GM Advice: Creating The Perfect Starting Area

First impressions are important. This is as true in real life as it is in your tabletop game. The first session you run of a new campaign sets the tone for the rest of the game, and in very rare instances does that tone ever change. The first session should introduce the players and their characters to your world and give them an idea of what the rest of the campaign will be like. That being said, the place where the characters begin the story should be the embodiment of that first impression.

You gotta sell it!

Where To Begin
This really depends on the level of the game you are running. If you are staring at a relatively high level, it would make sense for the starting area to be something grand, like a keep or castle under the control of the characters, or a massive city where they hold a lot of clout. Likewise, if you are starting low, it makes more sense to begin small, in villages or small town, or in a large city where the characters are strangers or hardly known from any other person on the street.

The level dictates the tone. Higher level equates to a larger amount of power and experience. Those things would be wasted on menial tasks that can often be found in villages and towns, unless they hold some powerfully dark secret. Lower levels are about building up that power and experience, so the menial tasks are more than just a simple distraction for them.

Personally, I like starting off small. Low level characters have the entire world in front of them, and untold promise, so for the sake of this particular guide, we will be focusing on them. The same suggestions I make here can still be applied at high levels with few few adjustments.

That Little Slice Of Civilization
The starting area for the player characters should be a place where the hand of civilization has touched. This could be a village, a town, or a city. Even if you intend on running a wilderness adventure, there should at least be a trading post. This point of civilization is important for a few reasons.

Respite: It gives the characters a place to retreat to and rest, especially after a grueling battle or two. Here they should be able to get some uninterrupted rest and perhaps a good meal. This could be a village, a trading post, a wayside inn or a single district in a large city. This is the characters' safe harbor during the beginning of the campaign, and should have that feel, even if evil is lurking around the next corner.

Helpful NPCs: These fine folks will resupply your characters if their resources have dwindled while out and about, like rope, rations, weapons, and other specific accoutrements. They can offer services that the characters might not have readily available to them, like healing if there is no healer in the party or the ability to remove certain ailments. A sage is always good to have around, be it someone local or an NPC just passing through to the next location. The sage can answer burning questions about the area, give clues that the players might be missing, or identify unique items, magical or otherwise. And while it is not as common these days as it was in the halcyon days of my youth, hirelings are a good thing to have handy. They could be locals, more folk just passing through, of people just trapped in the area, looking for enough coin to move on.

A Point Of Reference: The starting area is your introduction into the world. This piece of civilization if there to show the players what lay in store for them. If your are running the sort of campaign where the world is a largely unexplored place, still wild, with settlements being tiny dots of light in a world of darkness, play that up. Show the players what this kind of world does to people. Perhaps the village is walled with large logs banded together to keep the horrors that lay beyond at bay. Maybe people disappear off the roads frequently, so it is considered common practice for farmers and merchants to hire on guards, even for just a single wagon.
If a sprawling city is your cup of tea, determine where you want the players to begin, and how the rest of the city views that section. Maybe it's a slum, or rough part of town. Maybe it's a district primarily populated by another race, like halflings, elves or dwarves.
This starting area becomes the standard by which every other settlement or area they happen upon is judged. If they come to a town populated by body-snatching parasites, their impression of that first time may give them a little more insight into how regular people act and that something may be amiss here. On the flip side, it the starting area is full of shady, duplicitous and paranoid people, and they move onto the next settlement only to find happy folks welcoming them with open arms, they may have some reservations about where they just spent the night.

 "They look legit. Let's go say hi."

The Perfect Starting Area
Some 36 or so years ago, a little company called TSR (you may have heard of them) created a little adventure set in a small village. The village was very detailed, with colorful and interesting people that lived there, and a dark secret hiding below its seemingly peaceful surface. That adventure was called The Village Hommlet, and it is, by the numbers, the perfect starting area.

"Who's house? Moathouse!"

The Village of Hommlet had a lot going for it for only being a mere 16 pages. The material is nice and condensed, but doesn't lead the Game Master by the hand. It gives them free reign to unfold events as they see fit. The reason for its success is the simplicity of its design. In 16 short pages they gave Game Masters everything they needed to propel the player characters from greenhorns to hardened, seasoned adventurers. I've spent long hours dissecting Hommlet, scrutinizing what works in it, and I think I have found the formula for the perfect starting area.

Hommlet is advantageously placed a stone's throw away from the sketchy little village of Nulb, about 35 miles southeast of the town of Verbobonc, and a few days off from the walled city of Dyvers, which itself is a few days off from the free city of Greyhawk. All around Hommlet there are forests, hills, and a few days southwest  are the Lormil Mountains. To the north a river, to the east another river and the Wild Coast. Somehow Hommlet managed to get placed next to a little bit of everything, and that is the beauty of it.

"All eyes on Hommlet. If you get that joke, you are a good person."

Because of the varied environments around Hommlet, it allows for a greater variety places for your players to explore and experience. That is exactly what you want for a starting area. Trudging around forests can get old pretty quickly, but of you can mix it up with hills, a swamp, a nearby mountain or a coastline. The more environments you can smoosh together (believably), the more you can switch things up and keep things fresh for the players. 

This idea works just as well for large cities. Think of districts, neighborhoods and quarters as different environments, each offering their own challenges and dangers. A dockside tavern could be a watering hole for pirates. Street gangs could control one or many neighborhoods, making traveling through difficult if the characters don't have gold coins or a silver tongue. Furthermore, these Burroughs have their own feel, sights and flavor to them, and vary just as much as a forest does from a swamp.

Stuff To Do
One area in which Hommlet is not lacking is the plethora of things to do. If the townsfolk don't have a laundry list of things they want the characters to accomplish (which they do), there are woodlands crawling with all manner of nefarious beasts. An evil cult has infiltrated the town, and if the characters start becoming too heroic, they aim to put a stop to that quickly by ventilating their throats while they sleep. All this, and there is are a couple of nearby dungeons that are hours of entertainment for the murder hobo at heart; The Ruins of Moathouse and the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Right there is a pretty damned good template for what you would want out of any area, especially a starting area. Here are four things that you can use to make that area nice and three dimensional.

  • Wilderness Exploration: The world can be a wild place, stock full of danger. Some monsters wander or move into an area. The question that you, the Game Master, must decide is why these malevolent monstrosities are massing. Are they drawn to or called by something? Does something command them? Were they driven there by something, and if so, what worse thing could have done it?
    These would be some interesting things for your players to answer, but word to the wise; while a few one-offs can be fun, you will want to ensure that whatever force is behind the accumulation of evil in the area has some tie to the larger story you are trying to tell. In the case of Hommlet, these dastardly ne'er-do-wells are drawn by the power of the Elder Elemental Eye.
    In a city, this could be the rise of a new guild, drafting booth human and non-human creatures to gain it a bloody foothold in the area or a malevolent mage trying to awaken something or summon something into the city proper.

  • Creatures In Need: People, animals, and even some monsters need help. When capable folk make themselves known (cough-player characters-cough), they see a means to aid them in whatever problem is plaguing them at the time. NPCs dishing out requests is a great way for characters to get to know the area, the people, and to gain a little renown.
    Grateful creatures usually offer some manner of reward, be it small things like a free night at the inn or an evening of drinking, or something larger, like a hand-me-down magic item that has been a family heirloom for generations.
    Ideally there is someone or something in the starting area that require the player characters' assistance. This can-and usually is-the first step they players take towards the larger story, and usually snowballs from there.
    "Hey, something is stealing my ale!" leads to the discovery of a hole in the wall of the local tavern's basement, that leads to a tunnel, that leads to an abandoned mine overrun by kobolds, who are at the command of a young green dragon who was taken from its mother and given to the kobolds as a gift by a mysterious man in a gold mask, and who the hell is this mysterious golden masked man anyway?

  • Dungeons: A loose term to be sure, but effective none the less. Dungeons can be anything from strongholds and temples to cave systems and actual dungeons. They are great places to house lots of creatures and keep lots of treasure. After all, being evil isn't cheap. The overhead is ridiculous.
    Dungeons are classic RPG, and Game Masters sometimes try to give them a wide breadth because they're "overdone", which is a shame, because they are classic for a reason and denying your players an exciting experience. That being said, it is not a thing you want to use too much.
    Two dungeons really seems to be a good balance. One should be relatively small, possibly implementing the 5 Room Dungeon Method. This should be able to be completed in a session or two max. The second dungeon should be substantially larger, requiring more time and resources to complete. This gives them a reason to keep trekking back to the starting area for supplies, services, or just a safe place to rest.
    In the big scary city, dungeons look a little different, but have the same feel. Cave systems become sewer systems. Guild houses, a Lord's manor, an abandoned warehouse or a hidden temple deep under the city can make for exciting dungeons, and they are close at hand to the starting area, allowing the players to return to some familiar ground.

  • Interesting NPCs: Settings come and go, but NPCs can remained burned in your players' minds forever. Populate your starting area with unique personalities. Your players will want to keep coming back, of for no other reason than to interact with them again. But it it takes more than just personality to make these fine folks interesting. A few of them should have some secrets. Secrets that, if discovered, could shake the community to its foundation. Maybe the mayor or constable is a werewolf. Perhaps the barkeep is an adventurer that retired after his actions lead to the deaths of his companions, or his stable boys alerts nearby bandits of departures so that they might ambush wealthy travelers on the road. Mayhaps old farmer Jenkins is actually a necromancer, carrying out unspeakable rituals in a hidden chamber beneath his barn. Extra points if you can make the secret pertinent to the overall plot.
    And remember, NPCs aren't just one use items. Let them grow a relationship with the player characters. Allow them to help the party out when they can, or hinder it should the NPC be evil. You can have just as much intrigue in a small village as you can you can in a big city. 

The Village of Hommlet created a pretty high benchmark for how to begin a game. There is no doubt as to why it remains a cherished classic that has withstood the test of time. It is one of the best modules ever written and leads to the epic Temple of Elemental Evil. And it all starts with that unassuming little village of Hommlet, arguably the greatest starting area for an adventure ever written, with one possible exception...

"These caves haz the chaos!"

Start off on the right foot,
+Ed The Bard

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