W hat follows is a scrap of BIG LIST trivia . . . my collection of RPG plots, in abstract form. I built this by exam- The ining the premises of hun- dreds of published adventures for all systems (including those systems dear and departed from print), trying to boil them down to common denominators. The results are pre- sented here: arbitrary, and sometimes redundant. Nevertheless, I turn to A GM’s Aid by S. John Ross Version two of RPG Plots this list when I’m stuck for a fresh premise for next week’s session of my campaign, whatever that campaign might happen to be about at the Any Old Port the PCs). If the bad guys cross the adventure’s “finish line” (cross the county line, make the warp jump, time. It helps me keep from falling into thematic ruts (my least favorite in a Storm etc.) there’s no way to pursue them beyond it. kind). With any luck, it might serve The PCs are seeking shelter from the a similar function for you. elements or some other threat, and come across a place to hole up. They Blackmail Note: The “plots” are arranged in find that they have stumbled across alphabetical order by title. Since Usually through trickery (but some- something dangerous, secret, or the titles are arbitrary, this serves times by digging into the PCs’ past), supernatural, and must then deal no useful function at all. And if an antagonist has something to hold with it in order to enjoy a little rest. you want shakespearean five-act over the heads of the PCs and make hoozits, plot trees, Man Versus them jump. This could be any kind of Common Twists & Themes: The Himself and other Serious Literary threat from physical to social, but it shelter contains the cause of the Bunkum, try Writer’s Digest. This depends on the villain having some- threat the PCs were trying to avoid. ain’t Oxford, baby. thing - even if it’s information - that The shelter houses a Hidden Base (q.v.). The PCs must not only strug- others don’t have. Now, he is pulling the strings of the PCs, telling them ❉ Handy Tip!❉ gle for shelter, they must struggle to survive. The place is a legitimate to do things they don’t want to. The shelter of some kind, but the PCs PCs must end the cycle of blackmail, are not welcome, and must win deprive the villain of his edge, and hearts or minds to earn their bed for keep him temporarily satisfied while Don’t Panic. A lot of GMs come to the night. doing it. the Big List only once they’ve begun to panic. Don’t crucify Common Twists & Themes: The yourself just yet! In particular, don’t fuss too much over plot, as Better Late adventure hook involves the PCs many GMs do. All of the plots doing the villain a good turn, which here can provide a tried-and-true, Than Never allows him to take advantage of them (very cynical!). To succeed, the PCs simple structure, and structure is all you need a plot for in a role- Some bad guys have arrived and done must contact other folks that are also playing game. Remember to play some bad guy things. The PCs were being used. The PCs aren’t the vic- to the strengths of the medium – none the wiser. The bad guys have tims at all, but somebody they care most all of which are about char- now made good their escape, and the about/are charged to protect, is. acter, not plot. Only in an RPG can PCs have caught wind of it in time to you experience a fictional charac- ter on a personal, first-hand level. chase them down before they make it back to their lair, their home nation, Breaking and Outline your adventures to make the most of that. Any plot that behind enemy lines, etc. Entering contains more than a basic struc- Common Twists & Themes: The bad ture is more likely to pull attention Mission objective: enter the danger- guys escaped by stealing a con- away from character, and that’s ous place, and retrieve the vital din- veyance that the PCs know better burning the bridge for firewood. gus or valuable person. Overcome the than they do. The bad guys duck All you need to do is be ready to area’s defenses to do so. down a metaphorical (or literal) side- roll with the curves and have fun road, trying to hide or blend into an hamming it up. Relax. Game. Common Twists & Themes: The goal environment (often one hostile to is not to extract a thing, but to destroy a thing or interfere with a process (kill the force-screen genera- Copyright ©1999, 2002 by S. John Ross. The Handy Tip stopped already, and you’ve strayed into the Boring Legalese Zone! Aieee! 1 tor, assassinate the evil king, stop the spell from being cast, wreck the invasion plans, close the portal). The Don’t Eat The ❉ Handy Tip!❉ goal has moved. The goal is informa- tion, which must be broadcast or otherwise released from the area as Purple Ones soon as it is found. The job must be done without alerting anyone. The The PCs are stranded in a strange Double up. A nice basic method PCs don’t know the place is danger- place, and must survive by finding is the chameleon game, where ous. The PCs must replace the thing food and shelter, and then worry an adventure presents itself as with another thing. about getting back home. one type of story in the “hook layer” but reveals itself as some- thing else. Sometimes, the switch Capture the Flag Common Twists & Themes: The PCs must survive only for a short period is innocent and natural – Don’t Eat the Purple Ones, for example, of time, until help arrives, the ship makes a good hook for Running The PCs must secure a military target and/or radio is repaired, or some for the good guys. There are bad guys the Gauntlet, and Most Peculiar, such thing (in “repair” scenarios, Momma is a logical lead for there that prefer not to be secured. sometimes the PCs must discover The fundamental tactical scenario. Pandora’s Box. Sometimes, the some fact about the local environ- switch is something more sinister ment that will make such repairs or deliberate, with NPCs selling Common Twists & Themes: The PCs possible). the adventure as one thing when must assemble and/or train a force to it’s really another. This can still be do the job with them. The PCs are working with flawed intelligence and Elementary, My innocent, in its way, if the NPCs have been duped themselves, or the target zone isn’t as described. The PCs must coordinate their own efforts with an ally group (possibly Dear Watson if they’re just desperate for help and worried that nobody will be eager to tackle the real problem. putting aside rivalries to do so). The A crime or atrocity has been commit- target zone includes a population of ted; the PCs must solve it. They must innocent people, fragile goods, or interview witnesses (and prevent some other precious thing that must- them from being killed), gather clues n’t be harmed in the crossfire. (and prevent them from being stolen factions (and chance and misfortune) or ruined). They must then assemble try to deprive them of the thing in Clearing The Hex proof to deliver to the authorities, or serve as personal ministers of justice. their care. Common Twists & Themes: The There is a place where bad things thing or person is troublesome, and Common Twists & Themes: The PCs live. The PCs must make it safe for tries to escape or sidetrack the PCs. are working to clear an innocent nice people, systematically clearing it The destination has been destroyed already accused (possibly them- of danger. or suborned by the enemy, and the selves). The PCs must work alongside a special investigator or are other- PCs must take upon themselves the Common Twists & Themes: The bad job that either the destination or wise saddled with an unwanted ally. things can’t be beaten with direct their charge was meant to do when it Midway through the adventure, the conflict. The PCs must learn more got there. The person is a person PCs are “taken off the case” – their about them to solve the problem. The attempting a political defection. Safe invitation/authority to pursue the Haunted House. The Alien arrival at the destination doesn’t end matter is closed (often the result of Infestation. The Wild Forest. the story; the PCs must then bargain political maneuvering by an antago- nist). The climax is a courtroom with their charge as their token Delver’s Delight scene or other arena of judgment. The scale is highly variable for this (exchanging money for a hostage, for instance). The PCs must protect the type of adventure, from a small- target without the target knowing The PCs are treasure-hunters, who about it. have caught wind of a treasure-laden town murder to a planetwide pollu- ruin. They go to explore it, and must tion scandal. deal with its supernatural denizens Good Housekeeping to win the treasure and get out alive. Escort Service The PCs are placed in charge of a Common Twists & Themes: The The PCs have a valuable object or large operation (a trading company, a treasure itself is something danger- person, which needs to be taken to a feudal barony, the CIA) and must, ous. The treasure isn’t in a ruin, but safe place or to its rightful owner, despite lack of experience in such in a wilderness or even hidden some- etc. They must undertake a danger- things, make it work and thrive. where “civilized.” The treasure is ous journey in which one or more someone else’s rightful property. The Common Twists & Themes: The PCs treasure turns out to have a will of are brought in because something big its own. is about to happen, and the Old 2 Guard wants a chance to escape. The peasants, neighbors, employees, etcetera resent the PCs, because Long Or Short their method of inheritance looks ❉ outwardly bad and everybody loved the old boss. ❉ Handy Tip! Fork When Dining Help is on the Way Surrender yourself to metaphor. On Elf? I’ve written the plots in the lan- guage of (typically very physical) The PCs are a diplomatic vanguard, A person (church group, nation, action-adventure genres, trying to open up (or shore up) galaxy) is in a hazardous situation because that’s the basic form of either political or trade relations with they can’t survive without rescue. roleplaying adventure – but if a strange culture. All they have to do The PCs are on the job. In some sce- you’re playing on more levels is manage for a day or so among the narios, the hook is as simple as a dis- than that, the list can still punch strange customs without offending tant yell or crackly distress signal. its weight. Just remember that anybody . . . and what information every thing, place, and foe can they have is both incomplete and Common Twists & Themes: The vic- really be a piece of information, dangerously misleading. tim(s) is (are) a hostage, or under person, and unhealthy attitude, siege from enemy forces, and the PCs as surely as a space station can Common Twists & Themes: The PCs must deal with the captors or break be a dungeon and a magical were chosen by somebody who knew the siege. There is a danger that any residue can be a fingerprint. they weren’t prepared for it - an NPC rescue attempts will strand the res- trying to sabotage the works (pin- cuers in the same soup as the res- ning this villain might be necessary cuees, compounding the problem. to avert disaster). The rescuees aren’t people, but ani- ones that get it will be the ones that mals, robots, or something else. The “victim” doesn’t realize that he needs rescuing; he thinks he’s doing some- can outthink and outrace the others, deal best with the natives of the Look, Don’t Touch area, and learn the most about their thing reasonable and/or safe. The target. Each competing group has its The PCs are working surveillance – threat isn’t villain-oriented at all; it’s own agenda and resources. spying on a person, gathering infor- a natural disaster, nuclear meltdown, mation on a beast in the wild, scout- or disease outbreak. The rescuees Common Twists & Themes: The ing a new sector. Regardless of the can’t leave; something immobile and natives require the competing fac- scale, the primary conflict (at least vital must be tended to or dealt with tions to gather before them as pals at the start) is the rule that they are at the adventure location. The PCs to state their cases. The valuable only to watch, listen and learn. They begin as part of the rescuees, and thing was en route somewhere are not to make contact or let them- must escape and gather forces or when its conveyance or courier selves be known. resources to bring back and proceed wrecked or vanished. as above. Common Twists & Themes: The tar- Hidden Base I Beg Your get gets itself in trouble and the PCs must decide whether to break the no-contact rule in order to The PCs, while traveling or exploring, Pardon? mount a rescue. come across a hornet’s nest of bad guys, preparing for Big Badness. They must either find some way to get The PCs are minding their own busi- ness when they are attacked or Manhunt word to the good guys, or sneak in threatened. They don’t know why. They must solve the mystery of their Someone is gone: they’ve run away, and disable the place themselves, or gotten lost, or simply haven’t called a combination of both. attacker’s motives, and in the mean- time fend off more attacks. They home in a while. Somebody misses must put two and two together to them or needs them returned. The Common Twists & Themes: The PCs PCs are called in to find them and deal with the problem. must figure out how to use local bring them back. resources in order to defend them- selves or have a chance against Common Twists & Themes: The PCs have something that the bad guys Common Twists & Themes: The tar- the inhabitants. get has been kidnapped (possibly to want - but they don’t necessarily realize it. The bad guys are out for specifically lure the PCs). The target How Much For revenge for a dead compatriot from a previous adventure. The bad guys is dangerous and escaped from a facility designed to protect the pub- Just The Dingus? have mistaken the PCs for some- body else. lic. The target is valuable and escaped from a place designed to keep him safe, cozy, and convenient- Within a defined area, something ly handy. The target has a reason for important and valuable exists. The PCs (or their employers) want it, but so do one or more other groups. The 3 leaving that the PCs will sympathize with. The target has stumbled across Most Peculiar, help someone in trouble. They were brought there by accident, as a by- ❉ Handy Tip!❉ product of something strange and Momma secret. Some of the PCs’ enemies were transported along with them (or sep- Something both bad and inexplicable arately), and now they have a new Double up, part two: Some very is happening (racial tension is being battleground, and innocents to con- satisfying adventures weave two fired up in town, all the power is vince which guys are the good guys. separate (or thematically-relat- out, the beer supply is drained, it’s ed) plots together. An easy way to make this work is to make snowing in July, Voyager still has fans, hordes of aliens are eating all Ounces of one plot physical and the other plot personal. That way just one the cheese), and a lot of people are very troubled by it. The PCs must Prevention of the plots puts demand on the track the phenomenon to its source, PCs’ location, while the other and stop it. A villain or organization is getting one can tag along anywhere. ready to do something bad, and the For example: the PCs are hired Common Twists & Themes: The PCs PCs have received a tip-off of some to escort a prince to a summit so are somehow unwittingly responsible sort. They must investigate to find he can appear before the mass- for the whole thing. What seems to out more about the caper, and then es and end a war (a physical be a problem of one nature (techno- act to prevent it. and simple example of Escort logical, personal, biological, chemi- Service), but on the way, they cal, magical, political, etc) is actually Common Twists & Themes: The ini- realize that the poor guy is suici- a problem of an alternate one. tial tip-off was a red herring meant dal because state obligations to distract the PCs from the actual have ruined his love life, and must prevent his self-destruction by either fixing the problem or No One Has Soiled caper. There are two simultaneous Bad Things on the way, and no apparent way to both of them – how convincing him to shoulder the burden (a personal and The Bridge to choose? metaphorical example of Ounces of Prevention). The PCs are assigned to guard a sin- gle vital spot (anything from a Pandora’s Box mountain pass to a solar system) from impending or possible attack. Somebody has tinkered with Things They must plan their defensive strat- Man Ought Not, or opened a portal to egy, set up watches, set traps, and so the Mean People Dimension, cracked on, and then deal with the enemy a wall at the state prison, or sum- another adventure (either as protago- when it arrives. moned an ancient Babylonian god nist or victim), which the PCs must into a penthouse. Before the PCs can then undertake themselves. The miss- Common Twists & Themes: The even think of confronting the source ing “person” is an entire expedition intelligence the PCs was given turns of the trouble, they must deal with or pilgrimage of some kind. The tar- out to be faulty, but acting on the the waves of trouble already released get isn’t a runaway or missing/lost – new information could result in by it: monsters, old foes out for they’re just someone that the PCs greater danger - but so could not act- vengeance, curious aliens who think have been hired to track down (pos- ing on it, and the PCs must choose or cars/citizens/McDonald’s hamburgers sibly under false pretenses). create a compromise. The PCs learn resemble food, and so forth. Missing Memories that the enemy has good and sympa- thetic reason for wanting to destroy Common Twists & Themes: The PCs the protected spot. can’t simply take the released bad- One or more of the PCs wakes up ness to the mat; they have to collect with no memory of the recent past, it and shove it back into the source and now they find themselves in Not In Kansas before it the adventure can really some kind of trouble they don’t end. The PCs are drawn in to the understand. The PCs must find the The PCs are minding their own busi- source and must solve problems on reason for the memory lapse, and ness and find themselves transported the other side before returning to solve any problems they uncover in to a strange place. They must figure this one. A secret book, code, or the meantime. out where they are, why they are other rare element is necessary to there and how to escape. plug the breach (maybe just the fel- Common Twists & Themes: The for- low who opened it). A close cousin to getful PCs voluntarily suppressed or Common Twists & Themes: They this plot is the basic “somebody has erased the memories, and they find were brought there specifically to traveled into the past and messed themselves undoing their own work. with our reality” story. 4 Quest For the to win; they just wish to prevent the Handy Tip! ❉ villain from winning. The event is a Sparkly Hoozits ❉ deliberate test of the PCs abilities (for entry into an organization, for example). The event becomes more Somebody needs a dingus (to fulfill a Throw yourself a curve. Your play- deadly than it’s supposed to. prophecy, heal the monarch, prevent ers will, anyway, so practice early. Pick two random entries from the a war, cure a disease, or what have you). The PCs must find a dingus. Big List and make your adventure Stalag 23 Often an old dingus, a mysterious on those, no matter what comes dingus, and a powerful dingus. The up – the first one is the hook The PCs are imprisoned, and must PCs must learn more about it to track layer; the second is the meat of engineer an escape, overcoming any the adventure. If the same entry guards, automatic measures, and geo- it down, and then deal with taking it comes up both times, go with it! graphic isolation their prison imposes from wherever it is. Two layers can have a similar on them. structure but very different roots Common Twists & Themes: The din- or details. gus is incomplete when found (one of Common Twists & Themes: the most irritating and un-fun plot Something has happened in the out- twists in the universe). Somebody side world and the prison security already owns it (or recently stole it, Common Twists & Themes: The place has fallen lax because of it. The PCs sometimes with legitimate claim or isn’t dangerous at all, and the vari- have been hired to “test” the prison cause). The dingus is information, or ous “dangers” are actually attempts - they aren’t normal inmates. Other an idea, or a substance, not a specific to communicate with the party by prisoners decide to blow the whistle dingus. The PCs must “go undercover” some agent or another. for spite or revenge. The PCs are or otherwise infiltrate a group or undercover to spy on a prisoner, but are then mistaken for real inmates society, gaining the dingus by guile or stealth. Safari and kept incarcerated. The PCs must escape on a tight schedule to get to The PCs are on a hunting expedition, to another adventure outside the walls. Recent Ruins capture or kill and elusive and prized A town, castle, starship, outpost, or creature. They must deal with its envi- ronment, its own ability to evade them, Take Us To other civilized construct is lying in ruins. Very recently, it was just and possibly its ability to fight them. Memphis And Don’t dandy. The PCs must enter the ruins, explore them, and find out Common Twists & Themes: The crea- ture is immune to their devices and Slow Down what happened. weapons. There are other people active- ly protecting the creature. The crea- The PCs are on board a populated Common Twists & Themes: Whatever ture’s lair allows the PCs to stumble conveyance (East Indiaman, Cruise ruined the ruins (including mean onto another adventure. Ship, Ferry, Sleeper Starship), when it people, weird radiation, monsters, a is hijacked. The PCs must take action while the normals sit and twiddle. new race, ghosts) is still a threat; the PCs must save the day. The inhabi- Score One for the tants destroyed themselves. The Common Twists & Themes: The “ruins” are a derelict ship or space- Home Team “hijackers” are government agents ship, recently discovered. The “ruin” pulling a complicated caper, forcing is a ghost town, stumbled across as The PCs are participants in a race, the PCs to choose sides. The hijackers the PCs travel - but the map says the contest, tournament, scavenger hunt don’t realize there is a secondary town is alive and well. or other voluntary bit of sport. They danger that must be dealt with, and must win. any attempt to convince them is Running the Common Twists & Themes: The viewed as a trick. The normals are unhelpful or even hostile to the PCs Gauntlet other contestants are less honest, and the PCs must overcome their because they think the PCs are just making matters worse. attempts to win dishonestly. The PCs The PCs must travel through a haz- ardous area, and get through without are competing for a deeper purpose than victory, such as to keep another Troublemakers being killed, robbed, humiliated, contestant safe, or spy on one, or debased, diseased, or educated by just to get into the place where the A bad guy (or a group of them, or whatever is there. The troubles they event goes down. The PCs don’t wish multiple parties) is kicking up a encounter are rarely personal in ruckus, upsetting the neighbors, poi- nature - the place itself is the “vil- soning the reservoirs, or otherwise lain” of the adventure. 5 causing trouble. The PCs have to go where the trouble is, locate the bad guys, and stop the party. ❉ ❉ ❉ ❉ Handy Tip! ❉ ❉ And finally, here’s The Little List of succeed without access to powers, thwart? Which innocents to rescue? Nearly-Universal Plot Twists That equipment, or other resources they’re Which value or ideal to uphold? The Work With Almost Any Plot Ever: The used to having. The villain is a recur- PCs must make a personal sacrifice PCs must work alongside an NPC or ring foil. Another group comparable or others will suffer. The PCs aren’t organization they’d rather not pal to the PCs has already failed to suc- asked to solve the problem, just to around with (those who are normally ceed, and their bodies/equipment/etc render aid against a backdrop of rivals or villains, or just a snooty provide clues to help the PCs do bet- larger trouble: get in a shipment of expert sent along to “help” them, etc). ter. There are innocents nearby that supplies, sneak out a patient that The victims are really villains and the the PCs must keep safe while dealing needs medical help, or so on. One of villains are really victims. The PCs with the adventure. The adventure the PCs is (or is presumed to be) a lost meet others who can help them, but begins suddenly and without warning heir, fulfillment of a prophecy, a vol- won’t unless the PCs agree to help or buildup; the PCs are tossed into the cano god, or some other savior them with their own causes. The vil- fire of action in scene one. The PCs and/or patsy, which is why the PCs lain is somebody the PCs know per- must pretend to be someone else, or must do whatever the adventure is sonally, even respect or love (or pretend to be themselves but with about. There is another group of PC- someone they fall for, mid-story). The very different allegiances, values or like characters “competing” on the PCs must succeed without violence, or tastes. The PCs can’t do everything same adventure, possibly with very with special discretion. The PCs must and must choose: which evil to different goals for the outcome. Common Twists & Themes: The PCs which case the PCs must both play be the only voice of reason to still must not harm the perpetrator(s); National Geographic and simultane- the religious fervor, racial prejudice, they must be bagged alive and well. ously try to escape with their skin, anti-monster sentiment, or whatever The bad guys have prepared some- sanity, and credit rating) or the place else is the source of conflict. thing dangerous and hidden as itself is very valuable and wonderful, “insurance” if they are captured. The and something else there is keen on Common Twists & Themes: The PCs “bad guy” is a monster or dangerous making sure the PCs don’t let anyone find themselves on the receiving end animal (or an intelligent creature else know. Other potential conflicts of the adventure. Take any of the that everybody thinks is a monster involve damage to the PCs’ con- plots here and reverse them, placing or animal). The “bad guy” is a veyance or communication equip- the PCs in the position where NPCs respected public figure, superior offi- ment, in which case this becomes (often the villain, fugitive, etcetera) cer, or someone else abusing their Don’t Eat the Purple Ones. normally are. Instead of hunting, authority, and the PCs might meet they must be hunted. Instead of fix- hostility from normally-helpful quar- ters who don’t accept that the bad We’re On The ing, they must avoid getting “fixed” themselves (ow). Alternately, leave a guy is bad. A balance of power per- petuates the trouble, and the PCs Outside Looking In classic plot intact but turn the twists upside down, making them twistier must choose sides to tip the balance (or refreshingly untwisty). and fix things. The “trouble” is diplo- Any of the basic plots in this list can matic or political, and the PCs must be reengineered with the PCs on the ❉ Dedicated! ❉ make peace, not war. outside of it. Either the PCs are accompanying other characters in the Uncharted Waters midst of such a plot (often being called on to defend the plot from the outside, as it were), or they are The Big List of RPG Plots is dedi- The PCs are explorers, and their goal minding their own business when the cated to the many, many fans is to enter an unknown territory and others involved in the plot show up, who’ve let me know how helpful scope it out. Naturally, the job isn’t and must pick sides or simply resist. it’s been, and especially to those just going to be surveying and draw- who’ve helped make it better: For instance, with Any Old Port In ing sketches of local fauna; some- Peter Barnard, Glen Barnett, Colin The Storm, the PCs could already be thing is there, something fascinating Clark, David Lott, Jason Puckett, enjoying (or native to) the shelter and threatening. Marc Rees, Carrie Schutrick, and when a strange group arrives. If the Jeff Yaus, plus a few mysterious “the PCs are unwelcome” variant is heroes who never let me know Common Twists & Themes: Either employed, then perhaps the PCs will their true identities. This is for all the place itself is threatening (in the GMs out there logging the TM hours to give their players an a Creativity. Unbound. 6 enjoyable game.