Welcome back, Outlander, for some Dungeons & Dragons campaign opener alternatives to the classic tavern option, a nice interlude before I return to my Mythic Ecology series. Tired of starting your campaigns in the same way? Here’s 16 alternatives for you Dungeon Masters, and a framework to evaluate them. Each pair has a more grimdark option as well, for those looking for a grittier game.
- Also, if you’re looking for maps for any of these campaign openers, take a look at the “Battlemaps Collections & Concept Art” section of my D&D 5e Resource Compendium!
-Why Yes Taverns
-What Not Taverns
-1 & 2: Wedding or Funeral
-3 & 4: Benevolent or Malevolent Summoning
-5 & 6: Refugee Camp or Slaver Caravan
-7 & 8: Survivors of Poisoning or Plague
-9 & 10: Gladiator Arena or Death Pit
-11 & 12: Jailbreak or Death Camp Uprising
-13 & 14: Cave Bridge Collapse or Shipwreck
-15 & 16: Burning Library or Battlefield
WHY YES TAVERNS
People do start at taverns for a reason though, right? Like, functionally. One part home base, one part bulletin board. A gathering spot for different walks of life. Taverns have versatile themes: rowdiness and intrigue. Coins, cups, and curiosities all in motion. Laughter and sorrow alike.
WHY NOT TAVERNS
So why not a tavern? Mainly, because it has become cliché. But we also want to avoid campaign openers with too many moving pieces too. One that become too slow, aimless, and random. Yeah, nothing stalls a game faster than having too many inconsequential-yet-approachable NPCs.
Taverns by their nature have a lot of complex but disconnected and largely unimportant things going on, dozens of do-nothing townsfolk just looking to kick back after their daily copper. The DM can give a snapshot glimpse of a commoner’s life but playing that out quickly becomes boring. Luckily, we have many more options.
Mechanically, a DM only really wants four things from a campaign opener:
1) A coherent narrative structure which supports player buy-in.
2) A gathering space where parties of diverse backgrounds can bond.
3) Structures that develop and connect character backstories.
4) A potential lower-risk gameplay tutorial for newer players.
Optionally, you might also want a failsafe in your scenarios, not quite a deus ex machina, but something that can help alleviate a possible Total Party Kill (TPK) situation.
A Note: campaign openers #3-4, #5-6, #11-12, and #13-14 all likely include de facto item scarcity, and thus fit well with low level parties, or higher level parties starting out in situations of unusual scarcity. #1-2 and #7-8 can support higher level parties having their inventory intact, while #9-10 and #15-16 can go either way.
1 & 2: WEDDING OR FUNERAL
- The Setup: all the Player Characters (PCs) have a mutual friend, an NPC either getting married or recently deceased. The campaign starts at the wedding or funeral, and you ask each player for a story about their character’s connection to the beloved NPC, and to share that with one another. Optionally, they can choose to have met before on a friend-of-friend basis. The Hook: The service dwindles down to mostly just the party remaining. Then maybe a graverobber or a jealous ex shows up. You can have them depart suspiciously, having seized a prized belonging from the ceremony. Or this can easily become a murder mystery, lots of options here. Something can attack the priest, surviving family, or relatives, and the party has to unify to confront it. Also, I really recommend giving the mutual-friend NPC a dark secret, so all the NPCs become relevant instead of random. The Reasoning: This opener gives the party some mutual bonds, minor backstories, and a common drive, all of which creates player buy-in and a coherent story. The setting naturally supports people with only loose relations to one another gathering. And players can test out basic social and investigation mechanics. The NPCs are relevant, not randos. Solid.
3 & 4: BENEVOLENT OR MALEVOLENT SUMMONING
- The Setup: You ever pop off a nice scroll or ritual and it summoned an extraplanar creature? Well, what if that worked both ways? Yes, a Scroll of Summon Adventurers! The party could be conjured by a benevolent mage in dire need on some faraway plane, or a malicious devil out to inflict temptations or debts upon the would-be heroes.
The Hook: The party has to make a bargain with the extraplanar force, or prove themselves worthy with a trial of ordeals. Yes, a gauntlet of combat, traps and puzzles, or what have you.
The Reasoning: This scenario facilitates quick goal-creation, promotes social skills, gives a rational space for tutorials of social skills, combat, and puzzles, and has no irrelevant NPCs. It’s very straightforward. Also worth noting, the summoner can even provide exposition or items as needed.
5 & 6: REFUGEE CAMP OR SLAVER CARAVAN
- The Setup: This campaign opener starts in media res, with the PCs as refugees in a refugee camp outside the city walls, or captives in a slaver caravan traveling a wasteland. The players describe to one another how they became refugees, or got captured. Their quarters have just a few NPCs along with the PCs.
The Hook: Maybe one of the NPCs has an exit plan, to either get into the city, or escape the caravan, and invites the party as the most trustworthy co-conspirators to help bring the plan to fruition. Maybe the party can even collaborate on the idea. Now, to add tension, give another of the NPCs within earshot a reputation for snitching and now the party must choose how to navigate that. Would other NPCs have interest in joining the plot too?
The Reasoning: Keeping the interactable NPCs down to a minimum and differentiating each one creates a coherent narrative and allows for player agency. The space logically supports a somewhat random party having to form a quick bond; the character backstories all arrive at a common bond through shared trauma. In addition, the NPC conspirator can give lore and essential quest items like keys.
- Special thanks to Adam for running me through the slaver caravan one, Paka will not be forgotten!
7 & 8: SURVIVORS OF POISONING OR PLAGUE
- The Setup: After a local mass poisoning or plague, only the party and one NPC remain. Specifically, the poisoning has left the townsfolk bedridden or addled, and the PCs can act as impromptu medics, caretaking those they can. Or the plague version has left tremendous dead – the party search for fellow survivors, or stay put in a compound. Wait, does the NPC survivor know more than they want to let on?
The Hook: Soon enough, two NPC officials arrive and speculate as to the cause and nature of the calamity. One defaults to trusting the surviving party, whereas the other defaults to suspicion, wanting to quarantine and interrogate them and investigate their immunity, see if they’re contagious. Then the party has a chance to shape the direction, especially depending on what they figured out about the other survivor...
The Reasoning: This opener gives a compelling foundation for exploring the PCs’ emotional responses and personalities amidst crisis. And the seemingly random nature of the survival allows for the party to feel fated. They can practice some social skills with the NPC survivor, a practice run for dealing with the officials. Finally, their backstories can arise naturally as the NPC survivor invites the party to share how they got there.
9 & 10: GLADIATOR ARENA OR DEATH PIT
- The Setup: In this campaign opener, the PCs have all individually signed up for the annual gladiator competition, with the party assembled by lottery. Or alternately, a lord or empire has conscripted them to fight to the death. Between fights, the players can interact with some of their opponents, or try to gain intel from the sentries enforcing order amongst the games. Probably they can also try to play the crowd for favor. Now, make sure to give the party a chance to discuss their characters’ backgrounds by asking them to devise a battle plan together based on their strengths and weaknesses and experiences.
The Hook: Ok, check it out: the PCs must progress through an escalating series of battles with different terrain hazards, culminating in a final challenge, a three-group battle that brings into play earlier party interactions with the competitors and sentries, as well as the party’s relation to the crowd and emperor.
The Reasoning: Why do this? All of the NPCs have high relevance, even the crowd, and the goals are explicit and have direct feedback. And the players get a chance to practice combat progressively, as well as their social skills, with meaningful player agency: they can investigate the upcoming battlefield terrain as well as the crowd and ruler’s favorite spectacles. For the latter, try to connect them with not just battle tactics, but also allow each character to have a moment to evoke their background interestingly, if possible. And they can plot faction politics around the final fight too. Furthermore, as a DM you can determine the pace of resting between matches to control balance, allowing each battle to serve as a tutorial if desired.
11 & 12: JAILBREAK OR DEATH CAMP UPRISING
- The Setup: The party starts out as cellmates in a dungeon, or a death camp, captured by an Evil Overlord. You as a DM offers a basic idea of what power has captured them and the apparent motives, then asks for each player to say why their character might have gotten rounded up. Yeah, the classic, “so what’re you in for?” Also, you can add an NPC cellmate if you wish, an older arrival. The death camp version adds an even grimmer atmosphere, for campaigns dealing with more macabre themes.
The Hook: Now, you can go a similar route as the “Refugee Camp or Slaver Caravan” section, but let’s make this one unique and cut to a mass escape. So, soon after the players introduce themselves to one another, a cloaked figure runs down the hall unlocking cells with wild abandon. The escape plot is revealed, alarms go off, and chaos ensues as prisoners begin an escape or uprising. The figure throws down a map to the armory, the archives, and a structural weakness in the watchtower. It’s on.
The Reasoning: The players have lots of options, and all of them have relevancy: they can loot, fight, sabotage, or simply escape. They can band with others, provide a distraction, or go their own way. And the structure gives sensible reason for seemingly unrelated characters to articulate their backstories and bond, and common cause. What’s more, the mass of NPCs can act as a buffer to help support which options the players choose, acting as a bit of a failsafe if needed.
13 & 14: CAVE BRIDGE COLLAPSE OR SHIPWRECK
- The Setup: The PCs all happen to be attending a tour, either in a cavern complex, or on the open sea. Their cluster has a meet and greet icebreaker where they can introduce themselves and talk a bit about their backgrounds. Then, the tour guide NPC begins the
lore exposition*ahem* I mean, sightseeing narration.
The Hook: As the tour progresses, suddenly, disaster strikes! The bridge the party’s crossing collapses, or the ship crashes. Everything’s washed away, except the party, who has miraculously survived (was it fate?), and two other surviving NPCs. Yeah, they all awaken at the bottom of a chasm amidst rubble, or washed up ashore a desert island. Now what if the two other NPC survivors happen to know each other…but hate one another! Are there other survivors? Will rescuers come? And what lives here?
The Reasoning: The setup creates a survival and exploration scenario the players can hardly ignore, but doesn’t force them to take a particular path either, that all depends on what map you as DM choose. And the de facto trauma bonding after an icebreaker sets up the party well enough. Also, the two surviving NPCs allow for some living drama and act as an opportunity to practice social skill checks. Now depending on the mood you want to evoke, you can draw out the theme of grief, the shipwreck scenario being the more likely option for that.
15 & 16: BURNING LIBRARY OR BATTLEFIELD
- The Setup: In this campaign opener, the PCs are the lucky winners of a raffle contest to tour the private archive section of the local library. Or, they have something resembling jury duty, conscripted as a crew to clean up the aftermath of a battlefield. In the waiting area or transport wagon they have some moments to get to know each other, then can peruse the area together and see what’s what. Meaning, either the various tomes of lore and practical matters, or what trash and treasures remain amongst the corpse-laden, war-torn landscape. The Hook: Without any warning, a massive fire flares up in the library, or a brush fire sweeps across the plain. Now the PCs must escape, but have just enough time before evacuation to make some hard choices. Each of them can save only so many specific tomes or relics from the library or battlefield, and each one will curry the favor of various local factions. Just don’t linger too long and get too greedy, as fire holds no mercy. The Reasoning: The common theme here is a chance grouping and a scarcity of items amidst loss. Faction favor works really well for developing ongoing relations, particularly with something like the recent D&D 5e Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica campaign setting. Logically, giving the players the agency to choose what they save creates buy-in, and pushes the players to draw out their character motivations and backstories. And the structure supports unrelated characters assembling, because everyone can use information or has to perform civic duties. Notably, this setup cuts out middlemen NPCs almost entirely, but you can bring in firefighter mages if needed as a failsafe.
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