You know that old trope in which the party members all meet up in a tavern or an inn at the beginning of the campaign and conveniently join forces, often for very little reason other than getting on with the adventure? I'm not exactly going to bemoan the idea here; it's a cliche because it generally works, and it has arguably become a genre convention by now. However, it sure is nice when things are kicked off in a slightly less predictable way, especially when the players can start out either right in the thick of the action or in the process of making a major, meaningful decision.
Hopefully, I might be starting another campaign soon in addition to my regular one, so I figure it shouldn't hurt to list some ideas for the campaign's beginning in case my potential players want to give me some feedback about what interests them, or in case anyone else might either find some inspiration or share some of their own. Now, by no means do I want to claim that these are original ideas I came up with by myself; many of the things I'm going to list are also pretty common suggestions. Much of this will probably count as "preaching to the choir" for any readers who were playing RPGs before I was born or when I was in diapers. Still, I think these suggestions are less common, and in my opinion more interesting, than the meeting-in-a-tavern trope. If anyone wants to tell me about a time when one of these ideas was used in a campaign, for good or ill, I'd love to hear it.
Starting off with one specific adventure, after which point the players can choose where to go and what to do:
- The game begins with the party all locked up in the same dungeon or prison, and the first adventure is their escape attempt. (I apologize that I do not remember exactly where I read this, but I've seen it suggested more than once that a good way to start a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign would be to have the party wake up in the cannibals' lair in Better Than Any Man - possibly with their shackles accidentally loosened and their starting equipment bundled in a nearby room.)
- Some variations on the above: The party consists of people who have been press ganged to work on the same ship, conscripted to fight in the same military unit, abducted by the same god/witch/fairy/UFO, unwittingly teleported to the same alien planet, or kidnapped to serve as The Most Dangerous Game for the same group of bloodthirsty nobles.
- The PCs have all been mutually and mysteriously gifted a mansion or similar piece of property through the will of an eccentric, wealthy individual of some notoriety. Some or all of the PCs might not have even met this benefactor. The party is free to claim the property and use it as they see fit, on the condition that they can make it habitable. Naturally, the place is haunted, cursed, infested with monsters, or otherwise operating as a dungeon-style adventure location, of course.
- The party is a group of pilgrims/travelers who happen to meet on the road en route to the same location, shortly before they run into trouble together on the way there. A Stranger Storm, the sample adventure from the free Referee Book from LotFP, works well with this approach, as does the adventure Tales of the Scarecrow. This was also basically how the game of LotFP I played at Gen Con 2016 started. You could pull a bit of a switcheroo with this idea - the players think they're headed for one adventure (and maybe they are, if they survive the surprise), but they get a different one instead or beforehand.
- The party does meet in a tavern, but not by chance. They were all asked to meet there by someone who wants to hire them for a heist or some other mission. Think Mr. Johnson from Shadowrun. For added fun, consider making the meeting itself a trap.
- The party members are residents of the same town or region who become mutually trapped in the area or otherwise endangered due to a disaster or attack, and the most sensible way for them to survive and escape would be for them to work together. Over at Anxiety Wizard, the Deep Carbon Observatory campaign currently in progress seems to use this approach, at least with some of the PCs. I think it would also be a fun way to start No Salvation for Witches.
Starting off in a "sandbox" right away, presenting the party with a choice of adventures in the very first session:
- The PCs are all members of a Hunting/Safari/Mons Club, and they have found or been presented with several leads as to the locations of various magical creatures/monsters to track down. I think this could work well with Isle of the Unknown.
- The party members are all refugees fleeing persecution, and there are several places to which they could try and escape. Think Sirenswail (which makes good use of this premise as a lead-in to a specific adventure location), but with several possible adventure locations depending on the escape route chosen by the party.
- The party consists of a team of officially-endorsed (but still wet behind the ears) witch hunters, bounty hunters, crusaders, etc., and due to either some unique circumstances or some weirdly unfettered institutional policies, the PCs start off with their choice of assignment. They must pick which menace to hunt down or which group to prosecute/persecute (possibly like a reverse of the suggestion above - the PCs are the ones hunting the refugees). If the DM wanted to start off with a specific adventure instead of a choice of several ones, the party could simply have to earn the right to choose their assignments after the first one.
- Much like in the "gifted a mansion" example above, the PCs all inherit joint custody of a collection of books, maps, and various documents. This collection gives plot hooks for all kinds of different quests: You want to go treasure hunting? This journal says that unfathomable wealth is buried in the lost tomb over here, and unimaginable riches are probably still on board that ship that suck under suspicious circumstances over there. You want arcane knowledge and magical powers? This diary details the methods by which you could summon the Ripened God deep in the Thrice Forbidden Grove and try to ask for some favors, but first you'll need some rare ingredients for the ritual, which can be found here and here, if you believe the rumors. You want to curry favor with the authorities? These letters over here contain tantalizing clues to the unsolved occult murders Duke de la Poer and his family. I'm personally thinking of something along the lines of Clarke's "Memoirs to Prove the Existence of the Devil" from The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, or Miskatonic University's good ol' Lovecraftian giftschrank, but the collection of documents certainly doesn't have to be horror-themed. It could consist of the research notes of a scholar who secretly discovered the Hollow World, or the treasure maps of a retired pirate captain showing where he buried all his booty, or the library of famous sage and wanna-be alchemist Poindexter von Magicpants.
- You could try the open-ended hexcrawl version of the aforementioned "unwittingly teleported to the same alien planet" idea. The PCs all get plopped down against their will in the middle of the same place on the hexmap, and what happens to them next depends entirely on what direction they decide to go, how thoroughly they want to explore, which dungeons or other plot hooks they wish to stop and investigate, and what gets rolled on the random encounter table.
Really, this post is an attempt to answer two different questions for the players. First, why is my character going on this adventure instead of doing something else? The two answers I find most likely to satisfy the player are "For profit," and "For survival." Second, why is my character pursuing this adventure as a part of a team with these other characters who are probably strangers? The most reasonable answer in many cases will probably be "For better chances of success." If your players want to come up with other motivations, like "Because it's the right thing to do," or "For revenge," that seems perfectly fine by me - I'm not here to inflict the RPG equivalent of kink shaming on anybody - but that probably shouldn't be expected or required of your players just so that they have some kind of reason or excuse to get involved. Likewise, I think it's fine and dandy if players want to come up with a little bit of mutual backstory explaining why the party is together, but I don't want that to be a prerequisite for play. You don't always need a huge amount of backstory or prep for a campaign to start off strong.