"So you meet these total strangers in a tavern, and twenty-four hours later you're trusting each other with your lives. I don't think so!"
Adventure designers often have trouble explaining why characters are involved in the action. In the early days it was simple; they met in a tavern, decided (for no readily apparent reason) to work together, went out to trash the nearest dungeon, and came back to get legless and split up the loot afterwards. Optionally they also fought over the loot and killed off the weakest characters. Simple, and in games worlds that contained nothing but monsters and occasional peasants it worked reasonably well, but a little repetitive.
This opening evolved into to the bar-room brawl, in which the whole point of the "adventure" was for the characters to fight each other and the rest of the world. Usually each character was given reasons to help a couple of others, and a reason to kill someone else. Brawls were rarely a good starting point for extended adventuring; their influence lingers on mainly in freeform live action games, where these complex interlocking motives (but not usually the associated violence) are the norm, and in backstabbing RPGs like West End Games' Paranoia, where most characters are victims of "friendly" fire several times per scenario.
The next phase of gaming saw adventures begin with a subtly different scene; the adventurers went to a tavern / spaceport bar / hotel room / office to meet an NPC who explained a situation and gave them a couple of cryptic clues, and was generally killed two paragraphs into the adventure. The adventurers then had to follow up their instructions / hints / dying words and come back to get legless / their reward / double-crossed afterwards. The advantage of this scene was that characters didn't need to know each other before the meeting; the NPC had presumably done all the hard work of finding out about their talents and assembling a viable team - although you often had to assume the criteria were extraordinarily obscure. The classic example of this genre was GDW's Traveller supplement 76 Patrons, consisting of encounters with these curious characters, the stories they tell the adventurers, and some randomly selected outcomes.
You can do a lot with patrons, and with meetings in general, especially if characters are meeting for the first time; slip in a character who is secretly working against the rest of the team, set up a meeting for some entirely different reason that just happens to bring similar interests together (group therapy works quite well in Call of Cthulhu games), or send the adventurers off on a total wild goose chase. You can do nasty things to individual characters before the meeting. For example, I wrote a Traveller adventure in which various criminals were summoned to Earth by a mastermind who was recruiting a team for an armed robbery. One player decided that his character wanted to learn more about the mastermind, and decided to scout out the meeting place beforehand; he hung around for several hours and behaved so oddly that he was arrested. The master criminal learned of the arrest and acted quickly; the adventurers were told to meet at a different place and time, leaving the character in the hands of the law. Nobody else knew that he existed, since the remaining characters met for the first time after the arrest, and the mastermind never mentioned him. The player wasn't happy - when last heard of his character was beginning a twenty year suspended animation sentence for previous crimes, and is presumably still on ice - but the incident demonstrated the ruthlessness of the "patron", and gave the players pause for thought.
A variant that may have been over-used is the reading of a will; the adventurers are told that they are heirs to the estate of a previously-ignored relative, and handed an inheritance which leads them into a strange situation. This is certainly a cliche in Call of Cthulhu, where every character seems to have four or five relatives that are only heard of when they die or go insane, but it's a natural for any system which emphasises deduction and problem-solving. There are some interesting possibilities; the adventurers might have to pass some test to qualify for the inheritance; maybe the situation has secretly been set up by the adventurers' enemies; perhaps the will is genuine but the relative hated the rest of his family and is setting them up for posthumous revenge. Often the inheritance is nothing but trouble; in one modern adventure I gave a character a 5ft long WW2 surplus anti-tank rifle that was modified to fire silver bullets with depleted uranium cores, a bunch of keys, and a map of London's docklands. I never actually got round to running the planned adventure, since the players missed some vital clues, but they got into endless trouble trying to make sense of this inheritance without my "help".
Another good variant on the meeting is the mission briefing, often found in espionage settings and other games which assume a formal organisational structure. The definitive example of this scene can be found at the start of most episodes of Mission Impossible. It rarely makes sense for the organisation to mislead its operatives, unless they are being tested in some way, so the briefing may be accurate but describe a hair-raisingly dangerous situation, accurate but incomplete, or outdated by events.
The Judge Dredd RPG formerly published by Games Workshop made effective use of briefings in the style of TV's Hill Street Blues, using reports to present a mixture of clues, background data, and red herrings. I've come across (and written) adventures in which the briefing is simply an excuse to get the characters somewhere so that they can become involved in a completely different plot; in Paranoia this is almost the norm, and troubleshooters rarely complete their assigned missions, in less twisted settings it should come as a nasty surprise. An excellent example was an adventure published for TSR's Top Secret, which gave characters a complex briefing for a paramilitary operation, allowed them to select their equipment and spend some time developing a plan, put them on a plane for transport to the scene of the operation, then used a brief radio message to divert them to a more urgent crisis in an area where their plan was useless and much of their equipment was inappropriate or dangerous.
An excellent way to kickstart an adventure is to begin it like an action
film, in media res*; the adventurers don't have any choice
about getting involved in events, they are already in action. This is very
common in spy and superhero games, which often open with heroes in the middle
of a developing crisis, and in heavily action-orientated games such as Daedalus
Entertainment's Feng Shui and West End's Star Wars, less
so in other genres. Watch any disaster or crime movie, especially those involving
hijackings or hostage situations, for examples of the sort of thing that can be done.
The down-side is that starting like this can leave characters dead or injured
before the plot really gets under way. Definitive examples are the opening
sequences of The Spy Who Loved Me or The Living Daylights; most
of the other James Bond films come close.
*In the middle of things
It may seem that everything I've described sounds a little cliched, but this is simply because these openings work. Adventures aren't literature, they're usually pulp fiction; the aim of these opening movements is to get characters involved in the plot, so they tend to push in a clearly-defined direction. Given this, some aspects are bound to be a little formulaic, but there's plenty of scope for new ideas, or for revising old ones. Mixing elements from several types of opening can be a good start; for example, a traditional bar-room brawl might be an excellent prelude to a Star Wars adventure. Try to be innovative, and avoid repeating yourself too often, but don't forget that you want to be entertaining too. There's room for lyrical descriptive passages once you're up and running, if that's what you like, but getting the players into the mood, and into the action, has to come first.
Marcus L. Rowland