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From Intriguing Beginnings
By Matthew Rees
Tired of hearing (or saying) "You're all hanging out in a tavern, when..."? Here are several alternative methods for getting a party of PCs started together. Some, indicated by italics, have adventure scenarios built into them. Others can be used for a variety of adventures, in which case a sampling of adventure ideas is listed afterwards.
The PCs are all related in one way or another. They may or may not know (or like) each other before the adventure begins. They may all live in the same place, or come from a variety of different backgrounds. The main limitation of this scenario is that it doesn't allow for racially diverse PCs (unless mixed marriages or adoption are involved).
Family Business: The PCs belong to a well-known family of adventurers-for-hire, and someone comes to them with a job offer.
Thicker Than Water: This can take several forms, including:
No Place Like Home
The PCs all live in the same village/town/city. The smaller the town, the more likely it is that they know each other already. However, a small village is also less likely to be racially diverse, and less likely to attract adventurers. Therefore, the small village setting is a good starting-place for low-level, untrained characters thrown into events beyond their control. A large, cosmopolitan city is a good location for experienced veterans, but it means that a little extra effort is required to bring them together (perhaps via one of the other scenarios below).
Home on the Range: If the town in question is a frontier town, it could justify a greater diversity of characters (since most of them will be from elsewhere), and provide natural opportunities for adventure. The one potential drawback is that the PCs probably won't have grown up together, so they may not know each other well. On the other hand, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; role-playing may be more interesting if the PCs don't know everything about each other from the very beginning.
Alma Mater: Instead of coming from the same hometown, PCs might be students at the same school, college or other educational institute. This also allows for a high degree of diversity, as well as providing reasons for them to be in close proximity. Adventures need not take place on campus, either; they could just as easily happen on a field trip (see "Traveling Companions" below).
Mission of Mercy: Essentially the same possibilities as in "Thicker Than Water", described above. Someone or something important to the town is kidnapped/lost/stolen/killed/disappears, and the PCs must find/rescue/recover/avenge him/her/it.
Defenders: The town is threatened by an enemy, which may be an invading army, a pack of bandits (or orcs) or a powerful individual. The PCs volunteer or are drafted to stop said enemy before it's too late. Alternatively, maybe it is too late: the town has been partially or completely wiped out, but the PCs somehow survived and now want revenge.
Something Rotten: As with "Defenders", the PCs find themselves defending their home against a threat — but in this case, the threat is internal. It could be a corrupt ruler, a criminal syndicate, a sinister cult or even body-snatching aliens.
Friend in Need
The PCs are brought together somehow to help a mutual friend who's in danger or otherwise needs their assistance. They may or may not know each other already. See "Thicker Than Water" above for possible variations and adventure hooks.
The (Mysterious?) Gift
An old one but still a classic. The PCs each receive or inherit part of something valuable — a treasure map, a magical artifact, schematics for a new invention, joint ownership of an estate — from a third party who may or may not be known to them. To complicate matters, someone else wants what they have. (The inheritance scenario can also serve as an adventure hook for "Family Ties".)
The Enemy of my Enemy...
The players are all being hunted by a powerful enemy. Somehow they encounter each other in the course of trying to escape and/or defeat said enemy, and decide to stick together for mutual protection. (This could tie in with "Jailbreak", below.)
Invasion: Why settle for one enemy when you can have a whole army? The PCs' homeland has been conquered, and they're among the survivors. Of course, there may still be an individual BBEG behind the invasion, but they'll have to fight through a lot of minions to get to him.
The Next Generation: This can be used as a strategy for recovering from a Total Party Kill. Simply instruct the players to create the children (or younger siblings/nephews/apprentices/loyal fans) of the original party members so that they can take revenge on whatever killed their predecessors. You can still use this scenario even if you're starting from scratch; just write the "original" party into the PCs' backstories.
The PCs are imprisoned or enslaved by a powerful enemy, and must work together to escape. After they escape, they may find themselves in unknown territory and have to survive and find their way home.
Kidnapped!: The PCs are captured by pirates/slavers and must either escape or overcome their captors. In the latter case, they'll end up with a ship at their disposal — but if the pirates/slavers were especially notorious, the ship may be attacked on sight!
The PCs are traveling across the wilderness (desert/jungle/mountains/whatever), to a common destination. Each has his/her own reasons for making the journey, but they're traveling together for safety or convenience. In mid-journey, something goes wrong — maybe they're attacked by bandits, maybe their train breaks down in the middle of a blizzard, maybe their guide disappears or dies — and the PCs must pull together to survive and make their way onwards (or back) to safety.
If the guide disappears, the GM should have an explanation in mind — whether the PCs ever discover it is another matter! The disappearance might tie in with something they later encounter in the wilderness. Or perhaps he simply stole their valuables while they were sleeping and ran off. (Then again, perhaps they caught him in the act and he was killed trying to escape.)
If the guide dies, it could be due to mysterious causes (again, you should decide what really happened), disease, wild animals, or accident. If it's an accident, make sure it's plausible; an experienced wilderness guide isn't likely to just wander off on his own and stumble into quicksand or fall off a cliff. If it looks like he did, perhaps foul play was involved. (Let the PCs reach that conclusion on their own, however.)
This plot can be used with an already existing party as easily as a new one. In this case, they may be headed for someplace in the middle of the wilderness (a fortress, a ruined temple or lost tomb, a wizard's hideout, etc.) rather than just passing through from A to B. The disaster that befalls them may be connected with that destination. If the party is "just passing through", then this could be used as a diversion from their original adventure.
Castaways: The PCs are traveling across the sea and their ship (or plane) is wrecked in a storm (or by pirates/hijackers), leaving them stranded.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept it...
The PCs all belong to the same organization, be it a guild, mercenary company, secret society, political party, religious faith, underground resistance, or whatever. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and the social structure of your campaign setting. Depending on the nature, size and distribution of the group, the PCs may be quite diverse and may or may not know each other beforehand. They are hand-picked by the leaders of their group for a task which is important to the group's goals. If this scenario is used, the GM should tell the players in advance what the organization is, so they can create characters that fit in.
The next three scenarios show examples of specific types of organizations which are especially suited for this purpose.
Cirque du Freak
A traveling circus is an organization practically tailor-made for an RPG party. It provides an explanation for PCs with diverse backgrounds and unusual talents; a recurring cast of colorful NPCs; a reason to travel from place to place; and a variety of fictional sources to draw on for inspiration. The chief drawback is that PCs can't just go wandering off on adventures; then again, that's true of most any job, and in this case it may not matter so long as the adventures keep coming to them! After all, in fiction at least, circuses tend to be weirdness magnets. The PCs need not all be circus performers; they could just as easily be caravan guards or crew.
The New Guy: A stranger shows up, begging to join the circus, but he refuses to talk about his past. Is he running away from someone? If so, what happens when they come after him? What if the stranger is more than he seems (mutant, psychic, alien, vampire, doppelganger, rogue android) and begins manifesting strange abilities — will they be an asset to the circus, or a liability?
Escape: One of the circus animals breaks loose and the PCs have to hunt it down and recapture it before it hurts anyone.
Tar and Feathers: The circus encounters an extremely unfriendly reception in their latest port of call. Maybe the townsfolk have a legitimate grievance against one of the circus folk; maybe they're just bigots — or maybe something more sinister... Whatever the case, there should be some reason that the circus can't just pull up stakes and move on, or else this will be a very short adventure.
Circus War: What happens when two circuses arrive in town at the same time?
Sabotage: Someone has embarked on a campaign of methodical destruction against the circus. It may start out as harmless graffiti, then an animal could be set loose ("Escape"), tents set on fire, performing gear destroyed or rigged to fail at the worst possible moment... Somebody might even end up dead. Is it an inside job, or an outside threat? It could be the work of a rival circus ("Circus War"), or maybe those weird townsfolk ("Tar and Feathers") or maybe it has something to do with "The New Guy".
In the Army Now
The PCs are all part of a nation's military force. They may belong to the same company, or be assembled as a special task force. This scenario allows for a wide variety of backgrounds for the PCs, while providing them with missions. An army scenario has the advantage of providing more than just one-shot adventures, and may even be used to develop a long-term campaign against a powerful enemy.
It might seem that an army adventure would require all the PCs to be fighter-types. Not so. Clerical PCs could serve as chaplains and medics, while thieves would be very useful as spies, scouts or other covert ops. Depending on the game system and setting, mages might be less useful in an army, but even they could be handy in the right situation.
Extraction: The PCs must kidnap/steal or rescue/recover an important person or object from the enemy.
Penetration: The PCs are sent to sneak into and capture an enemy stronghold.
Escort: The PCs are assigned to protect an important person or object in transit.
Couriers: The PCs are given an important message to carry to or from the battlefront.
Reconnaissance: The PCs are sent to gather information on an enemy position.
Border Patrol: If the PCs' base is a stronghold guarding a hostile frontier, they may encounter plenty of excitement just in routine patrol duties.
Rogue Squad: The PCs are falsely accused of a crime and must escape court-martial and find out who's framed them (sound familiar?).
The PCs all live and work at a royal court, or are emissaries to the court from another country. They may be servants or nobility, though for the sake of party balance (and player harmony) it's probably best not to mix the two. (In a modern campaign, they could be staffers in an embassy or other government department.) This scenario works best for plots heavy in political intrigue.
Assassination: Someone tries (successfully or not) to assassinate an important noble or court official, and the PCs must find the assassin. One of them may be falsely accused of the crime, or be in danger of being the next target!
Theft: Someone steals a valuable treasure from the court, and the PCs must recover it. (Again, one of them might be falsely accused.)
Warfare: The country is at war or on the brink of it, and someone is trying to sabotage the peace talks. This could be combined with the Assassination scenario, as in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Scandal: Someone at the court asks the help of one or more of the PCs in saving them from a potential scandal (as in The Three Musketeers), or clearing their good name after they've already become involved in a scandal. Alternatively, one of the PCs might be in danger of scandal themselves.
Each of the PCs finds out about a lucrative job opportunity. They may see a notice posted in a marketplace, hear about it through the grapevine, or even be approached by someone soliciting their aid. The employer, after interviewing each of them, hires them for the job and introduces them to each other. (Incidentally, the job interview could be a useful pre-game device for gathering information about the PCs' backgrounds.)
Turnabout: The employer and/or the job are not what they seem. Perhaps the PCs' patron simply intends to stiff them out of their payment when the job is done, maybe he's hiring them to do his dirty work for him, or even set them up for a fall.
The Great Race: The PCs are not the only ones hired for this particular job; there's a rival group, probably hired by a rival of their patron, after the same goal and if the PCs don't get there first, they don't get paid.
An Offer You Can't Refuse: The PCs aren't just hired, they're drafted — by the military, a covert agency, a pirate press-gang, or even the gods. Maybe they were just in the wrong place in the wrong time, maybe they know too much for their own good, or maybe they have special talents (which they may or may not be aware of). In any case, they must decide whether to do as they're told and complete their mission, or to escape from/fight against their "employers" — or possibly both.
All in a Day's Work
These aren't party origin stories per se, but a list of possible occupations for parties besides the generic (and trite) "adventurer".
Salvagers/Grave-Robbers: The PCs are hired to recover treasure from tombs, lost temples, shipwrecks, etc. The media provide lots of inspiration for this role: Indiana Jones, Dirk Pitt, Lara Croft, etc.
Bounty Hunters: The PCs are paid to hunt down criminals (or runaway slaves, rogue androids, etc.). To keep this from getting stale, their targets should be distinctively different from each other, have well-fleshed-out personalities, and become progressively more challenging as the PCs gain experience and fame.
Monster-Hunters: The PCs make their living by tracking down and killing monsters, either for a fee or to collect parts to sell to mages. Variations on this include vampire hunters, demon hunters, giant-killers, dragonslayers, etc.. In a science-fiction setting, the PCs may be the classic "bughunters" or they might be mopping up killer robots after a human victory in the War Against the Machines.
Escorts/Bodyguards: The PCs are hired to protect caravans or VIPs against bandits, wild animals, hostile natives, enemy troops, or even assassination attempts. (What will they do when someone in the entourage is a mole and their patron winds up dead?)
Noble Entourage: Similar to escorts, but the PCs' patron remains constant, and their role goes beyond simple protection. No self-respecting noble travels without a bevy of servants (unless he's going incognito): one PC may be his bodyguard, another his priest, his cook, his chauffeur or animal handler, tutor, etc.
Couriers: The PCs are hired to deliver an object or message. This will probably become monotonous if used repeatedly, but may be good for a one-shot adventure or a change of pace.
Heralds/Diplomats: The PCs work for their government as go-betweens and message-bearers to foreign governments. Similar to couriers but with more politics and negotiation involved. May work better for solo adventures, although one PC could be the diplomat and the others could be his/her entourage.
Spies: Again, this may work best for solo adventures. Spies may coordinate their efforts with other spies, but are likely to do most of their actual work alone; groups of spies are more likely to attract unwanted attention! On the other hand, a group of PCs could easily be a team of counter-intelligence agents.
City Watch: Besides the everyday routine of dealing with crimes and disturbances of the peace, PCs may also get enmeshed in bigger adventures, perhaps involving cults, conspiracies, spies, smuggling, organized crime, or an invading army.
Palace Guard: Similar to the city watch, but best suited for high-intrigue political adventures.
Militia: The PCs are responsible for protecting their village or tribe from enemies and wild animals. If their tribe is nomadic, this could add a lot of variety to their encounters. They may have to deal with internal threats as well (fulfilling the role of the city watch).
Rebels: The PCs are conspiring to overthrow an oppressive government. They should also have legitimate day-jobs, unless they're outlaws on the run (Robin Hood, anyone?). They may work separately, pretending not to know each other, or they may work together, operating a business which is a front for subversive activities.
Traders: The PCs belong to a trading company, by land or by sea. If the players aren't interested in playing out the actual trading, they could simply be crewmen or caravan guards in the company's employ. On the other hand, they might enjoy running their own company: deciding what to buy and where to sell it; seeking out exotic herbs and animal parts to sell to mages; haggling for the best prices; dealing with competition, taxes and tariffs, strikes, labor shortages, and fluctuating supply and demand. In either case, they may encounter raiders, wild animals or monsters, food and water shortages, storms and other environmental hazards.
Smugglers: Similar to traders, but with a much higher risk factor! Potential cargos include arms, drugs, booze, diamonds, slaves, illegal immigrants, rare animal or plant species (or their parts), banned literature (e.g. Bibles), hazardous materials (magical or otherwise), pirate booty, or even food and other basic supplies for a blockaded port.
Privateers: The PCs are seafarers sanctioned by the government to harass the shipping of an enemy nation. Of course, the government will want a cut of whatever treasure they seize.
Explorers: The PCs explore uncharted territories for money and/or excitement. Governments often pay well to outfit expeditions into unknown territories. Territorial expansion is a motive for exploration, but it's not the only one. A new mine, or even a new trade route, could be worth a fortune to the first person to discover it. So give the PCs some competition to keep them on their toes and working against the clock!
Scouts: Similar to explorers, but in this case the PCs are working for the military, providing reconnaissance of enemy territory.
Scholars: The word scholar' usually conjures up images of scholars in dusty libraries, but in a broad sense a scholar can be anyone who seeks knowledge, and their methods of seeking it could be quite active. A cartographer, for example, might do a lot of traveling. To create a party of scholars, have each PC choose an area of expertise (history, science, linguistics, etc.), have them travel together for mutual protection, and provide them with tantalizing leads to motivate them to travel to new places. As their reputation spreads, people might even hire them to go on quests after a particular piece of information.
The way you start an adventure sets the tone. I hope these concrete examples fire your imagination. An intriguing beginning makes for an extraordinary party. Play on!
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