|What follows is a scrap of trivia . . . my collection
of RPG plots, in abstract form. I built this by examining
the premises of hundreds of published adventures for all systems (including
those systems dear and departed from print), trying to boil them down to
common denominators. The results are presented here: arbitrary, and sometimes
redundant. Nevertheless, I turn to this list when I'm stuck for a fresh
premise for next week's session of my campaign, whatever that campaign
might happen to be about at the time. It helps me keep from falling into
thematic ruts (my least favorite kind). With any luck, it might serve a
similar function for you.
Note: The "plots" are arranged in alphabetical order by title. Since the titles are arbitrary, this serves no useful function at all. And if you want shakespearean five-act hoozits, plot trees, Man Versus Himself and other Serious Literary Bunkum, try Writer's Digest. This ain't Oxford, baby.
Any Old Port in a Storm
The PCs are seeking shelter from the elements or some
other threat, and come across a place to hole up. They find that they have
stumbled across something dangerous, secret, or supernatural, and must
then deal with it in order to enjoy a little rest.
Better Late Than Never
Some bad guys have arrived and done some bad guy things.
The PCs were none the wiser. The bad guys have now made good their escape,
and the PCs have caught wind of it in time to chase them down before they
make it back to their lair, their home nation, behind enemy lines, etc.
Usually through trickery (but sometimes by digging into
the PCs' past), an antagonist has something to hold over the heads of the
PCs and make them jump. This could be any kind of threat from physical
to social, but it depends on the villain having something - even if it's
information - that others don't have. Now, he is pulling the strings of
the PCs, telling them to do things they don't want to. The PCs must end
the cycle of blackmail, deprive the villain of his edge, and keep him temporarily
satisfied while doing it.
Breaking and Entering
Mission objective: enter the dangerous place, and retrieve
the vital dingus or valuable person. Overcome the area's defenses to do
Capture the Flag
The PCs must secure a military target for the good guys.
There are bad guys there that prefer not to be secured. The fundamental
Clearing The Hex
There is a place where bad things live. The PCs must make
it safe for nice people, systematically clearing it of danger.
The PCs are treasure-hunters, who have caught wind of
a treasure-laden ruin. They go to explore it, and must deal with its supernatural
denizens to win the treasure and get out alive.
Don't Eat The Purple Ones
The PCs are stranded in a strange place, and must survive
by finding food and shelter, and then worry about getting back home.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
A crime or atrocity has been committed; the PCs must solve
it. They must interview witnesses (and prevent them from being killed),
gather clues (and prevent them from being stolen or ruined). They must
then assemble proof to deliver to the authorities, or serve as personal
ministers of justice.
The PCs have a valuable object or person, which needs
to be taken to a safe place or to its rightful owner, etc. They must undertake
a dangerous journey in which one or more factions (and chance and misfortune)
try to deprive them of the thing in their care.
The PCs are placed in charge of a large operation (a trading
company, a feudal barony, the CIA) and must, despite lack of experience
in such things, make it work and thrive.
Help is on the Way
A person (church group, nation, galaxy) is in a hazardous
situation they can't survive without rescue. The PCs are on the job. In
some scenarios, the hook is as simple as a distant yell or crackly distress
The PCs, while traveling or exploring, come across a hornet's
nest of bad guys, preparing for Big Badness. They must either find some
way to get word to the good guys, or sneak in and disable the place themselves,
or a combination of both.
How Much For Just The Dingus?
Within a defined area, something important and valuable
exists. The PCs (or their employers) want it, but so do one or more other
groups. The ones that get it will be the ones that can outthink and outrace
the others, deal best with the natives of the area, and learn the most
about their target. Each competing group has its own agenda and resources.
I Beg Your Pardon?
The PCs are minding their own business when they are attacked
or threatened. They don't know why. They must solve the mystery of their
attacker's motives, and in the meantime fend off more attacks. They must
put two and two together to deal with the problem.
Long Or Short Fork When Dining On Elf?
The PCs are a diplomatic vanguard, trying to open up (or
shore up) either political or trade relations with a strange culture. All
they have to do is manage for a day or so among the strange customs without
offending anybody . . . and what information they have is both incomplete
and dangerously misleading.
Look, Don't Touch
The PCs are working surveillance - spying on a person,
gathering information on a beast in the wild, scouting a new sector. Regardless
of the scale, the primary conflict (at least at the start) is the rule
that they are only to watch, listen and learn. They are not to make
contact or let themselves be known.
Someone is gone: they've run away, gotten lost, or simply
haven't called home in a while. Somebody misses them or needs them returned.
The PCs are called in to find them and bring them back.
One or more of the PCs wakes up with no memory of the
recent past, and now they find themselves in some kind of trouble they
don't understand. The PCs must find the reason for the memory lapse, and
solve any problems they uncover in the meantime.
Most Peculiar, Momma
Something both bad and inexplicable is happening (racial
tension is being fired up in town, all the power is out, the beer supply
is drained, it's snowing in July, Voyager still has fans, hordes
of aliens are eating all the cheese), and a lot of people are very troubled
by it. The PCs must track the phenomenon to its source, and stop it.
No One Has Soiled The Bridge
The PCs are assigned to guard a single vital spot (anything
from a mountain pass to a solar system) from impending or possible attack.
They must plan their defensive strategy, set up watches, set traps, and
so on, and then deal with the enemy when it arrives.
Not In Kansas
The PCs are minding their own business and find themselves
transported to a strange place. They must figure out where they are, why
they are there and how to escape.
Ounces of Prevention
A villain or organization is getting ready to do something
bad, and the PCs have received a tip-off of some sort. They must investigate
to find out more about the caper, and then act to prevent it.
Somebody has tinkered with Things Man Ought Not, or opened
a portal to the Mean People Dimension, cracked a wall at the state prison,
or summoned an ancient Babylonian god into a penthouse. Before the PCs
can even think of confronting the source of the trouble, they must deal
with the waves of trouble already released by it: monsters, old foes out
for vengeance, curious aliens who think cars/citizens/McDonald's hamburgers
resemble food, and so forth.
Quest For the Sparkly Hoozits
Somebody needs a dingus (to fulfill a prophecy, heal the
monarch, prevent a war, cure a disease, or what have you). The PCs must
find a dingus. Often an old dingus, a mysterious dingus, and a powerful
dingus. The PCs must learn more about it to track it down, and then deal
with taking it from wherever it is.
A town, castle, starship, outpost, or other civilized
construct is lying in ruins. Very recently, it was just dandy. The PCs
must enter the ruins, explore them, and find out what happened.
Running the Gauntlet
The PCs must travel through a hazardous area, and get
through without being killed, robbed, humiliated, debased, diseased, or
educated by whatever is there. The troubles they encounter are rarely personal
in nature - the place itself is the "villain" of the adventure.
The PCs are on a hunting expedition, to capture or kill
and elusive and prized creature. They must deal with its environment, its
own ability to evade them, and possibly its ability to fight them.
Score One for the Home Team
The PCs are participants in a race, contest, tournament,
scavenger hunt or other voluntary bit of sport. They must win.
The PCs are imprisoned, and must engineer an escape, overcoming
any guards, automatic measures, and geographic isolation their prison imposes
Take Us To Memphis And Don't Slow Down
The PCs are on board a populated conveyance (East Indiaman,
Cruise Ship, Ferry, Sleeper Starship), when it is hijacked. The PCs must
take action while the normals sit and twiddle.
A bad guy (or a group of them, or multiple parties) is
kicking up a ruckus, upsetting the neighbors, poisoning the reservoirs,
or otherwise causing trouble. The PCs have to go where the trouble is,
locate the bad guys, and stop the party.
The PCs are explorers, and their goal is to enter an unknown
territory and scope it out. Naturally, the job isn't just going to be surveying
and drawing sketches of local fauna; something is there, something fascinating
We're On The Outside Looking In
Any of the basic plots in this list can be reengineered
with the PCs on the outside of it. Either the PCs are accompanying other
characters in the midst of such a plot (often being called on to defend
the plot from the outside, as it were), or they are minding their own business
when the others involved in the plot show up, and must pick sides or simply
resist. For instance, with Any Old Port In The Storm, the PCs could already
be enjoying (or native to) the shelter when a strange group arrives. If
the "the PCs are unwelcome" variant is employed, then perhaps
the PCs will be the only voice of reason to still the religious fervor,
racial prejudice, anti-monster sentiment, or whatever else is the source
Tips and Tricks
Surrender yourself to metaphor. I've written the plots in the language of (typically very physical) action-adventure genres, because that's the basic form of roleplaying adventure - but if you're playing on more levels than that, the list can still punch its weight. Just remember that every thing, place, and foe can really be a piece of information, person, and unhealthy attitude, as surely as a space station can be a dungeon and a magical residue can be a fingerprint.
Double up. A nice basic method is the chameleon game, where an adventure presents itself as one type of story in the "hook layer" but reveals itself as something else. Sometimes, the switch is innocent and natural - Don't Eat the Purple Ones, for example, makes a good hook for Running the Gauntlet, and Most Peculiar, Momma is a logical lead for Pandora's Box. Sometimes, the switch is something more sinister or deliberate, with NPCs selling the adventure as one thing when it's really another. This can still be innocent, in its way, if the NPCs have been duped themselves, or if they're just desperate for help and worried that nobody will be eager to tackle the real problem.
Throw yourself a curve. Your players will, anyway, so practice early. Pick two random entries from the Big List and make your adventure on those, no matter what comes up - the first one is the hook layer; the second is the meat of the adventure. If the same entry comes up both times, go with it! Two layers can have a similar structure but very different roots or details.
Double up, part two: Some very satisfying adventures weave two separate (or thematically-related) plots together. An easy way to make this work is to make one plot physical and the other plot personal. That way just one of the plots puts demand on the PCs' location, while the other one can tag along anywhere. For example: the PCs are hired to escort a prince to a summit so he can appear before the masses and end a war (a physical and simple example of Escort Service), but on the way, they realize that the poor guy is suicidal because state obligations have ruined his love life, and must prevent his self-destruction by either fixing the problem or convincing him to shoulder the burden (a personal and metaphorical example of Ounces of Prevention).
Don't Panic. A lot of GMs come to the Big List only once they've begun to panic. Don't crucify yourself just yet! In particular, don't fuss too much over plot, as many GMs do. All of the plots here can provide a tried-and-true, simple structure, and structure is all you need a plot for in a roleplaying game. Remember to play to the strengths of the medium - most all of which are about character, not plot. Only in an RPG can you experience a fictional character on a personal, first-hand level. Outline your adventures to make the most of that. Any plot that contains more than a basic structure is more likely to pull attention away from character, and that's burning the bridge for firewood. All you need to do is be ready to roll with the curves and have fun hamming it up. Relax. Game.
And finally, here's The Little List of Nearly-Universal Plot Twists That Work With Almost Any Plot Ever: The PCs must work alongside an NPC or organization they'd rather not pal around with (those who are normally rivals or villains, or just a snooty expert sent along to "help" them, etc). The victims are really villains and the villains are really victims. The PCs meet others who can help them, but won't unless the PCs agree to help them with their own causes. The villain is somebody the PCs know personally, even respect or love (or someone they fall for, mid-story). The PCs must succeed without violence, or with special discretion. The PCs must succeed without access to powers, equipment, or other resources they're used to having. The villain is a recurring foil. Another group comparable to the PCs has already failed to succeed, and their bodies/equipment/etc provide clues to help the PCs do better. There are innocents nearby that the PCs must keep safe while dealing with the adventure. The adventure begins suddenly and without warning or buildup; the PCs are tossed into the fire of action in scene one. The PCs must pretend to be someone else, or pretend to be themselves but with very different allegiances, values or tastes. The PCs can't do everything and must choose: which evil to thwart? Which innocents to rescue? Which value or ideal to uphold? The PCs must make a personal sacrifice or others will suffer. The PCs aren't asked to solve the problem, just to render aid against a backdrop of larger trouble: get in a shipment of supplies, sneak out a patient that needs medical help, or so on. One of the PCs is (or is presumed to be) a lost heir, fulfillment of a prophecy, a volcano god, or some other savior and/or patsy, which is why the PCs must do whatever the adventure is about. There is another group of PC-like characters "competing" on the same adventure, possibly with very different goals for the outcome.
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This revision of the Big List is the result of several additional years of gaming, game writing, and what hopefully amounts to accumulated wisdom. It's also the result of letters from several readers who poked me in the ribs when I had overlooked something important! Any suggestions for expansion to this list should be directed to me via email, and they will be welcomed with open arms and slobbery kisses. You can also download this article in a spiffy Adobe Acrobat file by visiting the Offsite Downloads Page. If you've enjoyed this article, wander around the site a little, or visit my electronic game-publishing venture, Cumberland Games & Diversions; I've got well over a hundred gaming-related pages you might like, and piles of free files for download!
The Big List of RPG Plots is dedicated to the
many, many fans who've let me know how helpful it's been, and especially
to those who've helped make it better: Peter Barnard, Glen Barnett, Colin
Clark, David Lott, Jason Puckett, Marc Rees, Carrie Schutrick, and Jeff
Yaus, plus a few mysterious heroes who never let me know their true identities.
This is for all the GMs out there logging the hours to give their players
an enjoyable game.
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