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.
Broadly speaking, I think you can split adventure beginnings into 4 categories: 1. Congregation Point (tavern, square), 2. Event (wedding, festival), 3. Debriefing Room (royal chamber, Blackstaff tower) or 4. 'In media res' (the PCs have already set off somewhere, been captured)
— Duncan Rhodes is partying at DRAGONBOWL 🍻⚔️ (@HipstersDragons) July 13, 2021
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….
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.
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.
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.
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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