Plot Twists for Game Masters

In an issue of the Twilight Time Zine, I talked a bit about plot twists. Plot twists are probably the major way to keep roleplaying plots fresh, exciting, and unpredictable. However, not everyone has such an easy time coming up with them. I’m not a great fan of random plot generation; I prefer to craft a good story rather than leave it to chance. However, there are some benefits to random plot generation — it can give you inspiration when you’re feeling burned out or tired, and it can help you surprise clever players or come up with something fresh and new.

There are some things to keep in mind when using random methods to generate plot twists. For one, you must be willing to twist, torture, and toss out anything that you can’t make work. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll have to change things in order to create a seamless story. Give unlikely results a chance, however, as considering the events that could make those results possible can lead to new and interesting ideas.

There are degrees of randomness. You can keep a plot list around for inspiration without necessarily randomizing it; hand-pick your favorite plot twists. Or you could keep rolling your dice until you come up with a result that inspires you. I think the best random generation tables are those that remain in flux; always be on the lookout for new ideas to add. When you’ve used up an idea for the time being, alter its probabilities or remove it from the list entirely. If one plot twist doesn’t seem exciting enough, combine two or three or use them in succession. Also remember to go back and fill in any plot holes the new twists create–this is why it’s a good idea to pick your plot twists early on when creating your adventure.

Sources Of Plot Twists

One way to pick a new plot twist is simply to pick a new plot. The plot the characters think they’re working on can turn out to be a different plot entirely, or you can add a new plot onto the group’s responsibilities. If you already have a plot generation mechanism you can use it again to generate your plot twist. If you don’t, you have a couple of options. One is to go online and look for a list of plots. Print it out if possible, number it or cut it up so it has one plot per scrap of paper, and pick one at random. One great online plot list is The Big List of RPG Plots.

A second source of twists is writers’ prompts. Try a web search, check out major writers’ sites, or try one of these sites:

There’s plenty of free online inspiration, but if you prefer books you could also try one of these books of writing prompts; each one contains hundreds of prompts:

You can also use other methods of inspiration, such as tarot cards, news articles, and so on.

One Chart Of Twists

Each game and GM requires a slightly different list of twists. GMs want different sets of options, or they want different probabilities, or whatever. And as I said earlier, it’s good to have a list that’s constantly in flux. Here’s one chart to get you started; I’ve tried to make it fairly generic in nature. Adapt it to your own game as you see fit:

d100 (d%) Result
1-2 The PCs’ destination or location (planet, dimension, country, whatever) possesses exotic conditions that could make life complicated or interesting (exotic plant life, animal life, atmosphere, gravity, temperature, weather conditions, past man-made disasters such as extreme pollution or nuclear war, etc.).
3-5 The population at the PCs’ destination or location has been affected by unexpected conditions (religious wars, political upheaval, seclusion or segregation, invasion by outside forces, disease, starvation, etc.).
6-15 Something happens to change the adventure into a totally different type of plot. Choose a new plot. If you use a standard plot generation chart, use it again to determine the new plot. Otherwise, print out a plot list, cut it up or number it, and choose a plot at random.
16-24 Something happens to add a new goal onto the characters’ responsibilities. See the previous item for methods to determine this new plot.
25-26 The enemy has fewer or greater resources than expected.
27 A non-player character (NPC) expected to be absent is present.
28 An NPC expected to be present is absent.
29 An unexpected sacrifice must be made in order for the mission
to succeed.
30 An unexpected sacrifice must be made in order for the characters to survive or return home.
31-32 The characters find their way home barred, removed, destroyed or otherwise compromised.
33-34 The characters lose communication with their forces, allies, contacts, employers, or commanders.
35-40 The characters come across someone (individual, group or civilization) in need of rescue or aid.
41-42 The characters are exposed to something that will change them physically or mentally, or change their lives in a major way.
43 The characters stumble across a situation that is easy to misunderstand, and thus they may act inappropriately to the circumstances.
44-46 The characters’ headquarters, home base, families, holdings, or whatever are under attack, taken over or otherwise placed in danger.
47 The characters’ forces or allies have been infiltrated.
48-51 The characters are exposed to something dangerous — radiation, poison, disease, a drug, a potion, etc.
52-57 The team is stalked or attacked (this could be the equivalent of a random encounter, or it could be a part of the plot).
58 The characters stumble across unexpected guards or sentries and stand a chance of alerting them.
59 A player character (PC) or major NPC ends up in a hallucinatory, hypnotic, feverish, or similarly altered state of mind.
60-64 Equipment or information important to the mission is destroyed, stolen, lost or captured.
65-68 A location important to the plot has been overrun or occupied by hostile forces or dangerous creatures.
69 A natural cataclysm has changed the landscape and somehow interfered with the planned goal.
70-74 Someone important to the mission dies, gets captured, becomes injured, is delayed, etc.
75-77 The team stumbles into someone else’s problems and gets caught up in them.
78-83 The team uncovers evidence of hostile activity beyond the scope of their original goal or mission. (For additional complication: due to access or time pressures they can’t simply go get reinforcements or more equipment.)
84-85 Someone isn’t who or what he says he is.
86 An NPC disappears or leaves without explanation.
87 Someone is being coerced or co-opted (blackmail, threats, seduction, mind-control, magic, etc.).
88 Exotic plot twist–one-of-a-kind alien encounter, major character develops amnesia, PCs trapped in a virtual reality device, major character turns up dead, or similar one-time-only (or only rarely repeated) plot twists.
89 The characters discover that missing or presumed dead allies are being held captive.
90 The characters were misled about details of the plot.
91 A relationship (romantic or not) between two unlikely or unexpected characters throws a kink in the works.
92-93 A supposedly safe or innocuous location has been compromised. Its location is known, it’s been bugged, there are troops waiting in ambush there, etc.
94 The mission (or some portion thereof) is a ruse intended to
capture the characters, get information from them, or something similar.
95 Someone is attempting to use the characters for their own ends.
96 Someone believed dead turns out to be alive. (This might deserve a second complication, such as that person having new allegiances, not remembering who they are, being captured by the enemy, having new resources if they’re a villain, having been involved in odd things in the missing time, etc.)
97 A natural disaster occurs, is about to occur, or has just occurred (volcano, flood, tornado, hurricane, earthquake…).
98 Someone ambushes, betrays, or gives away the characters (intentionally or by accident).
99 An enemy turns out to be an ally (or at least a potential partner), either temporarily due to specific circumstances or more permanently.
100 An ally turns out to be an enemy (or at least in competition with the characters), either temporarily due to specific circumstances or more permanently.

Do remember when working in plot twists to make sure the PCs have ways to overcome them. This may mean working additional resources into your game as well. Enjoy!

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