10 Crazy Ways to Kick Off Your Next Campaign

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It’s a tradition as stale as the beer in the town’s lowliest tavern:

“You’re at the inn. Suddenly an old guy walks up and offers you a job.” Or, “You’re at the inn. Suddenly a bunch of orcs rush in and start busting up the place.” Or, “You’re at the inn. A drunk guy bumps into you, and you realize your coin purse is lighter.”

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with starting your adventure at the inn. But sometimes you just need a change of pace to keep your players on their toes. If you’re running low on inspiration, you’re in luck! Here are 10 unconventional ways to set your game in motion.

#1 – The Worst Hangover Ever

The PCs awaken to find themselves seated around an opulent table full of exotic foods and wines. The food is beginning to mold, and insects have gathered. Nobody can recall what they’ve done in the past few days, and nobody knows where they are or who hosted the dinner. But there is the small matter of a well-dressed corpse with a dagger between its shoulder blades. And is that the sound of guards coming…?

#2 – Escape from the Gallows

One of the PCs has been wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. Their sentence is death by hanging. The objective is to rescue them before the hangman’s work is done. This should provide a great opportunity for swashbuckling adventure, ala Pirates of the Caribbean. How will the party pull off the rescue, and how will they prove their friend’s innocence while living on the run?

#3 – Kidnapped!

The party members find themselves in a wagon, traveling over rough terrain. Their vision is obscured by black hoods, and their hands are bound behind their backs. They could be on their way to an audience with a powerful and super-secretive personality, or they could be on their way to certain death. Will they escape their bonds, or stay the course and see where fate leads them? As a twist, you could have the PCs awaken in a sealed room and struggle to find their way out.

Masquerade lady
Picture by August Rush

#4 – Murder at the Masquerade

The PCs are guests at a masquerade ball. Everyone who’s anyone has been invited. Have the PCs choose their costumes and enjoy a fun evening of drinking, dancing, and maybe a tryst or two. At midnight, a servant runs screaming into the room. The host has been slain. She was last seen strolling toward her private garden with someone in costume – the exact same costume that one of the PCs is wearing. Watch them scramble to come up with an alibi.

#5 – The Message

The party is hailed by a small child holding a bound scroll. The seal looks familiar. In fact, it appears to be from someone very important. Just as the child draws near, a cloaked figure knocks him aside and snatches the missive. Watch the party frantically chase the thief through the city streets, and witness an urban landscape (with all its crowds, hazards, and hiding places) in its full glory.

Lightning bolt
Picture by Alex Rouvin

#6 – Disaster Strikes

Ever wanted to end the world? The PCs will certainly feel like their world is ending when a disaster (magical, natural, or war-driven) strikes their base city. There will be droves of deaths, massive destruction, and possibly flaming, falling debris. Survival is the goal of this harsh opening scenario.

#7 – The Prophecy

The party is ambushed by a band of assassins. They manage to capture one and interrogate him. It turns out that the killers were hired to slay one of the PCs in order to prevent a terrible prophecy from being fulfilled. The PC and his pals will have starring roles in what might turn out to be a series of world-shaking events.

#8 – The Chase is On

You know how some action flicks start with a car chase? You can do the same thing in D&D. Open the game with the PCs on horseback, ducking and dodging their way through a thick forest while their enemies give chase. If riding at breakneck speeds through hostile terrain isn’t exciting enough, you could always throw in the obligatory cliff.

#9 – Rude Interruption

The PCs have come to pay their last respects to a fallen hero of legend. Hundreds have gathered for the public funeral service. It’s a touching scene until something goes horribly wrong. This untoward event could be an invasion, a disastrous wizard duel, or the dead hero rising as an undead monstrosity. Your choices are only limited by your imagination.

#10 – Dreams and Visions

Dreams and visions can be used in many ways. In this case, they can be used to kick off your campaign in style. Give your PCs a dream so real it hurts – literally. Maybe they get wounded in the dream, only to wake up and find very real marks on their bodies. Or give them a premonition of future events so vivid that the PCs believe they’re actually living through those events right now.

Have you ever kicked off a campaign in an unorthodox way? Tell us all about it in the comments section!

31 thoughts on “10 Crazy Ways to Kick Off Your Next Campaign”

  1. my newest campaign started with the PC’s being poor and in low side (one being the son of a drunk orc and the other was sold to a brothel as a child). I let them explore town. The second session ended with a letter being delivered to one of the PC’s from a man that died. He reveals that the PC was born to a some what noble family who left them with the NPC who died, and then lost at sea during a war. Plot twist with out answers left the player speechless and in a good way. The other PC found out his drunk orc father stayed drunk to forget loosing the love of his life when the half orc child was born…

    The other campaign was with 3 humans, of different backgrounds and they worked for a local lord who was selling out his own knights to the orc horde in the forest. The lord was funding the orc army who was taking over the local area… orcs in the mountains are at war with the forest orcs and the humans are caught in the cross fire with out knowing it.

  2. I’m making a campaign and it starts with the party drunk in a jail cell in a western world. Turns out, they got into a barfight against each other, but they have to either live in jail or go find and defeat a giant ancient dragon

  3. I had a game where the party were all in a jar.

    That’s right a Jar, not a bar. They had all been captured by a giant and were going to be used for stew, they had to escape the giants larder and home without being eaten or stepped on.

  4. In my most recent campaign each player was a part of their own respective races or guilds and were all in incidents leaving them the last surviving member. Each character awoke captive on a slave ship after being teleported away from their own problems when a Kracken attacked and destroyed the ship. Awoke with nothing on the shore of dead bodies the only survivors of the ship. Shortly after gathering goods and meeting we were assaulted by a wave (like, 36v5) of slavers that were at a nearby camp.

  5. 3.5 game (Scarred Lands setting from Sword & Sorcery Studios), players: 2 couples, each pair of PCs attached to a different mercenary unit as skirmishers. Each pair sent with 3 NPCs to scout a patch of high ground between a desert and some foothills. Upon arrival, each scout patrol sees the other as their respective mercenary legions spy each other and combat ensues; 5 rounds later there’s the sound of a horn and a titanic skeletal dragon claws it’s way out of the earth beneath the clashing legions. Ghouls come loping in from the desert and the PCs and NPCs that survived the initial skirmish and the 2-3 ghouls that climb the promontory can only escape into the hills to find a convenient cave.

  6. Starting mine out like. They all started out with the same tatoos on the forarms. They each got an invitation from a merchant guild to help him transport his good, they think they were chosen for there specific skills in what ever field (class) they are. Little do they know that those tatoos represent the saviors or destroyers of the world. They are the exceptional beings that have had the souls of fallen angels or devils within the blood. As they level up and get stronger that essence is revealed in there actions, if they do bad or good things. An evil necromancer located each or them and pair the merchant to gather them to set a trap and dispose of them, because they are his biggest threat. After they got gathered up by the merchant and were traveling they were ambushed and thats how it opened.

  7. A fun start could be one of the characters getting kicked out of there home by there father, calling them a fool for not taking the family business and telling them they never want to see them again. (The pc leaves wanting to becoming, well, an adventurer or hero of sorts and declines the offer from the father) The father gives them a horse and tells them to get out of town or they’ll be sorry ( use better descriptions lol). When they get a short distance outside of town they will see a great shadow appear over them, and when they look over head they will see a great dragon fly towards the small town and belch fire across it. The PC will either hide, rush to town and save those that they can, or try to find there family. Theres alot of directions you can go with this introduction.

  8. i wrote an adventure that starts by “you awaken to find yourselves passagers on a fastly driven carage. As you start to come to, you dont remember how you all got in the carage. A matter of fact you cant remember anything you’ve done over the last few days or maybe weeks. The windows of the carage are boarded up on the out side along with the two doors(if the PC’s ask to kick or brake down the boarded up windows and doors have them)role their Dex or lower at a -2 to do so.)” As a window or a door has been broken down the PC’s can see trees wiping by the carage at a very fast speed. (if the PC’s look in front or climb on top of the carage they notice that the carage is being driven to a broken brige hanging off the side of a cliff, by a small hooded humaniod creature.)(the cliff egde is only 300 yards ahead and the carage is aproaching very quickly(8 rounds before the carage is thrown over the side.)

    Why where they in the carage?
    Who put them there?
    Who wanted them dead?

  9. I stole a march from Roy Winninger’s old 2E edition Dragon Magazine column: Dungeoncraft. The PCs wake up in a large stone cell with several dozen other folks, all of them wearing rags. As the PCs realize that they are the healthiest of the lot, the NPCs tell them that they’ve been captured by some orcs and are being used as slave labor to excavate the buried ruins of some old complex, which has carved freizes along the walls near the ceiling in almost every room.
    This way the PCs have 1) some reason to be together, 2) a reason to work together, and by the time they escaped, they had found their armor & weapons, slain the orcs and all the other creatures in the “dungeon”. They’d encountering ghosts in the far reaches of this complex and had started uncovering the secrets of the area. The PCs also hit 2nd level and ran into a big baddy (death knight), who dismissed them and left.
    Several levels later, they met up with the death knight and destroyed him aboard the flying ship of his master, the PC wizard’s former master!

    My wife reminds me periodically that her barbarian “captained a flying ship”. Classic.

  10. Some good ones there, and in the comments. I’m trying to decide on the intro for my upcoming campaign, and all these good ideas are making it harder, heh.

    As a player, I think my favorite introduction was when my character wandered out of the woods and joined an adventuring party already in progress without apparently noticing that it was strange at all. Of course, I was playing a senile druid, so this was perfectly in character.

    My favorite intro that I’ve run myself was pretty elaborate. I sat down with each player separately, and we basically did a half hour solo adventure that went wrong in some way:

    – A ranger (the PC) adventuring with a party (of NPCs) was the only one who made it to the world ending artifact in the bottom of the dungeon, and didn’t have the means to stop it.
    – A rogue (the PC) is hit by a magical trap and finds himself in Sigil, where he promptly wanders through the wrong doorway and ends up on yet another plane.
    – A fighter (the PC) and his party (of NPCs) are stuck in Ravenloft and throw themselves at the big bad there, but he ends up bleeding out with his party dismembered and dead around him.
    – A wild mage (the PC) uses teleport to return his party to town with the hoard of loot they’ve acquired, and a wild surge sends him careening off into the planes.

    All the scenarios ended with a sort of cut to black at the moment of panic, and then the group game began with the PCs just appearing in the crowd of people at a funeral. Except the fighter, who turned up in the coffin. As the corpse. Needless to say, his resurrection was arranged, and they all found themselves on an unfamiliar world with a common problem…

  11. Best one I have ever heard. you are sitting when a tavern when a ship comes crashing through the wall. roll initiative.

  12. Now, this was not really MY fault, but I wanted to start things off with our unholy cleric attaining a magical staff that could talk to him. It told him to raze a nearby village of orcs (because they had ticked off the god to whom the staff actually belonged) by raising all of the dead in the villages cemetery. When we got there, though, he accidentally summoned a humongous undead construct, instead.

    And that’s how that campaign started!

  13. Waitaminnit… I’m a what?

    The characters wake up. Each one realizes that s/he’s in a cage in some sort of large carriage. There are other cages here, each on containing an animal of some sort. Slowly, they begin to realize that they can understand the other beasts, until the reality of the situation hits them… they ARE the beasts. Each character has been turned into an animal that somehow either exemplifies or (in the case of the game I ran) seems opposite of the requirements of their class.

    In the first case, maybe the warrior is a bear, the wizard an owl, and the thief a raccoon. In the second case, maybe the thief is the bear, the warrior is a ferret, and the wizard a tortoise! (In my actual game, the warrior was a racoon, the wizard a bear, and the bard a rabbit. Animals that can stand on their hind legs and try to use their paws as hands work well, but so can animals with other talents like birds and reptiles.

    How did they get into this predicament? More importantly, how do they get out? And where are they going on those cages?

    We had a LOT of fun with this one, because it forced each of the players out of the “shell” they created for themselves, and was a fun little mystery to boot.

  14. I’m still a little wet behind the ears with DMing, but I’ve always tried to put a lot of thought into how I started my campaigns. Here’s the one I liked the best”

    Using the old ‘no choice situation’ tactic, they all awake in someones employment. No real memories, not even using the names they gave themselves (and only told me). Their boss seems trust worthy and has them on small time quests to gather recipe items and killing whatever defended it (normally animals or normals mobs), but they come to find they were revived by a rather cheap spell, and were gathering materials to do so to more. The sense of betrayal from the friendly boss, and the fact I had the cheap spell meant they currently had what amounted to six months to live gave a lot of sudden push in the story. (the short term of the spell realized from an NPC who had been around about 6 months longer). By the end they gathered enough to revive only one of the characters who the entire party chose to go on and finish a rather important task at hand. The whole thing was so dramatic, and actually gave a reason to act so fast and rash. This also gave great room for other dramatic touches, like I had one character simply never regain any memories, and how NPCs who were savey to their situation reacted.

    And like the others, #1 is a great idea, may play off it in the future, maybe even mid campaign.

  15. I started my campaign with the PC’s all tied up in a kobold camp, only knowing their names and classes. I had them escape and attacked several times over my agents of my overall villain. What I’m doing is making them all old heroes who were captured by the villain in order to get rid of them. Several factions have come to see them thinking that they are great champions when really only level 3. It’s great fun, as well as te fact that one of the PC’s decided to become evil and slaughtered everyone in a tavern, much to the publics surprise as he used to be an incredibly heroic warlord. It was quite comical. In the end they joined the main villain. :)

  16. I think the hardiest thing to do is start an adventure that’s unique, especially if the PCs’ are 1st level a they have no experience and wouldn’t be well known in the Kingdom abroad .I mean, if someone wants to sought out some Adventures to save the day, they’re surely not going to go to a bunch of greenhorns.
    That’s why as of recently I’ve been toying with the idea that their are not any real quests or heroic deeds that need to be done anymore and the PC’s have to sought out adventure on their own.

  17. My last campaign started with the PC’s being held prisoner and forced to fight in gladiator arenas. The PC’s have had their memories wiped and don’t remember much about themselves except their names and religions. They have broken free and are slowly finding out more about themselves (usually by certain npc’s recognizing them). It is a little cliche, but they like it because they dont control what their own backstory is. We have done countless campaigns and created countless characters. This gives them a break from having to come up with backstories. I give them clues to their backstory through dialogue and such. It’s fun for me and them.

  18. paradox’s was great!
    I’ll soon have a chance to try all of these out. I plan on finishing up the campaign I’m currently running before summer, then during summer I’ll run a bunch of one or two play adventures. Then I’ll settle on one for the winter.

    The only slight problem with the masquerade theme is that the PCs have to be well know _before_ the campaign starts. My ideas for this is that they could choose between starting their character as….
    a first level PC that is an elite in his town (town guard, healer, charmer, etc..)
    a low level NPC class that is the son of a powerful NPC (governer’s sun, Sherrif’s nephew)
    a medium level Commoner that is a respected elder.

    Of course the NPC class would multiclass out to PCs. Does anyone know a way to measure one class against another?

  19. In my opinion, dreams are most effective when they serve to deepen the themes of a campaign. The Baldur’s Gate games are a perfect example of this. The main character is helpless to the events that begin the first game, which parallels the unshakable dreams which follow. Also, the overhanging theme mystery of the first Baldur’s Gate is echoed in the enigmatic dreams that capitalize on symbolism. In the second game, you know what you are and begin to dwell on the past. You can see this echoed in the reminiscent nightmares that assault the main character from time to time.

  20. Smoking Tavern….

    That is the sad remains of a much longer post involving a wrathful god of sobriety. All sadly eaten by the submit comment button.

  21. I never had my players start off in a weird way but my DM certainly did for me. She had me falling out of the sky and landing in the ocean. My character was then washed ashore. Only to discover that the island was actually an Island Turtle with pirates using it as a base. x.x

  22. I agree, #1 especially rocks. I like the whole list, some nice ideas, I’ve added them to my ideas notebook. I did something similar to what wampus talks about. One PC was assigned a task as a member of House Cannith and he was to recruit a group to aid him. He interviewed the applicants in a tavern and eventually picked all people that were not the other PCs (this had been setup with the player). Two days later the PC comes back to town, injured and near death, the sole survivor of his expedition. Then he turns to the PCs for help.

    My favorite, though, was the start to my 4e campaign. The PCs wanted an interesting start and one challenged me to start the group on opposite sides of a battlefield and bring them together. So the game opens, at 1st level of course, with the four PCs paired off and fighting for opposing sides in a small border skirmish near a mine. The priest of Kord and the fighter (both PCs) are assigned a small unit and ordered to skirt the edge of the battle, penetrate the line and take out the other sides wizard (one of the PCs, guarded by the other PC and some minions). Just as they fight their way to each other and lay on some damage, the battlefield is invaded by a small army of Legion Devils under the command of a Bone Devil and the PCs all flee to the nearest shelter, an abandoned watch post over a nearby road, and have to work together to survive the assault, eventually making their way through an ancient temple hidden under the watch post and discovering the identity of the ones who summoned the devil army. They have yet to discover why, though.

  23. Janna, you’ve just inspired me! I know the last module I wrote started in a Tavern, however you’ve given me some fantastic idea’s to work into upcoming adventures. Thanks and keep up the great writing.

  24. Ack! Too bad I already started my campaign. But I think I can weave one or two of these in to the current plot and keep it interesting.

  25. I borrowed this idea from someone online. The PCs are in the tavern, applying for what sounds like a sweet job. Their patron listens to their names and backgrounds, makes notes, then interviews several other NPCs.

    And then selects everybody BUT the PCs for the job, and leaves, accompanied by rude comments from the “winners”. They would later meet again.

  26. I have a reputation for starting campaigns with #6, a tremendous disaster. One of my players was visibly upset at what I had done to Waterdeep before the campaign even started.

    Good times.

  27. I wish I had the “ultimate hangover” hook before I started my most recent campaign. It would have been perfect. Instead I stole from NWN2, “the local village is having a harvest festival when it is attacked”.

  28. I once started the campaign with the PCs being prisoners in a galleon. They are bound in the lowest deck when a storm (magical or otherwise) hits the area.

    The PCs are knocked out (after a lot of painful jolts) and wake up in a full of debris shore in an (unknown to them at the time) uncharted island.

    Survival and escape from the island are priorities, but the local undead have other plans. ;-)

  29. One of my favourite methods (I can’t use it very often, though) is to start off by having the players describe their characters to each other—their names, their appearance, a little bit of their character background&#mdash;and then springing a surprise on them:

    So, what are you all doing in this cell, when you should be in some benighted conscript battalion in some distant part of the country, fighting the armies of <insert major campaign villain name>?

    It gives them a bit of a jolt, and plunges them headfirst into the campaign.

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