When Jay Jones ran his first game of Dungeons and Dragons, we created our characters independently (as happens in so many games). The only requirement he asked of us is that each character has a dark secret. Maybe it’s something we did, or something that happened to us, but we have something we don’t share in polite company.
We rolled up our characters, and I decided on a minotaur fighter named “Maku the Gregarious.” He doesn’t suffer from the same mindless rage as his people - instead, he is charming, optimistic, and... well, it’s in the name, right? Maku’s dark secret was that he had lost a child, a son who had been born stillborn. His mate had lost her mind with grief, and given in to the minotaur rage. Maku, however, had the opposite reaction, distancing himself from everything that connected him to his people.
We gathered our party – a tiefling warlock, an eladrin wizard, and an elf ardent – and the adventure began…
We woke up side-by-side, buried alive in a mass grave.
Our characters were strangers, but each of us had a tattoo we didn’t remember getting, a black feather on our inner forearm.
There was a fifth body, a woman who was clearly dead.
My character had a broken compass around his neck.
We struggled to break free, and ended up breaking through the ground below us, and falling into a fighting pit, where two cockatrices were battling as several gnolls cheered and gambled.
None of our characters had any idea what was going on, or where we were.
It was the best.
A good opening to an adventure should answer the following questions: First, who are you? How do the various party members know each other? Are they fond friends, gathering together for another adventure? Are they acquaintances, throwing their lots in with each other to find work on the road? Or - as Jay and I clearly prefer - are they strangers who are thrust together by the story unfolding around them? In this case, clearly we were the latter.
The second question: where are you? This could be as easy as “in a tavern,” “on a boat,” or “in a dungeon,” or as elaborate as “on the western shore of a mysterious island,” or “on the border between two nations about to go to war.” The geography can be important, but what matters most is the setting, and the tone that setting suggests. Waking up in a mass grave pretty clearly answers that question as well.
Third question: why do you care? Maybe your characters are being hired for a job, so the only answer to this question is “because I’m getting paid.” Maybe they’re being asked to do someone a favor, so the answer is “why do we care” could be “because this powerful person will owe us a favor,” or “this will allow us to finally square our debt.” Or maybe they’re trying to stop a war because they’re in the military, or just good Samaritans, and it’s the right thing to do. Either way, you need to present a reason why your party should be invested in the story right away. And, once again, waking up in a mass grave with four strangers, three of whom are also alive and confused and share your new tattoo? That definitely answers these questions.
As we fought and killed the gnolls, we made our way to the surface, where we discovered someone (a creepy little goblin-like thing) who claimed to be our ally, but quickly noticed something about our eyes, and realized we weren’t the people he knew anymore. He teleported away, and we made our way down the road and found a village that had been completely obliterated, turned into a crater. We found a few survivors, who seemed to think we were responsible - they knew us as a gang of ruffians who called themselves “The Four Feathers.” And the fifth body we found in the grave with us? That’s the twin sister of the leader of these survivors.
Once again, who are you, where are you, and why do you care? All present and accounted for. We’re the Four Feathers, allies to some, enemies to others. We’re near a village that has been completely destroyed. We care because, in some way, we’re connected to what has happened.
Think about the best pilots of television. Breaking Bad. Lost. Firefly. The Walking Dead. They introduce you to a world - maybe it’s our own world, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s the world of the show, and it has certain rules and certain challenges. We’re introduced to the characters - perhaps they’re friends or family (Firefly or Breaking Bad) but they could just as easily be strangers (Lost). And they give us a reason to care about what happens next.
Now, not every show lives up to the promise of its pilot (though I’ll go to bat in Lost’s defense), and that might be true of your campaign, so keep it simple. What do you need to introduce in the first session? You really just need to hook your players. If you think of your campaign as a TV show, you need to make sure your players have a reason to tune in every week. And a strong opening goes a long way.