TLDR: Introduce player characters individually so they have a chance to shine.
We’ve all had a D&D campaign start in a tavern. Why not? It’s a grounding place that puts your characters firmly into a fantasy world and gives your players time to meet and greet. Sometimes that’s all you need, right? Well, when the problems come, they come quick. What if one of your players is shy and finds it difficult to insert themselves into a conversation and make their character known? How did this group find each other and why are they working together? What’s the inciting incident to get them to leave the tavern? Inevitably this is going to put pressure on the DM to push the plot rather than having the characters follow their story.
I want to explore other options to help make each of your player characters shine and create a story engine that’s almost entirely fueled by character over plot.
Let’s address the first problem of the tavern start: your player characters don’t get time to show off who their characters are before being asked to fit them into a party.
INTRODUCE CHARACTERS AT THEIR MOST CHARACTERFUL
A character is more than their race, class, and abilities. A character is aesthetic, morality, goals, history – a character is story. Without character, you have nothing. So why not let it shine from the jump?
One thing I like to do when introducing the characters is start each of them off with a personal quest, often one given to them by a character of importance to them from their backstory. This acts as a sort of secret goal for the character, which adds a lot of steam to the story engine as they attempt to complete their own goals while working with the party, even if those goals are at odds with the party’s.
So how do you do this specifically? Just remember to hit these points:
- Set the Scene. The character is doing something badass and core to their character. You don’t want a boring character intro. If they’re a thief, they’re getting the details for a heist before the police burst through the door and now they have to find out who snitched. If they’re a paladin, they have just captured an illegal necromancer and are asked whether to torture them to find the rest of their cult.
- Once you set the scene, ask them to describe their character physically.
- End the scene by pushing the character towards the rest of the party, who must now work together to complete a goal.
If you’re finding this intimidating, remember that this is what session zero is for. Get everyone on board with the characters in play and find the inciting incident that would tie everyone together. Also talk to your players and make sure they are all down for helping get the story to the point where the group meets up. You don’t want some edgelord specifically trying to avoid meeting and working the rest of the party. Get everyone on the same page.
Now that you have introduced the PC’s, let’s get the game moving:
THE HOT START
Once your characters are shining, you can put them into what I call a nefarious team building exercise.
In Fantasy High, the DM Brennan Lee Mulligan gives each of his player’s detention due to each of their actions early in the game. This puts them all in the same room – but to knit them together, they need to survive something. One dead lunch lady later, and the kids are traumatized, covered in cream corn, and forever friends for having survived this ordeal together.
This way of knitting the party together is definitely one I’d recommend if they don’t have a backstory that already unites them. Nothing makes friendship closer than shared trauma. That’s probably why you and your friends are so much closer after playing DND!
You could also start right from the action and introduce your player characters during initiative. This can be tricky to get right and you may need to rely on some flashbacks to lay the groundwork for each character.
For example, the party is in the middle of committing a heist on a moving train. Each character has a specific role: safe cracker, crowd control, lookout – whenever you settle on a character, you could flash back to what brought them to this situation. This is something you could do if you really wanted to shake up a campaign right from the start.
CHARACTER FUELS STORY
The last thing I want to hit on is the why. When you are building a world in DND, you can get caught up in the story that you want to tell as a DM. I want to promise you now that the story your players will create on their own is better than anything you could have planned.
DND is a cooperative storytelling game and I think that this design helps lean into that. I’ve learned a lot watching Dimension 20 over the past few weeks and I highly encourage you all to do so as well. Brennan Lee Mulligan delivers a master class in dungeon mastering, but you can tell how much better things are every time he passes the ball to his players (who are also excellent).
Rely on your players and lean into the characters they brought to the table and your game will improve immensely, that I can promise you.
- How can I help my players get better at roleplaying, storytelling, and improvisation? I’m trying to make a collection of useful tips and advice.
- Session 0+ or Barhopping in Baldur’s Gate
- Expose characters by singling out players for one on one interactions
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How Not to Start in a Tavern: Introduce your Characters at their most Characterful" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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