All GMs see this moment, most of us repeatedly – you have a group of players who are excited to get going, you’ve settled on a game night and time, and they’ve started coming up with characters. It’s a great thing! Everyone’s excited and ready to get going, and the adventure has yet to begin. And now, the GM realizes that the idea in their head isn’t going to mesh well with the characters being assembled, or that they’ve stolen enough of their plot from books, TV shows, and/or movies that the players will recognize that it’ll be problematic.
This is not the problem one might think. If you’re a new GM, take heart, because you can get the players to do the work for you on that front – even ones completely new to RPGs, if they’re sold on the role-playing and story-telling aspects. What you need to do is to get your group together with their characters as mechanically fleshed out as need be and have an introduction session. This has two purposes – one, it gives them a good reason to work together, and two, it gives you material to work with to craft the story and work them into the world.
Once you’ve got them together and all the pre-game silliness out of the way – it will happen, even in groups that are meeting for the first time ever – your goal is to get them to identify who they are, in-character, describe themselves, and then tell you how they know each other. Ask them flat-out to tell you this, and then start tossing suggestions into the mix. If two characters are the same race and close in age, ask if they’re related or if they grew up together. If one is significantly older, ask if they helped mentor anyone else in the party.
Ask if there’s anyone their characters might share in their history – one person’s childhood rival might be the disciple-gone-bad of an older character (and might give you hooks to put them in as an enemy during the game). The black sheep uncle of one might have caused trouble for the family of another, giving them history that can put them at odds, if the one wants to redeem their uncle and the other wants to see justice done, or bring them together, if the relative wants to cleanse the stain on their family name instead by seeing their uncle brought in to be tried for his crimes.
Asking them this will not only tie their histories together and give them reasons to stay in a group together, it avoids the cliche of everyone meeting for the first time in a tavern and then sticking together for no clear reason. It also lets them feel out the personalities of their characters, letting them get used to their character and to one another.
This also lets you lay the seeds for the first actual adventure – if you’ve picked a place to start your game, ask them what they’re doing in town when the campaign starts. Drop them tidbits of information – this caravan or trader just arrived, this festival is due to happen, these holy days are going to happen soon, and so on. Tell them about the town and give hints of adventure hooks – the locals are talking about strange things at night around the old keep on top of the hill that’s been abandoned for years, and the town’s merchants are complaining about a rash of thieves stealing things right out of their basement storage rooms.
See what catches their interest, and then build the actual adventure around that; if the mention of the old fort catches them, go look for a map of a fort and a small dungeon or crypt, and build an adventure with some restless dead. Perhaps the uncle or the rival was here and took something that disturbed the dead, or unleashed a curse on the place. If the merchants complaining and offering a reward for the thieves gets their interest, find a map of some sewers or a cave network – the thieves are actually a small tribe of goblins with trained giant rats that creep in through the underground and make off with goods, and the merchants don’t know because the tribe’s leader is an alchemist who glues the drainage grates back down after each theft. Maybe the goblins work for the rival, who works for the uncle, and then that leads to the fort – or vice-versa, clues in the fort lead to the goblin tribe under the town.
Decide on the rewards for each of these, as well – the town’s mayor, when the players put the restless dead down and drive out the goblins, might well offer to let them have what’s left of the fort and the land on it as a display of gratitude. After all, it certainly can’t hurt to have some people willing to play hero have a reason to stick around and look after the town, right? The merchants, grateful when the source of theft is stopped, might offer them a discount on all their non-magical goods, offer them a direct cash reward, or even find an old piece of equipment that’s been gathering dust and give it to them, unaware that it’s masterwork or has a legacy.
Wrap things up by giving them an excuse to use all those mechanical bits they spent their time on, and let them get their hands dirty with a fight – a couple of lost goblins stumble across them in the middle of the town while trying to figure out how to get back under the town, panic, and try to kill them, or a few skeletons come lurching down from the fort with rusty weapons, hunting for the person who stole whatever was taken – and they fix on the character with the black sheep uncle, sensing the blood ties.
Wrap it up with their first dose of treasure and experience, set the time and date of the next game, and congratulate them on their victory over their first enemies.
Then get to work on that first real adventure, because they’ll probably be looking forward to it.