It always starts the same way. One night, a group of adventurers who have never met one another are in a tavern and they hear one of the following things:
A feared local monster has returned from a dark pit in the hills and is terrorising the locals.
A lost treasure, rumoured to be hidden in caves along the storm tossed coast has attracted generations of foolhardy explorers and its location is revealed to the players.
A local has been kidnapped by bandits in the swamps, and their leader has a weapon of strange and terrible power.
These comparative strangers then decide to form a band in order to right a wrong and go off on a quest.
But who actually would do that?
In this article, we're going to look at two things.
Firstly, how you the GM can work with players (and if players are reading this, how you players can work together), to create a great player group if you've never RPGed with one another before.
Secondly, how you can create a cool starting point for adventures that is less based around 'five drunks in a tavern decide to do something without giving it much thought' (which is alarmingly like real life, all too often).
Starting with a new player crew
Starting with a new group of players, especially if you are a new or a relatively new GM can be challenging for a host of reasons.
These might be established friends of yours, and they might be people you don't know (or as is often the case, a combination of the two).
You will inevitably have a mix of personalities and it's important to establish a few ground rules before you get started, so that everyone knows that fun and enjoyment are the point of the exercise.
For more on this, see last week's blog, which contains suggestions on establishing group 'norms'.
Once everyone is pretty cool with the kind of game you want to run and the ground rules for playing, it's really important that the players get to know one another, and they get to know each other's characters.
Players will normally be fixated on their own characters, but getting an idea about the group in general helps them to become more aware of the shape of the party overall.
The easiest way to get a group to gel is to start with a rolling up session, where the players get to create their characters for the first time, and help one another navigate the character creation rules.
Make it fun, put on some tunes, order in pizza and encourage players to establish their new characters in the lore of the world that you're going to be introducing them to.
Here at Verse Online, we created Arclands: The Spelllforgers Companion and our very own Arclands Online at World Anvil to enable players to see their characters deep within the context of the game universe.
We ensured that there was a rich history, culture, languages and politics for players to use, which some will, some won't, and others will discover later on. The point is, anything that helps the player to be more invested in the world will make for more engaging characters and more enjoyable game play.
If players want to really take the ball and run with it and decide to create back stories, legends and quests, let them, encourage them, and write it into the adventure you're creating. Two or more players might decide their backstories overlap and they are connected in deeper ways.
As you foster this kind of collaborative environment at the game table, all sorts of great things happen, the world your adventurers journey through becomes richer, deeper, more engaging and you find that the process of story telling is a co-created one.
The players become in integral part of the creation of the world, which takes part of the pressure from the GM, but it also makes for much more interesting game play.
One night in a tavern etc
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with starting an adventure in a tavern, it's the place in a medieval fantasy world that players are most likely to congregate. If you're playing a different type of game (Cyberpunk, Sci Fi etc) there are tavern equivalents in all those contexts.
Taverns require the least possible pre-gaming orientation, because there is a reason for the players being there that doesn't require an adventure in its own right.
If you decided to start an adventure at a hidden monastery in the mountains, on a pirate ship or with the players stuck in the city dungeon (all of which are great locations), you will face the prospect of a seperate adventure emerging as the PCs explore or escape their surroundings.
This is fine (and we will address this further on in this article), but it might not be what you want at the start of your campaigning with a new party.
The one thing to avoid is the tavern becoming a dull and prosaic starting point to an adventure that has little life or colour of its own, and is simply a pretext to launching into some monster slaying (plenty of players are itching for some monster slaying, but let the starting point have some value in and of itself).
Unless the characters are already known to one another, it makes sense for there to be a reason for each player to actually be there, even if it's just that they are an habitual bar fly and they spend half their life in the tavern in question.
Here are some possible suggestions for players:
Undercover: The player has wound up at the tavern because they are following someone, staking a person (or the tavern itself) out and have a secret quest that neatly dovetails with the main adventure they're about to undertake.
Exile: The PC is an exile or a refugee from their homeland and the tavern is a waypoint en route to a safe haven. They might be guiding their kinfolk to safety at the same time.
Mid Quest: The PC might be mid way through a personal quest or have reached the point in a different adventure where it made sense to stop and go in a different direction.
Researcher: The PC has been drawn to this tavern because nearby there is something terrible and monstrous (the big bad in the forthcoming adventure), and the PC is scholarly and must find out about said bad.
Drifter: The PC is an aimless wanderer, driven by their own demons to live a restless, rootless life. They happen to be staying at the tavern and the prospect of adventure is a helpful distraction.
Gambler: The PC has come to the tavern to enter into a little publicised high stakes card game, and has just lost their money and wound up owing a lot more. An adventure with lots of treasure at the end of it would help right now.
There are some hooks here on how the players might know each other:
Old friends: It's possible that the PCs have known each others for years and haven't run into one another for a long time. They might have known each other as children and a tragedy or crisis has brought them back together.
Old rivals: This one can be a bit trickier to role play, so tread carefully, but what if not all the characters are as friendly with one another initially as in the previous scenario? What if there have been professional or even romantic rivalries, but fate has thrown the characters back together one more time.
Correspondents: Some of the characters may never have met before, but might have communicated with one another and might have decided to meet at the tavern to join together and find answers to a mystery or track down a fearsome creature.
United by revenge: Players might be aware of one another as victims of the same bad guy. They might all have suffered at the hands of a particular monster or villain and know that the best way to get revenge is to team up.
Mystery invitation: They might have been individually called to a particular place (the tavern) by a mystery individual, who intends for them to meet before providing them with some sort of revelation.
Magically bonded: There might be some magical connection between these characters, they might have fallen under the same spell, have been connected psychically by the same psionic, or have dreamed of one another.
With these sorts of connections in mind, it starts to become easier to move away from the tavern. Instead you need to have a particular space where individual characters can meet and interact for long enough that a rapport can be established.
Also, a dispatcher NPC is required. the dispatcher is the person on a story that sends the heroes off on a quest by explaining a problem that exists and how to solve it.
So you could have:
The PCs meet at a funeral for an old friend or master (they might know one another or maybe not), and a mourner explains how the person met their end and where the monster that killed them can be located and slain.
The PCs meet at a waypoint, which is a known site for people to meet up to cross the 'badlands' together. Everyone knows the deal at these places, they form parties to ensure safety in numbers.
The PCs are individually drawn to a wizard's tower or plucked through portals, Dr Strange style, and told that an adventure is round the corner.
The PCs are all in debt to a powerful gangster and are drawn together to a back alley in a rough side of town. They have 48 hours to solve the gangster's problem or friends and family across the land will meet with a terrible fate.
The PCs are individually summoned to a large castle in the kingdom to work as mercenaries, escorting a noble to somewhere important. Before they can do this a monster is spotted nearby and they are dispatched to enter its dungeon lair and slay it.
Helping players and their characters to connect in organic and engaging ways will give your adventures that 'bounce' that all GMs are looking for.
In this article, we've really been looking at the challenges of energy and engagement, which are the twin forces which power your game.
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