When beginning a new campaign, I’m a huge fan of starting right in the action. I’ve tried doing it a handful of different ways, but the one that my players seem to remember the most fondly is this situational puzzle:
They awoke, together, one at a time in a pitch black room with no memory of how they got there. At first they felt around in the dark, trying to get their bearing on their surroundings. The floor was made of rough wooden boards, and there were large wooden beams – almost like benches but not quite wide enough to sit comfortably – running flush from wall to wall at regular intervals. There were also some miscellaneous supplies including rope, a hammer, and a lantern with no oil. Some of them were able to perceive innately that the room was at a tilt, and once one of the players was able to produce light, they could see that the only door into the room was up at ceiling level.
At that point some of them began to correctly suspect that they were upside-down. Or rather, that the structure around them was. The tilt of the rooms became more noticeable the more time they spent walking around. After they climbed up to get through the door, they crossed the next room and took a ladder stair down into the next level where they found a hall with living quarters and small rooms on either side. This level had the same regularly spaced floor beams and ceiling-level doors, which were mostly ajar or broken off their hinges, belongings and furniture that were overturned and scattered, and – after 40 or so feet – the whole hallway ended abruptly as it descended into dark blue waters where a dead body bobbed.
One of them dived and swam past splintered walls and beams to look around before coming back and confirming. “We’re on a ship. Um… half a ship. On the ocean floor.” And that realization cause some of them to remember some things. They remembered being passengers on this ship and a little bit about why they were there, but they couldn’t yet remember what caused it to capsize or the events leading up to them waking up in the cargo hull. I didn’t have a solution in mind while designing this particular situation, but I left them with ample supplies to see what they’d come up with. They ended up scavenging materials to create a makeshift buoy and then tying a rope to it to help guide their ascent. Using that, which mitigated the number of checks they’d have had to make if they were strictly swimming, they were able to all make it to the top with only mild to moderate exhaustion.
The ship was actually resting on an ocean shelf since I didn’t want them to be at an impossible depth to swim from, and the angle of the ship had trapped a large enough air bubble to allow the to survive and also to give them a space to return to and work from. Placing the ship upside down was a decision I made to add a little mystery and hopefully keep them from figuring it all out too soon (the floor beams I described were actually joists as they walked on the upturned ceiling).
A bit of a stretch in believability? Definitely. But often when we talk about our favorite adventures that scene invariably gets brought up, and it makes me kind of proud.