Like all GMs, there are times when I know I need an idea, I know what the reason is and what will be done with it – I just don’t know what it is. There’s this empty spot in my mind labelled “Idea goes here”, but I’m absolutely bereft of inspiration, and the deadline is fast approaching. I found myself in this exact situation in January, while preparing for the Pulp game I co-referee (run using the Hero system), set vaguely in the mid-1930s.
We currently have the players investigating a ‘Sons of The Serpent*’ riff in which the KKK are agitating Black factory workers in the northern states to strike for equal rights, pay, and conditions, creating industrial dispruption, which is creating disaffection amongst the caucasian workers and bolstering their credibility outside the Deep South, while reinforcing the prejudices of their normal constituancy. This creates a situation in which the players are being forced to take a stand against something they personally believe in, purely to stop the bad guys from exploiting it for their own ends, and setting the embrionic civil rights movement back decades or more.
*”The Sons Of The Serpent” are a modern-day KKK who attempted to use racial tension to take over the US in Marvel Comics’ “Captain America”.
This is all the handiwork of one particularly charismatic and fiendishly clever master villain, who could potentially ride the issue all the way into the White House. The PCs mission is to not only derail the plan, but to discredit the villain in the eyes of the KKK to remove him from a position of power before he can come up with a backup plan.
The assumption we’ve (the co-GMs) been going with is that the PCs will need to manufacture a skeleton in the master villain’s closet in order to achieve this, but more and more over January I found myself thinking that we should have a real one ready to go in case the players aren’t as clever as we hope (and they think) they are. At the same time, I wanted to avoid all the cliche ideas, simply because the villain would never have risen to the rank of Grand Dragon with anything so obvious in his past (and besides, cliches are so anticlimactic).
So that defines the needed idea in terms of its purpose. But all day long, my mind has been coming up empty. So, what do I do when this situation manifests – given that we’re playing tomorrow? (NB: This is actually being posted months after it was written, so as not to give secrets away to the players, at least one of which is a regular reader).
The General Solution
My usual technique, which rarely lets me down, is to define exactly what it is that I don’t want, and what criteria the right idea will have to contain. I then generalise the ideas that I don’t want, and look at what, generally, will both fit the criteria for success but isn’t one of the solutions I don’t want and am trying to avoid. I can then refine and polish the result to a specific.
Applying The General Solution To The Specific Problem
The obvious (and cliched) solution is for the villain to have a non-caucasian ancestor somewhere in his past. Another cliche to avoid is having the villain be a Nazi agent. The right idea has to be neither of these, but has to be something that will irretrievably damage the villain’s credibility in the eyes of his organisation.
The first cliche can be stated generally as a flawed ancestry. The second can be stated as an ulterior political motive – the racial equality theme loses its punch if the Grand Dragon is not a True Believer. So those are what I don’t want.
What else would a redneck member of the KKK believe in? There are only two things, really: Religion and The South. The idea that the bad guy – or one of his ancestors – might not have the right religion would work, but would also cloud the story and detract from the power of the theme. But the notion that the bad guy’s direct ancestors opposed the South, or better yet, betrayed the South, would be the sort of skeleton that would definitly achieve the objective. The concept that the bad guy’s ancestors were actually spies for the North during the Civil War fits the empty space labelled “idea” perfectly.
Problem solved. From here, it’s just a matter of adding details as necessary. Drop in referances so that the PCs know that he’s proud of his Civil War heritage. Add an idea shamelessly stolen from the West Wing about a Southern state having had its copy of the Bill Of Rights “liberated” by a Northern state during the war – it’s somehow ended up as part of this guy’s inheritance, and is proudly displayed on his wall – and wait for someone to put the pieces together, that “A” doesn’t jibe with “B”. A little shoe leather later, and some research in Northern military archives (the South never knew his ancestor was a spy), and the PCs should be able to find all the ammunition they need. (This also fits another of the key background subplots of the scenario, which is that the PCs are being sent to do someone else’s dirty work because the Government sees them as an easy answer; having the government in posession of the solution the whole time is just so appropriate!)
That’s how I usually solve a mental block. Try it for yourself and see if it works for you, too!