I think a lot of DMs have one of these: a town, village, or just chunk of the world into which you can drop first-level characters. This may be composed of a village you’ve memorized from a favorite old-school module, or just bits and pieces you’ve used in DMing over the years, all cobbled together into a loosely held starter area.
It really depends on the story. An occult auction where something unexpected happens. In media res on a train. The remote manor of a wealthy patron. I will say that I prefer to flesh out a small neighborhood that can have meaningful landmarks and relationships rather than an entire city. (In a Planescape campaign, I would want characters to inherit a small building or be closely connected to a specific inn rather than treat Sigil like a bus station.)
I cannot say I have a starter. It has been a rowdy tavren, a quiet village, a crowded city. They have been simple farmers, street thugs, the King’s officers and more. I try and switch up the location and background every tiume.
I don’t have any saved templates of any kind. For me the start is usually tailored to the campaign or to the group in particular. The group I have at the table usually determines how much effort is required on a starting location.
At my old shop we had about 10 players that liked to “sit in” with only 4-6 of them that regularly showed up to games consistently and on time. It was a rowdy group that could be very difficult at times, they liked to give everyone a hard time especially the DM. If I wasn’t extremely detailed in the how’s and why’s for the group or its mission there were always delay’s to the game.
I am a huge fan of the anime adventurer guild trope, so I guess it would be my go to theme when starting a small campaign or single scenario for a con or new group. In those instances I prefer the guild hall / guild tavern location to start. Once I even requested the group watch a specific anime episode that set the scene for the start I wanted.
I second the usefulness of Dyson logos its an awesome resource for maps, I’ve used them off and on for years. The site has a pretty big list of commercial content that can be used for any project. Prior to my early retirement I was building a campaign specifically to run at cons and was working on a companion site, it was a great help finding maps I could legally use so easy.
It really depends on the campaign and story of the world. I put in things that serve the backstory and/or the peoples of the plot. Who’s there? What are they doing? Why are they doing that? How does that impact the characters from day one? What, from character backstories, can I add?
Then I run with it based on what the players have their characters express interest in.
My location always changes but the resources available do not. The PCs have access to common gear, books/info, and shelter in some random centrally located place. Usually a humble town. In my current urban game, it’s the temple of Selune which is supportive of the PCs.
With a group that is first playing together, I am fond of using the Challenge of Champions adventure from Dungeon magazine. There are six of them and they each feature a set of ten puzzles in a series of areas with provided equipment that can be used to solve said puzzles… much like a series of escape rooms, actually.
There are metrics to score the performance built in and given in the adventure, and the final scores of all the NPC contestants are also given.
It is a simple and easy adventure and even fun for those who are competitive or like puzzles… but I find the real value is in how the players react to the challenges and each other and the information on play style and preferences I can glean thereby.
I will host said challenge in different areas of the world every time and the adventures and campaign proceed from there. Sometimes the players will win the attention of a patron by performing well at the challenge who will hire the lot of them.
If the campaign is set in Greyhawk, this Challenge will also set the weather, lunar phase, and seasonal time for the region, as there are four week long festivals observed across most of the Flaaness, one for each major season during which such a Challenge would logically be hosted.
No where in particular except everyone is already there. Most important thing for me is that session zero has the party already knowing, trusting, and working together. From there it’s whatever suits spawning the first adventure point.
I always really liked the set-up from EPT: your character literally just stepped off the boat and was now in Jakalla–what do you do? Right off the bat you’re an outsider in a place that doesn’t much like outsiders. The characters tended to stick together for a bit, at first, so they could find their way around and get things sorted out.
That inspired my creation of a “You Ain’t From Around Here” table of options for player characters. I also provide the option to roll on a “One of the Locals,” or “Unfortunate Heirs,” tables to get some sort of clue as to how the player characters relate to the starting place…which can shift from game to game, based on the group, rules, etc.
I never realized that some of the first session stuff that I was taking for granted amounts to a sort of ‘Session Zero’ sort of thing. I just saw that as the natural way to get everyone going and introduced to each other and to establish some details about the setting, etc. I’m kind of liking the notion to sort of formalize this and make it a bit more of a dialogue with the players, might help some of them get better in-tune with the setting, system, approach, etc.
That all aside, I really like starting out in a small camp, outpost, or seriously hardscrabble enclave off in the hinterlands so the players can go anywhere, but also they find out about better places to go visit than where they started out. Resources are sparse, peril is all around, and there are a lot of ne’er do wells about who do not mean the PCs any good. Loads of motivation to learn everything they can and get on down the road to just about anywhere. Except when someone gets the bright idea to try and take over the place. That works too, just makes for a different sort of game is all. Can be a load of fun, with the right group.
I don’t just do D&D so like many of these kinds of questions people ask: “It depends on the game and its setting.” It is almost never the same place or a reused place unless I’m literally running a new attempt for a complete campaign with an entirely different group of players. If I’ve run the campaign from beginning to end then that’s it, I’m done with it, new campaign time.
I play a lot of Mongoose Traveller (2008 edition). It is useful to use a cosmopolitan planet (Efate) where a variety of sophont species, and human subspecies, can get along. It helps that the same planet allows player characters to buy exotic high-technology gear. Furthermore, there are almost no laws on that planet that the player characters can break. So there are resources the PCs can use, it is plausible that almost anyone could be there, and the planet is unusually tolerant of differing social and political views. It’s hard for PCs to get themselves into trouble there, but they will manage it somehow!