Old School RPGs : Need advice for great campaign beginnings

“So you’ve all known each other for years and you’re all sitting in a bar when a mysterious stranger walks up to you and says…”


Campaign beginnings are tricky, they’re the hook for not only the first adventure but the players first exposure to the DMs world. Roleplaying the first meeting always goes poorly. At best it’s awkward and at worst it fractures the party from the beginning. Strangers don’t put their lives in the hands of other strangers willingly and yet the DM manufacturing the party dynamic is about as heavy handed as you can get, that’s their part to play in all this.

So what are some great beginnings?

I ran a campaign in which all of the PCs were the children of another (now-retired) adventuring party. The PCs had grown up together, and when an old friend of one of the parents approached the retired adventurers with a plea for help, the parents said, “well, we’re old and tired, but you kids are eager for something to do. Here, go help our old friend.”

I skip that junk altogether. Part of character creation is figuring out which characters know one another, and how. Sometimes the whole party knows one another, sometimes they pair off. Whatever.

If all the characters don’t know one another, I’ll frame the first session as a “prequel” that takes place a certain amount of time before the main storyline. This gives the players time to get a feel for their characters and decide if they want to make any changes to their builds. The next session starts with me asking the players what their characters have been doing since the prequel and how they’ve been interacting with one another (actually, all the sessions do, but this one is the most important).
“Oh, I’ve been tinkering with the engine on my off time.”
“Wait, tinkering with MY engine on MY ship?! I dunno about that, buddy.”
“Well I would have asked you first! Or gotten you to give me the tour!”
“…that’s better.”

And so on. These little conversations are enormous in terms of informing how the characters will interact with one another.

I gave up on that problem a long time ago. Here is how the prequel adventure always ends.

“And now, having experienced danger and excitement together, you become fast friends who are willing to put it all on the line for one another. Because you’re good guys. And this is a roleplaying game.”

Some things are better when they’re established early. :stuck_out_tongue:

…said the fighter to the rogue and the wizard, who looked at him strangely.

Well, I shan’t say I’m a great DM or anything, but I find that a good opener is each player being in a given location for their own reasons, and an Event suddenly happening that a) demands a reaction and b) is time sensitive tends to quickly form an ad-hoc group before they know it. And from then, you can involve the players further in time, the first order of business of course being finding out the causes behind The Event.

For example : in L5R (a samurai-themed RPG) most of the PCs were members of delegations to a big festival/diplomatic pow-wow when SUDDENLY a bunch of ronin charge the lord hosting them all in the middle of the feast - so naturally the more fighter-y types try to intercede, the support guys have to be saved, the spellslingers sling spells ; and when the big dustup is over the lord has noticed their efforts and thanks them for saving his life, and naturally he can’t trust his security any more so would they please find out what it’s all about ?

I usually split them up into pairs, and introduce each pair into the story as we go. For instance, a Jedi master and her apprentice get a quest from the Jedi council. But secrecy and subterfuge are paramount, so they’re given a stipend and told to go charter a ship. The next two players are the pilot and co-pilot of a freighter.

Or you can start them off with a previously-established relationship, like a squad or other military unit that’s suffered some terrible losses. That successfully establishes a nice short-term goal of revenge and allows the characters to allude to other campaigns in their backstory.

One time, though, I just skipped all that introductory stuff and started off the first campaign in a fight with a dragon. Collectively, we filled in the setting as we went along: they were in a town, answering the call of the militia, the dragon’s heart wasn’t in the fight, the party had to run down the one responsible for coercing the dragon … fun times can be had if you have a creative group, and then just let the dynamic assert itself.


It’s the players’ jobs to figure out why their characters know and trust each other enough to work together in what will become a life-and-death adventure. Basically, each character must be able to vouch (in character) for one or more other characters, so that all characters can “trust” each other in a friend-of-a-friend fashion.

As a side effect, it also preempts a lot of anti-social behavior.

As others have said, a lot of responsibility can go into the player’s hands. Here are some beginnings I’ve seen:

  1. Explain why you’re willing to work as a guard on this particular caravan. (During the first session, the apocalypse strikes; characters are thrown together as survivors).
  2. Explain why you’re going to this podunk town for their midsummer festival (we players got permission to rewrite the festival to be a super-ridiculous outdated peace treaty remembrance, and we tied the new festival into all our character backgrounds).
  3. Explain why you’re taking a ship from this one town to another (the ship, of course, sinks, and we’re the ones who make it to shore).
  4. Explain how you know, and are friends or at least allies with, two other PCs.


One of the things I’ve said in the last couple of campaigns I’ve played in is;

“There’s no reason why my character or any other would be required to trust his life to your character if he’s an undependable or dangerous asshole. If I was an adventurer, I’d have no issues shoving my sword in the gut of the wizard who intentionally drops a spell on me in the middle of combat and laughs about it, or chasing down and stringing up the thief who steals from me. If that is your idea of a fun character, drop it now, because this is supposed to be fun for ALL OF US, and I don’t like playing with jerks.”

Of course, in the past, I’d get angry and argue with those people. Should it happen in the future, I’m more likely to just get up and leave.

I would recommend (for everyone who runs games, not just the OP) taking a look at the character creation in FATE. It has a really cool collaborative backstory creation process that I’ve stolen for non-FATE games before. Dig around a little, the ruleset is free.

The best opening I’ve ever used involved all of the characters finding themselves trapped in a prison together. They each got to decide what crime they had been charged with, and whether or not they were guilty or not.

Then came the mandatory earthquake, destroying the exit to the above, freeing them from their cells, and opening the one-and-only passage into the Dungeon. From there on, it went swimmingly.

Heh–in my game where I’m the energy-resistant barbarian, I’m always encouraging the wizards to drop spells centered on me. Different circumstances.

In another game, another PC assassinated me after I’d saved her bacon. But that was the culmination of a months-long backplot with the GM (which I only found out about at the moment where she stabbed me), and her character’s redemption arc took another couple of years.

Intraparty strife can be awesome, but it has to be managed carefully.

I ran several campaigns using the Daggerford setting, in which the characters are all members of the militia, sent out to deal with progressively higher-level stuff. They all get a synopsis of what the area’s like, and their motivations tend to be based on their class & race.

I was also in a superhero campaign set in the late 40’s (officially, “40 years ago today” at the time). We were Vanguard, formed after the creation of the United Nations, with one superhero from each of the member nations of the UN. Nationalistic pride was pretty rampant.

One of the better cold opens for an AD&D campaign I DM’d had most of the players essentially forming a party as part of their backstory. They’re in their home town and they all get rounded up by the town guard and drafted into a mission on behalf of the local noble… with the last two PCs thrown into the party as the noble’s representatives (and presumably minders and spies).

In a sense, the players playing those latter PCs were NPCs but played independently, including allowing for their actions to deviate away from their putative master’s intentions.

Not necessarily the most creative or unique, but I wanted the players to have a sense of potential conflicting interests for the sake of intrigue.

I started one campaign with the party all being galley slaves of an evil Empire…

First the players were invited to work together to create a balanced party (I gave them all the permitted class / race combinations) and suggest some background for their own character.

Then I filled out their character history and gave each player an explanation of how they came to be enslaved. Some examples:

  • a gnome Thief sold to the Empire after a new ruthless Thieves Guildmaster took over
  • a human Fighter from the Empire who had broken Empire rules
  • an Elf Fighter-MU captured by an Empire patrol
  • a human Cleric who had been caught trying to convert Empire soldiers away from evil
  • a Human Barbarian who had insulted an Empire Officer

With their characters having spent much time chained together, I told the players all about each others characters.
Then their first adventure was to make an escape plan!

In my next (Pathfinder) campaign setting, which I’m working on, there is a Human kingdom where the King has fairly good psychological/personal history reasons for distrusting non-Humans, but over the years has gone progressively darker. Now he’s in the process of exiling anyone with any non-Human blood, which means all the people with Draconic bloodlines (several half-dragons and their descendants over the last 300 years) and/or with Elven Bloodlines. They’re all being dumped in a Halfling seaport which is the primary trading center between the various races.

Also, the Noble Privileges of that kingdom are Commerce, Property and Arms. If you’re a commoner, you can’t own property or engage in private commerce, and you can only own arms as a member of a guild, which means you’re subject to (sometimes excessive) guild fees and being drafted for any purpose. (The nobles like to draft Monks and ‘Wizards’ (arcane casters) to deal with police matters and other problems, because they want to discourage those classes and it does tend to make them unpopular.)

So the Human PCs are going to be exiles with those bloodlines, or people who just got fed up with the crap and ‘escaped’ the Kingdom. The Half-Elves will definitely be exiles.

The Halflings? Well, they’re not particularly happy to have several thousand exiles in their seaport, with the prospect of involuntarily gaining several thousand more. The Royalist nobles also seem to think they’re above Halfling Law.

The Elves aren’t happy either, because several hundred of them used to live in one of the Duchies (where all the Half-Elves were) but were ejected 25 years ago and are now seeing their children and kinsmen exiled.

The Tengu clan in that seaport had a battle 20 years ago with one of the worst noble houses and have now seen that House return to the city after a long (enforced) absence.

The Gnomes? Twelve years ago they were invited into the Kingdom to trade with one of the minor Noble Houses for the first time in nearly 20 years. Unfortunately it turned out to be a setup, their goods were confiscated and they were frogmarched to the border. Some Gnomes* took revenge a month later, embarrassing that House, causing damage to their town and causing the King to force them to replace their Baron.

  • Some Gnomes, or “Some Gnomes”. Not really a mafia or anything like that, but they don’t mind if outsiders think that. No, they’re just average higher level Gnomes who decide to take an interest in a problem and work together to solve it.

At the start of my current campaign, the DM told us each “Gundren the merchant is putting together a caravan to the town of X, and wants some guards. You tell me how you know him, and why you’ve decided to hire on.”. For my character, it was that his academic advisor had occasionally bought antiquities from him, and my character had heard that there were more such in that town. Another was a long-time family friend of Gundren’s, and owed him a debt of honor. Another didn’t care much about Gundren one way or another, but was being sent on a mission from his temple to an old ruin near there, and so on.

I’ve also been part of this one. We were all living in the same city, and were attending an annual festival of some sort. Suddenly, some VIPs were abducted in a very public and chaotic way. A hundred thousand people ran away from the chaos, and six ran towards it.

Come to think of it, I’ve been part of something like this, too. We were, basically, the Misfit Squad: We all joined the military for our own reasons, but none of us fit in (I think that campaign, we all happened to be chaotic), and so all got stationed at some podunk fort as far from civilization as they could put us, and even there, the best they could find to do with us was to stick us all together and send us out on patrol as much as they could.

I’ve also always been a big fan of the solo or paired pre-adventure for each player. Gives the player and the DM a chance to figure out how to use the character, and personal motivations and flavors, without all the group chaos and also sets up the group plot for each in a more satisfying manner.

You all awake in a hotel conference room full of conventioneers with almost total amnesia…you remember your name and skills, and nothing else…GO!

One of the most distinctive–which is to say, weirdest–opens I’ve used was in a 2nd Edition D&D campaign. The character (yes, singular) was an anomaly, a young elf with max stats (18 and 18/00) in four prime stats. Then he got kidnapped by a wizard looking for someone to test a bizarre artifact on, which split the elf into four separate characters. The campaign started with them escaping the wizard’s tower. Then they had to elude his agents until they accumulated enough power to face him. They eventually seized the artifact from him and unlocked its secrets (difficult, since it was a psionic artifact).

Then they had to confront the real conflict, which was deciding whether or not to reverse the split. It was all or none, and some of them didn’t want to go back.