It's the night before session 1 (or like 30 minutes before I don't judge.) Where is everyone going to be starting off? You can't start in a tavern, that's cliche and bad DMing!
Except it's not, it's just gotten a bad rep.
I'm a fan of starting in a Tavern. (I mean, I'd hope so, I named a business after it. ) It can do a lot of wonders to start players off in a social hub, but starting in a tavern has gotten a bad reputation from some things that tend to come hand in hand with it. Once we get past those little snags, we can start in any tavern we wish with any barkeep we want.
The biggest one is a lack of GM input.
When you drop your players in a Tavern, there tends to be a lack of things to do, at least that can be what it looks like for the players. If you leave a group of characters that haven't played together before (and maybe some players who've never played DnD) and ask them to roleplay for half a session before you add a plot hook on them. You're asking for awkward disaster as the opening to the campaign. A short interaction with the waiter or waitress that you have NPC-ing around the bar isn't enough to keep the players in the game and engaged, and asking them to engage each other and the world without you giving the olive branch is just putting too much pressure on them, and asking for the classic 'I guess I approach the man in the corner as he looks interesting.'
In short, you're GOD and this is session one. There are hundreds of ways that we can get around giving people nothing to work with so here are a few we use can get the party started.
1. The Tavern Brawl
Whether it's over a spilled drink or a assumed insult, a tavern brawl can be a fantastic way to get everyone together on one side doing nothing other than duking it out with some NPC's that don't really matter. Keep in mind, this isn't a normal combat, it's a BRAWL, put away the dice (except for some cool checks) and let the Dwarf Viking elbow drop someone through a table, let the Dragonborn Swashbuckler alligator death roll someone across the floor, let the Genasi Druid turn into an Elk and spill a full table of drinks, and of course the Bard manages to keep his tune the entire way through. Have some fun. (These might be examples from one of my parties.)
Seeing as we're playing in theatre of the mind, you can push the party together with a combined purpose. Maybe everyone else in the bar is from in town and has decided that they are gonna make the new people feel welcome, maybe they just seem like the strongest guy in the bar and they need to get taken down a peg. Who knows?
Like absolutely everything I suggest, it's better with a session 0 but you can also pull it out on 4 (or 5 or 6, you get the idea) unassuming party members that don't know one another, and let the additional DM power that theatre of the mind gives you to pull the party together. Then they bond over drinks after, and have something to talk about. Awkward opening averted.
2. Don't I know You From Somewhere?
When I run a campaign (at least the ones I run recently) I add a simple rule during character creation. 'Everyone needs to know and want to be out working with, at least one other person in the party.'
The connections don't have to be crazy strong, heck they can be pretty weak. "We're from the same church and were sent out here together." "He's my cousin." "We were guards at the same jail." This sort of thing helps the party have a through-line roleplaying wise. They wouldn't need to all walk into the bar separately and decide to talk to one another; they're there together seeing as it's Kaltherok, his Brother in Law and the Girl that Kaltherok's Brother in law lived next-door to (Before the EVIL WIZARD destroyed their homes). They'd be sitting at a bar together in the first place, which doesn't kill the awkward, but it makes it less cringe-inducing.
Sometimes a way you can swing this in (If everyone wants to be a hermit in their backstory) is to have them have done an adventure sometime in the past together. Of course, this solution only works for parties that aren't starting at level 1, but it makes sure that everyone has something to talk about, and maybe some gold to spend. Awkward Opening Averted.
3. The Morning After
Oh boy. Wasn't last night great? There's still a goat on the roof and nobody can find the magician that put it up there. Good times.
Did you think we had to start in a tavern at night? The morning after can be a hilarious way to bring a group of party members together in an opening session reminiscent of 'The Hangover'. The town guards are going to arrest those four people from out of town who had a big part in that giant party last night, unless they can put everything in town back together before Sundown! Trace your way through opening shenanigans with the full party bringing all of their skills to the table. Prestidigitation to clean the bard's new paint job on the guardhouse. Thieve's tools to get the statue you stole from the noble's house back inside without him noticing. Defined purpose, teamwork and a laugh to bring everyone onto the same page.
If you're going to do this one, ALWAYS have the players "roll to remember" what happened during the night with the things you're making them fix. Knowing that the bard painted the guard house. Okay. Finding out the guard paid him 10 silver (which you can find where you hid it) to do it as the bard was pretending to be a famous painter? Priceless.
4. The Call to Action
So here’s the simple thing, most of the awkwardness that comes from starting in a tavern can come from a simple fact, there isn’t a lot of CLEAR things to do in a tavern. There is lots to do, but there isn’t always an overt action that someone can use to get comfortable in their new roleplaying environment.
This can be solved pretty easily by having someone burst onto the scene with a literal call to action. Sure the Paladin is at the bar drinking water, and the ranger is in the corner looking cool, but once the Blacksmith bursts in saying that the guards need help as there is some beast outside. The party volunteer. (Use a hydra for a high-level campaign, they are sweet.)
The key in this opening is that we once again give the party unified purpose. The group is now bonded as the only people in the bar that stepped up to help the poor people of the town when the mayor ’s daughter was kidnapped, or someone needed to stop the Koblad raid. First of all, this gets them into combat together, second of all it does make it so that the townsfolk see them as a group. They aren’t just the PC’s they’re the small town heroes.
And that should be it.
So that should be enough to get you going tomorrow or whenever you need to get going for your campaign. If you need anything else, I’m Jackson I’m the barkeep, and you should get back to adventuring.
We’ll probably talk about starting the campaign again someday, but for this week, our next topic will be beginning with alignment in your new campaign.