The Opening Move...
The fog clears on a dusty friday night. Five figures are seated around a small rectangular table. Papers, dice, books, sodas and snacks are strewn everywhere. From somewhere outside floats in the driving sounds of a dance club. Four figures look expectantly towards the fifth. Pushing back it's hooded cloak, and squeaky teenage voice says, "Okay, you're in a tavern. What do you do?" Groans escape the lips of the remaining four, "A tavern? Again?"
I remember those days. Hoping for grand adventure, and getting only a romp through the playground. No, I was not the hooded boy. I would have claimed ignorance of the rules had anyone actually asked me to "don the hood."
In truth, I just didn't want to be the one to start the groaning.
It's been quite a few years since those days, and I don't think I've even heard one game seriously open in that manner in more than half of those years. What more could you ask for? Creative minds sprung dangerous, adventure packed openings us. Questions we were unable to answer assaulted us from all directions.
We were in for the ride, then.
What is wrong with the Tavern cliche? Nothing, really.
Wait! Before you grab those tomatoes, lemon pies and frying pans! Let me explain.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the standard opening, so long as you really have a reason to do so. Too many times, it's simply because the DM either doesn't have enough time to prepare, or simply doesn't care. They know that the plans they have for the party will make up for it.
You couldn't be more wrong!
A good campaign, whatever the genre might be, should be treated like a movie or novel. Two of the single most important parts of a movie are the opening and the ending. They both have their reasons for being they way they are. Many good books or movies set the stage with a mystery that grabs hold of the viewers minds, never letting them go. When they finally make it to the end, every time they knew who did it should be proven wrong. Convincingly.
The opening sets the mood, the environment, and captures the players interest. It is your only chance to truly get the action moving, the bad guys spinning plots and sub-plots, and most importantly, get the players interested. If your opening is weak (the Tavern,) the players start to lose interest immediately. They start to tune you out, even though that is what they are there to do. More often than not, you'll find that during their character's off-time, they chat between themselves about subjects unrelated to the game. Most of the times this chatting will continue throughout the game, players not paying attention to the game and, worse, ruining the experience for those players that are there to game.
How do you wrench a hold on their attention right from the start? There's a number of ways, none of which I can really do justice to in this small space. Your best bet would to be to go back and re-read the beginnings to some of your favorite novels. Rent some of the most engrossing movies you know of, ones that make you want to sit on the edge of your seat, straining to hear every word so you don't miss anything. Pay attention as you're watching it. Try to answer questions about how they do things. Why they did it the way they did it. Then try those ideas out in the next few games you run. If you were truly paying attention, and trying to use what you've learned, you're sure to notice immediate improvement in your game. And so will the players. And they are more important than your own ego, anyway.
So, you're in a tavern. What do you do?
Go ahead, don't be afraid. Maybe they're touring all the taverns in the known world for a book.
Or maybe the tavern is being raided by the Lord High Commander of the Royal Guards on an anonymous tip that a band of adventurers are going to kidnap the Queen. Guess what? The characters fit the descriptions exactly.