When you start a Pathfinder or D&D game for new players, there are some things you need to keep in mind. New players generally trust their GM and are willing to go along with whatever they’re presented with. They’re also quick to lose trust and get bored if the game doesn’t deliver. Finally, they aren’t likely to think of their characters as real people and will not be inhibited when it comes to acting crazy or committing crimes. GM’s used to running sophisticated campaigns can be frustrated by new players “not taking the game seriously” when in reality, the fact they sat down and made a character / invested a night is as serious as anyone can take a new hobby. They’re just trying to have fun.
The first adventure for a group of new players works best if the risks / rewards for different actions are clear, and the main adventure is morally ambiguous. Role-playing games can be a lot for a new player to wrap their head around, so giving them some certainty about what they should be doing is helpful. They’ll be distracted enough with figuring out how to actually play the game.
Using a mentor can simultaneously make the players aware of the hidden rails while giving them a clear feeling about what they can accomplish. New players won’t consider the possibility that the mentor / narrator is unreliable and will think of him as the GM’s personal voice. Let them.
Imagine an old wizard in a red robe sitting next to the fire in an inn. The waiter tips the party off about the guy, claiming he is looking to hire adventurers, and to be careful because he’s known for his temper. Tell them the wizard killed a hundred men with a single spell the last time the village was attacked. When the party introduces themselves to him, he will try to sell them on an adventure.
His most powerful magics are at work keeping a demon from insulting the king, and he has to spend most of the day redrawing his spell circles. His house guard and most trusted friends are hunting the necromancer that originally summoned the demon. While he was traveling the other worlds fixing his circles, his mind wandered and the barrier around his home weakened. Some goblins that work for the necromancer broke in and stole a spell book. He wants the party to retrieve it.
This setup answers a lot of basic questions.
Why can’t you do it if you’re so powerful? Because I’m busy doing something difficult.
Why don’t you have your high-level friends do it? They’re out of town handling something dangerous.
What if we just kill you or take over the town? I’ll kill you like I killed everyone else that tried.
Why is this important? I need the counter spells in the book in case the necromancer comes back.
What if we don’t get it? Then I’ll have to hunt for new counter spells and hope the necromancer doesn’t realize I’m vulnerable.
Why do you need us? I’m busy. My allies are busy. I’m hiring new help.
Can we actually beat these goblins? Yes, I believe you can. It’ll be dangerous, but you can do it.
The Meat of the Adventure
Once the setup is out of the way, you can run any sort of adventure. I recommend 4-6 CR 1-2 encounters and a CR 3-4 encounter to finish it off. Most first level parties can handle that, though you can raise the difficulty for powerful combat focused parties (cleaving fighter, archer, sleep spell wizard, healer cleric) or make it easier for parties of weaker characters (rogue, bard, monk, sorcerer).
New players will usually be entertained even if the dungeon is a straight hallway with the monsters lined up. If you have the time, you can put in as much detail as you like.
A part of running an adventure for new players is teaching them how to play. To do that, you want to give them the opportunity to screw around with the other elements of the game. Mostly, that includes diplomacy, puzzles, and tactics.
Let the party stumble across someone they can help or hurt. This NPC can be trustworthy or not, but new players will assume that all NPCs will be similar. If the side quest character betrays them, they will see it as the GM messing with them, rather than a character being true to his motivation. I find it better to build trust with the players for a long time before introducing NPCs with hidden motivations.
I like the idea of the farmer / warrior who’s trying to rescue someone from the goblins. He is willing to help them (make him weaker than a PC, but still useful) if they take him along to search the goblin nest for his lost whoever / whatever. He might have some treasure – a couple healing potions or his father’s +1 sword. The party could kill him and take it, bargain with him, or just bring him along and be good to him. As the GM, it shouldn’t really matter. Let the players indulge in their preferences, but if they decide to do something evil, don’t go out of your way to “punish” them for it.
Maybe someone is watching, and the party needs a perception check to notice.
There are hundreds of them online and for sale. Find one or two for your dungeon. The puzzle should lead to an easier fight or extra treasure – not the only path forward. I’ve lost hours of my life to games with doors that wouldn’t open. It’s not cute. It’s boring. I promise.
Present an area to the party where combat looks and sounds difficult, but they have a strong advantage. Maybe the goblins are playing music and their guards are distracted, giving them a chance to scout out the situation and terrain. There could be a heavy door to a side chamber that can be locked, a cave ready to collapse, a retractable bridge over an obstruction, or whatever. Let the players decide what to do, but by the time they discover this large group of goblins, they should have played through a few fights so that they know how dangerous it is.
Give the players a choice. Maybe they found out where the necromancer lives. They could take him the spell book, hoping for a bigger reward, or they could return it to the wizard that hired them. Many players will be excited at the idea of being evil. There’s not really any harm in it, as long as you can continue to foster the idea that NPCs are allowed justified reactions.
I hope these ideas help you create a memorable first adventure.
If you enjoy sword and sorcery, check out my free web serial: Winoc the Traveler