One of my favorite ways to come up with plots for roleplaying games is to create people, see how they relate to each other, and then come up with plots out of those relationships. No, I’m not talking about some soap opera mix of love plots, missing babies, and evil twins. What I mean is that most plots arise, in one way or another, out of the interactions between people.
Step 1: Make Some Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Use your game world to help you come up with a bunch of nifty NPCs. If your game uses random generation for character creation, then use that – roll lots of numbers and see what sort of characters emerge. If your world has lots of interesting in-game groups, then come up with some representatives of those groups.
Tip 1: Create NPCs in clumps or groups
Make about 3 to 7 NPCs at a time who are all related to each other in one way or another: they work together, they’re kin to each other, they’re all part of the same group, team, or organization, etc. Many games provide a clear way to do this. In “Werewolf: the Apocalypse” you’d create one pack of werewolves at a time. In “HackMaster” you could create one adventuring company at a time, or one temple of priests to a certain god, etc. Give each NPC a clear personality and one or two goals to accomplish or projects to work on. Also give group goals to each group.
Tip 2: Keep things simple
You don’t have to go into huge detail on this unless you have lots of spare time & energy. One-line goals and brief personality descriptions are fine for now; you can even use a tarot card or three to figure out what each character is like, particularly if you’re running low on ideas. Later, when you figure out which NPCs are likely to play the biggest roles in your game, you can flesh them out.
Step 2: Delineate Group Relationships
As you create these NPCs, ask yourself how they feel about working with each other. If you’ve given each NPC a clear personality and specific goals this should be pretty easy. Remember to play with group dynamics as a whole, not just one-on-one relationships. Who squabbles? Who’s fanatically loyal? Who follows whom with blind devotion? Which followers fight each other madly for their leader’s approval? Who back-stabs at every opportunity in order to get ahead? Who has ambition that can’t be fulfilled by his group’s goals? Who tries to keep things “just professional”? Who wants revenge for some past hurt? Who tries to protect his co-workers or friends?
Step 3: Look For Holes, And Fill Them
Either you’ll find yourself doing this automatically as you go along, or you’ll probably need to wait to do it until you have several such groups of NPCs sketched out. As you work out the details of NPCs, look for convenient holes that need to be filled. For example, you write down under one NPC that he’s an ambitious fellow hampered by an active conscience, who wants to find someone totally unscrupulous he can use in his rise to the top (after all, his conscience won’t bother him if he uses someone who’s corrupt, right?). Well, there’s a hole to be filled here – now you need an NPC who fits the description of that unscrupulous pawn-to-be.
Look around the other NPCs you’ve come up with. Does someone already fit the bill? Could someone fit the bill if you tweaked him a little? If not, look at any notes you have about NPC groups you still want to come up with. Is there a specific place such a character would fit into well? If so, then make that the next group you write up.
Step 4: Ask Questions
Ask yourself what’s keeping that ambitious soul from fulfilling his ambitions. Is it another person? Can you turn it into a plot that could involve the player characters (PCs)? Look at the goals each group has. How could the PCs get involved in, help with, or obstruct those goals? What consequences would it have? How can you flesh that out into a plot?
Look at the various group dynamics you’ve detailed. How will those loves and hates affect the groups and what they’re doing? How can they influence your plots? How can you turn a love between two NPCs into a fatal flaw that the PCs can exploit in the pursuit of their goal? How can you turn a rivalry into something the PCs can exaggerate and take advantage of? Or, how could you turn the results of that rivalry into a plot the PCs need to clean up after?
NPCs and their relationships can tell you all sorts of things: who’s easy pickings; who has powerful friends; who won’t give up until he wins or gets killed; who might be convinced to betray his allies; who might run to the PCs for help, and so on. Put together a handful of small groups, even in simple terms, and you’ll have more than enough to work with!