You … save??… a tavern??

A few weeks back, in my itinerant internet wanderings, I came across an interesting video where a steampunk tavern is attacked by some undead cowboys and then saved by a few of the customers and a native american warrior.  The violent, cgi driven, epic, and gratuitous music video gave rise to an interesting twist on getting a party together.

Instead of having the group meet in a tavern, or bringing them together in some forced way, why not have them be present at the site of an attack for a location that could become their homebase? If the attack is somehow relevant to the main plot line, then the players will have an instant hook into the story and your campaign will get started with action and a reason for the players to meet each other.

There are a few particulars that make this sort of approach work.

  • The area the characters help defend is something of use that gives them a reason to continue going there. I.e. it is a local bar, the weapons shop they were at, the ship repair shop on the space station, etc.
    With some kind of benefit and a continued reason for them to visit, the place they save becomes a strong anchor point. Ideally, it could serve as a homebase.
  • The individual members of the group should be at the place mostly of their own devices with little interconnectedness. They can have reasons to come together aside of the battle, but the initial combat will help build the unity best if it is the primary agent in bringing the characters together.
  • The characters are integral to the fight and are rewarded for saving the place. Something as minimal as free drinks for life or constant maintenance and refueling of their ships gives them a story reward and provides a continual backbone for the group. They build their party out of being the regulars, their heroics being the thing that defined them, and their group picture hanging on the wall as a constant reminder. This connection acts as a solid base for them to build their unity on.
  • The initial fight should be epic and rewarding for the players. The music video that inspired this idea is over the top, but awesome. That was not just a fight with street thugs. Frigging undead cowboys who could pull weapons out of the depths of the fiery abyss were defeated. That’s the way a campaign should start. A big, tone setting scene that makes the players thirst for more. They get to say they were the winners in that battle, and that is an intangible reward that trumps many more tangible ones.
  • No player should individually “lose” in the fight. It seems like a small point if the group wins, but in reality this is a fight before they are working as a group. It is the characters on their own fighting alongside each other. The purpose is to showcase and build unity, so the combat should be considered on an individual basis instead of how the group as a whole fare.

Done right, this sort of introduction grabs the players and builds unity above and beyond any character goals. Their group identity is forged before their individual character personas are fully developed, and that makes for a strong group. Many group introduction schemes involve throwing the party together in an action scene, but this idea rewards the group in a different way and gives them a shared sense of unity. Do you think this has merit over an initial fight? What would this look like as the intro to your current game?

9 replies
  1. Solomon Foster says:

    I like the idea, but I’m concerned at how one works the details out. What I mean is, I’m a diceless GM, so I know I can most likely stage a battle scene which is really exciting, yet the characters triumph and survive. It’s been a very long time since I GMed AD&D, but it feels to me like that might be much harder to do there, unless you’re liberally fudging dice? I mean, I hope my party-to-be of 6 PCs can be counted on to defeat 4 kobolds, but I can’t see that being a big bonding experience. It feels like getting it right so the fight is epic and exciting and meaningful and safe might be a hard combination.

    The flip side of that is, if I got six diceless PCs together and tried to get them to bond, odds are good there’d be at least one who wanted nothing to do with it…

    (Love the video, BTW.)

    • Blackjack says:

      I play almost exclusive dice-based games and I know I could GM this kind of scenario with little or no fudging. I’d structure the power levels and the context to make it quite likely that the PCs survive. For example:

      1. The PCs are slightly higher level than the bandits. This keeps the combat challenging while making it very likely the PCs will win.

      2. Maybe the PCs aren’t more powerful than the bandits, but their presence is a surprise. The bandits planned this raid thinking they’d run roughshod over the ordinary and dispirited townsfolk. Faced with unexpected resistance in the form of the PCs, the bandits flee and regroup.

      3. The PCs have an unexpected weapon. The bandits are undead; the PCs have a cleric who can turn. Possibly combine this with either of the above.

      4. The PCs themselves aren’t strong enough to beat the bandits, but their presence rallies the otherwise disorganized or demotivated locals. Together they are superior to the bandits.

  2. Trace says:

    If nothing else… I just shared that video with everyone I know who likes Deadlands or Iron Kingdoms RPG.

  3. Knight of Roses says:

    The video is quite fun. A joint bond is always good, some other ideas:

    -A bandit raid on a caravan
    -A pirate attack on the ship they are all in
    -Slavers attack the village they are in (everyone hates slavers)

    But it can be a challenge to balance this sort of encounter as Solomon Foster notes. The GM will have to be extra creative.

  4. Blackjack says:

    Another great aspect of bringing the party together around saving a tavern (or something or someone else) is that it immediately forges relationships between them and NPCs. These relationships will influence or even drive future adventures.

    – The tavern owner appreciates what the group has done and returns the favor by providing them free board and/or helping them hide when they need to lay low.

    – Other merchants in the area appreciate what the group has done and turn to them for help when problems arise. These relationships will affect or even drive future adventures.

    – Whatever government exists in the town (mayor, sheriff, baron, strong man) recognizes the group as valuable people and hires them for missions in the future.

    – Any of the above relationships could be switched from friend to foe if people around town were in on the crime the PCs foiled!

    – Finally, of course, whoever backed the attackers (their patron or fellow gang members) now has a grudge with the party and will seek retribution.

  5. Matthew J. Neagley says:

    Or you could do what the “GM” in that video did: Put the PCs up against a foe their weapons can’t even damage, wait till they’ve got their collective butts thoroughly kicked, and are bleeding out on the floor then send in your GM PC to single handedly defeat the threat with flare and grace, shrugging off two shotgun blasts to the breadbasket at point blank range in the process. That’s almost certainly the best way to make the players understand how awesome your GM PC is so they invite him to be their party leader.
    :p

    No seriously, that warrior at the end was pretty clearly some mary-sue author insertion for someone on the team that made/designed the video, but I can see this being a totally cool way to start a game.

    • Blackjack says:

      I agree. After the build-up in the blog I was disappointed to see the video told a story that would be an utter fail in an RPG. The bandits are immune to the PCs’ weapons and it’s a TPK. Then a mysterious NPC comes in with massive immunity plus a super special weapon and singlehandedly saves the day. It’s one of those things that works as story but is horrible as an RPG.

      • Razjah says:

        While I agree, I think the native american saving the day could be done in an RPG. Rather than having him save the day, have him arrive mid-battle. He arrives just after the PCs learn they can’t hurt the undead bandits, busting into the room and tossing the survivors special weapons. Now everyone gets to save the day!

        In a game like FATE or Savage Worlds or Feng Shui, you can even assign the weapons randomly and after the battle let the players act out the “This weapon is pretty sweet, but I favor an axe” “I’ll trade, this axe gets caught on my duster.”

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  1. […] original article, FYI, was “You … save??… a tavern??” by John Arcadian at Gnome Stew which I’m happy to acknowledge! Thanks to both Hungry and John for the […]

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