The purpose of the beginning of an adventure is to draw the players into the story. You want them to develop and emotional stake in the game. The more emotionally invested a player is in a game, the more motivated he’ll be to play it out to the end. But how do you get your players emotionally invested? This is where you need to know your players: what make them game? Why do they come back session after session? Is it the excitement of combat or the chance to pretend to be someone else for a while?
If you’ve been gaming with a group for a while, you usually have a good idea of your players and what they most enjoy about gaming. If not, ask them, then make sure you include that in your beginning. The worst thing that can happen to a GM is to present the adventure to your players and have them either totally ignore it, or completely reject it. If you read much about GMing at all, you’ll hear about player “hooks”. Hooks are things that motivate a PC, that grab the player’s interest and pull them into the game.
The best hooks come from a PC’s background. This is where writing your own adventurers becomes truly useful, because you can write hooks for each character into the plot of the game itself. If a published adventure, you can be stuck trying to invent convoluted reasons for your PCs to take on the adventure at hand. An example: one of group’s PCs is a fighter who discovers that she and her party are taking shelter with the widow of an old army buddy of hers and that this friend’s widow is in distress and needs help.
There’s no limit to the types of hooks you can create. You can also create hooks that refer back to unfinished business earlier in the campaign. Say that your party encountered a priest early in your campaign; later they get word that this priest has started delving into forbidden lore. The now PCs have a connection to what’s happening with that priest. And if they had confronted the priest about other less-than-holy behavior, but let the priest go during that earlier encounter–or the priest escaped their custody–the PCs are likely to feel a responsibility to set things right. Nothing keeps a player more invested in a game than a responsibility he assumes voluntarily.
You want to keep your beginning short. Try to open with an exciting scene that draws players immediately into the story. You want your beginning to communicate to your players that things are not as they should be and that the players have the possibility of putting things right. Your opening encounter should immediately convey what’s wrong and give a hint that it could be fixed by the PCs. Without that hint, you run the danger of your players feeling that the problem is too big for them to tackle themselves. So your opening encounter should be challenging, but the PCs should be able to overcome it without too much difficulty. Remember that this is the warm-up for the entire adventure.
In many ways, the beginning can be the most important part of your adventure. You need to establish from the start that things aren’t as they should be, while drawing the PCs (and the players) into the adventure by tying the action into their background–whether that’s their own character background or something that happened to the party during an earlier part of the campaign. If you can get the players to care about what’s happening in the beginning of an adventure, they’re more likely to see it through to the end.
[This is an excerpt from the upcoming Adventure Creation Handbook].