Welcome to the first piece in a new column: Troperiffic! Here, we’re going to take a little look at the tropes and clichés of D&D. How did they come about? Should we stick to them? And whether we decide yes or no – how should we go about it?
Yes, I have about forty-five TVTropes tabs open in my browser right now. I’m not even a little bit ashamed.
I’m going to kick this column off with a cliché myself. One of the oldest in the book – and certainly one of the most well known.
Starting your adventure off in an inn is older than dirt.
Thise riotoures thre of whiche I telle,
Longe erst er prime rong of any belle,
Were set hem in a taverne to drynke…
These three lines appear in one of the Canterbury Tales*, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. Six hundred years ago! That’s six whole centuries of writers failing to come up with anything new! It appears also in the Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Written around roughly the same period, the story begins with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei meeting their new companion Guan Yu in a tavern, deciding there and then to go fight some bandits. Sound familiar?
*The Pardoner’s Tale, if anyone’s keeping track.
There’s a good reason for this, of course. Historically, the tavern, inn, speakeasy, or whatever-have-you has always served as an important meeting place for communities in towns or neighborhoods. Up until very recently, it served as one of the only places you could be near a warm fire, eat warm food, and speak to warm bodies, all under the same roof. (It’s winter, I’m cold.) People used the tavern as a social location, in the same way that we go to coffeeshops and pubs today.
Have you ever played Stardew Valley? If you’re not by the river dredging up pure gold in fish form, where do you go when it gets dark at night and you want some company? That’s right, the same place everyone else goes. One thing that game really gets right is how it’s totally quiet and cold outside… and then you enter the Stardrop Saloon. In a flash it’s noisy and bustling, the music’s playing, and the lighting’s warm and inviting. Everybody in town is there. Including whoever you’re trying to win over by chucking sunflowers at them until they love you.
If most modern fantasy draws inspiration from Tolkien, it’s worth mentioning that he and C.S. Lewis were part of a writer’s group at Oxford called the Inklings that met regularly to discuss their work. On Thursdays they met in Lewis’ rooms at college, and on Tuesdays – you guessed it – in a pub.* In fact, taverns, cafés, and inns (and I’m just going to use “taverns” from here on out, they’re all the same thing) back then were often full of thinkers. People of a certain bent would go there to discuss and debate the topics of the day: politics, religion, revolution…
*A bloody expensive one, might I add
People, in other words, with big ideas, big dreams, and – most importantly – big agendas. The tavern thus serves as a useful device that 1) fits into your setting and 2) is able to bring an unrelated group of PCs into contact with an otherwise unrelated figure who can spur the players to action. To the Place where Things are Happening.
Because that’s all it is: a device. More on that later…
Three to Six Level 1 Mugs of Ale, Please
Ideally, you shouldn’t need to start your players off in a tavern at all. I’m a big fan of player characters being a group beforehand, of character backgrounds having synergy. In my opinion that makes for a smoother beginning. But in the event that your players can’t figure out any reason at all to be starting off together, a tavern genuinely isn’t a bad starter.
Can you imagine wizards without pointy hats, or wands, or long flowing robes? Well, yes. I can.
But the fact remains that if I tell you that the figure before you sports a pointy hat, wand, flowing robes, or a combination thereof, your brain is going to ping and go: Aha. He might possibly be some flavor of magic-user. And if he is old and wizened and constantly nagging in your ear about being some sort of better person, he is going to die at some point to save you from the Big Bad before you were ready to defeat them. But I’m getting about six articles ahead of myself.
The brain likes patterns. Humans evolved pattern recognition as a way to survive against camouflaged predators and prey, and even now we enjoy seeing things we’re familiar with. They’re cues to help us identify what’s coming next. Now, I like tropes, or I wouldn’t be writing this thing. I like seeing a familiar narrative framework, and then I like to either poke fun at it, turn it on its head, or swim along in its comfortable wake.
In the same vein, starting in a tavern is familiar. And some degree of familiarity is good. Familiarity grounds your player, makes them go: ahhh, yes. Okay. I know this one. Even if they groan at how overdone it is, knowing where they are and what’s expected of your players helps them warm up and really get into the swing of things.
That is sort of underestimating your audience, though. I’d recommend a tavern start in two main types of scenarios:
- New Players. These guys either don’t know what to expect in general, or have preconceived notions based off Critical Role or whatever. But I guarantee you they’ve heard of this trope before. Either way, starting the adventure off according to stereotype is great for such players. There’s an argument to be made for shaking it up and keeping such people on their toes, but there’s also an argument to do that later on. Soft start.
- Extremely Experienced Players. In other words, some Gygaxian motherfuckers. Man. What can I say? They’ve seen it all, done it all… And probably haven’t started in a tavern in years, because it’s an overdone cliché. To me, that means you have a chance. When the human brain isn’t exposed to something for a long while, it becomes fresh again. With these players, it’s also a great opportunity to add a spin to things, and you should take advantage of it. See below.
The tavern start is a good one because it brings everyone together nice and quickly. Relatively speaking. The party gets a few minutes each to introduce themselves, cry about their dead parents or burned-down village, and pause meaningfully while hinting at details they have chosen to hide from their new friends because Reasons. You know the drill. Also it’s good for identifying the players who’re really into food descriptions.
Then someone comes in and faints, cries about their dead parents or burned-down village, or tries to kill the players. Some people call this the quest hook. This article from Hipsters and Dragons said it best, though:
“The tavern is where the adventurers receive their call to action.”
They said it so well I
stole quoted it! What does that mean? Basically, in story terms, when the adventurers start off they have been doing absolutely nothing. Relative to your main plot, anyway. Sure, they may have been doing something else with their lives beforehand, but that’s not super important. If they haven’t written their backstories to be relevant to your story, then at Session 1 they’ve just been going about their lives blissfully unaware.
Now, at the crucial moment they’re gathered together, that someone, the questgiver, bursts into their lives. She sets them on their paths forward. And – if you’ve written it well enough – she leaves them with a clear sense of how to move forward. She imparts momentum to the party. And that’s how you start an adventure.
So Why Do People Hate It So Much?
BECAUSE IT’S BORING!
You’ve seen it a million times. Come on. Everyone does it, everyone’s sat through it! It’s so overplayed that I had to write the last 1300 words before this just to convince you it was worth using. In particular, experienced players are usually jaded players, and heavily desensitised to boot. For some people, seeing something like this, makes them shut off and lose interest. It’s good to know whether your players are going to react that way or not.
The other risk of the tavern start is not providing a strong enough hook for your players. Have you ever had a player who refused to take on a quest hook no matter how enticingly you dangled it in front of them? Or refused to interact with other characters until literally forced to? While I do recommend just not having such players at your table in the first place, sometimes things like friendship get in the way. Or you didn’t realise this was going to happen and now you’re panicking. (We’ve all been there.)
In those cases, the only thing that will move the edgelords out of their corners is a situation where, if they don’t work together with others, they will die. Or suffer. And if you haven’t set that up to happen, good luck. It would have been better to start off with such a situation in the first place, like an explosion at a festival, or a prison break-
“…I Burn Down the Tavern!”
-which are also great ways to start off an adventure!
Remember what I said above? A good start opens with, or initiates, the crucial moment where the players are gathered together. And it leaves them with a clear sense of how to move forward. It doesn’t have to be more than that. There’s always the urge to grip the players with a strong, dramatic start to the campaign, but often it’s better to just get the thing started off, and insert dramatic moments organically later on.
Of course, it’s not unreasonable for the DM to tell the players, “Your characters each decided to take up the job, and now here they all are together in X, doing Y…” Another favourite of mine is for the players to already be an established adventuring party. That way you can skip straight to the friendly banter and camaraderie that your group already has in real life (if you’re not a bunch of strangers). Unless, of course, you’re interested in roleplaying being strangers to each other initially, and growing from there! Just remember that one of the central tenets of a good character is that they have a reason to be there, participating in the adventure. (This is separate from wanting to be there, though if you ask me any character should eventually want to stick with the group for the long-term.) It’s easiest if you’re already a group beforehand.
But if you really must have a random set of backstories…
The Festival: This could be any public event, not just a festival. The important thing is that it’s in public, in a place where many people are gathered, and where events out of the ordinary have the chance to occur. It could be a political speech, an execution, or even an unexpected altercation or terrorist attack breaking out in the streets. The event – which can be anything from a theft of one of the PC’s items, an explosion, or sudden assassination – should be what brings the players together and/or drives them toward the next step in their adventure. You also get a chance to flesh out the feel of your setting in one smooth motion.
The Gathering: Less public but no less populated. The player characters are all called together for a purpose. Sometimes this can be the reading of a will, or a funeral, where everyone is related to the deceased in some way; it could be a wedding; it could be a high school reunion. Something happens – a mission is given, an unforeseen development occurs, and the players have to rise to the occasion. Or even better: the events of the plot are the reason for gathering. Perhaps the players are members of an organization founded to prevent a blight from spreading across the land, or of a group that once unearthed an ancient artifact that is now acting up.
The Prison Break: You all work together to get out of prison! For minimal fuss after the escape, it’s best for this to be a foreign or enemy prison, or for the prison to be destroyed after the fact. The players can either be recent prisoners, or long-suffering slaves that finally caught a break.
I’m On A Boat: The players are effectively stuck somewhere they cannot escape from, such as a train or ship, and must deal with something that happens on board. A murder or a potential vehicle-destroying fire are distinct possibilities.
There’s an excellent list of fleshed-out scenarios here.
I Like My Inns Shaken, not Stirred
To finish off, here are some ways to use the traditional start, but add some flavor to it.
The Group’s Real Pub, but in D&D: Many roleplaying groups are friends in real life and will often spend significant amounts of real-life time together in pubs, coffee shops, or other social locations. As a fun nod, bring those locations into your setting, and start the campaign there! Beginning a campaign in my old college pub would really make it a memorable start for me, especially if the DM remembers to include as many tiny little details and nods to real life as they can.
A Catastrophe in The Tavern: This can happen right after the players introduce themselves to each other and get comfortable, or it can be the event that brings them together. The scale of this could range from a simple bar fight, to a monster suddenly attacking the tavern (here’s looking at you, Yawning Portal). You could have a devil suddenly manifest in the place, and proceed to set everything on (hell)fire! The sense of action and momentum the players will get from tackling or surviving what happens is what really matters, not the details.
Why Would You Fall For This: What if the tavern isn’t a bustling, lively place, but an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere? Seeking shelter, each of the players could enter the establishment, and so encounter each other. Once they’re all in, something can happen to provide the next step of the adventure. Bonus points if everyone was summoned there by a mysterious agent: this, of course, establishes your characters as a bunch of reckless people who say yes to danger too easily. Double win!
I Cast Fireball: You have to DESTROY the tavern. Maybe it’s where your marks are hiding! Maybe you have to flush a hive of villainy out into the open. Either way, might as well get a head start on burning inns down.
Of course, all of these can be mixed and matched. You can always make them flow into each other with a little creativity. Just remember that whatever you choose to do, the starting scene is an excellent way to set the tone of the rest of the campaign, feel out your players and what they prefer, and foreshadow what’s coming next. If your campaign is about subterfuge and political machinations, the assassination of a prominent leader while he addresses the public signals that there’s much going on behind the scenes. If your campaign is one of high fantasy shenanigans, a dragon bursting in through the ceiling of a tavern tells the players that anything can happen. Do what feels right for you, and don’t worry about sticking to tradition unless you want to.
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For a much more in-depth discussion, check out this article by the Angry GM.