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The first session of a campaign can be a tricky one to handle. The characters are brand new, the story has no momentum yet, nerves may be at play, and the pressure to make the first session interesting can be high. The first session is supposed to be excellent so the players will want to continue playing, right? Not exactly, but it's obviously best to have at least a decent first session with promise for greatness later. How to pull this off is something I'll be covering in this guide. I'm also including some starting points you could use if you're not into the tavern meeting starting point, but more on that later.
First I'll delve into the most important part of the first session: its purpose. Once you understand this aspect of the first session better, you likely won't even need the starting point suggestions as things will come more naturally to you.
So, what is the purpose of a first session or, more specifically, the first few scenes of a campaign? There are several purposes, but the first and most obvious one is to establish the world and location of the players' characters as well as their actual purpose or goal. Simply starting in a tavern isn't enough, for example, as information about the town, the tavern itself and the reason the characters are in the tavern are all important too. The world isn't supposed to feel like it only just came into being or is just being written, so giving the characters basic information is a requirement unless for some reason they lost their memories. I'd advice against this method by the way.
Another purpose of the first few scenes is to provide motivation. If the characters or players aren't motivated to delve further into the story, the story ends right then and there. So make sure there is enough information to hint at rewards, adventures or other elements the characters may be interested in based on what you know about them from the character creation process. It's also a good idea to hint at the main plot, but this depends a lot on how long and complex the campaign is supposed to be. Hinting or showing parts of the main plot will show interconnectedness, a promise for pay offs in various forms, and acts as a motivator in and of itself. I'll delve into various ways to do this a little later, but for now, consider the difference in effect the following two dialogue examples have as introduction pieces:
- "Corpses have gone missing from our graveyard for weeks now, but we don't know how. Most of us are too scared to investigate it; whatever is taking the corpses may well turn us into a corpse too. Won't you help us, please?"
- "Corpses have gone missing from our graveyard for weeks now. My poor mother was one of them, I don't know what to do. We're too afraid to investigate it ourselves, so we asked the king for help. He said he'd order some troops to investigate it, and a week later a couple of inhuman looking soldiers came to us. They ordered us to stay quiet or we'd end up like Rivendale. Rivendale burned to the ground two weeks ago. We don't know who to turn to, please help us."
Both examples could be about the exact same campaign, but the second hints at far more without revealing too much. With the first example the party might not be invested enough to investigate missing corpses for people they don't know, why would they care? The second example uses an emotional element of the missing corpse of the mother to motivate certain players, then adds a layer of intrigue and mystery hinting at the end game, and makes it appear more like the party is the last hope of these villagers.
Another purpose of the first few scenes is to give clear paths the party can take. In my examples the first only has one path: go investigate the graveyard. The second has a bunch of paths: investigate the graveyard, investigate Rivendale, find out more about the inhuman soldiers, and technically the king offers a path too, even if it's likely a suicide mission to do so.
It's okay to have just one path though, as long as it's clear and preferably a good one. If you can make sure the players know where to go in the first few scenes or session, it'll offer at least the possibility of the players becoming invested purely by their own actions. Having multiple paths helps with this as it'll make it look like choices matter more, which they may or may not, and having paths connect later on can help this even further.
There are other elements you could include in the start too, like excitement, mystery or other elements, but they tend to fall into the previous parts. I'll go deeper into extra elements later though.
To help illustrate my previous points and the points I'll be making further in this guide, I want to use a dungeon analogy. Seeing your entire campaign as a dungeon can help with connecting specific elements, showing the importance of specific elements, and perhaps even with planning out your campaign on paper.
The first scenes of the campaign are the dungeon entrance and perhaps even the first room of the dungeon. Just like the entrance and first room will hint at what lies beyond, show paths that can be taken, and ideally entice people to delve deeper, so too should the start of a campaign. So, if a campaign is like a dungeon, your job is to make the dungeon entrance look appealing, which is something that depends on your group.
You may be thinking about the exploration factor now, surely the mystery of exploring an unknown dungeon counts for something? It does, but it can be more. Which would you rather explore? A random cave with no particular features, a cave system with an entrance carved from the surrounding rocks, or a cave system with a carved entrance full of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs?
Is there a real difference between the second and third option? Only for some. The Egyptian element adds a potential for mummies, ancient treasures, and forgotten histories. That alone can be a motivating factor, and it's that what I mean by providing motivation through the start. A regular cave might be fun to explore, but it doesn't make for a great quest and doesn't promise a potential for bigger story elements unless stated otherwise.
To stick with the dungeon analogy, a good dungeon entrance hints at what lies at the end. So should a story entrance. Does a dungeon give away everything? Of course not, you don't have to give away everything either. You could even have a second story section hidden at the end of your story dungeon, but if you keep everything hidden your players will be experiencing your dungeon like that regular cave, and people generally aren't willing to delve deeper and deeper into a cave when there's just a bunch of nothing, or worse, only dangers.
What if you want to run your campaign in a more sandbox type of way? What if the stories are meant to unfold as the players explore and interact with your world? Well, even then it's best to have a good beginning with a potential for great stories. You can have multiple if you wish, but I would stick to one, maybe two at most for the first session. Keep side quests for later as well, they can slow story progression down a lot unless they tie in well with the main story.
Take video games as an example, all the great open world games have a specific start to put you into the world, offer you several paths to take afterwards, and give you motivation to continue exploring those paths. The intro itself is often quite linear though, usually to get you invested in the world itself rather than some side quest that isn't of great importance to the main plot.
Does this mean you can't give your players lots of option? Of course not, but why put in a lot more work at the start when these efforts can be used to flesh out the parts they do pick? A good world continues to evolve as the players progress through it. So if the players have 5 great adventures to pick from and they choose to follow up on option B, there will be consequences for options A, C, D, and E. With minor quests this doesn't matter, but if bigger things are at stake, it could have large consequences you'll have to think about and take into account when planning your story further. The minor side quests are best saved for later as mentioned anyway.
I'm going to delve more into specific types of beginnings now, but one last element to keep in mind is that the party needs to be motivated to work together. This can be done by either providing content tailored to their interests or by making sure the players take this into account during character creation. The second option is far easier and often smoother, but it varies a lot from group to group. You can go as far as explaining the basic plot to make sure character choices revolve around characters who would want to be involved in such a plot, but often giving basic suggestions can be enough. Ideally your party also knows about what types of characters to avoid (lone wolves, edgy characters, etc.), but sometimes you just have to deal with an awkward party. In those cases you simply have to make the motivation factors broader. The previous Egyptian example is a good example of this as it can offer motivations of treasures, knowledge, prestige (for being the first to make the discoveries), and perhaps even new powers.
Beginning in a tavern may seem stereotypical, but it is a setting that makes sense in many ways. Adventurers often don't have a home or at the very least are on the road a lot, so taverns and similar establishments are an obvious place to go. But realism aside, it is an often used setting, which some players have grown tired of. This doesn't mean you shouldn't use it, but if you do have such players you could work in a twist or two to make the overall experience feel new.
The tavern itself helps with the world and location establishment element of a good beginning, but doesn't really offer much in terms of motivations or offering paths with the exception of leaving or staying in the tavern I guess. So NPCs will need to take care of this. In general this is all straight forward and a safe way to start an adventure. Plus it has the added benefit of more NPCs around town that could be introduced, shops that could be used for supplies, and so on. But the biggest advantage is that it's a fairly safe way to get the entire group together in one place, with the exception of wealth and social status differences between characters preventing them from being in the same types of establishments, but that's more of a group problem.
Ships are a tricky start as they essentially prevent a lot of paths from opening. The characters are generally stuck on the ship, so unless part of the story takes place on the ship, there's not much to do. But you can use it as an introduction scene, perhaps with hints of sea monsters or pirates that come into play later in the story.
It can also be a way for the party to get to know each other for a little while before they arrive at their destination, this works especially well if the ship is small so they're the only ones on it besides the crew.
If forcing the party to work together is the goal, an attack by pirates or a sea monster works well enough. A shipwreck could also bring them to a destination of your choosing, while simultaneously railroading the players a little into a smaller location that's perhaps easier to manage and plan. By playing out the attack element well it could all appear as a natural progression too.
Depending on your story, this all helps with the motivation, path giving and location establishing elements.
Another easy way to force the players together is by making them stand out for all the wrong reasons. They might be in a xenophobic town of dwarves while none of the party members are dwarves, or they may be beings incapable of flying in a place where the locals can fly, forcing them in specific locations. But this doesn't create a good beginning, it missing the motivation element after all. Why would they stay in a place they're unwanted?
There are plenty of ways to add those elements of course, but it depends a lot on your story. In an evil campaign they might be there to wipe out the population, for example, while in another campaign they may be on a diplomatic mission.
Either way, it can offer both a natural way to get the characters to stick together and for NPCs to seek out the party. If there's trouble in town, it may be easier to ask outsiders who aren't involved in whatever troubles the town.
Another common starting point is prison. I advice you to only use this if you make sure your players know about this beforehand, because few things are worse than creating your character, setting up their gear and abilities, and then having it all taken away in a prison.
Prison does offer an easy setting for a good beginning, as there's motivation (escape), location establishment, and usually paths that can be taken to get out (via the entrance, break through a wall, etc.). It also offers plenty of opportunities to set up bad guys, hint at what's going on in the outside world through other prisoner conversations, and so on. If you've played Skyrim, consider the intro sequence and what it establishes within those first few moments.
If you want to make sure the party keeps their gear and abilities, making them hostages could work too. The consequences of using their powers could be the end of the lives of other hostages. So it becomes a game of waiting for the right moment to strike or, depending on how you play it, siding with their captors if they're fighting for a cause the party also believes in.
Killing some of the hostages could also be a way to both increase tensions and force the players to be the only ones left together in the end through a natural progression of the story.
I'd advice against using prison or a hostage situation as a starting point because it can feel too forced. The players won't have had a chance to react to being arrested or to attempt to avoid being arrested, so it can come across as those choices having been made for them. Instead I'd start of in the town or city, establish that location more and let them wander around. Guards may be watching them closely to increase the tension before going in for their arrest when the group steps into a street that's eerily quiet. They can try to escape, but it's impossible. Even if they make it to the edge of town, more guards will be waiting. All of this can then be used to make the warden, or whoever you want the bad guy to be, more of a pain in their butt. He might mock them for thinking they could escape the power of his guard or charge them with disruption of the public peace, regardless of whether their attempted escape caused any chaos or not.
If the group hasn't actually grouped up yet, this also offers a way to do so while still giving each of them a moment to shine on their own and introduce their character in a way they see fit considering the circumstances.
All of this setup helps with both establishing the location, creating motivations, and give them more fleshed out paths to take should they make it out of prison. They saw the town beforehand after all, so specific locations may have hinted at escape paths. Sewers, a river, friendly NPCS, and so on.
A call to arms can come in many forms. An army calling upon their soldiers, a gang calling upon its members, a king calling upon his heroes, and so on. The difficulty lies in the party composition, because not all characters may be part of the same initial group, so a military draft may not apply to some characters, for example.
A call to arms can be used in a way that motivates all the characters though. A town crier might shout about a danger lurking at the edge of town and that the mayor seeks brave souls who will be rewarded handsomely. Or perhaps a new store has opened with great weapons and magical artifacts for adventurers.
By looking at what motivates the characters in your party, it's usually easy enough to find some common ground you can use to create a fitting call to arms, but keep in mind that your players may have different plans for their characters, so a call to arms can fail at times because of specific character choices. A character may be interested in magical artifacts, for example, but if a character choice was made that they'd never buy them, only search them out in hidden tombs, that shop opening option won't work.
Some games start in the middle of the action in an attempt to make the game exciting from the start. This is easy to do wrong however, as it suffers from similar issues the prison start does. Pacifists may feel cheated for being forced into combat, others may feel forced for not having had a choice of doing things differently, and there may be a lot of confusion about what is really going on. If beginning in the middle of action doesn't also answer "Who are we fighting? And why?", "Where are we?" and "How did we get here?", this sequence can come across as forced and confusing. Those questions may be answered after the action is over, but why switch their order if building up to the action makes the pay off far bigger?
There are ways to start in the middle though. By simply making sure you're starting in a quiet part so the players have time to interact with the world you already go a long way to making this type of beginning work. Perhaps they're on the run from a group out to kill them (there's motivation), they're on the road in a forest path with rocks around them (location establishing), and they have a little while to decide on what to do next. They could keep running, set up and ambush, hide, or think of something else (clear paths).
I personally still think it's better to simply start at the beginning so the character choices matter more and the players become more invested. In my example it'd be better to know who exactly was chasing them and why, or at the very least have a scene that builds up to whatever mysterious force is chasing them. But each group is different, so check with yours to see what they prefer.
Beginnings like this one aren't that common. A campfire talk beginning is essentially beginning in the middle, but the beginning sequence of how they got to where they are now is explained through the campfire conversations. The campfire obviously doesn't have to be a literal campfire. It works great when you allow the players to fill in many of the blanks, perhaps all of them, but you could give them some basic information about how they got here while letting them fill in the details.
You could then either play out the scenes like flashbacks if some action is needed or simply talk through them for character bonding.
This type of beginning is very group dependent though. For some it'll work great as it allows them to help build the world a little as well as their character backgrounds and the relationships whit the other party members, but some groups may turn it into the silliest of silly background stories by giving themselves advantages through these back-stories. There are quick and easy ways to deal with this though. You could make them pay for it by adjusting the power levels of the world (if they say they killed a dragon, all dragons are puny), you could ask them to stick to realism more, or you could let them finish their story and then say something like "as the night begins to fall and you finish your stories of exaggerations". This one is especially effective as it allows you to still use what they said, but simply adjust things to a less exaggerated level. If they said they killed a dragon, it was really just a lizard, for example.
As long as you keep the three points I mentioned in mind, you should be well on your way to make a fun beginning of your campaign. Fun isn't necessarily great, but it is usually good enough. Going the extra mile is always appreciated by players of course. Beginnings of campaigns are always a little awkward as everybody is still getting to know the characters and the world they inhabit.
Communication is always key, so make sure you know what your group enjoys and what they can expect from your campaign, and you'll be one step further in the creation process.
My final tip to make things easier for yourself is to keep the beginning short and simple. Don't bother with many plot important NPCs, lots of hints for future content, opportunities for side quests, and so on. The party will be too focused on figuring out who they are in your world, so getting to know their location and their characters should be the main focus. Include motivational elements to make them want to keep exploring, and give them a few clear paths to do so, and you're good to go. Side quests, extra NPC interactions, and everything else that bogs this down can be saved for later. They're like the treasure in a dungeon. You tend to come across them later, and the more there's of it, the sooner you have to pick and choose what you take and what you don't because you're over-encumbered.