GM Advice: Campaign Meeting Place

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Jul 8, 2009

Filed under: Tabletop Games 85 comments

Image unrelated to article.
Image unrelated to article.
The trope is that roleplaying campaigns begin at the tavern. In fact, the second DMotR strip addressed this very issue.

But I wonder how true this really is?

I know in the games I run, I prefer to have the players collaborate and come up with their meeting as part of their backstory. Aside from giving them a chance to come up with something more interesting than “tavern” , it can also reveal inherent flaws in the party that might ruin the game later. If they’re having trouble coming up with a justification for why the Neutral Good Elven ranger Guybush Treewood would team up with the Chaotic Evil rogue Dead Slash, then perhaps there is a good reason for that, and maybe we need to re-think this group before it leads to friendship-destroying conflict.

[poll id=”6″]

Okay, this poll is futile. The permutations of how this could be handled are just too complex. Having said that, I am curious how other people launch new campaigns.

A while back I talked about a campaign where I collaborated with the players to design their backstory, from childhood to the beginning of the game proper. We didn’t actually play the game, but I still like the idea.

But I can’t help wondering if the tavern thing is as common as lore makes it seem.


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85 thoughts on “GM Advice: Campaign Meeting Place

  1. Adeon says:

    I think that what it comes down to is that if you’re running a Monty Haul style dungeon crawl having the players meet in a tavern is an easy way of getting the plot out of the way for some monster bashing. This is reinforced by the fact that fantasy stories (especially Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance) seem to have the characters spend a lot of time meeting in taverns.

    The closest I’ve ever come to a P&P RPG is Warhammer Quest and I recall that when I played with my brother we used the “you all meet in a tavern” story thinking that it was something completely original to us (we were very young at the time).

  2. ngthagg says:

    I think the GM fiat option is the closest to what our group does. Certainly I like a little less freedom at the start of a campaign where I have a few quests to get a handle on how I’m going to play my character, and how I’ll be interacting with the rest of my party.

    One of our standard rules for creating character background is that you have to have a reason for why your character will adventure with the other characters. Lone wolf types just don’t make a for a fun campaign. (Other rules include no amnesia, no twin brothers, and no gnome druids.)

  3. Joshua says:

    In defense of Ye Olde Tavern, in pre-modern settings that is the only natural place for strangers to gather and transact business. It’s not like there are employment agencies, and even if there are guilds most settlements won’t be large enough to have a dedicated guild-hall.

    I’m not against tailoring the characters’ meeting specifically to the campaign or adventure, but crafting a unique “happenstance” meeting each and every time can quickly seem more artificial than a reasonable default.

  4. MintSkittle says:

    For the most part, how they came together as a team is usually unimportant for our group. If the players want to write it into their background, that’s fine. The exception is the one homebrew I was briefly in where an NPC met the PCs individually, and asked us to meet at this secret organization HQ place. We did get food and drink there, so it might as well have been a tavern.

    Was anybody here at Fear the Con 2? Wasn’t John going to run a group of kobolds that met in a dungeon and raid a tavern?

  5. Nathon says:

    “The group simply beings, pre-formed.” s/beings/begins/g

  6. Bryce says:

    From now on, all my games shall start in a Vampire Rave. Even Chutes and Ladders…

    …especially Chutes and Ladders.

  7. Big-O says:

    All of the above?

    I have certainly had a numerous amount of games launched in taverns, but have experienced most of the other methods listed as well.

    For me it comes down to *why* I’m playing that particular game. If it’s a one-off thing with people I don’t know well, the tavern is a great way to start so as to get to the action more quickly.

    It’s definitely not what I’d call good story telling, but sometimes that doesn’t matter so much.

  8. lebkin says:

    My players seem to start with a pre-formed group at the start, and then create the meeting backstory as they play. In fact, a lot of character backstory is created this way as well. A character grows a great deal in those first few adventures, and a player can find things about them that they didn’t know going in. As those personalities solidify, backstory forms around it, including group origin stories.

  9. Hzurr says:

    While our current campaign has been going on for a while; we used to do a large number of smaller games, the majority of which would all start (or eventually arive) at a tavern called “The Boar’s Head Inn”

    Apparently, there’s one of these in every town, in every campaign world, in every fantasy setting.

    The one exception to this was when we ran a monster campaign (all the PCs were monster races), and we met in a tavern called “The Boy’s Head Inn.” We felt it appropriate.

  10. Another Scott says:

    I like to have my players each add one small detail to the concept of eachother’s character. (Of course a detail may be vetoed if the character’s owner really objects).

    This detail is usually a part of the character’s history and helps tie their backstories together enough to justify adventuring/pillaging together.

  11. Clint says:

    Off topic: Shamus, I don’t suppose you could possibly nix the “Clear WiMax” ads that are currently showing on the site? They’re animated, making it hard to read the text of your articles because my eye is constantly being distracted by movement. Thanks!


  12. Rob says:

    I don’t my current group has ever done the Tavern thing. I have been in groups where we did but it was more of a joke than anything.

    We try to have a reason why/how the party met up before hand, everything from caravan guards to brothers has been used but the best was when we did one session as children in a village and the next we where all grown up and lvl 1 adventurers meeting back up in the village 10 years later.

    Currently we have a Dwarf deep in Elven Lands, he will happily regale you with tales of his hot dead elven wife.

  13. Yar Kramer says:

    I’ve never GM’d, but I’ve come up with (read: mentally pondered) a couple of settings in which the entire party is explicitly working for the same employer, inspired partly by Paranoia. That said, it now occurs to me that said employers would presumably profile their employees and try to make sure that they’d group people who would work well together …

  14. Derek says:

    I had a GM who would always start your character by saying “you’re in $CITY. What do you do?” And then you would start role playing, and each player would take turns, until our actions caused us to interact.

  15. radio_babylon says:

    all of the above. it just depends on how the GM is feeling, how the players are feeling, how eager we are to just get on with the gaming, etc.

  16. SteveDJ says:

    –way off topic, but cannot find better place to submit this question–


    Are you going to do any special post right at the numeralogically-fascinating moment in time at 12:34:56 7/8/9 today? (Of course, I guess the timezone would affect when people hit this, so maybe it isn’t so simultaneously global)

  17. Lupis42 says:

    For story driven campaigns, I tell the characters that they need to incorporate X bits into their history, and X will include the part where they joined the party.

    For other (gamist) campaigns, I just have them roleplay something. It has been known to involve a tavern, which (for some reason) burned down…

  18. gorthol says:

    I must say all of the above, depending on the DM/GM and the game type (hack-n-slash, mostly roleplaying, etc). We tend to mix and match the choices above. In one instance, we had players coordinate previous adventures (not of the whole party, but of individual pairs of characters), but the party’s meeting was facilitated by the king/ruler/whatever, who called together all sorts of adventurers to fight some sort of menace. We then role-played wanting to team up with eachother rather than the no-doubt-very-skillful other NPCs who had also been summoned. The last part felt a bit contrived.

  19. Nathon says:

    “We never really get into the HOW of metting.” Wow, I missed this the first time through. s/metting/meeting/g

  20. rekres says:

    I seen the “You all meet in a tavern” used too many times. When starting a new campaign I try to find new and interesting ways for the characters to meet. Sometimes however that tavern is just too convenient.

    Some other campaigns start I’ve used:
    * 2 PCs who had worked out back story together were traveling along a road when the 3rd PC stumbles upon them while running away from the Sheriff’s men chasing him from horseback. Fight ensues, the 3 of them decide to join forces against the horsemen.
    * In a GURPS Fantasy/Cliffhanger game…. The 3 PCs all wake up in the back of a carriage. They had been drugged and left tied up, only to discover the carriage has no driver and is rapidly towards a cliff. They had only a few moments to get untied and scramble out of the carriage before it goes over the edge.
    * My current d20 Iron Heroes (first session starts next week): The PCs are all slaves being transferred to a new owner. One or more of them will see an opportunity to escape and combat ensues. Because they are all slaves, no one starts with any armor or weapons….. *evil grin*

  21. Ingvar says:

    Last few campaigns:
    + All PCs work for the same police force, but come from different departments, having been formed into a cross-time investigative team
    + All PCs work for the same orbital clean-up company
    + All PCs have been independently recruited by the British secret service, due to all having… unique… abilities and are let loose to investigate all sorts of nasty shenanigans the German mages get up to (this is a campaign where one PC disappeared at the tail end of the first get-together and is currently listed as “lost, presumed damned”).

  22. Julian says:

    My favourite meeting took place in our last Cyberpunk 2020 session. My character was a bit of a drunkard, a really regular client of the bar in town, so to speak. He practically lived there. He could drink for free since he helped take care of troublemakers and knew pretty much everything about everyone who walked into the bar, so he was quick to spot the new customers (namely, the other 4 characters) as they walked in. While the GM started in a “boring” bar setting, each character had to come up with a reason for being there. “Looking for adventure” didn’t cut it. Some of them got creative, like the Rockerboy running from a horde of NPC fangirls, or rather mundane, like realizing one of them forgot his wallet. My favourite was the Techie (I think), who tried to stir up some trouble so I was forced to fight him until he subdued. Then I took him into the backroom of the bar, interrogated him and he pretty much read his backstory, which is how my character joined up with his (I’d help fight and patch him up for some money and a big share of the loot)

  23. Nentuaby says:

    That poll is going to be waaaaaaay over 100%. Personally I’ve been in or run games with every single item except the last.

  24. Martin! says:

    As a GM, I don’t like taverns that much. Too many open flame for the safety of the tavern/village/town… Players keep burning them…

    Most of the time, they come up with their own meeting with my approbation and my conditions/pointer (you are all of noble blood) which is always properly rewarded. (hey, less work for me = more time for stuff in the game)

    When we don’t have time for more or if it’s a one-time adventure, an overworked superpower (why won’t it do the stuff itself otherwise?) might summon them (in a stone room with no window and nothing that can burn (except players) in it. Sometime, they will form a cohesive group. Most of the time, they burn stuff.

  25. TheBlackJaw says:

    When I DM, I use DM Fiat to put all the players in one place (almost never a tavern) and then tell the players they can figure out how or why they are there on their own. I don’t require them to know each other at the start. I also like to use the tropes to twist things a bit. The players are all in a meal hall. They expect some sort of dark stranger to walk in, or for some commoner to rush in with a poisoned knife in his back… whispering a clue with his final breath. I even let them play up bothering the old fisherman in the corner for a while till they realize he doesn’t have some ancient map, or dark secret. Instead a full scale invasion breaks out.

  26. illiterate says:

    i quite enjoyed when a party met “on the road” — two party members were traveling together, and they met the third with a broken down wagon — they made quite a show of fixing it while making introductions.

  27. Cat Skyfire says:

    One thing I’ve done is played with a concept in a module. I’ve had them start as 0 level Normal People. In my most recent version, they each got 60 points for stats, which they allocated mostly per their profession. Then an invading army captured them and it went from there. Good reasons for them to have A: no real idea about who these other people are and B: No real idea about where THEY are. (One problem with campaigns is the old ‘If my character has lived here all his life, why WOULDN”T I know the following…”).

    They got their classes based on what they did during the opening after the capture.

  28. When I GM, the players usually come across each other by happenstance.

    I don’t like forcing players into a character (either by picking their backstory or career for them.) I want people to play what they want and how. Somehow it always comes together.

    There have been times when I’ve insisted that people share a particular career. In light of that, I guess I don’t have one way of bringing players together. I just use whatever is most convenient for the plot.

  29. Zombie Pete says:

    I think one reason for the popularity of the tavern trope is underage gamers wanting to roleplay being in (for them) an exotic location. I’ll admit to using it in a published adventure (even though I wasn’t underage at the time).

    I’m a fan of caravans, with the PC’s hired on as guards or riding along. The destination, in either case, usually falls by the wayside as events unfold.

  30. Ragnos says:

    The campaign I’m currently running started with the characters in an inn, but only for tradition’s sake. They made up a backstory for it later, and I plan on having them work together to describe their background in later campaigns.

  31. Microphobe says:

    So a while back my friends and I were sitting around with nothing to do for an evening, and someone suggested we bust out D&D (3.0 edition, way back when). I volunteered to GM, having cursory experience in the past, and I was given explicit instructions not to use the “you all meet in the tavern” shtick.

    So during the thirty minutes it would take for them to roll up characters, I had to come up with an intriguing, non-cliche adventure hook. As they made their characters, I asked them about their backstory and how they generally go about things. Shortly thereafter, we began.

    The Sorcerer, who professed his wanderlust and vagrant nature, has spent the last few days on the road, headed towards a small town, hoping to find a soft bed after so long on the trail. He spots smoke on the horizon, and as he crests a rise, he sees that the town is on fire, and there seems to be some commotion going on.

    He hurries into town, and he passes the City Guard building, from which he can hear someone shouting. Upon investigating, he finds the Barbarian, locked up.

    Barbarian: Let me out! I can fight!

    Sorceror: Why are you in there?

    GM: Well, last night he had a bit too much to drink down at the tavern and caused a ruckus, so the City Guard came down and put him in the drunk tank to cool off.

    Sorceror: Okay, I let him out.

    While they figure out how to open the cell, we cut to the Rogue. He awakens with a start, just in time to see a small figure leap out his window with a sack of all the stuff he spent last night acquiring. Then a bottle of something with a flaming rag comes in through the window and lights the room on fire.

    GM: Someone just ripped off the stuff you ripped off!

    Rogue: The knave! I go after him!

    One successful tumble check later, he’s in the street, spiked chain at the ready (yes, really).

    The Cleric, who is actually a member of the City Guard, is already in the street. A group of goblins have cut him off from the rest of the Guard and are closing in for the kill, but then the Rogue, smoking slightly, hits the street ready for action.

    A round of combat later – in which the spiked chain proves to be a deadly menace to both the goblins and its wielder – the Sorcerer and the Barbarian roll up.

    Combat ensues.

    Shortly thereafter the Captain of the Guard arrives. He explains that he does not know why the goblins attacked the city, but they made off with several captives. He wants the Cleric to lead a party to go find the goblin’s lair, kill them, and bring back the captives, and whoever goes will be richly rewarded upon success.

    The Rogue, not having been able to recover his stolen and re-stolen goods, volunteers immediately – on the condition that he gets to keep whatever loot the goblins might have. The Barbarian, always ready for a fight, goes along with it. The Sorcerer, who was seeking adventure to being with, has now found what he was looking for.

    Unfortunately, we were never able to continue this campaign, but I think I did a good job of pulling a party of disparate individuals together on the fly. It’s an example of how to flaunt cliches and provide a more interesting hook than meeting in a tavern. Feel free to use it or something similar in your game!

    Crossposted from my Blog

  32. MattF says:

    I generally try to have the place where they meet give them some information about the setting they inhabit. One group met simply because they all happened to pick the same game to play during a festival (just before the poop ran into the air-mover, naturally). Another found the players as a bunch of separate travelers who met at an abandoned monastery as they all tried to hide from severe weather in the only place around for several miles. Still another had the group meeting as students/experts/reporters/curious types during a science discussion at a university. The things that were going on or had gone on in each place gave the players important cues about their world and the attitudes of NPCs they might run into in the local area.

    If I *have* to use a tavern, I try to make it reflective of the people in the area somehow. There’s a large implied difference, for example, between a tavern with a large roaring fire with various decorations and comforts about and a tavern that’s cold, drafty, dark, and cramped.

    I guess whether “you all meet in a tavern” is lazy or not depends on how much creativity goes into the implementation. I like a lot of what I’m seeing that avoids starting everyone in the same place as the game begins, though; I’ll have to give that some thought.

  33. Nurgh says:

    Generally, I run campaigns rather than one-shot modules. For a campaign I’ve usually found that the effective way to introduce people is to make the world and let them make a background in the world. Then you mold the world to push the characters together and, if necessary, ask for some changes in the background. Make sure the players are willing to be a little cooperative here, and you’ve got an initial party.

    The last scifi game I ran (still running, actually), two people had backgrounds which meshed well so I had them come from a different star system together, on the run from a corp. Once together, they individually got hired by the owner of the ship.

    The first time they came together to meet him on the ship they discovered a mess from his getting kidnapped. Being PCs, their natural reaction was to chase, which required a few hacks and “repairs” to their employer’s ship.

  34. Mark says:

    In the Spirit of the Century RPG, the character creation process involves creating 3 separate backstories, one where you are the star (and two other PCs guest-star) and two where you are a guest-star (and other PCs are the stars). This ensures that the characters are connected to each other, directly or indirectly, at the start of the first adventure. I always thought that was really cool.

  35. Teron says:

    I have only played Dark Heresy at the moment, so getting the group together was: “The Inqusitor has chosen you to do X, do it.” I cant remember exactly what X was, because the game’s been going a while now, and we take it in turns GMing, normally quite short adventures, although we are planning to revisit old places and continue investigation sometime. Hopefully if I get a chance to play a different system, it will have a slightly different and origional method of getting the party together.

  36. Sho says:

    I think the cliche status of the tavern meeting might be cutting into its popularity as of late. I don’t think it’s actually happened to me yet… what I’ve had most often is the “called together by ruler” thing. Or a contest (created by a ruler). Or elite members of the military assembled by someone higher up. Not really happy with it, but it was a simple way of doing it. I’ve dealt with a little of the “shared backstory” stuff but I haven’t seen much done with it. I would like to see more complex and involved group backstory thing… like member 1 and member 2 are siblings, member 3 is member 2’s childhood friend’s older brother… member 4 met member 3 in prison… etc etc. It seems interesting, but I haven’t had a game where everyone knows everyone else in ages. And it depends on the group really…

  37. Budke says:

    The current game I am in had a good starting point. Its a small village with a shrine that is a place of significant interest to the entire country one day every year. Each character lives there and had lived there for at least 5 years. So why is the paladin type a friend with the thief type who knows the temple acolyte and the alchemist’s apprentice? Well, who else are you going to be friends with? You’ve been friends since you were 10 and helps you overlook their less desirable character traits.

  38. Rask says:

    I think the whole “meeting in a tavern” thing is popular because taverns are the original Facebook. It’s where people went to get caught up on all the latest town gossip.

  39. Sam says:

    The two campaigns I’ve tried out were, luckily enough, not started out in a tavern. Though I will admit that one of them was a Star Wars campaign, and was just a one-shot to see if I’d be a halfway competent GM, and the other was supposed to be a one-shot premade adventure that had the players meeting up in front of a cave. As far as the games I’ve participated in, none of them have started off in a tavern. I guess my friends actively avoided the more obvious character meet-up choice in favor of something with a little more flavor.

  40. Casper says:

    Let's see then. The first time the party was already traveling together and game started when they walked in a village besieged by a group of cultists.
    Second campaign indeed started in a tavern.
    Third and forth campaigns simply started with “˜you arrive in a city…' with basic character backgrounds decided. Tavern was the first place they visited anyway, searching for a job.

    One of the players recently started GMing as well (running his campaign parallely to my- in the same world, just across the mountains). Then we all were gathered by the mayor and got hired to investigate recent activities of a necromancer cult.

  41. Mark says:

    Last campaign I ran, one character was the prince and the others were his loyal retainers; this one, they were all framed for a crime and just got released. The group’s got more of a gamist bent, more so than I am anyway, so GM fiat usually works best.

  42. Sean Riley says:

    Assuming I’m running it? GM Fiat. My games always begin with a premise that usually defines the group as well, eg. My current game posits them all as a private detective firm. Two of my players chose to be private detectives, the other came in as a university student working as a research assistant for them. But it explains the working together instantly.

  43. Ryan says:

    So – Thacko, really? I’ve always pronounced it as Thayco. Hmm, interesting.

  44. OddlucK says:

    I’ve only played in two campaigns (sadly). In the first, I was a late-comer, so we played out my appearance at one of their meetings and how I was adsorbed into the group. In the second, the game was started with the party pre-formed, somewhere in a village (may have been a tavern, but I don’t think so).

  45. Bob says:

    Our group had “The Altdorf Incident”. We never specified what exactly it was, it was just something serious enough that made PCs (almost) completely trust each other. It worked perfectly. But when two of the PCs died/left and were replaced by new ones (same players) that did not take part in The A.I., the group prompty fell apart 8(

  46. Bryan says:

    One of the methods I use a lot is to have them come from the same area (not necessarily the same town, but from one or more of the small villages surrounding a larger town) and meet on the road while traveling. This gives the players some time to interact before coming to town and adventuring. They may continue directly to the adventure or they may decide to stop at a tavern first. It’s their choice. I also have the advantage of a somewhat mature group of players who prefer to have fun together instead of sabatoging each other.

  47. Jennifer says:

    My games usually don’t start in a tavern and I find it’s actually MORE DIFFICULT to get the party together in a venue where there are many people to talk to and distractions. Starters I’ve used include:

    All captured and thrown into prison together
    All hired to work for a caravan
    All students of the same master
    Snowed in at the same location
    All investigating the same problem

    Sometimes I have to give people a nudge, but in general my groups are pretty good about picking up even a flimsy “you all meet” excuse and running with it. After all, no one wants to spend the entire gaming session sitting at Starting Location not doing anything because no one would get their ass in gear. The only difficulty lies in giving them enough Stuff To Do that they don’t start fabricating things to be interested in and vanish into the bushes while I’m still trying to get organized.

    Addendum: One of the best tools I’ve found is having a Starting NPC who goes around getting the party together and kicking off the role-playing. This helps everyone relax and get into character very quickly. So the *place* is far less important to me than the *people* and *events*.

  48. Fedora.Pirate says:

    I’ve never done this but I’ve always wanted to start a saimpain with a “group” (size varies dending on number of players; not all the players about 60%-75%) of the players travelling along a road together as they’re both headed the same way and it’s easier in a group. They are then attacked by “random encounter monsters #3-8” which are theoreticly a tad too strong for the current group.
    When things start to look particuarly dark the remaining players also show up in a group (new or same backstory as appropriate) and hopefully save the day.
    Thus the players meet, and hopefuly trust through combat.

  49. ehlijen says:

    I like sticking them all on a boat/ship/starship and have them meet there. Mostly because I like ships, but also because it allows me to stage the meeting in a controlled environment where them running into each other is believably inevitable and they have all the time in the world for meeting roleplaying until I decided to kick the story into second gear.

  50. Mckastle says:

    My group started out dispersed throughout the beginning of the campaign. The very beginning took place at a festival with the thief picking pockets and the fighter catching him. The rest of the party began to form from there. Now we just add new players and characters on the fly. Sometimes picking them up in a tavern or maybe as a hireling. I even had a dwarven thief added in the midst of a dungeon crawl. He was the last of his previous group, which died in the dungeon.

  51. Telas says:

    I do admin duty at a gaming forum: Great site, always looking for intelligent gamers. (/spam)

    I vary how I start the story arcs. Sometimes it’s at a tavern, sometimes it’s in media res, and someday I’ll start one mid-combat, with damage already dealt.

    At a gaming table, cliches are not unwelcome.

  52. Pon Raul says:

    I don’t really like the basic meet-in-a-tavern bit for the same reason I don’t like the prophecy shtick. It’s boring and predictable. It may be fine for a hack’n’slash, Monty Haul type campaign, but since I don’t particularly enjoy those as a PC or GM, I don’t really bother. But if you ARE into that, why not just skip ahead to the first encounter anyway?

    As a GM I usually create (or adapt, for non-fantasy games) a local setting and ask PCs how they fit into it in a general sense. Then I take those answers and come up with some contrivance so that all the people doing all those things are together for a purpose. Sometimes a local official drafts them into a posse of sorts for a task, sometimes they meet randomly at a public event (feast/banquet/party/joust/etc), sometimes they are all friends of one key individual, and sometimes I work out complex reasons very specific to the PCs and their first adventure.

    On a couple of occasions, I’ve started them out “in medias res” on an adventure (eg “You are exploring the tomb of Imur-hotep. The interior is huge and vast, a colonnade that stretches into darkness beyond the range of your torches. You can see there is some kind of writing on the walls. What do you do?”) and invent the pretext later. This can be rewarding, but it can also backfire if two players decide their characters hate each other or something.

    Finally, on one occasion, for a Vampire game I had the players pick a clan and a “sort of person” they were in life, individually roleplayed the Embrace (being turned into a vampire) by a sire of their chosen clan, and then had them finish generating their characters while I went on to the next player. After this they met each other for the first time being dragged in front of the Prince to be recognized as participants in the Masquerade and accepted vampire-residents of the city (side note: I kinda stole the idea from Pendragon, where PCs are supposed to be knights but start play as squires so obtaining knighthood has some meaning to them. Pendragon seems like an absolutely brilliant game, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play).

    Quite possibly the best single idea I’ve ever had as a GM.

  53. I’ve used the tavern meeting before many a time for reasons already discussed – it’s a logical place to meet someone, especially a potential employer you wouldn’t necessarily recognise.

    I also usually go for characters not knowing each other before we start, as you can then use the starting scene to get to know each other in character and start figuring out group dynamics then. That said, my last two WFRP games there have been logical reasons for characters to know each other before we start, so I’ve let them (bodyguard and agitator from the same province and type of town, so we agreed the bodyguard was guarding the agitator; a pair of Vampire Hunters in the second.)

    In the end, it usually doesn’t matter how characters end up meeting. it matters more what you’re using to hook them into the plot. I’m not afraid of using a tavern, but I’ll also use the ‘all thrown in jail’, the ‘contrivance puts you all in the same place with more or less the same goal’, the ‘you are fated to do this’ (use sparingly) and the ‘in media res’

  54. Jazmeister says:

    I ran a campaign where four survivors of an undead attack meet in a ruined bar. Everyone loses interest, though – I have a lot of flakes who aren’t really into it, and once it whittles down to just me and my wife, there’s no point. :(

  55. General Karthos says:

    Simply put, I have used every one of these gimmicks and more to start my games. Starting in a tavern isn’t one of the seven deadly sins, so long as you have a decent game cooked up after the initial meeting. If you don’t, then I guess it qualifies as sloth, huh?

  56. Zaxares says:

    The 3 approaches I tend to use the most are GM fiat (useful for adventures where the party all belong to the same organisation), roleplaying the initial meeting, and thrown together by circumstance (usually with the last two being merged together). To make things easier, most of my players usually agree in advance that they are friends and already know each other. It just cuts down on the possibility of them backstabbing each other for the treasure before the end of the first adventure. :P

  57. Gasoline says:

    It is a mix of all of the possibilities mentioned above.
    I voted for the last one, because our Call of Cthulhu group is playing a kind of one long story and there are always Characters going and coming. (Hey! That’s the price of messing around with the Great Old Ones! Ià„!)

    So, new Characters will normally be introduced by roleplaying the situation that is more or less constructed, arranged, designed by me. The location can be (and already has been) a tavern (a speak-easy), but they also met at funerals, auctions, in trains… It depends all on what kind of Character will have to replace the deceased (or gone mad) character and on the situation.

  58. Avilan the Grey says:

    What is really the difference between
    Ruler called you all for a quest
    DM Fiat
    Thrust together by circumstance?

    They are basically the same thing to me.

    Personally we have used all of the above (the poll, not my comment). One of the biggest differences is what game you play; howe experienced the PCs are, and what type of campaign it is.

  59. Noumenon says:

    Campaigns I have played in:
    “You’re guarding a caravan”
    “You’ve just been hired as lackeys of a high-level party”
    “You wake up late, the caravan left without the four of you!”

    The campaign I started:
    “All the streets are flooded with water a foot deep. You’re going to the town square to hear the sheriff explain why.” That opening led to one of the characters declaring his only possession was a rowboat, which was used for transportation to many adventures, drinking captured pirate rum and falling asleep in the sun, and at one point filled with rotten fish by a jealous rival.

  60. Felblood says:

    Futile indeed!

    I checked five boxes, and I was only talking about the campaign I’m running right now.

    What I wanna know is how you handle adding a PC to an existing group with a minimum of fuss.

    I just had an egoist walk into the middle of a battle that the party was losing and start blasting monsters. It works for getting him into the party short-term(the rest of the dungeon), but how do we justify that this guy will now follow the team across the entire continent?

  61. Rhykker says:

    Without any prior knowledge of the tavern trope, I actually began my first campaign in a tavern. At the time, I didn’t know it was – or would become – a cliche.

    I believe this trope developed during 1st and perhaps 2nd edition D&D, by newbies to roleplaying games. For a DM and a group of players who have never played D&D before, and have had little to no exposure to roleplaying “culture” [e.g. through internet](as was the case with myself and my group), the notion of having to come up with a plausible backstory to why the characters would meet and agree to go on a quest may not even occur.

    Having no experience with roleplaying games, players try to relate the game to the either a board game, or a video game. In both cases, you are confined to the rigid framework of the game. You don’t question why the Bishop can only move diagonally. So you don’t immediately realize that you have freedom in D&D – freedom to choose your party members, freedom to choose your quests. So meeting up with strangers in a bar and going on some errand given by a random yahoo doesn’t seem odd at all.

    It was only after a few months of gaming that my players realized that they didn’t have to force their PCs to get along with the other PCs, and that they could even attack the other PCs, if they wanted to. Before that, they were simply stuck with the videogame/board game mentality that “you can’t hurt your allies; you must complete the objective to ‘win’ the game”

    So why would people with no prior knowledge of the tavern trope start their campaign in a tavern? As others have said, a tavern/inn strikes people as the most obvious locale to meet interesting characters, and the place most likely to be frequented by travelers/adventurers.

    Nowadays, many people start playing D&D with previous exposure to roleplaying (thanks to the internet), and many know of the tavern trope and will actively seek to avoid it. (And, of course, there are those who willingly follow the trope for either comedic/nostalgic/traditional purposes.)

    Shamus, if your poll was conducted back in the 80s, I’m sure there would be a far greater percentage that followed the tavern trope.

  62. gamercow says:

    @Felblood, 60: Draw from your givens.

    1)Party is in dungeon for a reason
    2)Egotist is in a dungeon for a reason
    3)Party’s reason is probably part of a larger arc.
    4)Egotist’s reason may be part of another arc, or the same.

    If they’re working towards the same goal, it would make some logical sense to team up to achieve that goal, realizing that they can’t do it alone. And you might even get the bonus of having power struggles for team leader!

    Personally, I’ve used all the tricks in the books, but lately, I’ve been grouping with a bunch of people that have a distinct leader. So, I suggested they treat the party like a company.(a la Acquisitions Incorporated, thank you Penny Arcade) They’ve taken off with that idea, and now have an “employee handbook”, “standard operating procedures”, and various other things. The thief has even taken to calling herself the CFO.

  63. RTBones says:

    I think I can say I have used them all at one point or another. Really depends on the whether its a one-off, an ongoing campaign, or something else.

    Some variations on a number of themes:

    Group summoned individually to a meeting for a job, only to have the host get kidnapped in front of them as everyone arrives.

    Group individually in a small town with one central tavern, where they are to meet up at a given time. As evening falls and meeting approaches, there is a commotion (read: bar fight that gets out of hand). As people converge on the tavern, it gets set on fire (which was a twist, since, the players I had had this THING about fire….) The perspective employer is a casualty, but has on his person a cryptic note with all the players names on it.

    Some players in a town square with a busy market, and a magistrate (also at the market) gets robbed. Magistrate screams at the top of his lungs for help to stop the thief. Some players give chase, with magistrate in trail. Thief knocks folks around trying to escape, some of whom happen to be other players. Magistrate trips, falls, and lands on top of said players, and begs them to take up the chase.

  64. Ryplinn says:

    My favorite way of kicking off a campaign comes from a GM who institutionalized the starting-in-a-tavern cliche. In the setting, adventuring parties are legal entities, registered with the Crown and required to pay taxes (although tax collectors are few and far between). The process of forming an adventuring party is this: On the eve of All Gods’ Day, the first day of the year, every prospective adventurer in the land goes to a tavern to get absolutely smashed and meet up with other like-minded, incoherently drunk prospects before staggering off to the nearest registry. The next morning, you wake up (possibly in compromising situations) with people you met just the night before who will be the companions you will risk your life for and with, for the forseeable future.

    Near-complete party wipes happen with amusing regularity.

  65. Elethiomel says:

    With the wide variety of gaming groups I have been in, I’ve seen most of those. I checked all… except the meeting in the tavern, and the ongoing story. The tavern’s never happened, and with such a broad experience none of them have really gone on for a long time.

  66. Pon Raul says:


    The way I interpret it:

    Ruler Calls for Quest: The characters don’t have anything specific in common before play starts that would serve as a reason to adventure in a group. Some authority figure who’s been monitoring them or has heard recommendations of their abilities gathers them together so they can perform a specific task, usually the plot hook for the first adventure. Failure to accept the challenge constitutes derailment.

    GM Fiat: The GM gets to decide something, usually minor, about everyone’s characters to give them something in common or a shared experience. You are all old friends, team-mates, alumni of the same school, members of the round table, etc. There’s no choice really offered to players, so failure to accept is not an option (except in the case of “I take my char sheet and go home” which is really a failure to play).

    Circumstances: The players find themselves at a particular place and at a particular time for their own purposes (which may or may not be relevant to the game), and are forced to cooperate, either because no one else can or because there’s no one else period. You can be on a boat attacked by pirates, a starship that’s suddenly run out of fuel, or the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Failure to cooperate implies certain doom for the players, possibly the world.

    Technically, Meet in a Tavern can sometimes count as circumstances, but that’s usually due to GM laziness. If there’s some kind of commotion that ultimately inspires the PCs (earthquake, kobold invasion, Holy Grail sighting), there’s no reason the PCs couldn’t really have been next door, around the block, waiting outside, etc.

    Shamus can chime or issue corrections if he disagrees with my assessment.

  67. Avilan the Grey says:

    @Pon Raul

    …I can see the distinction. I think more th “Circumstances” is so vague it could be covering every option.

    I have always had a soft spot for the King thing. Especially if you do start later than on lvl 1 (quite a few times the DM had us roll upp characters that were lvl 3, for example, to indicate that had some sort of experiences in life that would make us adventurers), when the King would possibly have heard of us as promising in one way or another.

  68. Roxysteve says:

    rekres Said:
    * My current d20 Iron Heroes (first session starts next week): The PCs are all slaves being transferred to a new owner. One or more of them will see an opportunity to escape and combat ensues. Because they are all slaves, no one starts with any armor or weapons….. *evil grin*

    Good luck with that. Our current “action oriented” DM did that to us, then hounded us from pillar to post by well-armed parties of NPCs that outnumbered us by never less than 5-1 after we escaped. After three weeks of play he began to whine that we were not fighting anything and started talking about closing down the game. We had to remind him who set up the initial conditions: No money, No weapons and no way to adjust that situation that didn’t have us fighting five heavily armed and armoured guys using what was at hand (rocks) and using the old “loincloth” defense.

    We had all assumed that he wanted to run a bronze age “fugitive” scenario.

  69. Scipio says:

    I’ve always found its best to start the group pre-formed. I let the PC’s figure out how and why they’re connected, barring some sort of campaign specific imperative like everybody being part of the same organization. Starting everybody off as close allies gets around the one of the major problems of the tavern genre. If the PC’s dont’ start as a group, oftentimes their RP leads directly to them killing each other. Most PC’s (in my experience anyways) are arrogant and suspicious. This doesn’t lead to forming fast friendships with other equally suspicious and arrogant people.

  70. Falling says:

    The first game I played, we started in a tavern-equivalent. But the backstory assumed we had already been hired on the same investigation.

    The game I GM’ed, I used the players backstory to invent why they had already met, then placed them on a backwater world with a battered ship and a debt. (By this time I had read about the tavern trope and so avoided it.)

  71. Sighter says:

    Personally? I’ve played in games where NO group is formed, its just a bunch of random PCs thrown together. They work together for no real reason and the tavern could be interchanged for any silly one adventure hook.

    As a GM I force my players to come up with some sort of group focus (or I ram it down their throats if they can’t think of one) so they can have some sort of consensus. They work together for more reasons than ‘well, we all happened to be at the same bar last tuesday’. It makes writing adventures a lot easier too.

    The tavern thing is a metaphor for lazy roleplaying and lack of creativity at the start of a campaign. Its easy and anyone can think of it- probably why it can’t apply to every game.

  72. Shao Shei says:

    in one of my longest running campaigns (Alternity based Sci-Fi) I started it by requiring the players to create non-violent criminals who would be volunteering to take a one way trip to found a penal colony.

    So the players awake from cryosleep together in the bowels of a crashed penal colony ship. The situation got worse and worse every session, about once a week, for almost eight months straight (the game ran about 2 years).

    More resently though I have made use of the age old “tavern” cliche, which i do remember resorting to as a starting GM.

    Lets see, in one the players recieved letters from a druid asking them to meet him there to help him with a problem he was having with the locals (almost all the players were druids). The locals, noticing the apparent convocation of druids, showed up in force with pitchforks and nooses (no torches mind you).

    I was quite proud of my new players for getting out of that while making a strict point of not killing any of the townsfolk.

    Another instance that I used the bar, (Sci-fi again), the players were strangers that happened to be attending the same dance club for different reasons, when a spaceship lands blocking the entrance and a pair of pirate body tanks storm in, blasting everyone with non-lethal weapons while their less-armored buddies drag people back to the ship for slave processing. The players were among the only patrons both willing and able to fight back, and wound up fighting the pirates on seperate fronts. They didn’t really form up as a group until the encounter was pretty much over, at which point they played along and made up reasons why they needed each other (based on the expertise they displayed immediately following the encounter).

    soo… i guess i’ve become fond of “you all meet at the bar, and look there’s bad guys.”

  73. Roy says:

    The most fun one I’d had was GM fiat:

    We’d all graduated at the same time, got extremely drunk, and pulled some prank (which I can’t quite remember, but was described in detail) on some NPC graduating at the same time who was very well connected and no one liked (and took himself way too seriously). We were given a very short trial and offered the choice of prison, or being shipped away (a long way away) to do some service to rehabilitate ourselves.

    We also got a political enemy for later …

  74. Anaphyis says:

    It really depends. If it’s a long campaign with a convoluted back story the last thing you want to do is go for cliché in the first 5 minutes.

    If it’s a one shot group for a light campaign that will only last a few months, why not? Tropes exist because they work and for some campaigns, it’s just completely irrelevant how the characters met.

  75. Jeysie says:

    Looking over my group’s campaigns, I think the most common way we’ve formed groups is that the individuals were all summoned together by some authority to perform a task for them, or all volunteered for a publically advertised task. We’ve also had a few campaigns where the players were already co-workers or classmates, including one campaign where the players ran their own company of investigators/adventurers for hire.

    We have had some campaigns where the party members already together recruited some extra people at a bar, but I actually can’t think of any campaign I’ve played in where the entire party got together in a bar/inn/tavern.

  76. Well, the last adventuring group I started from scratch met through blackmail. The city they were in had moderately stringent rules about who could and could not carry what weapons and wear what armour. It was also a fairly corrupt place. So once we’d started I checked everyone’s equipment. Predictably, being PCs, most of them were in moderately flagrant violation. All except the one who was clearly practicing magic without belonging to a guild.

    So this magistrate needed something done and didn’t want to pay for it. He needed competent/dangerous people, ideally without many local contacts–people in violation of the weapon laws were perfect. He had a sweep done and told the PCs he might be willing to overlook their little problem and even arrange for official writs for their ironmongery if they’d help him out in return . . .

    Campaign I’m currently in, the GM decreed that we all had some relationship with the same wealthy, high-status individual who had gone missing under unusual circumstances. His loyal top retainer, um, retained us all to look into his disappearance and that started us off on the fairly involved plot.

  77. Don J says:

    @ngthagg: Especially dwarven twin brothers, and ESPECIALLY dwarven twin brothers who call each other “Bruvver”. There were certain issues with that sort of thing once upon a time…

  78. Nargel says:

    [email protected]

    I’ve always used Thaco as in wack-0.

    I started with the white box pamphlets (before the red star on the cover) and eventually went AD&D when it came out so my world always had a strong ‘house’ component. Special classes (we called them cults) etc. and the DM character was a known but exceedingly rare factor in the lore. At the time this provided a rational for certain things (what’s with all the critters in the mega-dungeon, how do they get fed (DM level create food & water) and so forth. The hack ‘n slash early play gave the PCs a chance to get comfortable with the combat mechanics (typically 2 PCs per player in the party) and as the PCs gained some levels more RP elements would show up.

    It was known in the Lore that the semi-distant dungeon was a place created by an entity as an amusement source baited by loot. Talk about DM fiat: Brand new set of PCs wake up one day and each find in their belt pouch/pocket/knapsack a message – “I’m bored. Nargel” and a map to an entrance with a notation showing a date/time 5 days away. Cut to entrance. :)

  79. Somebody Else says:

    Well, I personally tend to use the “you have been selected by X to do Y. Why did (s)he/they want you?” I’m currently playing with the thought starting a WFRP campaign by telling the players “You are Bretonnian revolutionaries. You want to topple the Bretonnian government, and are willing to work with anybody and anything that shares that goal. Other than that, you can be whatever you want, on the condition that you not discusss your characters with one another until the first session.”

  80. People have rightly pointed out that it all depends on the game.

    The current game I’m running involves the characters, being normal people in this world, being transported by a tumultuous happenstance to another world. The characters are all part of an extended friend network, so over time they find some of their new friends (read: players who just got into it). The initial group got teleported from a vista overlooking a beautiful canyon to a vista overlooking a war between two orcs.

    I think it’s best if, at the least, the PCs have SOME mutual background. It just makes it more interesting. Imagine how boring Serenity would have been had they all just met at a tavern and started flying around. River and Simon were a group, Book was solo, Jayne got hired by Mal, etc. This interaction, and discovering how they met, helped enhance the fun of the series.

    In Rifts, a common mechanic is for everyone to be part of the same mercenary outfit, or the same Coalition squad. In a superhero game, you can get impromptu teamups.

  81. Gordon says:

    hmmm… what works best for me – at least with my current group – is to decide on the circumstance of meeting, then ell people where that is ahead of time to explain why they’re there, for instance why they’re on a ship bound for the wilderness town of Fenhaven. I then have them roleplay first real interactions, drop a foreshadow or two, and let them get a feel for the characters, who they like, who they dislike, and so on.

  82. Sean says:

    I once played in a homebrew game that was mostly ripped off from World of Darkness (modern fantasy/horror) in which all of the players started off as 6-7 year old children, and played through a series of quick adventures, each spaced a few years apart. Each time, we would recreate our characters from scratch, allowing us to do some fine tuning before we started the main game. It was the longest character creation process I’ve ever had, but by the end of it I was more invested in that particular character than in any other I’ve ever played.

  83. mill says:

    The first campaighn I was in satarted off in a Tavern. When i asked the GM prior to the game it seemed like this was for no other reason than tradition, or for lack of a better reason for 4 adventurers to show up in an isolated town.

    The second campaighn we met at a cross roads heading to a town that had sent for adventurers. We then met a caravan waylaid by zombies and continued from there. We soon ended up in a tavern, however.

  84. paradox says:

    Meeting in a tavern hardly ever works for my group because I too often play an elf druid and so as a druid I wouldn’t be in a town anyways and as an elf I wouln’t be in a tavern because of low tolerance to alcohol. though sometimes part of the group meets in a tavern and then they happen to meet me in the forest on their way to the quest.

  85. Roninsoul7 says:

    I tend to go with a system of letting the players decide on their own, and as a GM point out flaws for them to smooth over. If nothing works, I just add in an adventurers guild and have them meet there, since it is quite unlikely that the party will remain coherent without some reason for them all to get along. Even the best of friends outside of a game can ingame come to blows should there be nothing to bind their characters together.

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