So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?

I’ve been playing RPGs for almost 20 years now, most of it as a gamemaster. And the one thing that has always bothered me the most, with every single campaign, was to find a way to get the first couple of adventures going in a way that doesn’t feel terribly implausible and forced. When a new campaign starts and the characters are more or less blank canvases, your only practical options are having a dungeon sitting right outside town and the players checking it out because they know that’s what they are supposed to, or to have a random stranger approach them and offer payment for getting a thing or rescuing someone. It just really doesn’t feel believable that people would trust this to unknown vagabonds instead of joining forces with others from the community. It is more reasonable at higher levels, but 1st level PCs are not much more capable than a posse with spears and bows led by a halfway capable leader.

I think to some degree, this is a personal problem. It’s something nobody else ever seems to worry about and players are completely happy to run with when they are dropped into a new campaign. But it always bothers me a lot and I feel it’s the primary reason why it always takes me so long to get a new campaign started.

But after all this time, I finally got the solution. And it’s really stupidly simple.

The characters may be more or less blank slates at the start of the campaign and completely new to the area they know nothing about yet, but that doesn’t mean they had no existence before the start of the campaign. Even if the players don’t know about them, the characters will have friends, relatives, and acquaintences outside their nondescriptive native villages.

It makes little sense to try to get help with very sensitive things from random strangers of dubious appearance. But things change completely when they come with personal recommendation. The letter from a distant relative might be a bit cliched, and I wouldn’t use it myself. But you can very well have the party arrive in a random, looking for a place to rest while making new plans, and randomly meeting people from their previous life. And these might just be the people who right now happen to need some tough and smart guys to help with a serious problem. To them, seeing their old pals showing up out of the blue at just this moment, would be a blessing from the gods.

I don’t know why I never thought of this before. It’s terribly simple, but compared to most generic low-level adventure hooks it’s amazingly elegant. The best thing about this is that it should work with every adventure ever written. You can always insert a minor NPCs whose only role is to introduce the quest starter to the players.

I really wish I had thought of this 15 years ago.

4 thoughts on “So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?”

  1. I like your explanation. Some of the ones I’ve used: “So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?”
    1. What do you mean, you are the regular guards?
    2. The lord is going to use his regular guards but your group can get in there and get the relic before them, that’s why I’m paying you so much.
    3. Because I need deniability. The guards are locals, they have families, someone will tell the damned Priests and I can’t have that. You are unknown and can move on once the job is done.
    4. Disease has laid low most of the guards. What remains are barely enough to defend the castle.
    5. The guards will be confronting the villain en-mass. We’d send some but we need all hands. This will leave the objective mostly undefended. Your group hasn’t trained with the guards so it makes sense for you to act independently.
    6. The barracks is filled with spies. I can’t trust any of them to do this task.

  2. First off, great article, and it’s nice to know other DMs have the same problem as me.

    In my current campaign, I made sure the party was created with some connectivity between them, via a heavily modified “Group Template” as used by the Fear The Boot guys.
    I started session 1 with them sitting in a tavern catching up (yeah, cliché, I know.) I had them work on coming up with stories of exploits (real backstory or not) to tell each other, when the door slammed open, and a dwarf wearing the town guard insignia saw their weapons and armor, locked eyes with them, and said “You five, come with me! You’ve been conscripted, refusal is a crime.”

    Well, it turns out he wasn’t a town guard, but actually part of a private security force that had taken on a seeming bad contract for the town, and just wanted to send some nobodys to fulfill it. Falsely assuming they’d all likely die and never return.

    Now, they’re involved in multiple plot lines and trying to figure out who’s actually in charge of this merc company that’s intentionally providing crap security to some jobs.

    Everyone is really engaged, and there’s lots on in-character discussions at the table about what they should do, how they should do, and who they should do it to.

  3. Yora- Yes, this is the eternal problem!

    I like playing with people who are new to D&D and tabletop RPGs in general, because of their unusual perspectives, and because it’s especially difficult for the DM to engage them in the beginning with usual hooks.

    In 2009, DMing with my art therapist friend (who had never played) and her husband (who hadn’t played in 20 years), I was flustered because they wouldn’t bite the hooks I dangled in front of them. Player choice, sandbox-vs.-railroad, and dealing adroitly with the curveball creativity of random tables were the values I wanted to uphold in running games. If I’d been playing with people who had just come off of a jag of reading Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser books they would have had a more predictable mindset. One of the typical hooks: A sketchy one-eyed NPC warming his hands by the fire next to them spoke of “the best solution to our empty pockets: a delve into the nearby ancient tomb-mounds of some forgotten barbarians, stuffed with golden treasure and totally unguarded!”
    My friend (and her character), rejected these calls to adventure and greed: “Why would we go into a dangerous hole in the ground? This creepy guy is not trustworthy! Why disturb tombs?” The whole idea of dungeon delving did not appeal to her the way it would to someone who grew up playing the game with “dungeons” in its very name. She persuaded her husband’s character to join with hers in escorting displaced the area’s starving, widowed and orphaned, displaced people NPCs overland to a safer city far away from the war-torn area. It was a pain to make stats, names and distinguishable personalities for these noncombatants on the fly. It serves me right for just thinking the PCs would note the neighborhood was suffering, and then follow hooks to get out of there to raid dungeons and make money.

    Then my friend did some player-driven plot-building when my too-slavishly-followed Fiend Folio wilderness monster table rolled up a merchant caravan encounter. She comes out of a stage and improv background, as well as visual arts. So she said: “That man, I know him! We’ve tangled before!” I think you, Mr. Yora, with your current greater DM experience, would probably be fine with this in your new “PCs have pasts” approach. You would probably flow with the situation and ask your Player for more story, then shrink it to fit what you’ve prepared. I was flustered and just said, “The merchant doesn’t seem to recognize you this time, says farewell and departs up the road.”

    On a differently-related note, I like your 2, 3, and 6 especially, Ruprecht.

    Semi-related idea: the PCs are already a party, a newly-formed, entrepreneurial mercenary company made up of demobilized soldiers or deserters. The DM or players can create a past that appeals. In the current time, these starting-out Hawkswoods will be actively seeking out hooks, or more amenable to them, because it’s inherently their way of making money: “Our startup company needs jobs. We’re sniffing out some potential gigs. Which mission out of these should we take first?”

  4. As gamemaster, you have no obligation to spoon feed the players their adventure hooks. I’ve often just asked the players “This, that, and this other thing are happening in the area. Why is your character in the town, and why would such-and-such an NPC contact you in particular?”

    This approach gives the players the chance to come up with their own hooks, ones that suit their characters: “Bandits are raiding caravans? As the youngest son of the Baron of Irrelevantburg, I can make a name for myself by putting down these brigands.” “And my guy had some relatives working as merchants. I want revenge against the bandits that took their stuff and killed their men.”

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