I mentioned back in a class mechanics entry that RPGs have learned a few new tricks from MMOs. While I feel that experienced GMs are well acquainted with the idea of a “starting city”, some GMs step right into the idea of a module and its one paragraph (or a few) of the village of Hamlet and let that stand as the sole intro to the setting.
I feel a more robust process in the creation of their “Starting Zone” can be a huge boon to the sense of verisimilitude and connection for your players.
I try to keep a few broad concepts in mind for my “Starting Zone”:
Support the Party – While this covers basic ideas like adventuring gear, food, and a place to rest, it should also include support for their character concepts. This is not to say that it has to have a group or guild of every person in the party’s class. But if a character’s class doesn’t have a presence in the area, then there should probably be a reason for them to have traveled from wherever their character was trained. While “you’re a wandering party of sellswords and spells for hire” works for many games, it is a very used concept and tends to cause disengagement in some players.
Introduce Conflict – Introduction of campaign villains and hazards begin with the “Starting Zone”. It should probably introduce a few of the villain groups you have set up but likely not all of them right away. Maybe crimes that aren’t clearly related to the villains are a backdrop for the current state of affairs. An introductory threat that is more physical is a good idea as well. As you spin up your intrigue, a good smackdown combat to engage the players in their characters mechanically gets their learning curve in gear.
Introduce Plot & Themes – The “Starting Zone” is a great place to paint the skies of your mythos and present ideas of your greater cosmology. Nothing drives home the ideas behind a greater campaign reality than having your NPC classed farmer express his understand of your world from his humble vantage. If a supernatural or complex truth is presented simply or in the day-to-day ramifications it becomes instantly relatable. Alternatively, newer cataclysmic events can be highlighted by the local reactions of horror or disbelief.
Establishing Your Style – New players will never pay more attention to how you GM than while you are setting up the “Starting Zone”. This is your time to chose your descriptions, distinguish your magics, and present the common flavors of your game. As plot momentum builds, the players will become more eager for events to proceed and less interested in your page long description of the ceremonial tankard of the Frost Giant king. That is not to say you shouldn’t keep up a detailed presentation later in the game but “striking while the iron is hot” is never more true than early in the game. The characters’ simplicity and basic abilities mean players are less concerned with the “machines” of their characters and more imprintable with your story. And don’t be discouraged later in the game when they are less receptive to new material and descriptions.
Reprise – A good “Starting Zone” is worth coming back to. As a new player I was always stunned by how often my GM and friends would leave behind our humble village and NEVER talk about it again. When I finally asked a GM why this happened he told me that that town was only in the level 1 module and now that we were level 4 we were “done with that”. The damage this caused my sense of verisimilitude was extreme enough I actually decided to learn how to GM just to see if he was “doing it wrong”. While his approach was valid, the method he chose could have been executed better for his players (or at least me).
When considering the above concepts it is also a good idea to envision the physicality of your “Starting Zone”. Depending on your style of worldbuilding, you may already have laid out a map or have an idea of what this area should look like. Maybe you have been coming at your game from a cosmological or mechanic design stance. In this case, this may be one of the first times you are setting down the “pen” to the map of your world. As a reminder, once played, the alteration of the “zone” becomes tricky business so choose wisely.
The Village – A small settlement that at least some of the players (possibly all) has a character-based connection to. The Shire, Two-Rivers, and thousands of other stories present this classic start to a fantasy story (campaign). It tends to result in characters that are more knit together and have emotional reasons to remain cooperative and loyal. It can be challenging to meet the “Support the Party” requirement of a good beginning but is not impossible.
The City – Keeping a lot of the advantages of the Village, the City adds more resource, more complexity and more possibilities. It is also easier to “hide” things in. A city can present more than enough material for the progression of your campaign. It is also worth noting that the players may feel “stuck” with the City option. Too much requiring them to remain can add a sense of containment and reduce the significance of the rest of your world. That can work to your advantage when the City is a deliberate focus for your story but being sensitive to player anxieties is never a bad idea.
The Wreck – This “Starting Zone” includes any en medias res action that starts the characters off in a dangerous resource poor situation. This can be a goldmine of party unity and mutual concern, but it is VERY hard to provide “Support the Party” and “Reprise” points without a lot of work on it. Well executed, these situations can be amazing but a poor execution will result in a the pressure to work together creating a party that wants to spatter apart like sizzling grease the second they are “safe.”
The Battle – Another en medias res option. This options starts the party in the midst of or in the wake of a large scale military conflict. Danger is immediately present, support can be scavenged from the carnage and in general meets the criteria beautifully. It also adds a visceral aspect to your story that may be more grim than you want. Consider your players carefully if you want to use this one.
The Mystery – Waking up in prisons, extradimensional realms, or other strange circumstances can be fun ways to go but may present difficulties in establishing “Support.” These are often some of the most satisfying reprise settings there are. Going back in a blaze of vengeance to the Orc tribe that once held you captive or at last silencing the dark mage who tormented you can provide the sort of game players will talk about for years to come.
Next… Endamon- Starting Out.