Wow! Sometimes it's amazing what you can turn up when you look through old files. In 1987 in college I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a new type of scenario: the party origin story. I wrote the concept up a few years later at work during lunch hours on a PC in an empty office, and when it was done I sent it to White Wolf magazine (which was big, second only to Dragon magazine at the time).
I won't repeat the story of my misadventures with the editor here, because you can already read about it here, along with the final version of the article. Suffice it to say that my original version had included a fair amount of humorous interludes, and the editor demanded that all humor be mercilessly expunged. There were many rewrites, and to make a very long story short after all was said and done I thought I'd lost the original version of the article, the one with the humor.
But I was just idling through my old files, and what do you know? - I found it! And perhaps I shouldn't say it, but it could be a lot worse; it actually was kind of funny. So I'm restoring it here, for the first time anywhere. Maybe five people ever saw this before, and no one has seen it for a decade at least!
For convenience I've put the humorous parts in boldface. Originally it was italicized, but that looked a bit too odd. The serious parts haven't even been proofed in this version, since I did a fair amount of work between this version and that. I do notice that there's one more example in this version (12 rather than 11); I have a feeling that there was a good reason to eliminate that twelfth one, but it's too late at night and I'm too short of sleep to stop, find it, and reason it out.
by Peter Maranci
With a twist and a shove, the mighty Lock of Eternity broke open and the massive double doors of rune-worked Adamantium opened silently inward. The Intrepid Adventurers stood on the threshold of the Last Room of the deepest level of the Ultimate Dungeon. Who knew what perils lay within? Holding their collective breath, they peered through the great portal. A vast panoply spread before them, a mighty treasure trove brimming over with gold, gems, and magic. Only one thing in the vast hall failed to gleam: a small, underdeveloped orc sat on a small wooden chair just past the doorway. On its tusked snout a small pair of glasses were perched; a pipe dangled from its jaws. Lying open in its claws was a small book of peculiar appearance, entitled Seeing the Planes on 5,000 Gold Pieces Per Day.
One of the most frequently-neglected elements of many role playing campaigns is also one of the most important: the beginning. It seems strange that such a major part of the gaming experience should be treated as lightly as it often is. There was a saying that was old even back in the much-beloved Middle Ages: "As the twig bends, so grows the tree". If the beginning of a game is unbelieveable or poorly constructed, isn't it harder to have the rest of the campaign make sense?
With a roar of mingled greed and bloodlust, Grush Foesquisher raised his mighty 3-handed sword on high to run the small humanoid through. Sperlin the Mystic prepared to blast the area surrounding the orc with flames, while Torquemada the Extremely Holy Man chanted a blessing upon the forthcoming slaughter. As always, Fuzzy Fingers the Halfling Kleptomaniac hid in the shadows, eagerly anticipating his chance to relieve the corpse-to-be of its worldly possessions. Suddenly, the corpseah, that is, orclooked up. "Excuse me," he said clearly, in a calm and reasonable tone. The group was taken aback. "I must say, you certainly seem like a highly diverse group. Would you mind telling me how you happened to form this little association?" There was an awkward silence. Finally the mage spoke. "Wellwe were all in this bar, see..."
While most role-playing game worlds and character personalizations have steadily gained in complexity over the years, adventuring groups are still often formed by fiat"Ok, you're all a group now"or by the old we-all-met-in-a-bar-and-decided-to-spend-the-rest-of-our-lives-together-for-no- reason-whatsoever formula. While these methods are serviceable, they are not realistic, and thus detract from the role-playing experience. After all, very few people in the real world form long-term relationships with casual strangers in public bars; in fact, those who do so usually come to a tragic end, and are featured in a Movie of the Week.
"That's very interesting," the orc said politely, "but I was wondering, um, well".
"Out with it!" roared Grush, waving his mighty blade so belligerently that he fanned the Wizard's hat right off his head.
"Quiet, Grush," said Sperlin. He was intrigued. This creature was quite different from the others, and the aged mage had never before had a chance to demonstrate his superior vocabulary and wit before. It was a pity they'd have to kill it.
This is getting wierd, the halfling thought.
The beginning of a campaign offers the gamemaster a powerful tool to set the shape of the campaign for years to come, an opportunity well worth taking advantage of. What gamemaster can afford to neglect the structure of his or her campaign? A group of active player characters can challenge even the most creative gamemaster to maintain controlit seems reasonable that the gamemaster so structure the game as to encourage them to make his job easier.
"Let me get this straight," said the orc unbelievingly, "You have nothing in common. None of you work in the same profession. You each worship a different god, and you only met each other a few years agoyet now you spend all of your time together, and trust each other with your lives every day? Why?"
"Yeah, why?" Grush demanded belligerently, his meaty brow furrowed in confusion.
"Good question," murmured the halfling from the shadows.
Perplexed by this attack from an unexpected source, Sperlin gnawed his beard nervously. Then his face brightened. "Saywe all drink the same brand of ale!"
"Art thou kidding me?" the cleric said, frowning.
Why do characters adventure together, trusting each other with life, limb, and perhaps even with the welfare of their souls? More often then not, player characters are of widely differing backgrounds with little in common. Does it seem reasonable that a highly literate member of the magic-using intelligentsia should choose as his constant companions a crude barbarian with terrible manners, a small shifty-eyed being known to be untrustworthy around valuables, or an obsessed man of the cloth who continually spouts obscure religious dogma? These guys may not even be of the same speciesso what are they going to talk about after dinner?
It is an unavoidable fact that player characters (and, unfortunately, players) don't always get along. In even the most harmonious groups there are bound to be moments of friction; and when the immediate goals of the warrior and wizard clash, or when the halfling forgets to return the lovely diamond bracelet he "found" in the Halls of the friendly Dwarven King, intra-party squabbling is the lamentable result. In such a situation, a player might be hard put to explain why his or her character would continue to travel with people whose actions are so (to him) immoral, dangerous, or just plain stupid. It's unlikely that many real-world gamers would continue to associate with people who behaved that way in a non-game setting. In a group where trust is lost between players, of course, play should probably not continue (with certain exceptions, most notably Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia). In less extreme circumstances, however, it can often be helpful if the player characters have stronger bonds than mere casual drinking companionship to bind them together. These bonds can be formed through specialized starting scenarios: rather than simply having the beginning characters simply start play as a working group, the first adventure can be the means by which they find each otherthe reason for all the adventures that are to come.
"Look," Sperlin said, "I still have the first bottle of beer we ever shared!"
"Geethat's nice." Grush looked at the bottle with barely controlled thirst.
"Strong drink is the Evil One's cleaning liquid," said the priest reprovingly.
"Only one bottle?" cried the halfling.
"Are you the local branch of Ale-aholics Anonymous?" asked the orc.
A starting scenario, then, should serve two basic functions: First, it should provide a reasonable cause for different and individualistic player characters to form (and maintain) a working group, giving a greater feeling of realism, coherency, and reasonableness. Secondly, it should give the campaign shape by setting the basic atmosphere of the game from the first session, and perhaps by supplying continuing threads of plot that may surface and re-surface over the course of a long campaign.
For the sake of convenience, starting scenarios may be divided into four basic patterns. These are:
A common background. The characters know each other before play begins. They don't have to like each other, but it would help.
A mutual acquaintence. Someone somehow brings the group together, either intentionally or not. They could be a friend, enemy, or business person.
A shared oddity. An unusual quality that the characters possess in common brings them naturally together.
Sheer happenstance. An Act of God, natural disaster, or other bizarre and random event forces the characters to stick togetherat least for a while,
Often more then one theme is used in a single campaign, and in many cases the categories overlap. The following list is by no means complete; it is intended only as an example of some basic starting scenarios. The gamemaster should change, combine, add to, and otherwise customize the examples to fit his or her world. In almost every case, the scenario described may be used in any campaign background with only minor alterations.
1) The Old Home Town One way to establish a reasonable link between characters at the beginning of a game is to simply have them all come from the same town or village. As playmates since infancy, they would share common memories of childhood, and would know one another's quirks and foibles from experience ("Sure, Fuzzy's weird, but remember how he bit the schoolteacher who was hitting squint-eyed Janet?"). The home town could serve as a natural focus for the campaign, providing rest, community contacts, and a greater sense of identity to the characters. A threat to the home town would be a natural way for the characters to begin their adventuring lives, and if the party becomes well-known and powerful ("the Protectors of Greentree Village"), foes might threaten the village simply for fame or revenge. A drawback to this particular beginning scenario is that characters from the same village might well be rather restricted in type. In sharing the same culture and general background, the group would lose the ethnic/racial/social diversity that can make the gaming experience a three-dimensional one. This drawback may be circumvented, of course; it is possible, for example, that some childhood friends moved away from the village at a young age (or were kidnapped, or lost), and were taken to a far-off city (or desert, or forest, or planetoid). Only recently have they found their way back to the town and friends they remember from so long ago! There is, finally, one other advantage to the home town start: barring tragedies, you can always go home again.
2) The Party That Slays Together... One could go the Home Town route one better for togetherness: all the characters are part of the same family. The possibilities are endlessaunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, mothers fathers, sons, daughterseven in-laws. After all, if you can't trust your own flesh and blood, who can you trust? An adventuring family would soon acquire a reputation for oddness ("those crazy Stonebenders!"), and might well be the source of some local legends. Generations of adventurers bringing home treasure would give the family great wealth that might well lead to political and economic prominence. Older characters might "retire" to run the family holdings and businesses, adding a political element to the campaign. The family could offer great support to its active members, including free training, funding, and perhaps even a little "special" help, in the form of unusual items of salvage from previous expeditions. Feuds, friendships, debts and obligations: all would take on a multi-generational quality. If, on the other hand, the gamemaster would prefer not to have to deal with a large family, the characters could be orphaned siblings, or even identical quintuplets! Many of the drawbacks of the Home Town scenario apply to the Family option as well. Furthermore, one should keep in mind that most homicides take place between members of the same family ("Mom always liked you best!" (thwack)).
3) The Enemy of My EnemyIs My Friend! An excellent reason for a group to form is for mutual protection and revenge. Even if the player characters have never met each other before, when they discover that they share a common enemy, it is likely that they will find it desirable to stick together for mutual protection. One might have the characters try to discover why some powerful figure has taken a dislike to them, for example. The Enemy, of course, should be powerful, enigmatic, and patient; he/she/it/they might make some plot against the characters, suffer a defeat (or perhaps win a non-total victory), and not return for months, thus providing a continuing challenge over the years. The Enemy should be carefully created by the gamemaster, of course. Why does he/she/it/they hate the player characters? What is his standing in the community, and how will he prefer to attack? Is his area of power physical, religious, political, social, criminal, etc.? A party used to fighting fierce fanged creatures deep underground would find themselves at quite a disadvantage against a cunning noble with the ear of the King. In any case, the Enemy should not be easily or quickly defeated. The Common Enemy theme is a powerful one, and is an element in several later examples. Here is a simple one: The characters are approached and hired as agents/ couriers/travel agents for a powerful and mysterious figure. They are told that the mission will be short, and not too dangerous. The pay is high enough to be irresistible, but not so high as to arouse suspicion. What the characters do not know is that they are being sent into a trapthat they are mere decoys for another group. They are meant to die, but they survive (it would be ridiculous to kill player characters before play beginskill some NPCs to impress them). Now the party knows that their former employer is involved in an illegal activity, and furthermore they have strong reasons to desire revenge. Realizing this, it is only natural for the employer to try and eliminate the group as a threatpermanently. If the party ever does manage to destroy the Enemy, perhaps he has relativesor superiors in a secret society that wishes to take over the world...
4) A Friend In Need Another classic theme useful to create a sense of group identity among the player characters is that of the common friend. After all, one of the more common ways that real-world people meet each other is through mutual acquaintances. As with the common enemy, the common friend is a theme capable of a number of different uses and permutations; a basic example follows. Each of the player characters-to-be knows a particular individual by one means or another. To some, he/she may be an old friend of the family. To others, he/she is perhaps a business contact, or a trainer, or a religious official, or a fence. Eventually, in the time-honored tradition of friends everywhere, the friend decides to perform a little matchmaking. Perhaps he has word of some profitable task that his various friends might be interested in performing, and would like to have his friends owe him a favor. Perhaps he himself is in need of a bodyguard for some reason, and wants to pass a few coins on to the player characters at the same time. In any case, he gets the party together as a working group for the first time. Taken by itself, this beginning is rather dull. It gets the job done and introduces a major NPC, but does not establish an interesting plot line to be carried on throughout the campaign. On the other hand, this scenario does offer a reasonable way for characters of greatly differing backgrounds to meet and work together; the only requirement is that the characters have to know the NPC friend and be in the general area at the start of the campaign. Of course, some player characters may refuse the initial offer; in that case, it is up to the gamemaster to entice, persuade, or otherwise trick them into joining the campaign. Note that there is no need for the characters to know each other before the friend puts them together. Nor need the individual be a friend; he may simply be someone who needs a service, and hires the adventurers individually, then forms them into a group.
5) Resting In Peace? The characters have reason to mourn, for they have received word that an old and valued friend has died after a sudden illness. They are invited to attend the funeral; after the ceremony, the will shall be read. The deceased was rather wealthy, and without any close relatives; it is likely that he has left, at the least, some memento of past good timesthough hopefully the characters will not be motivated by greed (solely). In any case, all come to the funeral. Some player characters may meet at the funeral for the first time, while others may have been introduced previously. Upon arriving at the house, they are met by the Executor of the estatea stranger who claims to have been an old friend of the deceased (though the deceased had never mentioned him). Accommodations are available at the local Inn. At the ceremony, the casket is kept closed. Before the coffin can be lowered into the grave, however, there is a disturbance in the crowda veiled young women apparently suffers a nervous break down, screaming "He isn't deadhe's not in there!". Lunging forward, she opens the coffin lid part-way before anyone can stop her. Though the lid is slammed down almost immediately by the Executor, the player characters are in such a position as to have seen the contentsand they have seen enough to know, or at least suspect, that the body inside is not that of their old friend. The sobbing, hysterical girl is quickly taken away by two large men in formal wear, at the signal of the Executor. Covering the sounds of the girl's cries as she is born away by the thugs, he smoothly asks that the guests forgive the girl, who was "...overcome by the loss we all share. Let us not spoil the dignity of this, our friend's final farewell!". At the will reading the next day, the player characters are shocked to hear that they have inherited the equivalent of $20 in cash. This cannot help but raise their suspicionstheir old friend had always loved to personalize his gifts, sometimes spending days to choose the perfect birthday present. The bulk of the estate, including the house, has been left to a stranger "...for his many kindnesses and that he may continue his Good Works." Who knows what mystery lies beneath these strange happenings! Is the friend really dead? If so, where is the body? Perhaps he has been kidnapped by some cult of undead, or is faking his death for business reasons. Who was that girl, and where is she now? How did she know the truth about the coffin? The Executor may have powerful influence in the city governmenthe will not look kindly on threats or unproved slander. Can it be that there is something of value hidden in the old friend's houseis he being tortured, the house being searched? The possibilities are limitless, and any player character worth his salt should find the urge to snoop irresistible.
6) A House Divided (Joint Custody) The characters are confused, for each has recently received a strange communication. The Lord Banifir Mufti has recently passed away, and has bequeathed an unnamed "object of value" to each of the characters. They are requested to journey to a nearby city to receive their inheritance. A sum of money has been included with the message, sufficient to cover all traveling expenses. A special coach has been chartered to bring the inheritors to the Lord's manor. Only one thing is wrong. The characters have never met Lord Muftiin fact, they've never even heard of him, though they can discover through inquiry that he is a reclusive and eccentric noble/philanthropist. Still, the possibility of wealth should prove hard to turn down. Upon arriving at Mufti Manor, the characters are lavishly received. The Executor (a respected professional shyster) hands each player character a small, oddly-shaped metal plate. Each is a part of a single inscribed document: put together, they form the deed to a large estate in an interesting (gamemaster-selected) area, including tower, manor house, and perhaps, servants. The will stipulates that the deed-pieces are not transferable; upon the owner's death, they revert to the group possession of all surviving members. The deed has legal force only when completely assembled. Unfortunately, one inheritor is still missing. His piece is held by the Executor, who does not know what has happened to the last inheritor, but will not release any information about that individual. The will stipulates that each inheritor has another twenty-four hours to pick up his/her bequest. The next morning the Executor announces that the inheritor (a cloaked man who bore the letter of invitation as proof of identity) picked up the deed-piece during the night, and left again without comment. Shortly thereafter, an assassination attempt is made upon the characters...
7) Innocent Bystanders To make use of this beginning, it is helpful if the game world possess some kind of group transportation (coach, subway, or jet) which the characters would use. In an Act of God (?), there is a terrible accident, and the characters are stranded together, far from the beaten path. The character must work together to make their way back to civilization. Though a form of transportation works best for this scenario, any apparently random, isolating accident works quite wellparticularly if there is some question as to whether it is really an accident. The dislocation may take place through the actions of a god, or may be the result of some arcane experiment with ancient knowledge. It may even be so mundane an event as a shipwreck. Perhaps the characters are actually transported to a different world entirely! In any case, the new location should be dangerous, and the characters should realize that there is some way back home, giving them an inducement to stay together. Once the characters have been working as a group for a while, it should be only natural for them to continueif they work well together, that is.
8) When Gods Play Chess Through some strange means (magical or scientific) the characters have each been implanted with an uncontrollable impulse to return to a certain desolate spot at a precise time (after all of them have reached adulthood). Upon reaching that spot at midnight, they are surprised to see all the other player characters, arriving simultaneouslyand still more surprised by a flash of bright light that scorches each of them without burning. At that moment they discover that they are in mental contact with each otherthey can hear each other's thoughts! Though they have never met before, they quickly find that their parents (of those that knew their parents) did. The characters are all the products of a strange experiment by some unknown god/alien/scientist/whatever. In addition to being mindlinked, they may discover that they experience crippling pain when separated by a certain distance; they may also find that they are exceedingly valued, for one result of the experiment is that their bodies are endowed with a powerful virtue. In a magic-based world, any body part from a player character serves as a triple strength material component for purposes of enchantment: for example, a player character's eye, when used to make a crystal ball, would make one three times as powerful/effective as a normal crystal ball, etc. Enchanters would, of course, be extremely interested in this informationand in the characters. In a science-based world, the character's blood has the power to make those into whom it is transfused 2-12 years younger. Inducement indeed to stick together, and keep moving!
9) The Inn of All Worlds For those who absolutely must have a bar...there is The Inn of All Worlds. Many legends tell of it, in many places: it is said that the Inn moves about through all of existence, never staying in any one place for more than one night. According to legend, it is possible to meet anyone or anything there, from all of time and space. There even the most bitter enemies meet and drink, for the Rule of Peace may not be broken, even by Gods and Demonlords. The Inn is difficult to find, but some mortals do seek it out. It is whispered that if one desires, one may there go through a small black door which will lead to great poweror to death. That door may lead to any world, place, or time, and companions, equipment, and basic skills are all provided. The cost, however, is high: to enter, you must give to the dreaded doorkeeper everything you haveand sometimes even that is not enough.
10) Bread Upon the Waters A group of merchant investors contacts the players. They wish to reap some of the great dividends available to a freelance salvage/protection/investigation group; therefore, they are offering to bankroll the formation of a new corporation by the characters. They will provide limited funds and equipment, and in exchange the characters will return 50% of all their earnings. A contract should be drawn up, and carefully enforced. Occassional duty guarding caravans might be required, and some special missions might be offered at bonus rates. Of course, should the merchants fall out among themselves, the characters could find themselves in the middle of a very nasty trade war...and if mere possession of the contract gives the holder authority over the adventurers, a merry chase might be led by thieves. Consult local laws for further details.
11) Squeeze Play Each of the characters has a strangely-shaped birthmark in the middle of his forehead. Though they may not know each other to begin with, others may point out the strange similarity of the marks. What do they mean? The mystery of the marks would be a good first investigation-adventureand as always, if the group works well together they should stay together. As for the marks, perhaps a race of ancient beings has encoded ancient powerful secrets in the genetic codes of the characters' ancestors for record-keeping purposes. Who might be interested in that information? On the other hand, perhaps the marks were actually caused by an unusual pair of birthing-forceps (forceps sometimes do cause birthmarks on the headGorbachov is an obvious example). How long will it take the characters to discover that they were all delivered by the same travelling doctor? What is that doctor doing now?
12) The Company For whatever appropriate reason (boredom, escape, apathy, what have you), each character has been sent by a relative or teacher to apprentice themselves to a prestigious adventuring Company in a far-off land. Each has a letter of introduction, for their sponsors each know a member of the band personally, and have done them favors in the past. Upon arriving, the players are quickly accepted and sworn in as apprentices in the Company; for some reason, there seem to be no old apprentices at present. The characters are instructed to care for the house and lands, and to perform basic apprentice-type tasks. The Company members seem to be good people, and treat the player characters well. After a few weeks, however, they depart to complete a small salvaging operation, leaving the characters behind. Though the round trip was supposed to take only a few days, after more then a week there is still no sign of the Company. The characters' natural concern should become still greater when they discover that tax time is fast approaching, and that heavy taxes are due on the Company House. Unfortunately, as apprentices the player characters were never told how to enter the Company treasury.... Furthermore, they may later discover that the old apprentices were dismissed for commiting evil and immoral acts. Now the old apprentices view the house and possessions of the Company as theirsand in their eyes the player characters are unwelcome interlopers. The desire of the old apprentices to re-posses the house is understandable, for the value of the Company name and reputation alone is great. Combined with the other assets of the Company (library, treasury, house, and much more), the worth is incalculable. However, in addition to facing the hostile and unethical old apprentices (who now call themselves by the Company name), the player characters may well have to deal with all the old business of the Company, including debts, contracts, protection, etc. With all that to deal with, how can the party possibly find the time to look for the old Company members, or improve their own abilities to a point where they can take the old members' places without looking ridiculous?
"Enough!" Grush roared, finally. "Time to squash!"
"Very well," Sperlin said testily, "there's no need to scream my ears off!"
"Yea, verily, smite the unholy dog!" chanted the priest antiphonally, lighting a stick of Pre-sacrificial incense.
"Ummm... I think maybe I should be going..." the halfling muttered from the gloaming.
"What?!" the orc said, in seeming surprise, "You're going to hurt me? You can't do that!"
"Oh yeah? Why not, smart guy?" asked Sperlin, smirking.
"Well, for one thing, all my friends would be terribly upset," the orc said, and pushed aside the Curtain of Illusion that had hidden the true contents of the room. Waiting behind were the brothers, sisters, cousins and assorted other relatives of every monster that the party had ever killed. Each wore a hideous grin. "I met them at The Inn of All Worlds, and they couldn't get along without me. Hey, what's the matterdid you think that you were the only guys in the world who ever went to a bar?"
- end -
Copyright 1996 by Peter Maranci. Revised: January 15, 2003. v. 1.0