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The Four Ways to Start An Adventure

A while ago, I proposed six alternatives to the overused trope of starting your D&D adventure in a tavern.

When M.T. Black recently asked his Twitter followers what fun variations they had seen to the “you all meet in a tavern” adventure beginning, I shared my article and then condensed my six alternatives (plus the tavern option), into four broader categories.

As you can see from my Tweet, they were: 1. Congregation Point 2. Event 3. Mission Debriefing Room and 4. In Media Res.

The 4 Types of Adventure Beginnings

After a bit more thought, I think these categories hold up pretty well, and so I’d like to dive into each of them to study the differences – and the pros and cons – of each. And in doing so, consider why a DM or adventure designer might select one of these methods of starting an adventure over another…

1. Congregation Point

The Congregation Point is a physical location in which to begin an adventure, where travellers (viz. adventurers) might logically congregate, allowing them to a) meet each other and b) receive a call to action. (Note: I think you can divide calls to action into i. encounter a quest-giver or ii. experience a triggering incident, such as witness a murder… both types can occur at a Congregation Point). Traditionally, the Congregation Point is a tavern, but it could be a square or marketplace, or a vast library like Candlekeep. The reason that the Congregation Point, and particularly the “you all meet in a tavern” beginning, is so popular in D&D is that it creates a plausible reason for a bunch of hitherto strangers to come together (which adventurer doesn’t like an ale? Which traveller doesn’t need a place to sleep?) and then embark on a quest as a group. Back in the days when no one weaved their back stories together this was a convenient way for players to meet for the first time! This type of beginning also gives the players the agency of accepting a quest or not, which some tables deem crucial to the RPG experience. The trope of the tavern noticeboard advertising quests, or wizard/mayor/steward calling by for some hired hands, means that this beginning can then segue into the Mission Debriefing Room….

Coming up with alternatives to taverns can be a real headscratcher. (Art copyright WOTC).

2. Event

Starting an adventure with an Event – such as a royal wedding or a midsummer festival – works much like the Congregation Point beginning, in that it provides a reason for diverse folks (ie. the player characters) to come together, and to be in close proximity with each other when a triggering incident (call to action) takes place that can kickstart a quest. The difference is just that an Event isn’t one physical space, necessarily, it might be taking place across an entire village, town or city. It might be that the adventurers have been invited to the event by a powerful NPC, and in fact the event is just a prelude, leading to the Mission Debriefing Room beginning (below). Or they might be working the event as security / entertainment etc., in which case there’s perhaps a small overlap with the In Media Res beginning. In all cases, an Event beginning has several pros. Firstly it is typically more dynamic and atmospheric than the Congregation Point, secondly you can use the Event to weave in lore for your campaign, and thirdly an Event beginning can easily include some fun distractions, like tournament or carnival games, travelling merchants, pickpockets etc. Overall, the Event beginning offers a rich environment to begin a lengthy campaign.

Festivals offer flavourful ways to kick off an adventure. (Art copyright WOTC).

3. Mission Debriefing Room

The Mission Debriefing Room (a queen’s reception chamber, a general’s tent, a wizard’s tower) is also similar to the Congregation Point beginning in that it brings the adventurers into close proximity within one physical space. The difference here is that they have been purposely summoned by a quest-giver (as opposed to happening to be hanging around at the right time and place when a call to action arrives). In this scenario, the quest’s call to action is spelled out in black and white and this is a good option to get your adventure on the road with minimal faff. One other advantage of this scenario is you can include the incentives each player needs to join the quest (the quest-giver simply offers the rewards each PC needs to sign on the dotted line… gold, fulfilment of duty, promotion, glory, magic items etc), meaning you can easily guard against the awkward ‘players refusing to bite on an adventure hook’ moment. Finally, DMs that have always found the spontaneous forming of wildly diverse characters into adventuring parties within a tavern rather too convenient for their tastes, can use the Mission Debriefing Room beginning as a more credible party genesis story. In this scenario, each PC has been especially selected by the quest-giving patron for this mission, on account of their unique set of skills. Now they have to work together, whatever their conflicting values / alignments.

All eyes are on you… do you accept this quest? (Art copyright HBO).

4. In Media Res

This is by far the broadest category of adventure beginning as it places the players pretty much anywhere in the game world, and it is markedly different to the three others as it presupposes some big character decisions already. Typically, when you start an adventure In Media Res, it means the players have already accepted a call to action out of game (i.e. you, as the DM, accepted it for them!), while usually such a beginning also presupposes that the characters know each other and have formed a working team (although this isn’t essential). Critics will say that adventures that start In Media Res rob players of agency, by making those decisions on behalf of the players, but for me, if you’re not willing to accept the adventures the Dungeon Master prepares for you, why bother turning up to the table in the first place? So I don’t have any problem at all with adventures that begin In Media Res, and in fact I think shorter adventurers (one shots or two session adventures) absolutely should start In Media Res to get the show on the road as fast as possible. This way you can skip formalities and random encounters on the road and get straight to the drama. When you start In Media Res consider if the party are on THE adventure, or if they are simply on AN adventure, which is about to lead to THE adventure. An example of the first would be: “You set out from the capital six days ago, and now from the crest of the hill you see the Forbidden Forest stretch out below you. You know that you must return the unicorn’s horn to the sacred grotto before sundown”. An example of the latter would be: “After four days guarding the caravan you ride into the valley of the dwarven settlement. The settlement however lies in ruins.” In this second example, the DM has only accepted a minor quest for the party (guarding a caravan), and now they are likely to get embroiled in something much bigger by investigating how the settlement was ruined. This latter variant of In Media Res has the advantage that the players experience the agency of accepting the call to action on the main quest.

That time you accepted an easy seafaring job… (Art copyright WOTC).

So there you go, I think you could probably divide virtually all, if not all, Dungeons & Dragons adventure beginnings into those four categories. There’s a case for making a fifth “Shared Peril” category, in which the players are thrown together and forced to collaborate in order to escape a shared danger, such as incarceration, a natural disaster, an invasion etc… but I would argue that’s probably a subcategory of In Media Res.

Which Beginning Is Best for Your Needs?

When considering an adventure beginning a couple of questions cross my mind.

1. Do the party already know each other?
One important thing to consider right away is whether the party know each other or not. Obviously, if you’re writing a 10th level adventure for a party that has been together from level 1, the answer is yes. In which case there’s no need to include an opportunity for team bonding, before delivering a call to action. In the modern game, using a session zero, you can also encourage players to form connections in their back stories, so that the first session doesn’t necessarily require introductions and convoluted roleplaying (sometimes these scenes can be fun, often they are rather tedious). Overall, in adventures where the party already knows each other, there’s really no need to lean on the tavern trope… you could either place a type 2 call to action (triggering event) in a more original Congregation Point, or at an Event, or simply have a patron summon the players to a Mission Debriefing Room.

2. What form does your call to action take?
If you’re planning a type 1 call to action then you’re more or less set on the Mission Debriefing Room beginning, and certainly this beats the unlikely scene of the quest-giver scouring every pub and tavern in town for a bunch of misfit adventurers. Additionally, a long-standing party patron is a handy device for keeping a hand on the tiller of any long-running campaign (few modern DMs relish giving parties free reign to search out their own adventurers… who has the time to prepare for that!?).

If, however, you have decided that the call to action will be a triggering incident (a murder, a brawl, a theft, an invasion, the discovery of a treasure map) then you simply need to think about the most dramatic location for such a trigger. This second type of call to action can easily include an air of mystery, requiring some investigation first from the players before they discover their adventure path (this type of beginning is recommended more for experienced players).

3. What are your real world time limitations?
In a long campaign with mates who don’t have partners or kids it can be fun to play out a quest from the very beginning, replete with ‘getting to know you’ roleplaying opportunities and minor encounters on the road. But the more time pressure you’re under, the more imperative it is to cut to the chase… that’s when The Mission Debriefing Room or In Media Res beginnings become stand out options.

What Are Your Thoughts?

So there you go… which of these adventure beginnings have you used? Which do you fall back on? And have you ever encountered an adventure beginning that defies my categorisation system? 😱

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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5 Comments

  1. Frederick Dale Coen

    I love your articles, Duncan. I like this one as a good thought-starter for both fledgling and veteran DMs; sometimes you get stuck in a rut, and just relabeling the idea shakes the dust loose!

    Me personally (as DM), I think I have started games in all these ways.
    — Meeting at the King’s Proving Grounds (his way of making sure the adventurers he hires are at least mildly competent).
    — Hometown kids sent out by their parents to find the village crazy lady (and inadvertently find a Big Threat – and oops, trigger the Campign Threat). [Level 0 start to the campaign, and the wizard-wannabe hit second level before he actually learned any magic!]
    — Visiting baronial heirs, chilling at a tavern where one performs, when a Frontier Guard they all know (another PC) stumbles in talking about an ambush.
    — Hometown kids returning from militia training when a mysterious comet passes overhead, and unkillable goblins attack the town.
    — A bunch of slaves in the hold of a slaver’s ship, captured from all over the Bay, when suddenly a sea monster attacks the ship.
    — An elite strike force, subordinate only to the General, in the middle of a “major border dispute”.
    — Prisoners released (and branded) to perform a dangerous task in exchange for pardon. [Yes, I know, almost as cliche as “you meet in a tavern”!]
    — Newly enrolled members of a prestigious Adventurer’s Company of Faerun, given their Probationary Quest. [Surprisingly, only three died!]
    — Mercenaries hired to attack a caravan as a ploy to drive up prices (only to discover *they* were the target, a demonstration of a new magical defense).
    — A newly frocked priest sent to find his master’s friend’s missing student, with the instructor’s second-best student and an experimental semi-sentient golem. They hired a guide (PC #4).
    — A team of civilian archaeologists on an Academy-sponsored dig that have to improvise when everything goes wrong and they stumble in the centuries-lost complex of a “mad scientist” mage.

    Oh, and long ago… “You all meet in a tavern…” [Because that’s what the first module said to read out loud!]

    • duncan

      Hey Frederick

      Thanks for the kinds words!

      Wow, those sound like some epic beginnings – appreciate you sharing them. You’re inspiring me to do some more adventure writing (- shame that I have work emails to answer and a travel website to edit today!).

      Now, I’m thinking perhaps that my article is really about where the party are at the start of the adventure (when they receive their call to action)… and you’ve shown some excellent examples I didn’t think about. Most of them could perhaps generously be filed under ‘In Media Res’, as a broad catch all category! The Kings Proving Grounds could be a creative example of the Congregation Point (or possibly Event), leading to the Mission Debriefing Room if they pass.

      Also perhaps there’s the ‘Staggered Start’ beginning, where different PCs are in different locations at the start and come together via the story. This relies on some good faith and out of game conversations to make work perhaps!

      Cheers!

  2. Keith

    I guess this would be classified as an event. When I want to throw a twist into a game, I use a favorite of mine which is something along the line of – Your small plane with 3-4-5-6 other occupants is flying over the Bermuda Triangle when the pilot yells out that something is going on and the sky looks wrong!!!. Then I have them wake up in different bodies and sometimes for a twist I have pre rolled stats(FYI, this type of start works MUCH better with some form of rolling stats instead of point buy) and they have to choose one of them or get it randomly or for a real twist I will already have their classes picked out, but they have to figure out what they can do and how to do it. I sometimes do the class choosing just to throw the veteran players(that only play one class) off of their game and make them experience something else. The other good thing about this is that you can really enforce the knowledge stuff and prevent a lot of Metagaming. Like how would anyone from the modern world know anything about goblins or kobolds or anything? If they want to play hardcore then I make it so they don’t know ANY languages either. That makes for some fun games, especially if I, as a good DM, decide beforehand that certain gestures are either offensive or insulting or are religious in nature and rouse the ire of the locals. It is the only way to make them start from scratch as there is always some form of ‘cheating’ otherwise. After that it is all about survival(or not). This way when they are in a pub together, they are usually already a party. Only once did I have a player decide to ‘go it on his own’. He didn’t last long.

    I think my favorite start to a game was a prison bus crash where they were all transported to another world in different bodies and became slaves in a temple of an evil god and since they were already ‘evil’ they ended up serving their time and them being raised to the ‘brotherhood’ and sent out to foment unrest in the world. It was basically an evil campaign and was a lot of fun to run although it was MUCH harder for me, BUT i don’t recommend it for younger players.

    I know I digressed and talked to much, but I usually do.

    • duncan

      Hi Keith

      Both your examples remind me a bit of a fun B-movie I watched recently on Amazon Prime…

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiFaAiyoEkg&ab_channel=VHSTrailerPark

      The geezer has a car crash and wakes up on a fantasy planet… where luckily they speak English 🤔

      Asking players to roll up a character on the spot would be a lot of fun (haven’t had that thrill for ages!), if time is on your side… although I personally wouldn’t plan a long campaign around rolled up characters. I think the modern player wants more choice and forms a more emotional bond with characters they conceive and create using the standard array.

      Btw, according to my system, both of these are examples of In Media Res beginnings (possibly the Shared Peril subcategory!), because the DM has decided they got on a plane / bus and set off somewhere for them…

      I’ve never run an evil campaign… but it’s on my things to do list!

      Thanks for sharing!

      d.

      • Keith

        I think the main reason I prefer(by a narrow margin) rolling to point buy is that by rolling you have a chance to get a true HERO with awesome stats and on the flip side you could get a bad one and really have to work at it to live which can be fun also. I have developed many different ways of rolling for characters, but this is for another day and another topic.

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