The trope starting point for any fantasy RPG campaign. A cloaked man at a dimly-lit table in the corner of the tavern motions you over and speaks in whispers about a job and a hefty purse of gold for its completion. Never mind the average fantasy tavern has more dark corners than a star fort under the new moon.
It’s a poor beginning for an RPG adventure and it’s unfortunately the template. As a beginning it suffers some serious drawbacks. First it’s boring. A bunch of tight-lipped strangers sitting behind tankards not talking to each other. They are complete strangers or vague acquaintances, no bosom buddies or even first name basis friendliness. It’s a passive beginning that relies on the players to make the first move, something even experienced players are reluctant to do in a brand new campaign setting. If you want your players to do something, give them something to do. Sitting in a tavern leaves very little room for interpretation on how to do that, or what might be of interest. Let’s be honest you probably didn’t even come up for a reason these adventurers are sitting on their rumps in the middle of the day, shouldn’t they have jobs or at least be looking for work?
In some ways running a game from behind the screen is like helping a kid learn to ride a bike. To start out you provide the push and training wheels to keep them on the straight and narrow but slowly pull back the control and safeguards. If there is ever a time to be a heavy-handed GM it’s at the start, before the players get their feet up under themselves and even begin to know who their characters are. But before that happens it’s just a bundle of stats sitting around a table waiting for ‘the game’ to start.
Dive into action. Just like the adage ‘a wrong decision is better than indecision,’ sparking any sort of fire in the beginning will get your players involved and get them doing at least something. A few years back I did start a campaign in a tavern. The city was divided over a labor issue, the barge drivers guild up in arms over the construction of a new bridge that would severely cut into their work contracts. Things were really heating up with the barge drivers guild sabotaging bridge construction during the night. So the next step was then hiring an assassination attempt on the barge drivers guild headmaster. An attempt that brazenly took place during the day, in a tavern, with PCs around, under the cloak of a tavern brawl over the aforementioned labor issue.
By the end of the scene the PCs have saved an NPC who becomes an ally and patron. The natural first assignment being get to the bottom of the assassination attempt and who’s behind it. There were hiccups of course. Someone was carted of by the local authorities for committing blatant murder with lots of witnesses, others dragged into the affair by refusing to answer questions, flee the scene, and generally because the constables don’t like the way their face looked.
While not the classical definition of in medias res, start your games smack in the middle of something happening. Battlefield, sure; storm aboard a ship, absolutely; bread riots, sounds solid. Starting with action will immediately let your players know what the crucial issues are. Then you can begin to unfold the narrative’s past and future. The adventurers survived their wind-whipped night of a storm aboard ship, Mazel tov! Now tell them about the ship, why they’re on it, where it’s going and the objective. This is also a great way to give your players something to build upon as a back story. With a few well-defined points the blank sheet of a character back story becomes much easier to write. You begin to know what questions need to be answered, what events needed to happen to put this character with these skills in this position at this time.
Another tactic I commonly use is taking away character items and giving them something else, or nothing at all depending on the situation. In the recent adventure arc I’m running the players escaped a large travel camp with the clothes on their back and a satchel they grabbed running out. I pre-made the satchels with some general supplies based on the character types involved. In addition I added one personal trinket to each bundle.
Randomly they drew the bundles so received bundles not immediately useful to their PC for the most part. This gave them the opportunity to really scour their character sheets to learn the ins and outs while trading items back and forth. The trinkets have been fun as well, creating something of interest from strange items. A wooden pen scribed with runes becomes the druid’s spell casting wand. A strange serpent bracelet continues to find its way back around the human fighter’s wrist. The dragonborn has a silver flask engraved with the initials S.K., and the halfling thief is being very tight-lipped about his box with its strange ornamentation.
The other nice thing about playing with PC items is not only you can determine what they have, and can plant items on their person, you can also make level one’s looting actually important. Mundane weapons and armor of the enemy might actually be better than the adventurers in this scenario. They can also scrounge up general adventuring supplies.
Hopefully this will help you get a little more bang at the start of your game and get it going in the right direction sooner.
I do appreciate the way you start games off, even if it does always seem to make me uncomfortable (as my characters are always in the direst of circumstances, poor, hungry and without sufficient protection).
Can we do a better job of creating the tavern as DMs? I feel like the same reasons you give actually make most encounters inside a tavern questionable. Taverns aren’t fleshed out very well and they all end up looking the same. I really enjoy a good tavern scene that gives the tavern and its owners/workers/patrons life worth experiencing.