We all have problems with our imaginations freezing up on us every now and again. While there are a number of things that you can do to kick-start your creativity when this happens, I have always found that it’s a good idea to have a stockpile of ideas that can be developed as needed for those times when inspiration is lacking.
There are lots of techniques out there for generating such ideas. Today, I thought I’d tell you about one that I call apon from time to time and that I havn’t seen written up very often.
The Random Word-pair Technique
The technique itself is simple enough: take two random words and pair them. One must be an adjective, the other can be anything at all. A thesaurus is the perfect tool for this because it is nothing but words; a dictionary is a poor second. Further value can be found in the fact that the thesaurus is not in alphabetical order, avoiding biases toward one letter or another.
Since this revelation alone is hardly enough to fill a blog post, no matter how useful it might be, I thought I’d pad this one out with an example, filtered through a number of different campaign genres, to illustrate the technique (and give out a few free scenario ideas along the way).
Thunderous Marraccas: an example
Okay, so this is the random word-pair that I came up with to demonstrate what I’m talking about. Now that I have it, what can I do with it?
I should emphasise that none of these ideas were thought up in advance, and they are presented in the exact order that they occurred to me. None have been left out, there has been no editing or going back later to replace an idea that wasn’t good enough or that was too silly for words. I’m also not saying that I would actually run all of these – but most are of an acceptable standard, if a little thin in some cases. And some are quite good, I think, and proof that even a silly-sounding fundamental concept can become the heart of a useful scenario – when your back’s against the wall.
Fantasy / D&D
This is clearly a magic item. Perhaps it is a bardic instrument that puts out a sonic attack, or perhaps bolts of lightning. Or maybe it can summon storms, and Storm Giants. Having the PCs merely find such an instrument would be dull, and hardly worth a scenario. So instead, let’s have someone else find it. How about we have an alpine village which the PCs visit only to be trapped by avalanches caused by the wielder of the Thunderous Marraccas?
It used to be said that thunder was the sound of the Gods brawling. Terry Pratchett has thunder be the sound of the gods rolling dice, in his Diskworld novels. I have always liked storms – nature’s free pyrotechnic displays – so I always preferred the analagy of the Gods partying hard. At a party, you get drunk, and when you pick up things while drunk, you occasionally drop them. This gives us a nice little origin for the Thunderous Marraccas, and a convenient way to take them back out of the campaign when the story ends.
Start with a truly awful Bard, who couldn’t hold a song on key if he were nailed to it (there was an Asterix movie on TV recently). He gets run out of an alpine village, just as the PCs arrive, only to discover the Thunderous Marraccas, which he uses to trap the village and create a captive audiance. Part 1 of the scenario is all setup. In Part 2, the PCs have to battle their way through the avalanche and the storm giants to get the Marraccas off the bard. In Part 3, the PCs discern the divine nature of the Marraccas and have to decide whether or not to return them to an appropriate temple. Part 4 is either the Party Gods (still drunk) harassing the PCs (if they decided to keep the Divine Instruments) or a bunch of party poopers (who don’t want the item returned) doing so. The scenario wraps up when the PCs finally deliver the Thunderous Marraccas to the appropriate temple and get some sort of divine reward.
While clearly still a weapon, the concept should be a bit less whimsical – even to the point of rephrasing the idea completely. A sonic weapon, capable of splitting open bank vaults, knocking aircraft from the sky, and making the glaziers of the city very rich. Instead of “Thunderous Marraccas”, perhaps “Thunder Lance” would be a better description. We put it in the hands of a two-bit thug who has forced a scientist to create superweapons for him by kidnapping his beautiful-but-fiesty daughter, and who subsequently goes on a crime spree with his new toy.
We can start the scenario with an encounter between the PCs and the thug (plus henchmen), in which they get solidly trounced. In Part 2, since it’s obvious that he’s not up to the job of creating such a super-weapon himself, the PCs track down the scientist (a noted expert on sounds), but he refuses to help until his daughter is rescued from the clutches of the evil fiend. In Part 3, the PCs find and rescue the daughter despite the opposition of more thugs (the master criminal is still off running wild). In Part 4, they return the daughter to the Mad Scientist who whips up a handy-dandy (and highly experimental) neutraliser to partially negate the weapon. In Part 5, they confront the villain with the neutraliser and defeat him.
There are lots of places the plot could go from this point. We can close it out by having the villain push the weapon too hard in an attempt to overcome the nullifier the PCs have brought along. We could have the daughter become enamoured of one or more of her rescuers and become a recurring NPC. We could have some more powerful arch-villain grab the device from the thug at the last instant, revealing that the thug was simply field-testing it for his true master all along. All pulpish ideas that would immediatly elevate this scenario from “filler” to “ongoing campaign element”.
Unless we’re talking quite low-powered superheros, we’re going to have to up the ante. One of the staples of the genre (ever since The Flash Of Two Worlds in 1961) has been the notion that adjusting subatomic vibrations to a different rate can project you from one dimension into another. And what makes things vibrate? Sound. (You could pay lip service to more modern physics by suggesting that the weapon changes the vibration rate of superstrings. You don’t even have to understand what superstrings are – this is soft science fiction!)
Perhaps a supervillain has created a device that rips whole cities into a different dimension where he can pillage and loot at will.
This gives rise to a scenario in which the PCs get called in when a city vanishes; they deduce the cause due to the effects on the fringes of the device’s range, and reports of an incredibly loud noise heard from dozens of miles away; they find a way to replicate the effect and follow; they confront the villain, who uses the weapon on them to trap the PCs in a far more hostile dimension; the PCs battle their way out, again confront the villain, and melt his device down for scrap, which somehow returns the city (and occupants) to it’s point of origin. Or perhaps the villain attempts to use the device to escape only for the PCs to change it’s tuning at the last second, leaving the villain lost in an unknown dimension, ready to return for a rematch any time the GM has another good idea for using him.
“Harder-Science” Superhero / Sci-Fi / Espionage
Intense sound can make substances exposed to it vibrate so hard that the molecular bonds that hold it together can be broken. This is the perfect way of disposing of atmospheric pollution, or so it seems – just fit one of these to every smokestack and exhaust pipe. The range at which the sound is effective for the purpose is very limited.
There are a lot of ways to develop this concept. Perhaps someone figures out how to overcome the range limitation, converting the devices into in-place disintigration bombs – that’s the superhero idea. Perhaps the treated pollution forms free radicals which start affecting various substances (and people) in a variety of unpleasant ways, and have been doing so for some time – that’s the sci-fi idea.
Other sci-fi ideas: Perhaps the device is capable of raising an object’s internal temperature without melting/boiling it, creating a form of matter in solids that is analagous to superheated liquids from a microwave oven, in which it is easier to induce a fusion reaction – and in which that fusion reaction is much harder to control than is expected. No-one would ever want such a device, would they? (rhetorical question!) Or perhaps it’s a device that monkeys with Heisenburg uncertainty, making nuclear reactions more prone to cascade into a chain reaction and rendering microchips useless in the vicinity – a terrorist group or criminal gang could employ them for the second purpose without knowing about the first. But every time they do, the nuclear reactors that power the city or the naval submarines or whatever happens to be nearby go out of control, and it’s this side effect that gets the PCs involved…
None of the above ideas work in a wild-west setting. So perhaps “Thunderous Marracas” is the name of a Spanish-Indian halfbreed who comes to town to cause mayhem. I’m afraid that this is not my preferred genre, so this is only half an idea; I’m sure that someone more in tune with this style of game could take the idea much farther, or come up with a better one.
Finally, we come to the horror genre. Again, the idea that the words inspire when considering this genre are very different to all the others I’ve listed so far: I find myself connecting the sound with the term “death rattle”. Perhaps the device kills, the souls of the dead then being utilised for some nefarious purpose. Or, more unpleasantly, perhaps it only simulates death momentarily, permitting the posession of the body by an outsider – producing a number of otherwise sensible and well-respected people who without warning or explanation become members of an evil cult, bent on doing the will of some nameless horror…
Do your prep in advance
If you can keep ten or twenty such ideas on file that you’ve prepared in advance – to about the state of readiness of the examples above – then there is no need to fear the occasional dry spell. And sometimes what you came up with for filler will resonate especially strongly with an existing plotline that needs something more to fill it out.
For example, if in a pulp campaign I had an existing plan for a confrontation with a major villain but needed a few scenarios to build the bad guy up first, the pulp plotline suggested above could be incorporated into the bigger picture perfectly. If I had a D&D plotline that needed the PCs to be in a temple at the start of the scenario, the Fantasy idea is a perfect vehicle to lead into that scenario.
You can never have too many ideas, because ultimately you’ll never use them all – and the more you have, the more you can cherry-pick from the best of the ideas you have. And an idea you’ve prepped in advance in this way is much better than not being able to think of anything at the critical moment as a deadline looms!
But ultimately, the greatest strength of this technique is that by starting from an unusual idea, you develop a scenario that immediatly moves beyond your ingrained habits. The technique is liberating to the imagination. I would never have thought of half of the ideas presented above if it weren’t in direct reaction to the artificial phrase “Thunderous Marraccas”.
A few more pairings to inspire you
Here are a few more random word pairings to get you started, and to wrap up this article nicely. Tell me you don’t get inspired reading them and I’ll add your name to the party poopers in the fantasy scenario….
- Sorted Holes
- Blue Crush
- Twisted Fruit
- Domino Stack
- Frigid Yellow
- Drum Politics
- Fast Measure
- Tissue Disk
- Sandwiched Pit
- Grounded Beast
- Urban Wings