WE HAVE TO LEAVE NOW!!!” as he heads to the helm to take off. The person that was about to do the interview says, “Well you better come aboard — we can sort out the rest later.” If they players get on-board, they have a harrowing escape as the shipyard is under a massive/lopsided surprise attack. If the players don’t get on-board, they have to find another way out of the shipyard from same attack. Depending on which path they take, there could be all sorts of things to follow up on if the PCs survive the attack.
So now that I shared some of the ways I think about starting campaigns, let me ask to my readers: What is the most memorable start to a campaign that you have been apart of?
Until next time…