Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How to Start an Adventure

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 19, 2011

Back in the heyday of dice-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons, it became somewhat cliché for adventuring parties to begin their big adventure together in a tavern.  It was easy for the Dungeon Master to set up – some bold adventuresome sorts are lifting a pint and being more sociable with strangers than one would expect in reality, and boom – they all discover a desire for adventure, as well as some patron with a plot hook to send them on their way.

Many early computer RPGs did likewise, starting the party in a tavern (Wizardry I, Might & Magic I) or something like unto it (the guild hall in The Bard’s Tale). To be honest, I made the Inn & Tavern in Frayed Knights the central location for most of the plot-critical goings-on in town for just that reason.  But the whole “everybody meets in a tavern thing” is really trite and uninteresting (except as a joke) most of the time, and so games have tried to find different ways explain the motivation for the player’s character(s).

You are summoned by the king” is another popular one, which I feel is just as creatively barren as the tavern opening. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it forces the action without requiring much by way of background or backstory. The patron with the plot hook is some kind of authority figure, who gives you the quest early on. Variations of that include many of the Ultima titles (which summoned you to the king’s world but didn’t usually put you anywhere near the king),  Magic Candle (if I recall correctly), Neverwinter Nights, the more recent indie title Knights of the Chalice. I guess Diablo and Diablo 2 count as well – the limited story seems to suggest that you voluntarily came to assist a town under siege by darkness, though that motivation is left deliberately fuzzy.

Another opening that seems common enough to be cliché from the realm of jRPGs is the Chrono Trigger opening – the main character awakens on the morning of a big event in town (or the village), only to discover it’s far more interesting than he or she ever expected.  This is a little better than the generic tavern opening, and it still provides a social atmosphere where the primary character can be introduced to other important characters (including potential or future party members).

This may or may not be combined with the “your village is burned down” opening. Which is a quick-and-dirty way of forcing the action. Dungeon Siege and Neverwinter Nights 2 opened this way. Baldur’s Gate had an interesting variation on this theme, wherein your home town itself wasn’t literally burned down, but for all intents and purposes your home was destroyed and you were forced into exile. Ditto for Fallout 1 and 3, where a crisis at home forces you into permanent exile. I haven’t played all of the openings in Dragon Age: Origins, but as my castle was being burned down by bad guys I thought, “I don’t think I’ve had my village burned down quite this well before.”

One opening I can think of which may intersect with some of these others is one I’d call the Shipwrecked Opening. The main character or party find themselves tossed out into a hostile environment with little warning or preparation. In Daggerfall, Knights of the Old Republic, and Wizardry 8, this is caused by a literal shipwreck. Though I think Wizardry 7, Morrowind and Oblivion are also examples of this kind of opening.

While it could be considered a variant on the Shipwrecked intro, there’s also the Amnesia intro. Your character starts with little or no knowledge of his former life, making backstory incredibly easy for the designers. The indie game Eschalon: Book 1, and Fallout: New Vegas are fairly recent examples of this introduction. Unfortunately, this type of introduction (in other media) has had a reputation for being lame and cliché for a lot longer than RPGs have even existed…

A common opening that I’m more fond of (and used in Frayed Knights) is more of an in medias res opening, starting with the character(s) in the middle of a mission or dungeon delve.  Or you are dropped into an interesting situation where Crap Is Going Down. Mass Effect starts this way, as famously does Final Fantasy VII.  And Final Fantasy VI, for that matter (also one of my favorite RPG intros ever).  I’ve recently been playing a little bit of Might & Magic VII, and I love the opening to this one, which has the party on a grand scavenger hunt for which the reward is to become landed lords – complete with a castle. Naturally, the reward isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

I think there are a lot of variants on these tropes, and probably some unique openings that don’t fit at all (or entire classes of openings that I missed).

What are your favorite CRPG “starters?” Why? Are they unique, or do others have a similar style?


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 25 Comments to Read

  • EHamilton said,

    I know the most cliched opening for a sequel game must be “you are abducted and imprisoned by mysterious strangers who take away all the gear you collected in the previous game”!

    I’ve always been a believer in games that don’t commit the players to a particular back-story, so that you can invent their own motivations for becoming adventurers. (Or if it’s a “greatness thrust upon you” opening, so you can invent diverse explanations for what they’d rather be doing instead.)

    I also prefer games that include something akin to the “guild/tavern” central setting as a mechanism for adding additional characters to an existing group, Han Solo style. That’s something I’ve missed about more recent games, that seem to use a plot that’s beyond your control to unexpectedly add or take away characters from your party, instead of letting you actively decide when you want to seek out the services of a good rogue, etc. Though I don’t mind a mix of both.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I know it’s a cliche, but I like the amnesia opening. You don’t know who or what you are and are trying to figure it out. Best use ever has to be Planescape: Torment. You are trying to figure out what your place in this world is.

    While it can be overused in a game setting it does make sense since both you and your avatar try to figure out this new world you are in.

  • McTeddy said,

    You know… now that you bring this topic up… I realize that I can’t remember any RPG openings.

    I mean… sure I can think of a few shipwrecked… wandered into new town… look at my happy life that will so go up in flames… yet none of them really stick with me.

    Although they aren’t memorable… It’s important to put out that it’s never bothered me. Exciting openings are good for grabbing my attention… but in reality… the opening doesn’t have any influence on whether I’ll play. If the game play is good I’ll play it… if the game play is bad I’ll get bored and move on.

    Besides, I’ve always felt the tavern scene was the only realistic opening.

    Seriously… if you agree to fight a dragon… you’ve had too much to drink.

  • Praelat said,

    I liked the opening of KotOR, which you already mentioned.
    My favourite RPGs are still the old computer versions of “The Dark Eye” (German P&P RPG). When you start the first game, you (the player) get the introductory video with some background information, but your group starts out with nothing, and the adventure hook is a public announcement (“The king is looking for volunteers”). The game does not have much of a story (find map pieces, use them to find sword, use sowrd to kill big bad) and lots of optional dungeons and sub-quests (and enough in-game time to play those).
    The other two games are fairly standard, with a clear task in the beginning that leads to the rest of the story. I think the group has even been summoned there. You never start off in a tavern, though, but in a temple.

  • Lexx said,

    You don’t have amnesia in Fallout: New Vegas. You got a bullet into the head and a doc is patching you up again, but nowhere is said that you don’t know your name or your mission prior to that ambush, etc. (in fact, you still know that you are a courier with a package for the town Primm and that you come from California, and so on and so on. So I’ll guess it qualifies more for the shipwreck-type of beginning.) 😉

  • Xenovore said,

    Not specifically a CRPG opening, but certainly one of the most memorable…

    In one Middle-Earth Role Playing campaign, the party started out as prisoners in a slaver caravan which was soon to arrive in Angmar. We had to figure out how to break free, and we knew the closer we got to Angmar, the lower our chances would be, and the farther we would need to go to successfully escape.

    It made for some very intense play with limited party resources, enemy forces at every turn, constant pursuit, lack of PC familiarity with the terrain…

    I’ve always thought something like this would be far more interesting for a CRPG than the usual over-done “you meet in a inn/tavern/village” or “you’re in a ship/cave/cell/dungeon with no recollection of how you got there”…

  • Flux said,

    The Temple of Elemental Evil had a pretty cool system. If you haven’t played it, there’s a different opening based on the alignment you’ve chosen for your party. Granted, they all lead you to the same place, and, of course, more could have been done with the idea, but it was something I don’t think I had seen before.

  • PLW said,

    West of House

    You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
    There is a small mailbox here.

  • Menigal said,

    I quite like the shipwrecked opening. It leaves your character’s past largely up to you, which I think is a major requirement for an RPG, but it surprises me how many people seem to freak out when they aren’t given this information. Why were you in prison in Oblivion? Who were you and your sire in Vampire The Unbunny Redundancy Payments? They seem to see it as an unanswered part of the plot instead of a blank slate for you to start from.

    Just about any sort of opening can work if it’s done right, even the You All Meet In An Inn one. It’s always entertaining when someone finds a fresh way of doing it.

  • Xenovore said,

    @ PLW: LOL! Nice one! =)

  • scragar said,

    I have always liked games where the beginning is pretty normal, you aren’t in the middle of a mission, in hospital or in a strange place.

    It’s your house, your street, it’s a normal day, then after a bit of time to get the hang of things, learn your character, etc you get the story unfolding, Grandia did this, your character gets a permission letter to see the ruins excavation on the third day, and that leads into a quest to find more about the ruins/spirit stone, which links right into the main plot.

    I think it’s a really cool way to do things, you don’t feel forced to do the quest, even though you are being railroaded quite heavily.

  • Max said,

    Daggerfall/Arena are my two favorite openings. Because its starts as the usual “dungeon crawler eye of the beholder style” and then you think its gonna be mazes and maps forever…. Until you get out and see that you are this huge immense world with life like cities. It was probably one of the most memorable experiences . (in Arena thats it – in daggerfall I was expecting it)

  • Elwro said,

    I loved the simple opening of Dark Sun: the Shattered Lands. Your party consists of slaves united simply by the decision of the Arena keepers to group you as a team of gladiators. This can explain even the most ridiculous party setup 😀

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    The two that really stick out for me are Daggerfall and Ultima VIII, but that’s mainly due to their rather fantastic opening cutscenes.

    Daggerfall: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niU1bRqxrIU

    Ultima 8: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGN8HWbUmk

    What I liked in particular about Daggerfall is that you’re a friend and agent of the Emperor, and so are a perfect choice for this mission, as opposed to the plot falling in your lap.

  • Chance said,

    You have great timing, sir. I recently started writing a storyline for my first real foray into gaming. The world is full of characters and cities, but I had no idea how to begin. This article helped me to see the cliches of RPGs, and gave a bit of insight on how to create an interesting start. I think I’ll be taking a cue from Chrono Trigger on this one…

  • Eigenbunny said,

    I feel that you’re being a bit near-sighted. Fantasy novels and RPGs imported the idea of a tavern as a social hub from earlier literature (from Chaucer I think… to Fielding, Scott, Dickens…). In the older sources, “adventure” can mean social or sexual adventure, since the inn is the place where different classes could meet without the usual restrictions. You can see this tradition (as well as the associated comic figure of the host, who communicates with people of all standings freely) very clearly in the “Bree” chapter of the Lord of the Rings. It works for more than just practical purposes…

  • ngthagg said,

    I’m a big fan of the in media res opening. FF7 did a really good job of it. But it definitely is better for a pre-designed character. If you want more control over your character it doesn’t work as well.

    scragar: Grandia has an excellent start. It makes the plucky teenage lead fit in, which is pretty rare.

  • UDM said,

    Don’t forget about the Pokemon games’ introductions, which are usually of the “wake up in the morning, bored with nothing to do, so we’ll intentionally find something to do” variety.

  • UDM said,

    Gothic also had a pretty cool intro, where you’re just a random dude who’s given a letter by another random dude, and told to just follow orders, which of course escalate into a climatic showdown.

    In fact, so nothing-out-of-the-ordinary is the introduction that you can basically not follow the game at all and just do your thing as a prisoner like the rest of the crowd, in a prison colony held in isolation from the outside world, even though your identity eventually culminates into the “chosen one” type. It’s almost as if the developers had concocted the world first, then the main storyline

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    Gothic was also cool in how it drove home the kind of world you were facing in its initial moments, with the kind “greeting” by Diego…

    Other memorable openings?
    – I really liked the Origins in DA:O, very nice to have an individual intro to every character.
    – Not an RPG, but I have to mention the Half-Life’s. Both had excellent openings that set the mood, and congenially ease you into the gameplay.
    – In a similar sense I liked the witcher, you are dropped into an urgent situation, you are exposed to a key gameplay element (choices!) early on, you learn the ropes of the gameplay. Very well done, imo.

  • Calibrator said,

    I’m a big fan of the rather slow & quiet approaches where you commence with your live (as a working bee, college boy, whatever) and learn most of the basics while getting an idea of the game world & NPCs (especially if the starting location/city is the hub for later missions).

    The better something like this is written, the more successful it is and a good example is perhaps Fallout 3 where you literally start off as a toddler ;-).
    With the childhood time jumps you are not only getting older but you can see some changes in the other characters of the vault, too. Then someday all hell breaks loose…

    I also think that if a game starts low and slowly builds up the player gets the impression that the game is rather epic in proportion. I don’t mean square miles here but the range of the experience the player can enjoy.
    Morrowind is effective here in not only dropping the player right into a big gameworld as a lowly character (slave?) but later develops him into the Nerevarine. Quite a contrast!
    Player characters with a special destiny like that are a trope as common, though, as the average Steven Seagal movie plot in which his wife/spouse/daughter/best friend is killed and where he sets off to avenge them…

    However, in todays’ world with most gamers apparently possessing only short attention spans many triple-A games have to hit them early with some spectacular action to generate enough interest in them to actually keep playing.
    A slow & quiet approch is perhaps not really feasible if you want to make heaps of money with your game.

  • largemarge said,

    I loved the start of Baldur’s Gate I. It really made you feel like you had a home, which you promptly lost as soon as the “newb” section ended. It was an incredible feeling to be all alone outside of Candlekeep for the first time, wondering what you should do next. Then, “Hiya, It’s me, Imoen…”

    Also fun was the beginning of Anachronox, an unusual jrpg-ish game with tons of quirky humor. You start as a down-and-out private detective, with nothing but your camera and a broken gun and no friends. I think antihero games like this one help to keep the typical rpg cliches in check.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I love the “ship-wrecked” style openings.

    I liked the opening of Oblivion, and Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, were you are a prisoner or a slave. You can decide whether or not your characters deserved to be there or were wrongly imprisoned.

    I really liked Chrono Trigger’s pleasant opening and fair, and it was neat because if I remember right, they played with doing a “deja vu” of that opening a couple of times in the game.

    New Vegas had a great opening, dramatic, with your character getting shot in the head. New Vegas is also a little unique in that its main plot hooks work equally well regardless of whether your are playing an evil, good, or selfish character – all have equal motivation and reasons to pursue the main quest path.

    As someone already said, FF7’s opening in the middle of a “terrorist mission” after a seamless camera shot introducing the whole of the city and then zooming in on the train you are on and throwing you directly into combat was breath-taking and a perfect hook. Only after an exciting mission full of character moments and reveals culminating in a massive reactor explosion do things slow down and introduce everything to you, and by then you are pumped for the ride.

    Our DM in D&D never used the inn or tavern to start a quest or get us together. He always set up conditions to throw us together or naturally encourage cooperation. In one campaign it became a running joke as the party members squabbled and after every adventure tried to go their separate ways, only for coincidence or calamity to force them back together again. It was amazing how skilled a story-teller our DM was, because the party members could walk out of town in opposite directions and he could always successfully conspire to get them reunited in a very short time.

  • Chevluh said,

    I like the start of “the world ends with you”, which seems like a shipwreck (you character wakes up in Tokyo, which is unfamiliar to him) but only because the player’s not given all the information (it’s really amnesia and your character knows it but pretends everything’s all right, which leads to a number of false assumptions about the situation).

    A variant you haven’t mentioned is what I’d call the “professional” beginning, ie your character is an adventurer or mercenary or fighter by trade so seeking adventure or employment in the domain of adventure is a goal in itself (mostly for old, freeform stuff. Darklands. Does Pirates count as a RPG?)

    I like how Sacrifice (more of an action-RTS, I guess, though there *is* character building and some roleplaying through the choices you make between and during missions, so I’d say it’s some sort of action-RPRTS. Ahem) does that mixed with the shipwreck (your character arrives in a new world, immediately offers his services as a mercenary mage), *and* it turns out he’d left out a few details too (Got a nemesis running after him because he did exactly the same thing in the previous world he lived in and it didn’t turn out too well).

  • dcfedor said,

    I think skavenhorde has a point here. Character amnesia is a nice way to put the player and character on even ground, and let them discover the world and its workings together.

    On the other hand, games like Shadowrun (the P&P version) celebrated backstory and preexisting character/NPC relationships. It gave the GM lots of hooks for creating adventures if he knew who the character cared about or was running from.