Story Sparks Part I – New Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together
From Ian Winterbottom
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #227
- Targeted By A Thief
- Slave Rescue
- Animal Rescue
- Street Ambush
- Bad Weather
- The Apprentice
- The Hidden
- The Accused
- Disaster Strikes
- Server Issues
- Contest Is Over For List Generation Project #2
- Campaign Begins Soon
- Creating Unique Monsters
- Classic Tip: Make a Charts and Tables Book
- GMing Out Of A Shoe Box
- Pick A Theme Song For Your PC
- ADD GMs: Pick A System That Suits Your Needs
- ADD GMs: Have The Players Write Journals
Tired of “chance encounters” in the pub? Of tavern patrons hiring adventurers for a mission? Are your stories’ beginnings getting predictable? We’ve all got plot hooks, but what’s the bet your characters will ignore them or kill the wrong guy? Just like the old tale of the scientists who put a monkey in a cage with three ways out to see which he’d find, the little blighter escaped a fourth way!
There is an answer, however. Motivate them to want to choose a choice you’ve got planned. Think about sparks, the little, glowing embers that can start a blazing fire. Your goal is to ignite your stories with sparks that’ll capture the players’ attention and keep it.
If you think of your stories as novels, each one should begin differently and should grip its reader – the players – right from the first few words. If you think of your plots as movies, it’s the trailer of a film that grips you, right?
Your story beginnings should have mystery and intrigue (as much as you can manage!), something inexplicable, and if possible, some kind of decision to be made apart from the usual, run-of-the-mill dilemmas PCs face of whether or not to accept the “mission.”
The more “character connections” you can get in, within reason, the better, as they give you a “handle” on things. They also give the players something to roleplay, a way in which to develop their characters, and that person’s attitude to certain things or situations. Give them something to roleplay against. Think of a plot element or scene, then consider what it might entail, what it could cause, or what could follow it.
Below are several story sparks–possibilities for introducing sub-plots or characters who can make life a lot more exciting and interesting for the players!
I must credit Heather Grove’s fantastic Burning Void site for the origin of some of these Sparks, by the way.
Targeted By A Thief
The PCs are targeted by an NPC thief in the market or street. The thief may get away, in which case the PCs lose whatever the rogue took, and if it is important enough, they may have to contact the thieves’ guild or the like to get whatever it was back, perhaps also paying a ransom.This spark could introduce the party to the hidden “Guild Master”, his fixer, or some such character as the historical Jonathan Wild, the supposed Thief Taker who was secretly the leader of half the thieves in London.
Equally, the group might catch the thief, in which case they are faced with the choice of what to do about him. Easy choice if he is your average thug or pickpocket, but what if he is a young boy, or better still, a girl? A street urchin might have no other way of making a living.Perhaps the characters weren’t the target. Instead, a merchant, a swaggering bravo, or a lordling (or any NPC who is unpleasant and easy to dislike) was robbed, and if the PCs don’t intervene, the captured thief is going to die, lose a hand, or whatever.
The party might be forced or persuaded to recruit the rogue, even having to ransom the NPC from the Guild or “Jonathan Wild”. The NPC could then prove to be a useful and fun henchman or sidekick, as in many films or books (Batman’s Robin and Indiana Jones’ boy companion spring to mind?) A child can get places and do things an adult can’t.
The party spots a slave being severely beaten in public, perhaps unjustly. Regardless, the PCs must decide whether to intervene, perhaps causing trouble for themselves if the Master or Mistress has “connections”. The slave, if he joins the group, could be useful in his own right, as the Thief above; have his own “connections”, perhaps clandestine; or have an interesting or useful story/background. The slave might even be–or become–a player character!
If you choose this story spark, consider:
- Who is this slave or child?
- How old?
- What race and sex?
- Was the NPC born a slave, taken prison, kidnapped?
This spark is the same as the Slave spark above, but an animal is being whipped.Firstly, who is the Master? A nasty bullying merchant, carter or driver, or something more? Could they be a high ranking noble or the like? Is he a street entertainer with a “trick” animal? Perhaps the animal itself is intelligent, or is even some kind of “monster” or humanoid (think bear baiting and then make the bear an Ogre)?Think also of a connection to one or more PCs. For instance, a centaur or horse nomad is likely to get annoyed if it’s a horse or something like it being beaten.
A paladin or good cleric would possibly be inclined to intervene. Additionally, a PC might follow a particular god whose emblem is the beast concerned. For example, Epona, the Celtic Horse Goddess. Rangers, druids, and wilderness oriented and nature loving PCs might also feel compelled to get involved.Perhaps the animal might become a wizard PC’s familiar? An intelligent beast might make a good companion or henchman. The animal might also be a good pet.
Have the party ambushed/attacked while inside or leaving an inn. After the fighting, the PCs might wonder any of the following:
- Why they were attacked?
- Were they personally targeted?
- Was it just an attempted mugging, or was something else involved?
- Was it some sort of private feud, and if so, who with?
- Are they involved with whatever the local feud or politics happens to be? (Are you a Montague or a Capulet!?)
- Have they done something or said something to upset some local power?
- Are they asking too many questions? Or does someone _think_ they are?
- Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity?
- Have they look-alikes around somewhere, and if so who and why?
This could be rather fun if you just plant the seed and let the PCs figure out a sub-plot for you!
If the party just shrugs off the attack as random violence or opportunistic rogues, have an NPC of authority raise these questions to them to get the players pondering more deeply. Sometimes you have to fan a spark before flame erupts!
The weather is bad, really bad. Travel is down to a minimum and subject to terrible delays–if it’s possible at all. Think tropical storms, blizzards, shipwrecks, and lightning strikes.There could be severe hardships costing hit point loss and possibilities of exposure, or even death, from cold. Perhaps the PCs become marooned somewhere remote due to flooding, snowfall, landslide, or whatever.There’s the risk of a supply shortage for extended storms, or even starvation. More than the PCs might be in jeopardy as well.
For instance, the population of the local village in which they are sheltering could be at different types of risk. Wolves howl in the distance and perhaps attack. Starving humanoids prey on the locals. Imagine stalking ogres through thick fog.Bad weather is a great way to put the PCs together and cooperating on various goals!
A member of the party acquires an apprentice, or someone, perhaps a young person, approaches and asks a PC to take them on. Perhaps the NPC mentions he’s heard of the character’s prowess or past adventures?The apprentice might be a useful foil or contact, become a useful henchman, have a role of his own, just be a hostage to fortune, or anything you like.Perhaps it isn’t the NPC, but his background, family, or something else, that is of value to the party or your story?
Perhaps he’s run away from his family, his feudal lord (who has far-reaching powers in a Mediaeval type society), or his old master, and they are looking for him? How about that escaped Slave again?The apprentice might be the link to a bigger plot, as the PCs will soon learn. He might need protection, vindication, or some other form of help. Alternately, he might have valuable information that could lead the PCs to adventure, such as a treasure map, information about a great injustice going on, or a diabolical plot of his former guardian.
Someone is kidnapped or just vanishes. It could be anybody: a prominent NPC, a person of value to the party, even a member of the party. The kidnap could be for ransom, for slavery, or, perhaps as a sacrifice?
- Who has disappeared?
- Where have they gone or been taken to?
- Who has taken them? And why?
Perhaps the disappearance is on purpose and the person just wants it to look like a kidnap? Maybe the victim has or knows something the players need? It should complicate matters for the party as they are faced with the problem of finding the kidnapped and getting him back.
The players witness an attack on someone and perhaps intervene and save the victim. As in the Ambush spark above, all the same ideas apply:
- Who was attacked?
- By whom?
Is the victim grateful for the party’s help? Does he reward them, or just thank them and walk away? Perhaps he even runs away because he shouldn’t have been where he was and can’t afford to have anyone know about it! Does he work for someone who would punish or even kill him if he knew the person was there? Has he got some kind of plot, perhaps against his master, going for himself?
Have the players made an enemy of whoever made the attack? Perhaps there was a reason for it, and the players’ intervention caused trouble for the local resistance or the equivalent of Robin Hood?
An NPC hides, swims ashore, lands, or whatever, right in front of the party, They are the only ones who know of the NPC’s whereabouts, or even that he is there. It’s up to them to decide whether to betray him, turn him in, or whatever. Who he is, what he is, what he can do for himself or the party, is in the lap of the gods, but it could be the key to a story, a new NPC, or a whole adventure.
- Who is the NPC?
- Why are they hiding?
- Who are they hiding from?
- What would happen if the PCs keep his secret?
- What would happen if the PCs blow his cover? And who would the PCs tell?
The players are accused of a crime. They may or may not be innocent, depending on recent history! Their accuser(s) could be local authorities, police or the like, bullies of a local big wig, a victim of the crime who’s made an identification mistake, or the real perpetrator trying a little misdirection.Perhaps it’s just mistaken identity–a PC looks like a well- known local pirate or thief? Or, that “thief” might be a local Robin Hood or other freedom fighter.
A major disaster, such as a fire, flood, avalanche, or plague, strikes the region. Will the party pitch in to help, or not?The disaster could be on a more minor scale as well, such as a collapsing building, a burning inn, a monstrous attack, or a powerful spell recklessly cast.In Imperial Rome, for instance, under the more corrupt Emperors, half the buildings in the city were so ancient and badly repaired by slum landlords that they only stood up by force of habit.
The other half were often barely stitched together by corrupt contractors out to make a fast and exorbitant profit by sanding the cement and skimping on the bracing. It wouldn’t take much to send a building tumbling.As the disaster erupts, the PCs might be summoned for help, they might hear the pleas of the trapped and wounded, or the object of their latest quest could be buried in rubble. For a new group and a new campaign, the disaster spark is a great introduction and team-building exercise.
After the disaster, the PCs might be recognized for their bravery or hard work and be introduced to new plot hooks by prospective employers. Alternatively, the disaster might have been the result of sabotage or other deliberate action. Who’s the culprit and why? Perhaps evidence and clues will surface during rescue activities.
Comment from Johnn: thanks to Heather Grove for giving Ian and I permission to publish these story sparks, many of which were inspired by ideas at her web site:
I hope you find Ian’s sparks useful as a way to start stories, adventures, and campaigns in new and exciting ways. While the tavern scene is a fun classic, sometimes it’s good to try out new beginnings. More sparks to come in Part II of Ian’s article!
A Brief Word From Johnn
This week’s article was delayed a couple of days–my apologies! The mail server has been down since Sunday, but everything is back up now and I’m able to send you this issue. I hope you find the story sparks useful!
Contest Is Over For List Generation Project #2
The contest is over and winners will be announced in Issue #228. Thanks to all who entered! By a first, unofficial count, there were 102 entries, 75% of which came through in the last few days. If my math is correct, odds of winning will end up being about 1 in 13–not bad compared to the lottery. ? It also means there will be over a hundred roleplaying plot outlines coming your way soon!
Campaign Begins Soon
My campaign begins soon. I can’t wait! I opted to go with the Birthright game world from TSR in the 90s. There’s a free D&D 3rd Ed. version available at:
I think I’ll place the PCs in a village in the northern province of Ghoried in the Barony of Roesone. It’s a bit of a frontier area with lots of development and conflict opportunities, depending on what my new group decides to do.
Next, I go through the wonderful world secret ideas y’all sent in and make a decision, and then I’ll start detailing a couple of initial adventures.
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
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Creating Unique Monsters
From Dean Roth
Have your players memorized every monster in every published source? Are you tired of having them proudly announce the weakness of everything you throw at them? Well, here is a method for creating your own critters that will keep your players on their toes.
- Think about what makes the creature unique. This may be anything from a simple spell effect to a unique ability that allows them to manipulate universal forces, such as magic, psionics, or even planes of existence. The DM may be tempted to create monsters capable of circumventing some specific defense or item possessed by the PCs. In moderation, this is fine, but you mustn’t do it too often, or be too blatant about it, as this can result in very frustrated, if not angry, players.
- Think of a setting in which this creature would fit. This might even involve creating a whole new plane or section of your campaign world. The creature’s ability had to come from somewhere, so try to think of what kind of conditions might result in the development of that ability. For example, if a creature has complete invulnerability to acid, is it because the atmosphere of its natural habitat is acidic, or is it because their natural enemies use acid as a weapon? Thinking this out can often result in even more elements you can add to your campaign, and/or a deeper understanding of your campaign world and the forces in it.
- Combine with your campaign what you’ve created so far. Figure out how the monster got from Point A to Point B. Did it come from its home plane as part of an impending invasion? Or a misfired summoning spell by a cranky old wizard? Has it had a major impact on the area it is currently in? Now that you know its normal place and its natural ecosystem, determine where it fits in the current campaign.
- Flesh it out. Choose whatever format you prefer and fill in the blanks.
- Name it. The key to creating a good name is to have it reflect the culture it comes from. If the creature’s home area has a South American feel to it, use names which have that type of ring to them. If you want, try creating your own linguistic sounds, or find them online. There are many wonderful sites on linguistics available.
- Determine the creature’s power level. In D&D terms, this would be the creature’s CR. Is one of these creatures a match for a fully prepared party? Or would you need a pack of them to give the party a real challenge?
- Give it attributes. Compare it to other creatures from similar settings, or of similar power level, and assign comparable attributes. Try to avoid illogical combinations, such as genius-level intelligence in creatures that run wild in the forest, or giant-size creatures that live in natural (and presumably normal-sized) caves. Also determine any additional special abilities you want the creature to have, such as spell effects, magic resistance, etc.
- Describe it. What does it look like, smell like, sound like? Give a full description of the creature’s appearance.
- Work out the creature’s behavior patterns. This includes such things as its level of socialization, any odd quirks it has, fears, habits, etc. If it is intelligent, think about the creature’s level of development, what their society is like, what they think is important, and things like that.
Think about *why* they behave the way they do. Do they attack anyone they see because they are violently xenophobic? Or could it be because their primary food supply has been dwindling and they’re just insanely hungry? Work out as much as possible about the creatures so you can understand them.
Do they breed slowly, rapidly, or perhaps not at all? Anything you can think of to describe and explain their society will help you make them more believable.
- Figure out the creature’s combat statistics and tactics. Does it attack with claws or weapons? Does it have any special attacks? Does it prefer to attack from hiding, or go face-to-face from the start? Look at your creature and determine as much as possible about its combat abilities, paying special attention to any attack styles that may result from the appearance and behaviors you created above.
- Create legends, myths, or rumors about the creature. Have some fun with it. Give the players a reason to remember the creature besides what they get from killing it. It’s much more fun to be the slayer of a legendary beastie than to just run into “that funky-looking cat-thing.” And, after all, fun is what this is all about.
Classic Tip: Make a Charts and Tables Book
From Derek Hanwell
Often times players are passing around the books you need for your DMing duties, buying equipment, or checking what skills they want, or any other number of silly things players do. Other times, certain books are just so woefully organized that it takes a few minutes just to find that one combat chart. And still other times, there are more source books than you know what to do with, and you can’t even remember which one has the chart you want.
I’ve found the best solution is to make your own personal book of charts and tables, because, let’s face it, after having played a system for a while, all you really need are the tables. For about ten bucks on the cheap end (even cheaper if you have free access to a photocopier) you can buy a three ring binder and photocopy all the most important pages from all your source books and combine them in one place. Not only that, but you can buy some three ring binder folders and keep characters and notes in there, turning the whole thing into an emergency DM kit.
If you want to put out a little more cash, you can put plastic sleeves to keep the pages from being torn out, a pencil pouch for both pencils and a few dice, and other misc equipment.
With this simple tip you can smile as players fight over the one and only copy of the equipment book, find the information you need quickly in the heat of combat, and travel a with a little lighter RPing pack.
GMing Out Of A Shoe Box
From Joshua H.
I love what you do with the e-mail. Thank you a lot, I appreciate it and I’m sure everyone else does too. I’d like to add a tip for organization. I work at a shoe store and use an empty boot box for my RPG stuff. If people go to the local shoe stores, I’m sure they would save them for people. When people buy boots, a lot of them want to wear them out of the store, so the store is left with the box. To me, that’s a perfect opportunity for a D&D organization tool.
Pick A Theme Song For Your PC
From Andrew David Majik
Hey there. I’ve read your website on and off for quite a while now, so perhaps you have heard this before, but I figured I’d at least mention it. This is a trick that me and the guys I play with here in Windsor use to create strong characters, and more importantly, get ourselves into character and keep ourselves there. I find it especially useful when I’m trying to get into character quickly or when I’m not in the best mood for the character I’m supposed to be playing.
I try to select for the character I’m playing a theme song. Think of your character as making his entrance in to the WWE, or something like that. What song would they want on stage to get their character across to the crowd? How would he get them all wound up? How would he engage them?
When my Gray Sage, Maxis Lithium, is needed I tend to reach for the Misfits and listen to Descending Angels once through. When I need my hot headed Biker, Terry Johna, I listen to Poe’s Hey Pretty. These get me into the right mind frame to _be_ the character.
Another good way to picture you character’s theme song is, to imagine, if you character was going to put on a concert, what one song, or even set of songs. would they play? I like to think of how scenes that I have been in with my character would fit together to form a music video to the song I’m thinking of.
I try to pay attention to the music, the lyrics, and the general mood and feel of the song to make sure they fit the character. It’s OK to have one or two verses that really fit, but if the rest of the song isn’t in line with your vision of the song, then perhaps you need to look harder, to find that one piece of music that can really help you fit under your character’s skin.
ADD GMs: Pick A System That Suits Your Needs
From Agata G.
Your RPG ezine has always been a source of inspiration for me. Thanks for such a great work! I found the last issue dealing with “GM ADD” especially remarkable.
One thing I’d like to add: choose an RPG system that fits your needs. Handing over tasks to players you don’t manage well is a good idea. But using a game system that doesn’t have tasks you don’t care for is a real improvement many GMs don’t even consider.
You want to GM fast and fun dueling fights? Don’t bother with boring rules for exact movement. You’re more into epic stories and detailed characters? So what need do you have for exact wounding rules?
There’s such a variety of RPG systems out there (some free on the net) I’m sure every ADD GM can find one fitting her/his needs.
ADD GMs: Have The Players Write Journals
From Erik Luken
I’ve found that when suffering ADD between gaming sessions, having the players write journals (for XP) is a good way to keep things in mind on the campaign. And it usually spurs a couple future plot hooks/ideas.