Start with Tragedy

Let's write a memorable campaign intro together in 20 minutes. Mine is going to be about a dragon because dragons are cool. I don't really care what its motivations are yet because nobody cares about it yet. I could start my players off in a tavern where they drink, get a quest to kill a dragon because he's been terrorizing the countryside, then shrug and say "sure, whatever, let's go." I'm not going to, because now the players don't care about it, so its motivations will be pretty unimportant. Maybe I can fix this later by having the dragon directly threaten them when they show up, but they've already shown up so who cares if they care, they're doing it right? I haven't even started yet and this whole story is terrible.


We can fix this. Let's start them in the market, that's a more colorful and interesting place with lots to do. The rogue is merrily picking pockets, the bard is busking for tips, the fighter is being offered all sorts of weird and exotic street vendor food, the wizard is learning about a strange artifact. A little girl asks the cleric to help find her toy. An old knight named named Wymar Il-Song challenges the barbarian to a contest of strength. It will be revealed afterwards that he was testing the barbarian's mettle for a lucrative undertaking. The merchant begins to tell the wizard interesting secrets about this artifact, and says a greater power can be gained from it.

Start the party in a comfortable place, they should feel at ease and un-threatened, they're the biggest fish here and they know it so they can do as they like. Introduce some new things for them to care about, and start giving them a reason to care about those things. This is where it's useful to ask your players about their feelings and motivations and start introducing things catered to those motivations.

Some of these plots start to develop further, maybe some are abandoned to join in with the others. At this point your players are thinking they need to start mingling together for the story to move forward, let them think that. In reality you're just trying to introduce a space that's comfortable to them and introduce things in that space for them to care about.

The little girl is an orphan and sees the toy as her sister, so she's really upset about it. Her mom died recently, and she's having trouble adapting to life at the orphanage. Wymar the knight has started to talk about his glory days in the military and how he's learned of a big score to fund his retirement, but he needs some help to get it and is willing to split the profits. The merchant is a retired wizard with lots of knowledge about the magical arts to share, with knowledge of how to unlock an artifact's true power.

The point is to get the players to attach to something or someone. They don't have to care deeply yet, but they should at least be interested. Taking a nibble. Throw out as many hooks as necessary for them to take the bait, you're not going to have to actually follow through with them. They might start to join each other's hooks or start to drift apart. The players might start getting nervous about how they're splitting up, but that's still not the goal yet. The goal is to make them all shine and feel important and connected to this world. Their connection to each other at this point is unnecessary.

Dragon attack

The little girl is interacting with the other orphans, some are bullying her and some are being nice. She's shy and unsure of herself either way, and maybe now the cleric is getting the girl to find herself in addition to her toy. Wymar and the barbarian have bonded over further feats of strength and drinks. The fighter and rogue have been invited to join a big heist and are meeting their funny and plucky crew. The belltower of the church explodes, falling into the market square and crushing a crowd below under rubble and flames. A dragon swoops in, breathing a gout of flame along the ramparts and incinerating the guards stationed there. Utter chaos erupts as the dragon attacks and sets the city aflame.

This is now where the actual session and plot hook begins. A zone of comfort and familiarity is established and bonds are formed with it first, before we even start the game. This is also where we begin to bring the party together, it's not something you'll really need to force because it's going to happen on its own. The point of this part is to show the players what your campaign is really about.

Mine is about a dragon so I introduced the dragon. If it was a murder mystery this is where I'd have the first murder. Think of what your campaign is about, the original idea that convinced you to run this campaign in the first place, because this is the place to introduce it and show your players "THIS is what we're doing."

Let's be clear though, this is just a taste. They're going to try to fight my dragon, but they're not going to get it. Call this "main villain crit protection" if you like, but I call it protecting the players from themselves. The campaign is about fighting a dragon, if they fight it now the campaign is over. They're not going to want what they already received. They think it's a showdown with a dragon, but this is really about establishing motivation.

Now the players must quickly react and adapt to a new and unfamiliar situation. This is an encounter with a handicap.

The orphanage catches on fire, and now suddenly the cleric has a bunch more orphans to protect and get to shelter. The dragon continues breathing fire across the city, buildings light up like matches sending dangerous burning rubble into the streets. The players have to navigate around burning rubble and falling architecture as they try to find safety. Wymar has a flaming log fall onto him and the barbarian needs to lift it off him, burning his hands in the process unless he finds a better solution, but this is the barbarian we're talking about. The heist crew is caught in a burning mansion and the fighter and rogue need to cooperate to get out.

The players see the stakes, and just how high they are. At this point they're likely thinking their job is to save these people and themselves from this dragon. Once they get these people to safety they'll go deal with the dragon, because now it's personally threatened them. This is still just motivation. This entire time you're just fleshing out the people and the place to get them to attach and identify with it.

These are the reagents, the ingredients you're going to sacrifice to set up your story. The party thinks they're in the thick of it, but you should be spending this time just getting them to learn more about this place and these people, now under duress, to get them to care a tiny bit more.

Things have now gone from bad to worse. The military is being overwhelmed, the ballista have all been destroyed. The mansion is engulfed in flames and the fighter and rogue are trapped as it crumbles around them. Flaming rubble cuts off the little orphan girl from the cleric as she screams for help from the other side of the pile. The artifacts are starting to explode from the heat around the two wizards, and the bard is lost in a maze of fire. This dragon is a bigger problem than they realized, and the situation is beginning to look hopeless.

"Is the DM seriously going to TPK us on the first session?" You often want to avoid overloading your players, but this is a good opportunity to. The players realize that they're not the biggest fish here, they might actually need some help to survive this place. Important evidence is lost and more people are murdered. The boat begins to sink.

This is, again, all a lie. It's just another opportunity to create some deeper bonds with each other, the people, and the place.

Now we see just how important these other characters are. The players started out saving them, but now it's time for these new allies to save the party.

Castle attack

The other orphans rally together and help the cleric reach the little girl, working together to clear rubble and make an opening large enough to get her through. Together they pull her from the rubble, clutching her lost toy. The rogue and fighter's heist crew crash through some flaming walls, creating an opening for them to escape. They come out into the same alley as the cleric, and just as they look at each other they spot a shelter: an entrance to the sewers. As others begin to find a semblance of safety, the dragon stops flying overhead and lands on the castle, filling it with flames as it rips off and throws a tower.

“There!” Wymar yells to the barbarian and rest of the militia that they managed to gather, “there's our chance! The dragon is tired and landed, if we attack it now we can kill it!” The party sees their opportunity to finally face the dragon having secured their new friends and allies. They all meet up and devise a plan to attack. Ensuring the orphans and other townsfolk are safe, they gather together as large a militia as they can and attack the dragon at the castle.

Now it's come full circle, and you can reveal what this really was: an intro, a setup. The assault is just bait, another tool to get them to care a tiny bit more about these people and this place. Now it's time to yank it all away from them, so that only one thing remains: the party.

The dragon screeches and lets loose hellfire upon the militia. The castle walls crumble around them as the relentless flames begin to melt even the stone walls. The party watches as their former allies burn and get crushed. The dragon launches back into the air, spreading an even more intense surge of napalm into the city streets. There's a heavy rumble and deafening explosion as the entire ground shakes, walls collapsing around them. As they're buried under the rubble they see explosive gouts of flame shoot up into the air and out of the sewers as the methane gas mixes with dragon flame, creating a massive explosion in the city.

They come to, some time later. Covered in ash and dust, they manage to dig their way out of the rubble. The city is completely destroyed, and they only manage to find each other amongst the debris. All else they find are charred corpses, burned with flames and crushed by bricks. Everyone taking shelter in the sewers died in the explosion, the orphans now little more than ash. Far in the distance, the silhouette of the dragon can be seen flying north.

Castle attack

I defy you to walk away from that session with players that don't really, really want their revenge. The hardest part of this is in steps 1 and 2, making the party actually like what's about to be taken away. If you're using npcs, really really try to make them likable and relatable, try to flesh out their backstories and motivations as quickly as you can before step 5. Feel free to add more details in every step, and create situations where these characters help or save players in the party.

Now, things will never be the same. The question a lot of DMs start with is whether the party knows each before the adventure or not. This is a false question, it's typically asked because the players don't know each other and they're trying to figure out how much they're going to have to lie and be chummy with someone they're not yet friends with. Whether the party knows each other is irrelevant, you need to give the players a bond and a reason to cooperate and this is it. Things will never be the same for the characters and the players, tragedy brings people together and forms very strong bonds very quickly.

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