DISCLAINMER: The following contains a minor spoiler for keep on the shadow fell. As-well as a future 1st level adventure I may be running for my group. You have been warned.
The First Encounter of an Adventure can be very important one, in can introduce a new threat to your groups player characters or reveal a new and interesting problem with the area in which they are travelling. One way in which this can be done is Ambushes. So far I have ran only one adventure by WotC for 4th Edition and that was Keep on the Shadowfell.
The First Encounter of said adventure was indeed an Ambush by Kobolds. I actually liked this whole idea of using an ambush to allow the players to realise a threat that plagues the area around Winter Haven and wished to replicate this in future games and adventures.
Ambushes are in fact a very effective way of introducing character to a new adventure in this way though of course you should use more then just ambushes to represent new threats, but allot can still be done with it.
For Example, recently I have been playing around with the following adventure hook that I expanded on as it formed more clearly in my head.
Until a few weeks ago, Highren Manor was home to ex-adventure John Highren who moved into the area of Lake Point after a long arduous career of slaying monsters, embarking on quests that required great heroics and exploring some of the darkest places in the world.
It was at Lake Point, he built his manor swearing to protect it for the rest of his days, tired of the constant travelling and wishing just to settle down in a remote location. Not long after he married, and had a son who would be Lord of the local Lands in the future.
In the time that John Highren had lived at Lake Point a great many myths and rumours arose regarding the building of his Manor and his true purpose in the village. It was said that deep under the manor a series of tunnels and rooms lay where the retired adventurer had hidden a great deal of his treasure and dangerous powerful items he had acquired during his travels. Men and women would spend hours on end speculating over the treasures and hidden knowledge that lay within. Yet no one ever found out.
John Highren was liked by everyone in the village a polite, honourable man he was both respected and loved. His death, murder even brought a great shock to the people of the small fishing village and it sent his son into a great spiral of depression.
Wishing to discover who killed his father and why, the young Lord sent out an invitation to a group of adventurers he had been hearing a lot about, tales of there endeavours constantly reaching him like whispers in the wind he knew they where the right ones for the job, that they could bring his father murderers to justice.
As this adventure (or super adventure if I may) would be designed for relatively new players (to D&D and role-playing in general) I was going to have the game start in a well known rest stop for travellers called the Rounded Wench, known for its comfortable rooms and… services.
Little does the party know they are being tracked by a group of bounty hunters who have been told to make sure the adventurers don’t get to Lakepoint. In effect the bounty hunters represent the threat that murdered the Lords father without even showing themselves yet. As the players investigate more and more into the manor and John Highren’s life, death hand retirement they will constantly be encountering agents of said threat trying to stop them uncovering the secret.
That is why I wanted the initial impression of this hidden threat to not only make the players think wow, we are that important but also be slightly scared that someone is out to get them.
This is why my first encounter is indeed an ambush which can occur in two different ways. One is the party may be deceived into the services of one the bounty hunters who under the disguise as a wench at the inn cries for help saying that her Son has been dragged of into the wilderness by a group of rough looking stranger the other being an ambush as they leave the inn and travel along the road.
This gives me the opportunity to not only introduce some light role-playing to new player but also show using skills (to track down the wenches son, and to try and calm her down so they can find out exactly what happened) and also how certain actions can make this better and worse and that not every one in the world is trustworthy.
Should the players decide to help the wench they will find themselves in a Harder encounter then should they ignore her and decide to head off towards Lake Point.
This is something all DMs should do. Lay an outline of ideas with lots of ways it could go prepping encounter to be adjustable in difficulty based on the situation they occur. And always start the first encounter of an Adventure with a bang.