All right, so we’ve talked about all sorts of things. We’ve covered what sorts of material you should design for your roleplaying game (RPG) adventure. We’ve talked about personalizing your game to involve your players more deeply. We’ve discussed how you can make commercial campaigns work for you instead of the other way around. A very important, we might say fundamental, thing that we’ve left out so far is this: So how do you come up with all of those plots and people, anyway?
In a moment I’ll go into detail about a number of different methods. First I want to talk about one theme which you will see repeated in one form or another throughout this article: random (or “free”) association. Random association is the process of looking at one thing and allowing your mind to wander over whatever that thing makes you think of. For instance, you look at a postcard of a red sunset over a mountain and you think of a plot involving the sky catching on fire. You gaze into the blue-and-white perspective on a distant water-covered planet as shown in the background of your monitor, and you decide that this week you’ll send your surprised party on a sudden trip to another planet. Random association is the key ingredient in a number of plot recipes. So take a few minutes to walk around your house or web surf. Look at pieces of artwork or read headlines. What do they make you think of? It only takes a little practice before you’re spouting out plots with the best of ’em.
This same method can be used to come up with non-player characters (NPCs), except that you may need to start with more material in order to get the depth you need.
Song Lyrics, Art, and Poetry
One of the quick-and-dirty ways to come up with plots and people is to use song lyrics. A single line (or maybe two) is often enough to create a basic plot. You might use an entire song, or a verse from a song, to create a person. Song lyrics are particularly good for creating characters as they often detail people, their actions and their emotions. This can be a wonderful way to create some very unusual characters and plots that your players won’t expect. Start with lyrics rather than with character classes or the groups detailed by the gaming company. You’ll probably find that the details you come up with fit naturally into one place or another. Some detail in your new NPC’s life will remind you of a detail in some other plot you have, and suddenly the pieces start fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Don’t feel it necessary to graft your new plot on wholesale. Does your plot require an accountant? If so, has the party encountered one already in game? Why not use the same one? Doing things like this gives your players a place to start when researching or looking into the plot. Rather than pasting your new plot or person onto a random spot, take a little time to gently work it into the existing structure. You may find that the interaction between your own NPCs creates even more plots for you.
Poetry acts much like song lyrics–there’s little difference in finding plot inspiration except that you don’t also have the music to inspire you. Art, as mentioned earlier, can also inspire plot thoughts through random association. The association is visual rather than verbal, but every bit as useful.
Magazine articles make good sources of long-term plots or interesting new locations the party can explore. If you like to play with technology plots in your game, pick up something like “New Scientist.” If you like to play with ancient races and crumbling ruins, get a subscription to “Archaeology” or “National Geographic.” If you prefer to play with the wonders of nature, then get a couple of months of “Nature.”
If you have a good drugstore or library nearby, you can hopefully pick up an issue or two at a time when you need them. If you do a lot of writing or adventure-creation you may wish to invest in some subscriptions. Try to pick up an issue of a magazine before committing to buying a subscription; it sucks to buy a year of something and then find out that it just isn’t very useful for plot creation.
I limit myself to a handful of subscriptions at a time. I might get “National Geographic” one year, “Nature” the next, and “Scientific American” the next. This has the advantage that a year’s worth of “National Geographic” isn’t going to go out of date with respect to plot inspiration, so you can use it for years to come. An issue of “Omni” from fifteen years ago still has plenty of material in it that will inspire plots. It’s particularly useful sometimes to take an article that seems to have nothing to do with your subject and find an interesting way to combine them.
Books are useful when you know you’ll need a long set of plots having to do with a certain thing or set in a certain place. If you plan to set an entire campaign in Greece, then a couple of books on Greece are a good investment. They tend to be less useful, however, for random plot inspiration. Why spend $25 for a book that you’ll only use on one plot when an article from a $4 magazine issue (that still has other useful articles in it for later plots) will do?
There are some books that it’s useful to keep around, of course. A good atlas will answer most of your geographical questions, and it can help you to pick where your next plot will happen. A few history books are useful for back-plot, and for inspiration for historical games. Still, while I might occasionally walk into my library and open up a history book for inspiration, the magazines have a wider range of material. Books on Greece will have many details in them that will inspire your plots set in Greece, but if you continually use them to inspire your other plots, your players may start to wonder where the campaign is really taking place.
Newspapers aren’t as useful as magazine articles, in general. Newspaper articles tend to have a certain sameness to them when viewed over a decent period of time, and newspapers like to focus on certain types of topics. There are only so many brutal stabbings, visits by politicians, or incidents of domestic violence that you can throw into your games before your players long for something unusual. So while I do believe that newspapers are useful sources of stories–particularly those involving local politics–magazines tend to be more inspirational.
The web is the perfect place to find plot inspiration in a lot of ways. After all, it doesn’t really matter whether every detail is correct, so you don’t need to worry about the editorial fact-checking provided by magazines and newspapers. You can find plenty of song lyrics, poetry, and art out there, all of which are good for inspirational material. You can even find information on archaeology, forensics, mythology, history, and so on.
The only real problem is in finding it. As I’m sure we’ve all found out the hard way by now, search engines don’t always take us to where we want to go. If I search for archaeology, I might find someone’s completely irrelevant newsgroup posting, or thick, academic journals not meant for the curious layman. Your best bet is to look for and bookmark portal sites, especially those writers’ sites that offer research links. The links that writers follow to do research and the links you’ll want to follow to do research will be very similar. Certainly once you find good sites (whether they’re portals, or just good art, poetry, or scientific sites), bookmark them. When you’re aching for a quick bit of inspiration, you don’t want to spend an hour searching for a useful site.
Once you find your material, use it the same way you use articles and art from any other source. Use it as background material. Perform random association off of it. I still recommend magazine articles over the web despite the expense, just because you can open up one of the really good magazines and find something useful on almost any page. The web can take much longer, resulting in frustration, which isn’t exactly conducive to inspiration.
One odd little way to come up with plots is to put a character in an unusual situation (or to simply create an unlikely situation) and then justify it. Put a member of a specific tribe in an area that they supposedly never enter. Give a member of a character class abilities they aren’t supposed to have. Then figure out why things happened that way.
One way to find inspiration for plots and NPCs is to use a deck of tarot cards. This is one of my favorite sources of inspiration.
If you need to create a character, do a “reading” for that character as though he were a real person. Ten-card spreads (or larger) work particularly well for this, as you can get all sorts of details on things like the character’s hopes and fears, past, present, and future. If you want your NPC to owe five favors to people, and you want each one to be a plot hook that can get the party into interesting things, then pull out one card to represent each favor.
If you need a plot, lay out three to five cards (more if necessary for complex plots), perhaps dividing them up by past, present, and future (or other topics if you choose). This is usually enough detail to start with.
Tarot cards are useful for something that most of the other items are not, however. If it’s the middle of your gaming run and someone does something unexpected and you don’t know what should happen next, draw a tarot card. If the party isn’t sure what to do next and you’ve run out of material for the night and you need to have something interesting happen, draw a tarot card. If you want a better way to decide than sheer whimsy what happens to the PCs when they walk through the bad part of town, draw a tarot card. It has all the advantages of a random event table (interesting events you might not have thought of otherwise) with none of the disadvantages (tarot card interpretations are easier to bend into something that will fit the game circumstances, and lend themselves to complex plots).
Tarot cards are not like magazine articles, newspaper articles, books, or song lyrics. Unlike those other items most tarot cards provide a brief, somewhat generalized riff on the world, something like “Energy: Your energy level is high, and you will use up your reserves quickly.” This calls for random association again. Perhaps this card indicates that a strange energy will attack the PCs. Maybe an energy-vampire will attack a member of the party. It might simply mean that something will chase the party down until they cannot run any more from exhaustion. Or it might mean that the something that’s chasing them will not be able to keep up. Then again, perhaps a utility station explodes and power goes out across the city, or maybe one of the party collapses from a mysterious ailment. And so on.
The one recommendation I’d make here is that you keep several different tarot decks around, and every few weeks (or month or two) switch decks. Otherwise, even with the standard 72 cards you’ll run into far too many repeats. This means that when you’ve picked up a card you’ve seen before, you’re likely to “randomly” associate the same association as before, because it’s still in memory somewhere. This can lead to some good things, because it means that when you draw “The Priestess,” you’ll know that you want to involve a certain NPC you already associate with that card. But if this happens too much plot threads will get repetitive, as will character traits.
Check out our survey of various tarot decks for reviews of decks, as well as some discussion about what makes different decks useful for different purposes.
Of course there are other handy places to look for plots and characters, but you’ve probably thought of those already. Your favorite TV shows and movies, for instance. A good book you read last month. Supplementary material put out by the RPG publisher. If you worry about your players recognizing the material, then use one of the methods above to make changes to it.
Figure out what it is that attracts you to a plot or character, then change the other details. If you like a movie character’s personality and bearing, then pick a different profession by pulling out a tarot card and free associating off of it. Open a magazine to an ad and pick a photo that is what the character now looks like. As long as you change the details you don’t care about, you can create a whole new “gestalt” that will be unique and unrecognizable, while saving the details you enjoy.
Ultimately, your two best allies in plot and NPC creation are random association and research, often combined. You can do random association off of almost anything. You can perform research in any number of ways. The examples above are just that, examples. Hopefully they will give you a place to get started.