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The first session of my new D&D 4e campaign is coming up pretty soon and I'm not quite sure how to go about the introduction into this new campaign.

I have the geography and landmarks and things planned out already, so I don't need help making a campaign, just how to run the first session.

In particular I am looking for how to:

  • Introduce Player Characters to each other
  • Introduce Important NPCs
  • Introduce Quests

This is my second "campaign", I want to avoid the mistakes I made in my first: How can I:

  • Not have the whole party just get told they all know each other
  • Not have the quest introduced like: "Go save this kid for your first adventure." then "Oh, now there's an empire trying to take over the land. Go stop it."

It felt very railroaded, and forced.

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I have reworked your question quiet substantially, hopefully keeping your intent, but making it clearer and better focussed (and thus more appropriate to the site). –  Oxinabox Jun 5 at 7:17

6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted

In Situ Introductions

Also sometimes called 'in medias res', this assume that the group is already a group. You should sit down with your players, and get them to make up what kind of group they are (mercenary company, treasure hunters, powerful Knights of the Kingdom, a group of childhood friends who all pledged to become adventurers, the graduating class of a martial academie, one guy who has worked with all these other guys before, etc), and alter your beginning plot hooks to be specific to the kind of group. They should work out if the group has a name, what it is, and how they present themselves to the rest of the group 'the grim guy', 'the funny guy', 'the practical guy', 'the head-in-the-clouds wizard' etc. This is a character-building exercise. It's also a great excuse for why they're working together.

Personal Connection

Sometimes you know a guy, and that guy knows another guy, and that guy has worked with another guy, and that guy has a clingy girlfriend who refuses to be left behind and is really, really good with knives. This style of storyline starts with one character getting given a story hook, which he knows he'll need some help to roll up. Then, going around the table, the characters daisy-chain how they know the previous guy (or a different guy already in the group) and why they'd be willing to come along. It neatly puts motivation in the hands of the players without running into the 'why would I go along' problem, since they solve it explicitly.

Alright, youse mugs

Part of character creation mandates that the character must end up 'in jail' 'part of the mafia' 'in a specific diner on 9:43pm on a sunday night'. Then they get involved due to that fact. The Mob Boss makes them an offer that, as wiseguys, they can't refuse. They're let out of jail and given magical bomb collars (that are NOT plot devices and can be removed given the right mojo) that force them to act as shock troops for the Empire. Or the jail is attacked and they have to survive goblin attack on the town which by the end of it leads into more plot etc. Everyone in the diner is shiftless and at loose ends and so when a 'gal' comes in cold and wet and talking about the headless Rider, they end up drawn in. Etc.

Something about character creation puts them in a position to get hooked, and the hook is 'forceful' - refusing it is less likely than a simple job offer or request.

Piecemeal

Jim the Paladin wakes up in a jail cell and breaks out. Tim the Rogue is being carried on a stretcher towards the Incinerator. He fights the guards and frees him, and him and Tim are now a team with the goal of 'get the heck out of here'. They run into Bertrand the Ranger who has been enslaved in the kitchens in the next room, and after that they rescue a Wizard trying to fight off a [Monster] in the entryhall.

By the time they break out, they've learned the nefarious plans of the BBEG, bonded together, and all have the goal of 'revenge on that BBEG'. Not that you might not need to hook them back into the main plot if they instead decide to go start a bar together or something (BBEG burns down their bar, king offers them money to start a bar if they fight the BBEG, etc).

The Ideal First Session

The characters need to be introduced - The PCs need to have something highlight who and what they are, even as simple as a one-sentence description and a name.

Something Awesome needs to happen - If you can manage the PCs being the ones doing it, that's even better. But an Airship smashing through a castle wall, a bad guy swearing revenge, or an awesome bare-knuckle prisoner breakout/rescue scene. Something that gets people excited.

Some kind of foe needs to be introduced - Even if it's just a small starting adventure with a poor villain, Bogrob the Goblin Shaman needs to be mentioned in the first session. You can always 'move it up' to a larger foe as the story continues, but without a foe, stories with protagonists.. dwindle.

Someone needs to win something - even if it's just the favour of a barmaid. Plot exposition is important, but without a victory of some description, even one by the enemies over the PCs, people won't remember any climaxes from the first session and be less excited about the second.

The tone needs to be set - this is probably the most important. If you want Swashbuckling Heroism, swashbuckling needs to happen, so does Heroism. Ideally this is the PCs. But if not, still needs to happen. If it's Noir, there needs to be rain, damsels, chain-smoking, old-school black and white film techniques in the description, and trenchcoats. If it's dark and gritty urban fantasy, there needs to be lots of mystery and things left unexplained, horrible things happening to people or characters, etc. Tone, set, important.

Characters each need to do something that shows off their nature - saving someone, stabbing something from the shadows, stealing something, casting a powerful spell that has foes cringing in terror even before it tears them apart, so forth. You need to get a read on what kind of acts they want their character to perform, and set things up so they CAN (if they don't bite the first hook, lay a different hook - you likely read the character wrong or they missed the hook) do the thing. One per character. Important.

There needs to be a mix of action, investigation, mystery, non-combat character actions, and combat character actions - a lot of GMs use the first session to give a ton of backstory exposition, sometimes through a mouthpiece NPC. This is a really terrible idea. Could not be worse. Mix it up. Have a small fight, the PCs walk across town and interact with a baker and a merchant, they get told tantalizing hints about the plot from a guy, their contact is gone and they search through his things and find a scrap of red paper embossed with a seal, etc (keep in mind the Three Clue Rule).

How to Introduce NPCs 101

Make them people, with their own lives. Nothing sets up a character like having the PCs show up as he's wiping down his bartop, and he's not exactly keen to see them. Small details, like greasy white mutton chops, smokes a cigar, old and doesn't give a darn, wears only the finest pressed robes, bit of a ponce. Don't be afraid to give them negative qualities.

Finally, make their motivation pretty obvious. They are there for a reason, like to get paid, to get the PCs to do what they want, etc. Sure, a good liar gives no sign of that - make all your NPCs bad liars. Save the really really good liars for very rare use, when they betray the party and gloat about how the party bought into all their bull. People will get really mad, it's great.

So, in short;

  • Simple physical distinguishing characteristics
  • Positive and negative qualities
  • Don't feel the need to lecture the PCs for hours on random things like a quest npc in a videogame
  • Have a reason to be talking to the PCs, like giving them a job or serving them beer or something
  • If they approach for 'no reason', always make them have an ulterior motive the PCs find out pretty fast
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Great answer. You post what I was going to, and many more. –  Flamma Jun 5 at 8:39
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Great answer +1. IMHO 'Piecemeal' is the best. It justs reminds so much of anime-themed console rpgs, you can just not resist! –  Drunken_Guy Jun 5 at 9:25

As I see it, there are a few ways to open a campaign, and you should choose from them the one that fits best the intended tone of the campaign. As such is the case, the first point will be to choose the tone of the campaign you're about to run. Only then can you continue to the next step.

In this answer I'll use to campaigns' starter sessions that I've had in the past. One will be of a D&D campaign that I've ran about a year ago, the second will be for my Changeling campaign.

Think about the first scene

Those who know me know that I always talk about the importance of the first scene. This scene should state the tone of your campaign, but in a way that won't feel contrived or forced.

If we'll go for the Changeling campaign, which is a fairy-tale kinda game, I've opened it with a storyteller who tells his/her history to some small children in a little unimportant town. I've got from it a combination of a few things: I've got the style of the fairy-tale tradition to my campaign (it is, after all, an oral storytelling that is being opened with "Once upon a time"), I've got the foreshadowing to the dark secrets and tone of my campaign (A sole survivor, or something like that) and I've got the hint that maybe, just maybe, the story is a lost cause. I also got a tool to use in terms of scene framing, but more on that later.

My D&D campaign opened in media res, with the characters being cornered in the middle of the street and being shot at, while having to defend an important person. Then, I've let them invent the place and the personality and role of the important person they're about to save. This way, having them create the world, I've got them to care for it. They would go for extra miles to defend what they've created. This way to begin also did let them show how cool they are, a thing that is very important in a D&D game.

So, in order to conclude this section, the tone of your campaign should be present from the first scene. A great GM once told me that the main role of the first scene is to ensure that the players will know what is expected from them and for what they should expect.

The second scene to the one before the last

Now you have the time to explore the characters that are going to play in the story. Let each one of them have at least one scene in which s/he shines. Let the thief have a scene of robbery and have the police ran after her only for her to escape easily, let the paladin show how just she is, or the wizard to show how powerful her magic can be. Each one of them ought to shine. But more than that, they should give a glimpse of the characters background.

In my Changeling campaign, one of the characters is playing a Lost child. Her first scene was, thus, her adoption. In my D&D campaign the ninja showed his great ability to disappear when everyone is watching him, only to steal they're money a moment later.

This is a great time to show the players the world in which their characters are living. Bring the important NPCs to the light of the day, make the characters start to have connections with them and so on. Through the adoption scene in the Changeling campaign, for example, I've got the character to have a connection with the Queen of the Spring, a connection that was later utilized to connect the characters to each other and to start with the treachery parts. Don't push the NPCs too hard to be seen and/or heard, just let them show at this stage.

The last scene

The last scene of the session is as important as the first one. In this one, you ought to do 2 very important things: Give a glimpse of what there is to come and enforce the tone of the campaign from now onwards.

The last scene of the first session of my Changeling campaign was a court scene, with one of the PCs being judged for treachery, only to be incriminated by the Queen of the Spring. Immediately I've got a powerful villain. I also got the tone of tone and mood of treachery, and the theme of the need to rise to power in order to bring justice to this place.

With the D&D campaign, I've ended the session with them entering into a village that was destroyed by the kobolds. They moved in the town, witnessing a scene that seemed a little bit post-apocalyptic, and they understood that they the world needs them in order to defend those hapless and helpless people.

About pacing

The pacing of the first session is the most important pacing of (almost) the entire campaign. This pacing will state the pacing of the sessions to follow, and will be the one which will be remembered for quite a time. Cut through uninteresting scenes, enforce a scene framing tendency that keeps only the interesting stuff in there, and ensure that the story always moves forward.

While in the middle scenes it is far less important, you should enforce this huge emphasis on the pacing in the first and last scenes and for a scene or two in the middle. Let the others be driven by the players, but for these 3 to 4 scenes that you believe are the most important ones, keep the story flowing or they won't remember anything.

Introducing NPCs

While better people said it before me, the number one rule is to make them three dimensional. They should feel to the players as having more to suggest than what meets the eye, and to have life beyond what is seen in the scenes of them and of the PCs. A nice tool is to have them do something when the PCs arrive if the PCs come without a warning or something to the house of the NPCs. I also like this formula for creating NPCs that are simple yet interesting: "She is always _ except when _____ and she is never __ except when ______". It is an easy way to create interesting NPCs on the fly.

Another thing to keep in mind, though, is that they should always be secondary to the PCs. The PCs are there to take center stage. As such is the case, don't be afraid to dispose them if the need ever rises, or to put them on a plane to New Zealand if you have to.

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For my first (and, to this date, only) non-published adventure campaign, I used a slightly unusual method of introducing the PCs (because I couldn't think of and didn't look up any other way). Here's a slightly doctored version. (the truth would take several paragraphs of setting information to understand)

The PCs were all going to a TED talk. (Note: doctored version.) They had never met each other. While the presenter guy (a renowned arcanist) was speaking and apparently about to reveal an important discovery of his, an arrow shot from the roof of a nearby building hit his throat and a Velociraptor jumped from the same rooftop and onto the stage. (Wow, how boring can I make that sound?) The crowds, being gutless NPCs, all ran (that may have had more to do with the fact that there was suddenly a bloodthirsty apex predator on the stage) while the PCs, utilizing "adventurer logic" (I can fight anything, regardless of its CR and/or my unpreparedness), immediately attacked it. After they defeated the dino-thing, they had a reason to stick together as an adventuring party (they have already demonstrated adventurer logic and fighting ability) and a plot hook (why on earth did a dinosaur just show up in the middle of the city?). They made up an in-character party contract later.

And yes, I did have the first combat encounter be against a dinosaur. I swear it made sense in context.

But you probably get the point. Combat encounter (to teach new players how that works right off the bat), world detailing (The players now know that Professor Frobisher had learned something that someone would rather keep quiet. Also that dinosaurs are not, in fact, extinct. Probably should have mentioned that first), and plot hook (they don't learn the answer for a long while).

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I find it shocking this is the first answer to suggest a combat encounter during the first session. Anyway, agreed, also I typically provide more than one foe (in case folks get lucky) and provide an escape route in case the players--unfamiliar with their own characters, each other's characters, and maybe the game system--are losing the fight. It does suck to die during the first session, after all. –  Hey I Can Chan Oct 20 at 3:42

Being a newbie-GM myself too, I faced the same problem recently. What I did was the following:

An NPC who is the owner of a tavern needed help in finding a relative and put posters all around his and nearby town:

"Help wanted! My nephew was abducted by orcs two weeks ago, and I am putting out a reward of [some amount of gold] for anyone able to find him and return him back safely to me. Interested adventurers please come to the tavern [tavern name] on [some date] for further information"

When the PCs arrive at the location – after having read the want ad in their own towns – they sit around the table with the owner of the tavern who interviews everyone to make sure that they are fit for the task. Questions about their history and abilities must be answered. In my opinion this is a realistic scenario for a team of adventurers to get to know each other and form a party. You might also let the NPC offer free accommodation for a couple of days, in which time the PCs can do some field investigation inside town before they receive clues where to start the adventure.

This approach seems good to me because it attracts all kinds of player characters – from the chaotic greedy dwarf who is looking for the reward to the paladin who is committed to helping people in need.

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While your suggestion is solid, I always found the money-as-a-reason problematic. For too many a time my players left the adventure mid-air when they've decided that it doesn't worth the money anymore. For this reason, I always looked for more personal reasons, like morals and/or relatives, things that will feel too costly for the players and to their characters to lose. –  Yosi Jun 5 at 8:23
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@Yosi: If I use personal reasons to bring players together, I have to be careful. I make sure the players came up with the moral or relative, and I work with them on it. Nothing is worse than wasting a player's hard work building a backstory over a lv1 campaign. As for adventurers changing their mind mid-air, I have no trouble providing a loving "cushion" of DM magic which they can draw on to force the group together. The players will just learn quickly that that cushion only exists for a quest or two, and by then they need their own ideas on why they stay together. –  Cort Ammon Jun 5 at 17:21

You have two excellent and verbose answers to your question, but they don't address the way I'd approach these issues, so I'm going to add an short answer for an alternative approach.

Party Introductions

TLDR: Don't worry about how you do this, no-one really cares.

Introductions are always forced. All the traditional ways of gathering a party - starting them all in the same inn or dungeon, having them all answer the same advert for mercenaries, having them all belong to the same guild or organisation, and many others - have been done to death.

Every role-player knows that it's a problem, and every role-player will know that it's unavoidable that the GM will have to railroad them to get things started. I used to make a joke out of it: it's a stereotype, everyone knows it's coming, let's just get it over with.

My joking was a way of getting the players to buy into the problem. That's the only real solution. There are other ways of doing it, such as discussing it with them first and coming to a mutually acceptable contrivance. The best moments is when two or more of the players, discussing their character backgrounds, spontaneously invent a reason why they know each other.

But you can't force that. Don't worry too much about it. It's far more important to set the scene in a memorable fashion with great description, great characters and quick adventure hooks. That'll be remembered far more than whatever tiresome gimmick you used to bring the party together.

Quest Introductions

TLDR: Don't do more than leave clues to the campaign arc for the first few games.

Whenever I was writing campaigns I always started with a vague concept, and didn't care about the plot. Once I ran a "horror" campaign with lots of demons and undead. Once I ran an "Ice" campaign with lots of survival scenarios. Once I ran a "Water" campaign with lots of ships and diving.

The plot would come after. And what I was always careful to do was ensure that while all the adventures I had planned fit the theme, only some of them advanced the campaign plot. Of those that remained, some would have small links to the wider campaign plot added, and others would stand alone. The campaign arc would be structured so that campaign advancing scenarios would become more and more frequent as the campaign neared its conclusion.

There are lots of advantages to doing things this way. It allows you a lot of freedom to mix things up, and it keeps the players guessing about what's coming. But perhaps best of all, it preserves an aura of mystery about the direction of the campaign.

Think about books and film: how often in really good stories does the writer reveal everything about the world and the antagonist in the first few chapters? Rarely, if ever. If you blow all the big surprises in one go, there's nothing left for future adventures but repetition.

So hold things back. Your first adventure or two should fit your chosen theme or style, but don't have to have anything to do with the campaign arc. It's good to drop hints that help tie things together, but it's not necessary.

As things gather pace, make it gradually clearer where things are going. Introduce one or two recurring antagonists. If you've run a campaign before you've probably heard advice about the "onion skin" model, where each layer mystery is gradually peeled back to reveal another beneath, until you reach the centre and the campaign ends. It's good advice: take it.

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I'd appreciate an explanation of why this advice merited a downvote? –  Matt Thrower Jun 13 at 16:31
    
You addressed the Quest Introductions section to some extent, but I read your answer to the Player Introductions part like so: Q) "I have a problem, I need help." A) "No you don't." –  DCShannon Jul 8 at 3:04
    
@DCShannon Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. Does that mean that trying to convince the OP that they're worrying needlessly doesn't constitute "help"? –  Matt Thrower Jul 8 at 8:04
    
Not in my opinion, no. This is the closest meta question I could find. There are situations where you can make that argument, but I think you should also answer their concern in addition to suggesting a different approach. In this particular question, the asker clearly thinks that getting the party together is a problem based on their experiences, so telling them it isn't doesn't seem helpful. –  DCShannon Jul 8 at 17:24
    
@DCShannon We'll have to agree to disagree. IMO it's essentially an insurmountable problem (none of the other answers properly address it) so I suggested switching the focus to scene setting, which I thought was helpful. Hopefully it was some use to the OP, at any rate. But I appreciate your input and feedback, very useful. –  Matt Thrower Jul 8 at 20:33

Love all the suggestions above, but I thought I might add a few more specific examples from my own experience.

Gathering PCs together:

  1. A call for volunteers is an honest way for PCs to not know each other and still work together as a group for a common cause. Let their NPC leader be the first to fall out of the picture, and now you have a group that is "on their own" and need to quickly work together towards a goal. This could be anything from a dragon sighting, to a natural disaster, to a local baby being kidnapped, or even a bounty on wanted criminal.

  2. I've used with great success, asking players to choose a single race and/or class. Make their first level or two be of the same class, and then let them take their individual classes. Now I had a tribe/guild/family of PCs that grew up together, but each also had their differences as well. That common class bond makes a great foundation for group cohesion.

  3. Social gatherings of any kind also work. Funerals would call on different PCs perhaps only slightly related, or close friends of the family, to gather and listen to a last will. Weddings, along with each PC bearing a gift. You get the idea.

Introducing NPCs:

  1. These should already exist in each PCs background. Ask your players to come up with 3 friendly NPCs, 3 adversarial NPCs, and 3 neutral NPCs each. Help them to dig into their own PCs past. Give them extra credit if they can come up with extras for the other PCs. As GM, you can consider combining some of these into fewer NPCs just to keep the players on their toes, or disorient them a bit. This can be really fun for a GM.

  2. Nobody grows up in a vaccuum. Everybody has social obligations of some sort. Keep that in mind without trying to overburden the PCs too much. Maybe every year one of the PCs visits his grandfather's grave (who was a local hero), and the locals are there to celebrate with him. It's that kind of innocent activity that can instantly have a stranger able to come up to the PC and start a conversation.

Introducing Quests:

  1. I think if you have a solid foundation with the first two topics above, that this one just kind of falls into place on its own. Each NPC could bring their own situation to the PCs attention.

  2. Use organizations to help push an agenda, whether it be exploration, looting, monster hunting, etc. Perhaps there is a special guild hired specifically by wizards that need rare components? Now that's a guild that will always be full of surprises!

  3. Stumbling across something dangerous is always a tried a true method. Let's say the party is tasked to deliver some basic goods. Nothing exciting , as they are low-level beginners, but along the way, they see another courier (of their same guild perhaps?) wounded and pursued by an enemy. They rescue the courier's package and try to deliver it, only to discover that it is something extraordinary, which leads them to their next mission.

  4. Let the quest come to them. Meteorite lands outside the village one day. Suddenly all manner of strange folk come through town to take a piece of it home. If the PCs discover its value, perhaps they are tasked with delivering it to a buyer who will pay the town handsomely...but first they have to get it there.

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