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- Join Date
- Jun 2012
Brainstorming Campaign Starters & Plot Hooks
I've been playing D&D for some years now, and I rarely see a campaign start in a way that can actually immerse every player into the action. More often than not, the players will go along with whatever it is with a sense of disbelief that is required for roleplaying games. But we can do better.
Here, I would like to start making a list of those Campaign Starters and Plot Hooks that both immerse and unite player characters in the action in either effective or non-conventional ways. Listed next to each starter will be the pros and cons of each in reference to the D&D setting. I encourage you to share your own to append this list. Currently the list is in a vague order of popularity based on personal experience.
- The town is attacked/relic stolen/person kidnapped
'Oh no! Quickly lets warn the other towns, seek back what was lost, and fight back while minimizing damage!' Plots like these occasionally lead into military style campaigns.
Pros: Attackers don't need to be evil by nature, and could be a warring kingdom or other force. Party unity is ensured when plot is presented in a way that evil characters have a chance to manipulate politics and still become heroic. Works really well for low fantasy settings.
Cons: This can get dangerously close to turning cheesy. In most high fantasy situations this plotline demands an obvious Big Bad, or alternatively a choice of Lesser Evils and that doesn't always interest more experienced players.
- A Competition
Competitions are a vague term and aren't necessarily staged tournaments held throughout the lands. Competitions can also be the wooing of a woman or trumping the display of political power of another nation. Can be similar to the 'Rumors of a powerful McGuffin' plot.
Pros: Competitions start with action, and action is always good. With a Competition players must be involved in both the Competition itself as well as any underlying plots, making for some interesting time dynamics. Alternatively, Competition is a great way to tell players that in your world they're some of the best (or worst) and because of their display of skills, the plot hooks are interested in them instead of the other way around.
Cons: Not many, except that these plot-lines are overplayed in literature and media. Nothing original here.
- Dropped into a dungeon with no way out
The party somehow becomes trapped in an isolated scenario with no way out. Maybe a storm forced them inside, maybe it was their own volition, maybe the 'dungeon' is really a city or jungle. Sometimes it's another world, and sometimes it's being kidnapped by flayers.
Pros: Great way to start out with party unity regardless of alignment and gets characters interested in escape before heeding the true call to action.
Cons: A clever party able to see past the DMs plans may find a way out.
- Rumors of a powerful McGuffin reach the party
A powerful artifact, a genie, a lost paradise, these things reach the players ears and get them interested, or maybe fretful of the consequence of it falling in the wrong hands.
Pros: Plenty of room for adding elements of a deeper plot. The adventure is a hunt, so it will move around allowing for more cultures to be explored.
Cons: Party intrigue is not always high. Alignments will also create serious problems here depending on plot. Divination magic becomes the DM's bane here.
- Evicted from the home, on the run
House or residency burned down and forced into a world unknown, or otherwise leaving on the run from some threat or responsibility.
Pros: On the run the characters past will catch up to them making for good roleplay. The world outside can be an Alien Landscape, meaning everything and anything can happen.
Cons: Players must be integrated into the plot in complicated ways if they aren't from the town. There are often issues with goal focus.
- An outsider strolls into town, bringing wonders/misfortune
An interesting stranger shows up, no doubt the party is curious. This is the lead to many McGuffin tales of fulfilling dying wishes or quests, but also the lead to stories of joining revolutions and becoming caught up in plots bigger than their town. Usually involves accompanying NPCs of some manner.
Pros: The goal will always be fresh in the players' minds, and they may even have picked up a few companions/character plants in the process.
Cons: It's all about McGuffins, and any party that decides to skip over towns or cities will lose out on plot in big ways requiring strenuous rewrites on the DM's part.
- The king wants the party to do it
The most classic of all D&D plot hooks. The party sets out to do some thing for no other reason than because some figure of authority or power tells them to. Sure it may have benefits, but all of that usually comes after the story. When rewards are given during campaign, plot often turns into a political campaign.
Pros: Gets the party together on the same track, and quickly establishes goals.
Cons: Lackluster, seen a thousand times. Party level can also become majorly detrimental in these hooks, where it's hard to justify the party listening to a corrupt or menial authority figure.
- Afflicted and in need of a cure
There's something spreading, or maybe the party themselves are afflicted. Their quest is to seek out the cure among the known, and maybe unknown lands. Similar to the 'Rumors of a powerful McGuffin' plot starter, but without realizing what they're actually after.
Pros: Beautiful party unity. Not only are they working together, they are left to their own devices to solve the issue. This can send the party to any number of locations to become involved with any number of smaller plots.
Cons: This campaign doesn't work too well at higher levels where spells fix everything. Players may lose track of their goal if the affliction isn't obvious and looming, but most players also hate having their characters afflicted and therefore weakened.
- Hired for missions thievery and espionage
Players are expected to work, and the job they take just happens to be the plot hook. This is a little different than 'The king wants the party to do it', because the hiring staff are usually going to ask for questionable initiations, and hold no illusions of grandeur about what's received in return. Often leads to a mystery or revolution plot.
Pros: Because stories like this fall into the pulp genre, it's particularly easy to establish setting, so players get to the action pretty quickly.
Cons: Society drives the plot, so druids or monks who care little of material possessions won't be at home here. Paladins or clerics of a rigid order as well may have issue fitting into the setting. Plots like this can separate players due to objectives.
- Lost in a foreign land without a care
This could be wandering in the desert, becoming lost on the way to a banquet, or just a couple of old guys who forgot what they were doing. Common for any post-apocalyptic or spaghetti western setting. Similar to the 'Trapped in a dungeon' starter, except the party begins lost and ends lost.
Pros: Anything can happen.
Cons: Anything can happen, and the players, having little inspiration within their wandering characters, may care little about their goals. This plot basically assumes players are already adventurers of one sort or another, and is often campy.
- Pirates and servitude
Suddenly, the party is ambushed on the high seas, or in a town, or in the middle of the woods. Pirates, slavers, and guerilla soldiers are all pretty much interchangeable for purposes of taking everything you have, including your life as indentured servitude. Players begin expecting to earn keep and work back their right to be treated as people, and all the while experience the life of their captors.
Pros: Who doesn't like pirates? Great for quick adventures.
Cons: Alignment will create all of the problems, as will any trigger happy players that get themselves killed quickly. Players will have little control of story progression at the beginning.
- In search of power
The opened ended road to obtaining power.
Pros: Players pretty much make their own plot, so you know they'll be involved in it.
Cons: Players need to have goals in mind or everything falls apart. Alignment is enemy number one in these campaigns, where players cannot trust one another to obtain power. Too open ended for a traditional DM to handle in most circumstances.