“You all meet in a tavern…”
How many campaigns have begun with these immortal words? Probably too many. This conceit has been used so often to introduce PCs to one another and begin a campaign that it has become a cliche.
Characters meeting for the first time at the beginning of a story is a classic device in literature, cinema, and television. These sources give inspiration for vastly more possibilities than meeting in a tavern, however. Another approach is to assume that the characters are known to each other before the campaign begins, either by reputation only, acquaintance, long friendship, family ties, or even rivalries.
Either way, a campaign has to begin somehow, usually by gathering the PCs together and giving them a common goal. Here then are some different ways of assembling characters, either strangers, friends, allies, or enemies, into a group with a common motivation which can be the foundation of a campaign. These are deliberately vague, and can be developed in many different directions by considering them in the context of a desired genre.
§ The PCs are members of a trade caravan. They could be merchants, or employed by the merchants as guards, animal handlers, freight handlers, craftsmen, cooks, book-keepers, scouts, entertainers, or whores. They might also be family members of others in the caravan, or people travelling for another reason (pilgrims, diplomats) and staying with the caravan for safety.
§ The PCs are assembled at the reading of a will of a distant relative or a friend. Some PCs may thus be related, although perhaps only by marriage, while some might be strangers known only to the deceased.
§ The PCs are passengers on a commercial long-distance vehicle – a train, ship, plane, or spaceship are some possibilities.
§ The PCs are drafted from various prison facilities to form a special ops suicide squad – with the promise of a pardon if successful, of course.
§ A mutual enemy of the PCs drops hints about or outright invites them all to some event or location. The PCs show up and negotiate an alliance, probably to get them out of the trap set by the enemy.
§ The PCs are members of a small village. Some local disturbance or uprising forces them to band together for the sake of the village.
§ The PCs went to school or university together. Something happens at the reunion. Or someone (or something) from their old school days comes back to haunt them all.
§ The PCs knew each other long ago and made some sort of pact which becomes significant when NPC members of the group start dying.
§ The PCs knew each other in a past life (or several past lives). They become aware of this and seek each other out to find out why, banding together when they learn the Awful Truth.
§ The PCs are already an established group of “troubleshooters for hire” or “traders looking for a cargo”. Simply begin the campaign with the introduction of a significant client.
§ The PCs are new recruits to a cause – either an organized force such as the police or military, an organization such as a trader’s guild or environmental lobby group, or a company. They may be assigned to work together or work on a single problem from different sides.
§ The PCs all answer an advertisement seeking people with certain skills. An exploratory or scientific expedition is the likely result, but people might also advertise for guards, escorts, business professionals, or entertainers for other purposes.
§ The PCs are press-ganged into service on a ship, or in a military unit somewhere far from home.
§ The PCs know each other by correspondence (carrier pigeon, pony express, mail, Internet, crystal balls) about a shared interest. Something threatens that interest, and they band together to combat it.
§ The PCs simply wake up near each other, with no memory of who they are or what they are doing here (wherever that may be). For a twist, maybe they remember each other, but not themselves.
§ The PCs are all incarcerated in a prison, either legitimately or arbitrarily. Or they might all break out or be released from a prison and have to work together to survive outside.
§ The PCs are captured and used as slaves. A variant sees them captured and studied as specimens, either by a known sentient species or aliens. Or maybe they are to be used as food.
§ The PCs have just graduated from school or university and decide to go into some sort of business together.
§ A natural disaster or hostile attack strikes an area or town. The PCs seem to be the only survivors, at least initially.
§ The PCs all share a mutual friend, who invites them to a party or other social event.
§ The PCs are members of a secret society, either religious, mystical, political, or scientific. They work on a mission to further the society’s ends, and may end up questioning those ends.
§ The PCs work for a volunteer organization (militia, disaster relief, humanitarian, environmentalist, etc) and are assigned to work on a mission together.
§ The PCs are rivals in some sort of competition. A cross-country race or a treasure hunt are classic examples. Perhaps they cut deals and form a grudging alliance to beat other rivals, or maybe an external threat forces them to cooperate.
§ The PCs are the significant crew of a new mission of exploration and discovery, either assigned from the military or recruited for the purpose.
§ The PCs are a retired group of troubleshooters. Their arch-enemy escapes from prison/slavery/stasis/another dimension and they must reform to fight him one last time.
§ The rest of the world is going insane, or is being abducted or replaced by aliens, or they have simply vanished with no explanation, and the PCs seem to be the only ones unaffected.
Or the PCs could simply meet in a tavern…
I’ve never actually had them meet in a tavern. I start with someone getting kidnapped.