Last week I offered seven-and-a-half secrets to the art of successfully creating ‘adventures on the fly‘, with minimal or no prep. The fourth “secret” (everyone knows it now, even if they didn’t know it before!) was incomplete, presented only in summary form, because I could tell that it was going to take more room and space to detail than I had available.
To refresh your recollection, the third secret offered a standard list of plotline components, covering everything from the setting(s) in which the action takes place to the antagonist/enemy, each of which needed to have content allocated to them before the ad-hoc plotline was complete. The fourth secret concerned the starting point for filling that list of plot elements, the focus around which the rest of a plotline could be constructed, and offered a list of six sources for the central idea:
- A plot idea – usually a set of circumstances or a problem that will complicate the lives of the PCs;
- A character idea – some aspect of one or more of the PCs or non-villainous NPCs that can be connected to an antagonist;
- A villain idea – some cool or interesting idea for a new antagonist or a new way to use or develop the story of an existing antagonist;
- A location idea – a map or image or description that inspires a plotline;
- An external idea – stealing an idea from something I’ve read or watched or heard;
- PC Actions – when the PCs have something definite that they want to achieve, I’ll sometimes have no fixed plotline and just leave them to interact with the campaign world, coming up with antagonists and complications on the spur of the moment.
This week, I’m going to fill in the gap in the article by looking at each of these in detail. So, if everyone’s all caught up, let’s go…
“Where do you get your ideas?”
One of the questions that all writers gets asked to distraction is “where do you get your ideas?”. This is also a question that one GM sometimes asks another, especially if there is a disparity in their levels of experience behind the game screen.
It is a question that can be annoying, because few writers can give a good answer – and some of those who could are so annoyed at being asked it for the ten thousandth time that they don’t. I’ve heard everything from “I just make something up” to “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you” in response – neither of which is particularly helpful. I’ve also heard writers who make an honest attempt to answer the question each time, perhaps remembering when they were young and struggling and asking that question of their literary idols at conventions and the like.
One of the best answers that I’ve ever heard ran like this: “I write down the most ridiculous idea I can think of, then start trying to make it sound plausible. The idea gets lost, replaced, in rewrites, leaving only the plausibility.” (I wish I could attribute the quote, but I no longer remember who said it!)
The subject of this article is to talk about where I got my ideas back when I was coming up with adventures on the fly, and where (to some extent) I still get them, to this day.
A plot idea without prep
The fact that I’m talking about plot ideas with no prep time required imposes some additional requirements – in particular, the fact that there is no time to research the ideas. If any knowledge is required, I have to bring it with me to the table as information that I already possess.
The implication is that the more widely read a GM is, the greater the ease with which he can run adventures on the fly. There are a couple of reasons why I consider this implication to be completely valid: not only does it give the GM more resources to draw on when fleshing out his plotlines, but it gives him a wider pool of ideas to draw apon. I gave a very selected list of influential sources, both written and media, in June last year, under the title ‘A Medley Of Inspiring Media’, so I’m not going to go any further into that aspect of things at the moment, but I would estimate that I have read more than 5000 volumes of fiction, more than 2000 tomes of non-fiction, and a couple of hundred books of anecdote that skirt the dividing line between the two. That doesn’t count roughly 300 game-related books and eBooks. Throw in a DVD collection that numbers in the hundreds and a Video collection that’s even larger. All of that is grist for the mill when it comes to devising adventures.
The Newspaper Challenge
That should not be taken as suggesting that anyone without a background of that order can’t come up with plots on-the-fly. If you need to convince yourself that you have enough experience to do so, try the following:
- Obtain a copy of your daily newspaper.
- Go through it, one story at a time, one page at a time – and don’t forget the adverts!
- With a blue pen, put an asterisk next to each headline or paragraph that you can turn into a plot, or a plot element, in your current RPG.
- Count up the asterisks.
- Draw confidence from the total.
That exercise will usually produce a tally of 100+ for a modern campaign, and 50+ for a fantasy campaign. Seriously.
Some of the plot ideas will be silly and some saccharine or uninteresting; that doesn’t matter. The point of the exercise is to demonstrate how many ideas are out there for the taking, just waiting to drop into your lap; and once you have an idea, the execution of that idea is a matter of technique and experience.
I just happen to have a newspaper handy. Here’s what I can extract from the first 10 pages alone:
- The suspect in a collar-bomb hoax extortion attempt was tracked down by his emails. That gives an obvious plotline direct from the headlines.
- A political party is in trouble after lending an MP the money to avoid bankruptcy, and the MP failed to disclose the transaction.
- An airline’s plans to shed 1000 jobs has come under fire from all sides, with fears that up to 5000 additional jobs could be lost. In my mind, I keep linking this with the movie Wall Street, which was repeated on Television just last week – a movie about the price of Greed.
- Politicians have been given an increase in their allowances amounting to an extra $1500 a year – the increase being more than twice the rate of inflation.
- One of the TV networks is looking to resurrect successful shows from the 70s and 80s in an attempt to bolster its profitability – which suggests the possibility of a time-travel plotline in which fashion, culture, and society begins to regress.
- A shoe has been found in the search for the body of a teenager missing since 2003. This sounds like the basis for a mystery / detective plot.
- A mobile phone ad promises “infinite txt calls”, suggesting a message from space of infinite length.
- There’s an advert for the airline that is shedding jobs which suggests that they want to transform themselves from a common carrier into an elite service for the rich and well-heeled businessmen. This suggests a plot about a trend towards isolationism, preventing ordinary people from being able to travel internationally without compromising on safety and/or quality of the trip – a form of protectionism for the tourism industry.
- There’s a story about a Silverback Gorilla receiving flowers as a birthday gift from a safari park in England. So how about a Gorilla who breaks out of a zoo or other protected enclosure in order to obtain flowers? Perhaps a King Kong -inspired plotline?
- A court has ruled that a sperm donor’s name can be removed from the birth certificate of his daughter. Treating this as a trend and projecting into the future gives a plotline in which all personally-identifying information on a birth certificate is only available on a need-to-know basis, which would impact society in multiple ways. Translate the resulting culture to an alien planet.
- Summer advertising has kicked off for a major shopping chain, even though (officially) we’re still in mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps a plot about an unprecedented heat wave?
The Daily Life Challenge
Still not convinced? Try this:
- For one day, every time that you see or hear something, ask yourself whether or not you can use it in an adventure.
- If the answer is yes, put a tally mark in the notepad.
- Count up the total at the end of the day.
- Amaze yourself at how quickly the total has added up.
Just hitting the high points of my Wednesday, here are a mere fraction of the plot ideas:
- I had a hot shower. Idea: A town where it has rained every day for at least part of the day, for a century.
- I ran out of OJ at breakfast. Idea: Local (unnatural) crop failure.
- I listened to an mp3. Idea: A rabble-rousing demagogue organizes a very vocal mass protest.
- I listened to an mp3. Idea: A sleazy Politician caught doing something he shouldn’t.
- I bought a newspaper. Idea: Someone is inserting coded messages into the daily news.
- I marked a number of items in the newspaper. Idea: Someone has compiled a mass of seemingly-unrelated newspaper clippings.
- I read a few pages of a book. Idea: A vigilante is employing torture, Spanish-inquisition style, to get ordinary people to confess to petty crimes.
- I made and smoked a cigarette. Idea: Giant smokestacks releasing addictive industrial pollution to create a market for a new dietary product – people don’t know why they like it but they do.
- One of my DVDs caught my eye. Idea: A ghostbuster and famous cynic is secretly the host of a demonic entity.
- I had a cup of coffee. Idea: At the bottom of the sea, it is pitch black, just like a black coffee. Now add the Principle of Similarity.
- I located a weblink (the one just quoted). Idea: there is a Law of Symmetry in magic (inspired by the illustration just prior to the web reference cited).
- I worked on this article. Idea: a writer decides to make the PCs characters in his next novel.
- I saw a TV advert. Idea: A visitor from a dimension in which Apes are super-civilized takes mental control of the inhabitants of a Zoo.
- I watched a TV show. Idea: Someone is replacing people’s arms and legs with artificial parts, indistinguishable from the original until x-rayed, without their knowledge.
- I saw a TV advert. A new brand of car contains a satellite link to a master computer, in theory to be used for anti-theft technology and monitoring the maintenance needs and condition of the car; in actual fact, it permits remote control of the vehicle, a perfect assassination weapon. NB: Requires the technology to be licensed to all auto manufacturers, perhaps administered by a bipartisan motoring organization.
- I saw a TV advert. A fruit seller with an extremely furtive manner likes to pretend that he knows a secret.
- I listened to an mp3. Idea: A statue of a Cthulhu-ish creature comes to life at night.
- I listened to an mp3. Idea: A male PC finds himself inexplicably irresistible to women. He enjoys this status until they start using weapons to eliminate the competition, breaking into his home, etc.
- I read a few more pages of the book. Idea: The PCs have to see that a particular mail delivery reaches its destination despite everything that can go wrong doing just that.
Multiply that list ten-fold, or more, for a typical day. How many TV ads do you see in a day? If you can get a single compelling character or plot idea from just one in ten, that’s going to be three or four a day from that source alone. Even throwing away everything that can’t be compiled into a single compelling plotline at the time, it is easy to see that plot opportunities abound in the world around us. In the past, I’ve gotten and used ideas from traffic signals, billboards, snack products, a snack vending machine, a cup of coffee, even the arrangement of toppings on a pizza (a stratified arrangement of floating platforms)!
Implementing plot ideas
If you’re working from an isolated plot idea, the first thing that has to be done is find a way to connect it to the rest of the campaign, i.e. to a PC. That connection can be either direct or indirect; “Direct” in this context means that whatever the plot idea is, it will happen to the PC or PCs directly, while “Indirect” mans that it will happen to an NPC that is part of that character’s supporting cast.
Either way, the objective is to make the plotline matter to the PC. What do you think Peter Parker / Spiderman will feel more acutely: trouble for a random stranger, or trouble for Aunt May? It doesn’t take much review of the unlikely life story of the latter to discover the answer, if you’re uncertain!
If there is no suitable NPC, or involving Aunt May or the equivalent thereof is becoming stale and clichéd, then the events should happen to a random stranger as a plot vehicle for involving a new recurring NPC.
A character idea
Some of the best plot ideas stem directly from the PCs themselves. This is much easier in Champions / the Hero System, where part of the character construction process involves explicitly specifying a supporting cast and set of “hot button issues” that matter to the PC; but it can be done in any game system or genre.
These typically come in one of three sub-flavors: Monoconnection, Binary Connection, or Trinary Connection.
Monoconnection plot ideas are single-connection plots. If a character is “protective of orphans” then a plot idea that puts one or more orphans in jeopardy is all you need to connect the PC with whatever is going on. A weak villain who was orphaned at an early age has a monoconnection to such a PC.
Binary Connections take two elements from one or more player characters and puts them in opposition, for example “Protective Of Orphans” and a member of the supporting cast doing something to endanger orphans. Where the one character has both connections, this produces an internal conflict; where the connections are shared between two characters, it puts them in conflict. Both are completely acceptable.
Trinary Connection take three or more elements from two or more player characters and connects them through the plotline. A member of one PC’s supporting cast has an affair with a member of another PC’s supporting cast, arousing the ire of a third who believes in the sanctity of marriage, for example. One character has an arch-enemy who is the best friend of another, while a third has “loyal to friends” as a psych lim and can be used as the rope in an emotional tug of war. Sometimes, these can be tricky to pull off and can smack of implausibility; but when you can get one to work, they can be amongst the most successful plotlines.
A Destination In View
You can never invoke this type of plotline without a destination in view. You are changing the ornamentation of the PCs personal goldfish bowl – so you either need a way to reset the status to initial conditions at the end of the plot or you need a subordinate plotline to reestablish any connections that were strained as a result of the conflict.
An example of the first: A relative of the PC who has not previously appeared in the campaign shows up and begins behaving strangely at the same time that the PC is warned of a new super-assassin coming to town to target a public figure. Circumstances lead the PCs to suspect that the two events are connected, and that the super-assassin is the relative of the PC. At the crescendo to the plotline, it is revealed that the relative isn’t the Assassin, but that the NPC’s new girlfriend is.
An example of the second: A supporting cast member connected to one PC is acting the slumlord through avarice, putting him in conflict with another PC who is protective of the downtrodden (or some such). If you throw such a plotline at the PCs, you also need a subsequent plotline where the NPC does something to justify the relationship between the bad person and the first PC – maybe he’s greedy but protective of children or the sick or something. You need to partially rehabilitate the image of the NPC who you have portrayed as a villain in order to justify the connection between that NPC and the original character – unless, of course, he is a relative of the PC (under the theory that you can choose your friends but not your relatives, that would make him fair game).
Spreading the net
A plot involving two or three PCs is all well and good – unless you have four or more players in your group, which is often the case. When this happens, you either need to broaden the plot to suck in the whole group (sometimes doable, sometimes not) or you need a second plotline running at the same time with which to involve the others, lest they be left twiddling their thumbs; there really is no other option.
In theory, involving one or more PCs brings in the entire group of players, simply through bonds of friendship or alliance – but in practice it never seems to work that way.
The best method of spreading the plot around is to look at the ramifications of what you already have. If two PCs are tied up sorting out the primary plotline, that means that they aren’t available at least some of the time in-game; which means that the other PCs have to get by without them. The original plotline can thus spill over into the lives of other PCs who are not involved in the central issue. The absence of the primary characters involved in the plot is the best place to start filling in a plotline for the rest of the team.
Bringing In A “B” Plotline
The alternative is to bring in a “B” plot. This was a technique used almost all the time on Babylon-5; each episode would feature a primary plot (the “A” plot) which focused on two or three of the cast, while a “B” plot would run alongside the “A” plot to give the other characters something to do. In rare cases, they also needed to bring in a “C” plot – often nothing more than a subplot, to pay off in a later episode.
In the very best examples, the two plotlines intersect and compliment and complicate each other; sometimes the “B” plot becomes more involving and important than the “A” plot. But that doesn’t matter; it is more important that your players be engaged in the game than which of them is the central focus of any given game session.
A villain idea
A great villain idea can serve as the springboard to an entire series of adventures. Or it can fall completely flat. Unfortunately, you can never tell which way things will fall when you introduce a new villain; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
One of the most interesting characters that I have created in recent years was “Mister Whisper” – a Vampire who worked as an elite Mafia hit-man. The advantages possessed by such a creature – transformation into mist, or into a dog, the ability to fly, the supernatural strength and resilience and immunity to gunshot – made him a natural in such a role. Throw in a limited teleportation capacity, and he should have been suitable for a long run as a recurring villain within the campaign. At the same time, he hated what he was doing and wanted nothing more than to
For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, it just didn’t work that way. I shuffled him to the sidelines and into retirement as quickly as I could, after the PCs came up with a way to “Cure” his condition (a stroke of brilliance on their part).
Another character that I created for the same campaign was named Jamison Riddle. A derivative of the well-known Batman villain, The Riddler, Riddle was a psychopath who punctuated his robberies with corpses, leaving riddles as clues to forewarn the authorities, forcing them to choose between rescuing the intended victim or preventing the robbery. He had no paranormal abilities, just a shtikh, a gimmick – and personality to sell by the truckload.
This was intended to be just a one-shot character, with no repeat value, but everyone had so much fun that I had to bring him back. The problem was that at the end of the PCs confrontation with him, he had been teleported into a random alternate dimension, lost and untraceable.
So I had one of the teams’ other enemies – who had access to interdimensional capabilities – find him, bring him back, and give him the superpowers of one of the PCs’ ex-teammates, all as an act of sheer malice. Of course, his experiences left him even more unhinged. With considerably greater difficulty, the PCs overcame his assault and drove him off, but he made a clean getaway. The third time, he had teamed up with an even greater menace, and the duo came close to beating the team before the PCs disrupted their scheme. Each blamed the other and the duo went their separate ways – but both made clean getaways.
The one thing that’s certain about Jamison Riddle is that he will make a fourth appearance at some point!
What lessons can be learned from these two characters?
- Personality is more important than capabilities.
- Sometimes, no matter how cool the idea seems, it will fall flat in play.
- If a villain isn’t working, rework or replace him. Without delay.
- If a villain works better than expected, look for a different way to use him in a future adventure.
It has also been my experience that Villains who are focused exclusively or even principally on a single PC are more prone to be failures as characters than those who simply are, permitting the PCs to form their own associations and reactions. The reason is that when a Villain’s focus is purely apon the one character, you are completely reliant apon the interaction between the Villain and the PC’s Player. If the player doesn’t really get into roleplaying that interaction, the villain will fall flat.
This was something of a revelation for me; my past beliefs and advice has focused on ensuring that at least one PC has an emotive or provocative connection to a villain.
Make no mistake – if the player DOES get right into character in that interaction and brings all the passion that their character is supposed to be feeling to the table, the focused villain trumps everything else on offer – but it is a riskier strategy.
A location idea
Sometimes a location – an image, or a description, or just a concept – can be sufficiently inspiring to act as a launch pad for an adventure:
- Parasites infesting Yggdrasil, the Norse Tree Of Life.
- A Castle resting on a bed of storm clouds, with a ladder to the ground made of lightning.
- A Prison in which convicts are polymorphed into a liquid state and sealed into glass bottles.
- “The dim, late afternoon light, almost forgotten behind the thunderclouds, made distances odd; the woods looked flat and impossibly dense. Bowers became caverns of menacing gloom, with familiar boles now sinister shapes of black against dark grey.” – from Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist.
- The image used to illustrate this blog post, above.
When building a scenario around a location, the critical next step is to ensure that the events that are to take place match or even extend the image or description of the location. Setting a light comedy in any of the example locations just would not work.
Everything else should also marry into this theme.
An external idea
It may seem obvious, but you can always steal a plot idea from another source – a book or comic or TV show or movie.
But it is rarely that easy. You can find the most interesting and original plotline available, but if the PCs don’t react the same way as the characters do in the source – and they hardly ever will – the whole plotline can collapse.
The last plotline I adapted from an outside source was from “The President’s Plane Is Missing” by Robert J. Serling. Here’s the back cover blurb: “Air Force One Is Missing – this was the stunning message that flashed across the telerecorders of the Washington wire service. The President’s plane had vanished from the radar screen after running into an electrical storm over Arizona. And when the wreckage is found, the only recognizable body corresponds to no-one known to be on the plane.
“This is just the first puzzle in a mystery that twists and turns through this brilliant novel with all the excitement of screaming headlines.”
Unfortunately, the PCs tumbled to what was going on in no time flat, and I had to scramble to extract an adventure out of the situation, combining the circumstances with a plotline about the President being mind-controlled by means of reprogramming and cybernetic implants that I cribbed from memories of another book, I think by Clive Cussler or maybe Tom Clancy. The result was confused almost to the point of incomprehensibility for me, never mind to the players. Fortunately, I was able to bring the plotline to some sort of semi-coherent conclusion, achieving the primary goal of vacating the Presidency along the way – which was all I was trying to achieve with the plotline.
I’ve been a little soured on the notion of Other People’s Plots ever since this experience. Frankly, I’ve had more success at creating my own. But I have to admit that not all my attempts at adaptions have come out this badly, so don’t let my failure put you off.
A Serious Caveat
However, there is one more consideration to take into account: copyright. If you ever hope to do anything with your gaming experiences beyond the gaming table, the presence of a plotline that is not your own (possibly in a key position within the continuity) can derail those ambitions completely.
Even reporting a play synopsis can get you in trouble, at least in theory; this is a theory which I don’t wish to test. You may feel differently, or may have no ambitions to be thwarted in this way; but I felt it worthwhile making a special point of this potential complication.
The last source of plot ideas is perhaps the best of them all. When the PCs want to do something, have plotlines grow naturally from those desires and the players attempts to fulfill them. No preparation is possible because you often don’t know what the players want to achieve in advance; forcing the GM to either stall, or do it all on the fly.
Here at Campaign Mastery, stalling is not a recommended course of action; on the contrary, we advise you to Say Yes.
That leaves only the one option. Hopefully, this article and its predecessor, ‘Adventures On the Fly‘ – will give you the tools you need to implement that option.