I make no secret that I have beef with cliché riddled vanilla Tolkien-esque fantasy, but that's a rant for another day. Today's rant is about the cliché riddled vanilla opening scene of a Tolkien-esque fantasy campaign. You know the scene: the player characters (who've probably just met) are sitting an inn and a Cloaked Figure(tm) offers to sell them a map to vast riches, untouched for ages, yet conveniently lies within one day's walk of town. The inn is always the same. Same fireplace, same decor, same rooms, same stew, same beer, same chesty barmaid, same ex-adventurer innkeeper and it probably uses the colour + animal pub naming scheme. The Cloaked Figure(tm) always has sinister motives and will betray the party before the end of the next session. The nearby dungeon has a little more variety, namely the GMs choice of kobolds, goblins, orcs or bandits. We've all played through it, we're all pretty much sick of it. I could go on, but instead I'm going to offer a list of alternate ideas for starting off a campaign.
1. You're in the +2 inn of cliché, but before you can finish the first round of drinks it's firebombed by a thieves guild because the innkeep is behind on his protection money.
2. Same bar, but an NPC rushes in with a troop of the local guard and accuses the PCs of a crime none of them have committed, who then have to deal with the consequences.
3. Same bar, but in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Think Shaun of the Dead.
4. Start the game in medias res, the PCs have just made the hand off the MacGuffin to the Cloaked Figure(tm) after going through the cliche scenario only to have a pair of assassins kill him and try and make a grab for the MacGuffin. Expect the PCs to care about this because they haven't been paid yet.
5. Try a story within a story; where you have a well-established party flashback to their first meeting. Experiment with a game mechanic for shifting narrative control between players.
6. PCs have been invited to spend a weekend at a secluded manor in the wilderness, when other guests start disappearing...
7. The PCs are part of a trade caravan on the run from a rampaging horde of goblins.
8. The PCs are a tribe of goblins trying to raid a caravan for supplies.
9. The PCs are at masquerade ball, when a group of revolutionaries seize control of the house and try and hold the guests for ransom.
10. Ninjas attack. If it works for NaNoWriMo, it can work for you.
11. The PCs are walking through the market district of the city when bears start running wild through the scene, causing panic and destruction. The bears could have escaped from a nearby bear-baiting pit or been sent by evil druids.
12. The players awaken on an alien spaceship. Before they make their escape they learn that a full-scale invasion is imminent.
There you have it, a dozen different ways to start a campaign that are unique and refreshing. It's amazing what you come up with when you flex your creative muscles a little.