Out of the Abyss, the new adventure from Wizards of the Coast, begins with the party as prisoners of the drow and needing to escape. Princes of the Apocalypse begins with the party sent to the region to discover a missing trade delegation. Hoard of the Dragon Queen begins with the adventurers reaching the village of Greenest to discover it under attack by the Cult of the Dragon.
Every adventure starts somewhere. If you participate in organised play with their short adventures, such as D&D Expeditions or those part of the Pathfinder Society, then you’ll get to see a very large number of them. Also, if you collect adventures.
Not every beginning to an adventure works. I have a great dislike of stories where the players start in a situation where they then have to work out the plot. One of the recent D&D Expeditions adventures, Flames of Kythorn, does this. The group begin at a party held by a noble, and the hooks are so fuzzy that unless the DM does a lot of work, they don’t have anything to do. Now, being told “you’re at a party” works for some groups that love role-playing and are good at improvisation, but this opening to an adventure is a bad fit for me. The actual proper plot begins when, after a bit of role-playing, there’s a sudden event which the players have to react to. The next time I run the adventure, I’ll begin it with the event and skip all the party stuff.
In fact, I don’t think that starting the adventure with the characters interacting with people at the party is a bad idea. Why doesn’t it work in this case? It’s because the players don’t have any goals. When playing an adventure, the players need to start with goals so that they’re trying to achieve something. Even such a basic goal as “you’re trying to find work” gives structure to the opening section. There are players and DMs that thrive when they’ve got no direction, but, especially in an Organised Play adventure, you need to hook them in stronger.
One of the techniques that West End Games used extremely successfully in its Star Wars RPG adventures (not the current version of the game, though that’s still excellent) was beginning adventures in medias res, or “in the middle of things”. Each adventure would start with the players already half-way through a mission – often just as things went wrong and they were being chased by Stormtroopers! A script that the players would read (often quite amusing) would introduce the situation and what they were doing, and from then the players were in the middle of the action. It was a brilliant method of starting an adventure, and worked very well with the mission-based format of the game.
Although I’m very fond of in medias res, there’s one circumstance when it shouldn’t be used: when you start with a battle intended to capture the PCs. This is actually one of the most problematic encounters in all role-playing games. Combats are, almost by definition, the place where the players have the most control over their actions. By forcing them to be captured, you deny them agency, and what happens if they win? To start a campaign with the characters captive is quite acceptable (see Out of the Abyss), but having an encounter which captures the PCs and then drags them into the adventure tends to work much better as an idea than in practice.
More commonly used are the mission-briefing starts to adventures. The players are told the situation and what they need to accomplish, as well as one or two clues, and from there they need to work out how to proceed. I think of this as a James Bond-like start to an adventure (I’m cheerfully ignoring the pre-credit teaser scene). I find this an effective method, especially when the structure of the campaign has the players being sent on missions by their patrons. A slight variation on this is when the PCs start at the beginning of the mission, with a quick run-down of what they learnt in the briefing and what their goals are.
Most of this discussion has centred on introducing characters to a set quest. However, that isn’t the only form of playing D&D. Also extremely popular are “sandbox” campaigns, where the DM presents a world that allows players to choose where they want to go, rather than “forcing” them down a set path. I enjoy sandbox games, but they are trickier to prepare for (I tend to end up improvising a lot when I run them). The key in beginning such a campaign is to provide enough information to the players so they can make a decision about what to do. This is typically done with giving the players a list of rumours gathered from around town, or by presenting them with a number of job offers from potential patrons. In some campaigns, the players may have a firm idea about what goals they havd, and then you need only listen to their ideas and present a setting that allows them to explore those goals.
It’s not quite enough to only give your group a purpose: you also have to provide a context and setting in which to achieve that purpose. The more freedom of action they’ll have, the more information they are likely to need. This information needs to complement the goals of the group. Having a group in a tavern looking for work where no-one is offering any jobs? That just breeds frustration. Likewise, if the group is going to be investigating a mystery, they need clues to track down.
So, in short: the beginning of an adventure or campaign is the time to provide directions for the players. Goals, and a situation that will allow them to progress towards those goals. The level of freedom you then allow them is up to you, but I find that players who have an idea of where they’re going makes things much more enjoyable as the game proceeds.