6 Ways to Assemble the Party and Kick-Off Your Campaign

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0502

6 Ways to Assemble the Party and Kick-Off Your Campaign

This week’s feature article is inspired by three things. First is a couple of reader requests that I’ve been neglecting about getting PCs together for the first time and kicking off campaigns. Apologies to James S., Patrick R. and Matthew I. for the delay in these tips.

Second, last issue I rambled on about encouraging you to play more often because life is short and stressful, and with our busy lives, “now” never seems like a good time to get gaming. I know I struggle to keep up with my every-other-week game, but my goal is to game weekly despite the hurdles. This week’s topic of group origin is a natural fit with the goal of having us all game more.

Third, I’ve just released a cool new eBook about how to find great gamers in your local area. That is a big problem for many folks, based on the emails I’ve received over the years. Is your neighbor a gamer? They could be and you might never know.

This eBook, called Filling the Empty Chair, compiles the top 40 or so gamer finder websites and services you can use to find out if your neighbor or others nearby play RPG. Wouldn’t that be awesome? The book also offers 28 offline methods to uncover local gamers.

Get more book details at: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rptnchair

On to the tips!

Action First, Backstory Second

From Johnn

Sometimes, it’s better to jump right into the action, then deal afterward with the reasons why the PCs are together and what the campaign premise is. This is a classic tip, also commonly referred to as in Media Res.

You might do this for a few reasons:

  • Some players, such as myself, take a while to warm up to their characters. I can write all the backstory and personality I want, but not until the character is in play and with the other characters do I start to get a true feel for who that PC is and why.
  • Pacing, excitement, a good start. Get players involved right away with a combat or action sequence. If time is limited, players are new to each other, or you are new to GMing, an action-packed start launches the game forward without awkwardness or hesitation.
  • Missing players. A last-minute cancellation or late player might derail your party-building plans. Stalling with action is a great way to game on without delay.
  • You don’t know what the characters will be. I’ve started many campaigns with character creation taking up the first part of the session, leaving the second part free to begin roleplaying. However, this means you don’t know who the characters are ahead of time. To stall, so you have between- session time to think and plan, start in the middle with action and then cover backgrounds and campaign hooks next session.

Action ideas:

  • A tournament, fair or competition. Classic! The PCs compete in events and interact with NPCs without requiring heavy plot hooks to establish yet what they’re doing or why.
  • Bar brawl. Another common start some might say is cliche. Bah! It’s easy, fun and accessible to the players. If you’ve done this before with the same group of players, then think up a clever twist to keep it interesting. Perhaps the brawl occurs in some kind of aerial tavern. Maybe the staff or some of the patrons reveal themselves as monsters (lycanthropes, space mutants, zombies!).
  • Mid-flight. The PCs are running from something. The why can be settled later – they need to lose their pursuers now.
  • At the dungeon entrance. Leave the reasons for next week – the gaping cave and descending staircase beckon.
  • Defending. All the players know at this point is they’ve been ordered to defend a person, place or thing, and they are under attack.
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Know How You’ll Bring in New PCs

From Johnn

Do characters die in your campaigns? Is your group small and there’s a chance a new player might join in the near future? If so, plan an entrance strategy for new PCs so your campaign premise doesn’t get diluted.

For example, in a campaign I was in, each PC received a bloodline. Unbeknownst to us as players, our characters were tainted with the blood of creatures by a villain who was trying to create enhanced minions to help him destroy the world. This was a great premise.

Early on we discovered our heritage in a dungeon. However, one player soon had to leave the campaign, a new one joined, and then another new player joined. This put quite a strain on things because one had to visit this dungeon to activate their bloodline powers, and the group wasn’t about to return to that place over and over for each new stranger who wanted to hitch a ride on the adventure cart.

In addition, the character who left had this active bloodline thing going on in him, and he became a weird open loop in the campaign. The GM had to put him down, unfortunately.

Before you weave your crazy web of character connectedness, think about PCs joining and leaving and how you’ll handle that.

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Four Core Approaches

From Swordgleam

Some players think it is entirely the DM’s job to introduce the party to each other and give them a viable reason to stay together. Some DMs think this is entirely the players’ job. Players and DMs who feel one way generally feel similarly about who is responsible for creating/finding/following/figuring out the plot.

I’ve run a few campaigns of varying lengths, starting on either end of the “whose job is this” spectrum. The smoothest startups either way have all involved clear expectations on both sides. Based on what I’ve experienced, it seems like the core approaches, in rough order of how well they’ve worked for me, are:

  1. Players work together to create characters with interweaving backstories, then present this to the DM.
  2. The DM designs a campaign predicated on the PCs cooperating.
  3. DM creates a situation that forces the PCs together, and the PCs must go from there.
  4. The PCs put their characters in proximity, and the DM gives them a reason to stick together.

Some examples that I’ve seen work:

  1. An urban fantasy campaign where all of the players were descendants of various Greek gods, who were starting to feel a bit smite-y. The party was told they would have to work together to do the gods’ will if they wanted to avoid eternal agony.
  2. The party members were all thrown in jail for reasons of varying validity, and ended up in the same cell. It was up to them to decide if they needed each other’s’ help to find a way out and avoid recapture.
  3. The players all explained why their characters would be on a merchant ship headed to a certain city. Pirates attacked the ship, and the party ended up escaping together with nothing but a waffle maker, a rowboat, and a vision of one day seeing land again.

The first approach involves a lot more work from the players than the others, but it also gives the players more freedom. This, in turn, is more work for the DM, but I’d argue that coming up with a campaign for an already functional party is much less work, or at least less frustrating work, than coming up with excuse after excuse as to why a dysfunctional party needs to stick together for one more session.

This can only happen if the players are up for it, which is probably why it seems to be a relatively rare approach. Still, pinning all of the work on the DM has always struck me as unfair, unless getting the party together is a fundamental part of the plot.

Having the categories is helpful for brainstorming. Defining what you’re trying to accomplish (full-blown party cohesion, versus starting the PCs off on the right foot) makes coming up with ideas a whole lot easier.

Making things clear at the start avoids the, “You bought me a beer, so I trust you. Let’s go adventuring!” scenario and inevitable fallout when expectations don’t get met.

Listing possible kick-off scenarios by category also makes it easier to find the right fit for the current party – being told you’re all soldiers in the same unit isn’t going to work for players excited to play outlaw heroes, just like starting out marooned on an island won’t work for players who want the DM to walk them through every step of the initial introductions.

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Taverns, Prison, Enlistment, Chance, The Deep End

From Casey Dare

I’ve used a few successful and fun methods to introduce new characters to each other and get the game going.

  1. Taverns
  2. Prison
  3. Enlistment
  4. Chance Encounter
  5. The Deep End

Each of these can be tied into the main plot of the campaign or pre-story campaigns to get the group to know each other.

If a part of the main campaign, the encounters should be scripted and used to move the party along to the next encounter.

If solely to introduce the group together, these can be loosely written and more random, with “what do you want to do” events tied to NPCs typically found in those venues.

  • The Deep End always starts with a bang, and is followed by an “uh oh” from the group.

For example, I had a group wake up after an inn keeper drugged the ale and was caught lighting the inn on fire. The place was ablaze and they couldn’t exit the front for fear the folks outside might accuse them of setting the place on fire. The story evolved into them seeking to understand why the inn keeper set the fire.

Another good one is using a ship running afoul in shallow waters or encountering a pirate to unite the strangers into a group. They have no choice but to respond to the events because they are “in the deep end” and have to swim or drown.

  • Throwing the PCs in prison is much fun. A few quick “in the hall” meetings with each PC can orchestrate running afoul of the local constable and finding them in jail.

Having the biggest bruiser in the joint decide to pick on the little mage or priest can pull the group together, and their decisions on escape or talking their way out is always entertaining. And this can be used as a pre-plot adventure just to get the group to know each other.

  • Enlistment is often a quick way to join a group; a large contingent of the Duke’s Own riding into town, herding all the men into the square and pointing “you, you, you and you, in the wagon” can start an adventure quickly.
  • A Chance Encounter should almost always be linked to a greater plot and is easy enough to do. For example, the PCs all happen to turn down the same street when a young woman frantically rushes into their midst, looking over her shoulder, and whispers, “I must hide from him; please help me or I shall die!”

Around the corner a towering brute strides down the center of the street. Four burly henchmen flank him and all are scanning around looking for something – or someone. How the PCs react sets up the adventure and can lead to a great time.

Flexibility in story and ability to adapt is key for a GM to succeed when using these approaches, because PCs will respond in unexpected ways, yet the GM still needs to keep gameplay focused on bringing the group together and moving them along in the story.

But they are fun ways to quickly bring together a new group without spending hours detailing each character or meeting individually with each person prior to starting.

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Model Real Life

From Marc K.

In response to the problem of how players have their characters meet each other, I just borrow from real life. How the players actually met each other in real life is how their characters met in game. It’s simple and somewhat entertaining too!

For example, in my current campaign there are six players. In real life we all met each other through a mutual friend named Chad. Chad is not a player in our game so I created an NPC bard bearing the same name. I based his personality similar to the real life person (much to the amusement of the other players).

Another idea I used that I borrowed from real life was The Party. It just so happens that all the players knew each other from a big party one of us threw a couple of years ago at his parent’s chalet up in the woods.

So before the game, I gave the character whose player hosted the party a cabin in the woods and told the others that is where they met initially. This set up was great because all the players were familiar with the cabin and the layout of the surrounding area. There was even an unused well on the grounds (which served as the kickoff to the first adventure).

For groups who have trouble figuring out how their characters know each other (especially large groups) I say just look at how you all met in real life, transpose it into the setting, and add any NPC characters, events, or sites that would make it easier for everyone to associate and voila, instant introduction!

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Start with A Simple One-Shot

From Soylent Green

One thing I have noticed is the most successful campaigns in my group are often sleeper hits – flexible and unassuming one-off games that just tend to carry on and grow.

The high profile new campaigns, with extensive GM notes, hype and pre-game discussions among the players tend to hit problems within the first few sessions. Not sure why this is or if it’s just us.

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How I Plan to Start My Campaign

From name withheld

[Comment from Johnn: this is not a tip per se, but I thought the reader had a lot of great ideas for a campaign start that might inspire you for your next campaign.]

I have two ideas I want to use in my forthcoming campaign. One is stolen straight from the Heroes of Horror source book for D&D 3.5 – the example campaign they suggest called Night watch.

In Night watch, the heroes gradually become aware of a growing taint in their city that comes from a nearby shrine to a previously forgotten or deposed evil god. After a few sessions, they come into contact with a group called Night watch that has been set up by a few of the ruling Duke’s knights with a view to combat this growing evil.

The heroes get enrolled into the group and spend several sessions combating various urban evils. Eventually they figure out this is the work of a cult, find the cult headquarters and do ’em! There they will find reference to the shrine in the forest outside of the city.

The sessions then move out in the countryside looking for the shrine and eventually the PCs put rest to the evils there. However, while there they find correspondence to someone within Night watch – there is a traitor! Back to the city for the final showdown, which may result in the god being summoned onto the material plane.

Within the bounds of this, I also want to try out an idea I think came from your newsletter to take a work of fiction and translate it into an adventure. I am going to use my favorite PS3 game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, which I think would translate well, with a little work. I am planning to reveal bits of the Drake’s Fortune story arc gradually over the campaign so it will fit in and around the main story, and may even be linked.

Anyway, back to the first session. After racking my brain repeatedly, I have come up with the following plan:

  • The first session will start as some form of tournament that will have 4 individual events and one team event.
  • The winner of the tournament will get an introduction to the Duke who will set them on the path of the Drake’s Fortune (as well as providing more immediate work and 500 gold crowns).
  • The four events will be designed so each of the characters can shine in one of them, and then the team event is looking likely to be some form of contest where they have to team up to be effective.
  • Against this backdrop I will have stalls around the tournament the characters can go to and interact with NPCs who will become more important as the campaign continues, as well as roaming NPCs.
  • The other teams will also provide roleplaying opportunities. I am considering a team made up of four anti-heroes who may become firm rivals as the campaign develops.

The twist to all this is the person designed to provide the winners with their 500 gold crowns, as well as the introduction to the Duke, gets assassinated just before the winners go through to meet him. This person (at the minute just called “The Duke’s Emissary”) is actually a member of the evil cult, and the assassin is a member of Night watch.

The Duke then engages the heroes to investigate the murder, which will give them the beginnings of awareness about the cult, as well as an opportunity to run in with Night watch. Knowing my lot, they’re likely to kill the assassin if they can catch him, even if he surrenders, and I want to ensure this has consequences for them.

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Stay tuned for more examples and tips on assembling parties and kicking off campaigns and first sessions.

If you have any tips or examples, please do send them in as this is a great topic to explore further.

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10 Disasters for Your Game

From Scrasamax

Blue Crush

The water seems to recede, as if something was drawing it away from the shore. A few turns later, a wall of water 12 feet high rolls over the beach causing a great deal of damage, washing anything not bolted down away and toppling structures made of anything weaker than stone. PCs are jostled, take minor to moderate damage and can lose items in the surge of water.

Wyrmfang Spill

A wagon ahead of the PCs has an accident (breaks a wheel, horses spook, orcs attack and kill the driver) and its contents are spilled. A strange green cloud spills from the damaged wagon, plants quickly wither and die and animals in the area of the cloud sicken and also die in a few agonizing minutes.

Red Skies

The PC on night watch notices a red glow, and in a matter of minutes, the PCs are being threatened by a raging wildfire. Trees explode into flame, the heat sucks breathable air away and water quickly evaporates in the inferno. You wake up, the forest is on fire.


The bad storm takes a bad twist. Winds kick up to incredible speed, ripping houses apart and flinging debris around. Then, the rain, hail, wind and lightning stop. A muted roar announces the presence of the tornado as it marches relentlessly across the earth for a few miles of sheer destruction. Well mage…can you counter spell that thing?

The Zombie Strain

A necromancer made a big mistake, creating a highly contagious version of the animate dead spell. Rather than creating a self-replenishing army of dead under his control, the zombies spread their affliction to the living by fluid exchange. The PCs only have a few days before succumbing to the infection and becoming zombies themselves…unless there is a cure.

The Tower Inferno

Galas and fetes are things of courtly grace and splendor, events of decorum and etiquette. The stately tedium is interrupted by a fire spreading quickly through the palace, and the PCs are involved to help put out the flames and rescue important or self-important people from the blazing wreckage.

Amphibious Assault

A night by the river turns strange as the ground is quickly covered by a thick carpet of frogs and toads of all different sizes. Anything edible the amphibians eat, including each other, travel is done on a slick of frog blood and gore, and the smell after a few hours is nauseating.

Who turned off the lights?

One morning the sun doesn’t rise. No reason is to be given, other than a faint smile or a fiendish chuckle.

Dead in the Pasture

The PCs’ mounts perish during the night for no apparent reason. The next village has been hit with the same affliction some days before and there is not a horse, ox, cow, or any other such critter to be found for miles.

Fly Hollow

Traveling, the PCs find the ruins of a town, complete with macabre skeletons and dried out corpses. A steady drone fills the air and the sky is darkened by the wings of millions of black biting flies.

For 30 more disasters, visit: Strolen’s Citadel.

You might also want to check out Issue 464: 12 Disasters in Fantasy Campaigns http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=464

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Exotic Brews and Drinking Customs

From Dariel Quiogue

What do characters’ drink in your world? If like me, you like to run games in worlds inspired by Asia or Africa instead of Western Europe, then coming up with a local tipple that’s not just ale or wine can add flavor of the game. It helps your players remember they’re not in Kansas anymore.

To come up with original brews for your own campaign, just remember a few things about alcohol and brewing. All alcoholic beverages are created by a fermentation process that turns sugars from plant products into ethyl alcohol, a substance we can safely ingest in moderate quantities.

So, if a plant product has sugar in it, it can theoretically be fermented into a drink. (There are other factors why not all fruits can be made into a good beverage, but let’s leave that aside as we’re doing a fantasy setting after all.)

What’s it made of?

The most common alcoholic beverages are made from the fermentation of grapes or grain. Vodka, also common, was originally made from grain, but now some vodka is made from potatoes. Rum is made from sugarcane.

So much for the common stuff.

What else is out there?

Mead, as Ibn Fadhlan found out to his great encouragement in the movie 13th Warrior, is made from honey. Mongolians make kumiss from mare’s milk. Some African peoples brew a kind of beer from plantain bananas. Palm toddy, also known as arak in some countries and as tuba where I live, is made from the sap of the coconut palm.

Tuba is further refined by distillation into a hellish (but delicious!) potation called lambanog. In the provinces of the Cordillera range, far to the north of Manila, a wine made from the berries of the bugnay bush is becoming popular. In Polynesia, the root of a pepper-like plant is pounded to make kava. How about a wine made from a spicy fruit? Or a fruit that is naturally alcoholic when ripe? I also can’t forget my first taste of ice wine, wine made from grapes that were allowed to shrivel on the vine in frost.

As anything with sugar can theoretically be fermented, you can also look elsewhere for your sugar sources. How about nectar? In my Twilight Age setting, I came up with the idea for Nineflower Wine, an exotic and very rare wine made from the nectars of nine different rare jungle flowers. And because of the exotic ingredients, I decided the wine also had some extra side effects – it was an aphrodisiac and euphoric.

Where’s it from?

Another major factor to consider in creating your world’s booze is where it comes from. Today we can often expect to pay much more for a certain bottle of wine just because it came from a reputed winery.

What regions in your world are known for their beverages?

Why are said beverages famous?

What else is in it?

Many liquors are made with the addition of other ingredients for flavoring. A lot of spices and condiments make their way into liquor as well as food in our own world – from chocolate to caraway seeds to citrus fruit essences to worms and snakes!

What else might your fantasy world’s people put in their drinks? The blood of rare and dangerous monsters? Venom from a sea serpent?

What does it do?

We all know what alcohol does: it gets us drunk. But what else could drinking an exotic liquor do? You can think in terms of drug-like effects or aspects of your game world that might be interesting to affect in this way.

How about a rare and expensive wine that slows down aging? Or a wine that causes you to dream prophecy? A wine that saps the ability to work magic? A wine containing sea serpent venom that gives you water breathing and the ability to understand the languages of sea creatures and marine races? Lots of possibilities there that you can arrive at just by free association.

Drinking Customs

Sometimes it’s not so much what you drink as how you drink it. Here’s a table of possible drinking customs your world’s societies could have, many of them culled from various real- world cultures:

  1. You may never refuse a drink offered to you, otherwise you insult your host’s hospitality.
  2. When someone offers you a toast, you must toast that person back or offer a toast to another guest.
  3. It is an honor to be invited to drink from the host’s cup, and an insult to your host if you refuse.
  4. You may only offer a drink to your social inferiors or equals.
  5. You must always offer the first drink to the gods or spirits.
  6. There is a precise order in which toasts are offered, e.g. first to the King, then to the Queen, then to the patriarch, then to the local lord, then to your host. Missing any of them is considered discourteous and unpatriotic, maybe even treasonous.
  7. Before taking your first drink, you or a representative of your party must offer a verse in praise of your host.
  8. Some kinds of wine or other liquor are considered reserved for ceremonial uses, and consumption of them outside of the ritual or by non-priests is sacrilegious.
  9. If you leave a banquet sober, you have insulted the hospitality of your host.
  10. Being offered a cup by a maiden is a sign she wants to be courted by you. By extension, offering a cup to a person of opposite sex is considered a courtship ritual or the preliminary to a proposition.
  11. You must consume exactly as many cups as your host, no more and no less.
  12. No banquet is complete unless it ends with a drinking game in which the loser of every round must drain a full cup; the game may involve guessing or riddles, contests of poetry, knife- or dart-throwing in a warlike society, maybe even insults and contests to see who can tell the bawdiest joke.

If you want to use these in your campaigns, feel free to just roll a d12 on this list. Cheers!

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Read other articles From: Dariel:

On-The-Fly GMing Tips

12 Tips For Using Nobles In Your Games — RPT#189

3 Tips For Writing And Running Adventures — RPT#175

Talking The Talk: NPC Speech Patterns — RPT# 172

The 10 Essentials Of A Swashbuckling Campaign — RPT#153

City Features And Flavors — RPT#146

Challenge And Response: Designing Cultures For Your Game World Using Toynbee’s Principles — RPT#142

Different Ways Of Kinging It: A Quick Look At Alternative Traditions Of Monarchy — RPT#128