How to create early engagement in your campaign.
We enter this world in bloody screaming trauma, each of us different from all those that have come before. That trauma and those differences set the stage for what is to come later and anchor us to this life.
Player characters come into their worlds all too often as a combination of dice rolls or points spent and some selections from a more less a universally available list of gear. With staggering regularity the same characters begin their journey in or on their way to a tavern in search of adventure. Aside from a few numbers on their sheet low level characters in most editions bear a striking resemblance to other members of their class.
Many players, myself included, I’m afraid, find this to be boring and off-putting. I contend that if you want characters to engage in the storm and fury of the setting you love, you have to put them into that storm, and make them a part of it.
1. This cannot be overstated, forget about the three chimeras: balance, consistency and orthodoxy.
2. Start the campaign with an initiative roll or some other sort of compelling action, e.g., a pirate raid; escaping a shipwreck; waking to an assassin in the middle of the night; on a cart riding to the gallows; fleeing from the city on horse back with saddlebags full of treasure- perhaps some of it cursed, or too dangerous to fall into the wrong hands.
A meteor falls in the center of town turning everyone but the pcs into undead? Why? I don’t know, you tell me- you’re the referee! Do something crazy. Ride your game like a stolen horse.
3. Customize each player character out of the gate. Give them an interesting minor or even major magic item. Looking to media for examples: In the movie Excalibur, for example Arthur pulls the sword from the stone at the beginning of his story. He doesn’t ‘earn’ it- and that right there is creates all sorts of interesting complications. D’artagnan gets a junk sword from his father that breaks almost immediately and necessitates the acquisition of a new sword. Extra levels are not a bad idea either, D’artagnan is a better swordsman than Porthos right out of the gate, despite the years of experience of the latter. Porthos however, has advantages all his own in the form of an innate ability to get women to pay for all his gear. The Grey Mouser has a couple of level in MU before he begins his career as a thief.
There are so many things you can do to make this happen. Perhaps the character has some dragon in their blood line and can cast a fire ball once a week- perhaps they did it for the first time by accident and are now on the run from the consequences of said deed.
A magic user whose father wanted to make a man out of him and insisted he learn to use a sword.
A locket containing a picture of and haunted by the character’s dead mother who speaks warnings to him in times of danger.
A cask with a strange ruin carved spike protruding from the side- impaling- one's palm on the spike for 1pt of damage causes it to fill with wine.
The skull of the pc’s dead twin- that knows things, important things, and speaks in a voice that all can here, but hates its sibling more than anything and can only be coaxed to speech or silenced by a meal of blood.
Extra hit points
Weird and creepy magic items.
A price on all their heads for a crime they did or did not commit.
Cosmic awareness, or prophetic dreams
See what kind of ideas your players have.
Don’t feel obligated to limit oneself to one or two of these, either and don't worry about balance. You can always make tougher challenges. Always.
So in short, make every character a special snowflake. Every. Single. One.