It’s arguably Dungeon & Dragon’s biggest cliché… a group of misfits who had never before laid eyes on one another are suddenly galvanised by a tavern encounter to go forth and save the world together. And while most D&D players are more than happy to humour this convention as a means of facilitating gameplay, “you all meet in a tavern” is not the most exciting way to kick off a new campaign and to generate player excitement, given how commonplace it is. And so I thought it might be a good idea to study the alternatives.
Before we can do that however, we first have to consider why the tavern is the de facto starting point for 95% of fantasy quests, and what role it plays in kicking off the adventure.
The latter point is rather easier to answer, so let’s start with that. The tavern is where the adventurers receive their call to action. It’s where they meet a hooded stranger, hear a rumour, are handed a treasure map, foil an assassination, read a “wanted dead or alive” sign, or are hired by a travelling merchant.
The tavern is where the adventurers receive their call to action.
But why does this call to action always happen in a tavern? Firstly, because taverns are meeting points. In any medieval-inspired settlement, they would be the main social centres, and the hub of news and gossip, making them a natural place for the players to come into contact with interesting NPCs.
They are also places where strangers pass through, interrupting everyday life with their ‘otherness’, possibly bringing disturbing news from the north, introducing a powerful (cursed) magic item for sale, giving a cryptic clue to a lost faraway treasure, or revealing a scandalous secret in their dying breaths. (Strangers and ‘otherness’ are an oft-used device, used by storytellers, from ancient times to present, to spark interesting events that deviate from the mundane).
Importantly, a tavern is a place where any of the PCs at your table might feasibly find themselves, no matter what their back story. Few players create PCs that have stable homes in a prosperous and safe merchant town. Most are outcasts, vagrants, rogues, (lone) rangers, wanderers. It might be hard to find a location where a diverse crew of PCs, who most likely have not interlinked their back stories (even though I recommend they should… see below!), might find themselves, given their unique motivations and personalities. Itinerant souls always need a pillow to lay their head at the end of the day, however, so any overtly adventurous adventurer has cause to be found in the village tavern. Meanwhile, even stay-put city-dwelling PCs may enjoy a flagon of wine at the end of the day: who would begrudge the studious acolyte a swift half after a hard session at the library? While a wood-dwelling druid might pop into a tavern common room for a herbal tea and the local news of wandering monsters.
So now that we know why the tavern is the go-to starting point for D&D adventures… because it’s a believable place for almost any newly-created PC to find themselves (whatever their back story), with rich potential for receiving calls to action via interactions with NPCs… we can start to think about how to mix it up and present new scenarios.
1. The Main Square
One “like for like” replacement for the tavern – maybe the only one – is a village, town or city’s main square. The centre of any medieval settlement, the main square was where traders came to sell their goods at market, and it would be full of merchants, nobles, peasants, travellers, bards and other entertainers. It was also the place where politicians delivered speeches and town criers announced news from neighbouring settlements, and would play host to fairs, tournaments, street theatre, parades and other spectacles. It may also have served as a place of executions, and a gathering point during any uprisings and civil unrest.
In other words these market squares were places ripe with adventure, so your PCs will hardly need an excuse to be hanging out here, and you, as the DM, will have plenty of scope to deliver the call to action that kickstarts your adventure. Whether it’s a creepy soothsayer grabbing a PC with their spindly arm and prophesying a gruesome event, militant clerics arresting a respected civilian for heresy, or a straight forward “heroes wanted” announcement bawled aloud by a noble’s steward, the possibilities are close to endless.
2. Other Urban Locations
After a town’s taverns and market square, there are a few other places which, while not quite as open-ended, could be considered as a potential starting point for a D&D adventure. The docks of a seaside town are a lively meeting point for sailors, gossip mongers, soldiers, custom officers, drunks, merchants, travellers and strange cargo. Pious PCs might be found in a temple (hint: injured fighters tend to develop new found piety, as do poisoned rogues), scholarly parties might have a reason to be in a library, and those with official business might be found in a town hall. A bridge is always an exciting place for a fight to break out.
Obviously larger cities have more potential for creative starting points than small villages, but in this example I want you to think of public spaces that are accessible to the PCs without any pre-conditions. You, or they, might still have to work on why they’d be there (at the same time).
3. The Event
One of my favourite ways to start an adventure is not at a geographical location per se, but at a social ‘location’, i.e. at an event. You hardly need to come up with an excuse for why PCs would be attending a festival, fair or tournament, and after that anything can happen. A princess throws a PC a flower (that has a secret message wrapped around its stem), a wealthy noble is poisoned, a fight breaks out between pro and anti-monarchists, a patron sees potential in the party (after they foil a thief, or win a tournament prize) that will help them achieve their aims, a valuable item goes missing from the town’s treasure vault and the travelling circus are blamed. Again the possibilities stretch a long way for this one.
Some potential events you could use as starting points would be.
i. Festival (be sure to use some real life inspiration for what that might entail… parades, costumes, religious ceremonies, music, drinking, dancing are a good start)
ii. Travelling carnival or circus
iii. (Trade) fair or exposition
iv. Tournament or sporting event
v. Royal wedding
vi. Costume or masked ball
vii. Funeral (for a statesperson or hero)
viii. Speech (announcing a controversial new law)
x. Uprising or riot
Any of these would lend your world a lot of flavour and make the start of your adventure more memorable than most.
4. The Mission Debriefing Room
Worried your PCs won’t bite on your hook (i.e. your call to action)? Well fast forward the adventure just a jot, and make the decision for them. In this scenario, before your players have even made their PCs, it’s best to tell them clearly to “make a character who would be interested in going on a quest for… (loot, honour, revenge, adventure etc.)” and you start the adventure with them receiving their orders from whoever has recruited them for this mission (more on this concept here). Maybe the PCs are members of the Gray Hands, in which case the starting point is Blackstaff Towers in Waterdeep, where Vajra lays out their mission objectives. In general the ‘geographical location’ might be any office, meeting room, reception chamber etc. or other private space (including in the back room, or private section, of a tavern!) where their patron or superior officer can confidentially pass on the assignment.
5. In Media Res
In fact, now that we’ve liberated ourselves from roleplaying the PCs receiving their call to action, we can fast forward the adventure even further if we so choose. One scenario that has come up a few occasions in my years as a player is that, as a party, we’ve already accepted an assignment to guard a merchant caravan (which of course is attacked, cue the opening scene). But others could be yet more daring. The PCs have been entrusted to deliver a magic item from out of a bloody siege that is in full flow, or they need to escape from a collapsing castle pronto, or they are already swimming towards an island jail to free a political prisoner. There’s a reason however why this option is rarely used, and that’s because there’s a D&D convention that says the PCs should make all their character decisions, including, importantly, the original acceptance of any quest (hence the tavern!).
…for a one shot you should definitely be thinking about this option to maximise your time playing the real crux of the quest…
However, I will repeat the point I made about having the players make a PC who would specifically be interested in the type of adventure, as a DM, you’re planning to run. And while for a long running campaign it’s nice to be traditional and start at the very beginning of an adventure, for a one shot you should definitely be thinking about this option to maximise your time playing the real crux of the quest, and not bother muddling through the awkward formalities.
6. The Prison
A classic – even if it also borders on cliché! Starting an adventure in a prison provides a compelling shared motivation for the PCs that has been the start of many great adventures, and the catalyst to many adventuring parties getting together to save the multiverse. Spice things up by having them hooded, bound, gagged, drugged, interrogated, you name it!
Hopefully this article has inspired you to think outside the box for your next adventure as a DM, but before I go, I just want to touch on a couple more things related to this topic.
Get The Players To Interweave Their Back Stories
One thing you can do that can either remove your reliance on the tavern as a starting location, or at least reduce the amount of awkward introductions and “hey strangers, wouldn’t it be swell if we teamed up to save the world”-style roleplaying interactions is ask the players to interweave their PCs’ back stories. If for example the party are part of the Emerald Enclave then it makes sense that they would all be a winter solstice party in the woods (when zombies attack!), so you can get rid of the tavern scene. If two PCs are related, and are two more are close friends, then the leap in logic to make them team up to go on a quest is that much smaller and less incredulous. Not only this but asking the players to think how their PCs might know each other will lead to better and deeper back stories that you, as the DM, can tap into, and will also make the players care more than just the skin of their own PC… leading to a better gaming experience for all.
Secondly, if you do decide to stick with the classic tavern formula, here’s how to do it well:
Make the Tavern (Scene) Memorable…
Confession time! The last two campaigns of my D&D group both started in taverns, and the last was DM’ed by yours truly. Both however proved to be successful first sessions. My friend Juan started his take on the Dragonlance campaign with us hiding from the rain in a tavern built into the branches of a towering tree. He first gave us a chance to indulge in some fun improvised roleplaying with NPCs (several of whom had valuable information for us), before having a dragon burst through the ceiling. That’s quite an epic start at level 1! Obviously we were forced to flee, as kobold and dragon forces stormed the settlement, making for an extremely tense and scary first session.
I’m currently running Dragon Heist and I modified the opening scenario of the Yawning Portal tavern to include elements from the PCs back stories (hint: my supplement Waterdeep Background Hooks might help you do the same!), and I pimped up the bar room scuffle into a more intriguing assassination attempt on Davil Starsong that plays into the story’s main narrative (meanwhile I got rid of the troll attack, which doesn’t serve much purpose except as a teaser for Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which we’re unlikely to play. Although I did describe adventurers descending into the well, to help build an atmospheric locale).
In both cases action-packed events got us off to memorable starts – events which forced PCs to work together to deal with a threat, thus forming their adventuring party – plus the taverns themselves were distinct locations, with bold features that the players can easily picture in their minds.
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with starting in the tavern, but aim for a compelling action scene in a unique locale, that galvanises the party into co-operating. Sprinkle in roleplaying opportunities that are relevant to the campaign and by the time it’s ready you should have successfully baked the best version of this classic D&D recipe.
Tavern Supplements on DMs Guild
I actually love the romanticism of hanging out in taverns in D&D, even if I do champion the idea of starting your adventure somewhere else if possible. Taverns are not just for the beginnings of quests; they can provide unique locales for any number of key scenes at any point along the campaign trail. For some time I’ve been meaning to write a compendium of original pubs, inns and hostelries, but guess what… someone has beaten me to it!
You can buy the current number 1 bestseller Taverns, Inns and Taprooms on the Dungeon Master’s Guild.
For a deeper understanding of campaign starts, Angry GM raises some interesting points here, in a rather wordy, but worthwhile, post.