Once one has a framework – an idea of one’s plot, with a goal and a plan to inject the PCs into the story – one needs an adventure. I’ve mentioned before that my philosophy on building an adventure is very linked to my proclivity for improvisational GMing. As such, my preparation is very limited. However, no matter how limited your preparation is, unless you are playing a completely improvisational game, you will need to outline your introductory adventure if even in the most minimal detail.
If you are like me, once the campaign has begun, you might not need to do more than limited preparation as you follow the organic evolution of the story. Players make choices, ask questions, and forward assumptions that all impact on how the story is shaped, and a GM can just follow those through. But I still believe you need the initial push of an introductory adventure, and to do it right you need to plan out some aspects of it.
The crux of the intro adventure is the introduction of the PCs to the plot. There are many ways of doing this, and I’ve previously mentioned a few. Your PCs might be regular folk whom the intro adventure thrusts into the story. Your PCs might be adventurous sorts, and this intro is more about informing them of the goal. You might also start in media res, with your PCs already involved in the plot – start with an action scene and work forward from there.
You don’t need to make these decisions. You can turn to your players and ask them what they want. They know their characters need to get into the story, so they should already be invested in this process.
Is this a high fantasy dungeoncrawl? The players might decide they are all residents of a village who survived an attack from out of the dungeon. They decide to head into the dungeon to rescue anyone who might still be alive. They might be knights sent by the local lord after learning of the attack. The PCs might even begin the game somewhere in the dungeon in the middle of a fight.
Beginning in media res begs the question of how the PCs got to that point, and this can be done through a flashback scene that follows the initial fight, through a discussion among the players to decide how this came to pass, or it might even be left an open question – not that the PCs don’t know, just that the players haven’t yet decided.
Not having an answer to how the PCs arrived in the dungeon might be a problem for your group. Leaving that open-ended might lead to a disconnect from the story, making the players less invested. However, this is often done in books, comics, movies, and TV series, and we learn later what the purpose or reason for the characters to be in the story.
Think of beginning in media res: there’s some action, then an hour or two into the adventure the PCs come across a prisoner or a treasure, and suddenly the players decide this is why they are there. There is something about that prisoner or treasure that is important. This works best in improvisational games or with GMs willing to tweak their plans to accommodate such a change. Somehow, this MacGuffin is important to the plot and this is what brought the PCs in. So why is it important? Were it me, I’d leave that open until the players decided they had an idea.
They say there’s no second chance to make a good first impression, so give the introduction of the PCs into the adventure and the campaign some serious thought. Talk to the players to see how they want to do it, and don’t dismiss anything out of hand. Sometimes the weirdest routes lead to the best places.
What’s a MacGuffin, you ask . . . Wikipedia’s got you covered.
You can find the Building Stuff series here.