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In the Beginning: Realistic Suggestions for Starting an Adventure

By David Astley

In which the author offers a hand in getting off on the right foot



 

Conan burst into the tavern clutching the piece of parchment in his powerful fist and called to his companions. "Merlin, Stealth, Theodore! The Baron wants some adventurers for a special mission."
"Okay, we'll see him tomorrow!" yawned Merlin without looking away from the fireplace.

Finally, after hours of paperwork, they were granted an audience with the Baron's personal aide. She looked them over and asked sceptically, "What advantages do you have over other applicants?"
Conan blinked. "Other applicants?!?"
"Yes," sighed the Aide. "Why should we hire you?"
Merlin stuttered, "B-b-but we're the Peeseez!"
"Anything else you'd like to add?" said the Aide patiently.
"If you don't give us the job, what're we going to do for the rest of the evening?" whined Stealth.
"I'm sure you'll think of something," said the Aide, then called for the guards to escort them out.


Introductions

At last, it's Friday night, and you gather expectantly round the table, characters before you, snacks nearby and dice at the ready. The GM lets the anticipation hang for a minute more then begins. "Okay, you're all in the tavern when suddenly..."
"Hey!" interrupts one of the players. "Didn't we start in the tavern last week?"
"Yeah," chimes in another, "and the week before!"
"Every week, as a matter of fact!" notes a third helpfully.
"Yeah!" agrees the fourth. "My mage doesn't even drink!"

While using this cliche may get the party off to a quick start, gamers soon see the introduction as something to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible so they can cut to the adventure. But the introduction is part of the adventure, not a mere formality. It sets the tone of the adventure and gives the players their first impression of what's to come. And if that impression isn't a very good one, the adventure suffers. Would you rather be sitting bored in the tavern or would you rather be spending a day at the chariot races when suddenly a competitor explodes?

The introduction should help flesh out the adventure by adding to it, providing clues and introducing relevant NPCs.

"A tall red-haired spectator sitting not far from you rises with a smirk on his face. He looks over both shoulders, takes a final glance at the ruined chariot, then starts pushing his way through the amazed crowd towards the exit."

However, many GMs find that if they remove the standard hooks, the party can sometimes spend the entire gaming session wandering aimlessly and looking for the start of the adventure. So how does a party of characters find an adventure?

Getting a Job

Jobs may sound dull but they are often not what they seem. Think about that smuggler who took a job ferrying a farm boy and an old geezer just a few short lightyears...

The simplest way is to get a job. This isn't as easy as hanging around the bar and waiting. This is a good way to get drunk, not employed. Most jobs these days aren't found at the bar and most employers prefer sober employees. Jobs are generally advertised, or people hear about them through word of mouth. Often the saying is true - it's not what you know, but who you know.

Most communities have some form of public notices. These days, it is the paper and employment agencies. In medieval times, they had town criers, posters and public noticeboards. In the future, holonets, computer bulletin boards or even telepathy may be used.

The drawback of these methods are that they are public. Anyone with access to the notice can apply for them and thus anything secret or illegal is rarely advertised. Jobs of a more dubious nature are more likely to be spread by word of mouth. But these jobs aren't going to be spread to just anyone and especially not to the barkeep or that suspicious guy at the back table.

"Good evening, madam. Care for an ale? By the way, I have some friends interested in assassinating Lord Underwood. Want the job?"

Generally, these jobs are only told to certain groups, such as the Thieves Guild, smugglers, or a closed organisation, like a church group or a corporation. A better start might be:

"Telea, the guild has decided to offer this mission to you first, as it appears that Lord Underwood has at least a passing romantic interest in you"

In these troubled times, getting a job is far from easy. And in many role-playing games, times are far worse than they are now. This doesn't necessarily mean that there are fewer jobs as a whole, but given the rewards of adventuring, chances are that there are several parties in the area who also want that job. A job interview, where the characters have to convince complete strangers they can be trusted with a secret mission, has heaps of role-playing potential.

Of course, if the players do a bad job, their employer is also likely to remember that and react accordingly

Usually the characters will be hired for more mundane tasks before they are offered anything important. But once the characters have proved themselves, an employer may remember them when next she has a problem that needs to be taken care of.

"This spice shipment isn't as big as the last one, but this time there's a catch. Two actually. First, I want it there a day earlier. Secondly, it's going TO Kessel, not from"

Following Clues

Another way to find adventure is if the characters could discover some clues. ("Hey look guys! There's a Clue!") While this may seem contrived at first, the trick is to be subtle and start small. Chances are if the GM points out that the beggar who is always on the corner isn't there anymore, the characters might get suspicious. And they will probably look deeper into things when they overhear someone telling a friend that a different beggar has also disappeared. A couple of well placed changes in what the characters usually find familiar may lead to the adventure of a lifetime.

"What's this doing on my ship?"
"Jay, some bureaucrat's outside with a bunch of Stormtroopers. Something about an anonymous tip and a routine search..."

Of course, the subtlety of a clue will have to be modified by the perception of your gaming group. Sadly, some parties tend to miss any clues more subtle than a map.

Probably the best time to place clues to a new adventure is not at the beginning of the game, but in the middle of previous adventure.

"The orc's corpse has a scroll that reads 'Tharius, we have slain the dragon of Elondar Mountain. Please send a couple of wagons to help us move the treasure. Marla'"

Positions Wanted

If characters don't go looking for work, and they fail to notice the strange behaviour of superiors, the disappearance of jewelers, or the increase in sewer rats, then there's the option of the adventure coming to them.

"You're all under arrest for the murder of Larius Ardyne"
"But we've been in the tavern all day waiting for an adventure!"

Going back to getting a job, the characters could advertise their services and wait for the customer to arrive.

"Staco and Friends. Interplanetary Couriers. Officially sanctioned by the New Republic. Deliveries into Imperial held sectors our speciality."
On the other hand, a big reputation can attract a lot of unwanted attention as well...

This puts them in the position to pick and chose their adventures, but without a reputation, they aren't going to be offered many big jobs. In fact, they may even be harassed by farmers with sick cows, bakers with stranger shaped loaves or carpenters with boils. And many of these clients won't be able to afford more than a few coppers for the party's services.

Missions

Other jobs, and ones GMs tend to favour, are inflicted on the PCs. What worthy student would refuse a request from her teacher to collect an item, what Rebel would refuse an assignment from her superiors, and what Paladin could refuse the old widow's pleas that someone should check her cellar? While this is one of the few direct controls GMs can have over players, it should not be overused, as it also takes away the players' right to choose for themselves.

"The imperials are setting up a base on Vestarn, the canyon world. Here are your IDs; you'll be posing as on-site labourers. Find out why they're building a base. Any questions?"
"Uh, don't our holidays start today?"

Volunteers

It is far better to let the players volunteer for these adventures than to force them to go. What if the players stumble across the dark figure beaten up in the alley? Surely they will choose to help of their own free will, and then discover that the figure is a minotaur with family troubles. The party still has the choice to ignore the possibly useless map they found in the secret compartment. And no-one is forcing the gambler to accept her enemy's wild dare.

"Another shipment of Imperial parts to Vestarn? That's the third this month. What are they doing - building a base?"

No Introductions

Confusion can be a great motivator - nothing annoys players more than not knowing what's going on!

When the game starts, the characters may already be in the adventure. This technique is often used in West End Games' Star Wars RPG (my favourite RPG for those who haven't already guessed!) and is called in media res, which is Latin for "in the middle of things". Against everything in this article so far, this technique leaves out the introduction altogether. Players may start a gaming session with their characters in a dungeon cell, or running away from heavies.

"Your ship flickers out of hyperspace above the purple world of Mendovin IV."
"What are we doing here?"
"With a last spasm, the spare positive coupler gives out and your hyperdrives die."
"What happened to our hyperdrives?"
"Two TIE interceptors burst through the swirling mass of purple clouds and open fire. What do you do?" (Die? Ed.)

In media res is best used when the characters don't know how they ended up in this situation or when the introduction is standard or simple. Some groups of gamers would rather not spend an hour on an introduction that can be summarised as "Your mission is to take this to Chloris." If nothing unusual is supposed to happen, it might be better to shift the start to the point where the characters discover Chloris is gone!

"Whatta you mean 'gone'? Dragon's don't just disappear!"

Again, this method can restrict the players' freedom of choice.

Bringing it Together

Of course, the more freedom of choice given to players, the more possibilities the GM has to cover. But this need not be a problem. If the characters have a choice between investigating the cult, the goblin raids, the disappearances or the map, the GM can bring all four games and play the one that's required. After all, the others will certainly be played in the next few sessions. And the GM won't have to write any new material until she runs out of adventures.

But if she can't get three games ahead of herself (and let's face it, who can), the map could be to the nearby lair of the goblins, who are kidnapping people and selling them to the cult for their sacrifices. After all, all roads lead to Rome.

"What have we got then?"
"Hmm. A key to an Aralian door, 5 Aralian coins, some official Aralian papers, 2 Aralian trade bars and a map of the Aralian sewers."
"I see! Well, let's go to Jaminac then."

So when you make your adventures, look closely at the impact they will have on the environment around them, for this will be the source of new beginnings. Repercussions will spread out from the happenings in each adventure - like ripples from a stone thrown in a pool until finally the characters are surrounded by those ripples, but in the true spirit of gamers, still miss every single one of them.


Conan burst into the tavern clutching the parchment in his powerful fist and called to his companions. "We were second preference, so we get to escort next weeks caravan to Estaria!" Conan slid into his seat at the end of the table, grinning.
Merlin cleared his throat. "Now that we're all here, I'd like to ask you all to help me find some Lingal sometime. It's a vital component for a spell I'm researching and grows somewhere around here."
"Actually," said Theodore, "the Church has asked me to find the stolen relic of Deola. They suspect a doppleganger was involved."
The three of them looked at Stealth, who replied "Tiria the moneylender has vanished leaving her business almost unguarded. I was going to do some investigating over there."
"So what do we do?" asked Conan.
"Let's go to bed," suggested Merlin. "It's been pretty quiet around here and we can use the sleep!"
The others nodded their agreement, finished their drinks and dragged themselves upstairs towards their room, where the assassins were hiding.


David has been roleplaying for 15 years and enjoys it so much he became an actor. He names Star Wars as the best RPG ever but still plays AD&D more than anything else just to get his fix. Though he refuses to spend money on Magic: the Gathering, he somehow has a collection of over 6000 cards.

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