Story Sparks Part II – More Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together

From Ian Winterbottom

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0229

A Brief Word From Johnn

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

I recently got the d20 module conversion of the classic Fighting Fantasy Gamebook by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston. Before I cracked the cover though, I wanted to experience the book again before the module laid open the mountain’s dark secrets.

So, I went on eBay and managed to win a bid on an entire lot of FFG books. They just recently arrived and I managed to make some great progress on The Warlock of Firetop Mountain this weekend.

I photocopied the character sheet and made a PC. I was lucky and unlucky with my rolls. I rolled double 6’s for my Skill- -sweet! But a 4 for my Stamina and snake eyes for my luck. Crap. Turns out though that Skill is a key attribute. It lets me breeze through most battles, which compensates for my crappy hit points and Luck.

After a couple of hours reading, absorbing every word for pleasure, I managed to fend off a mad man, beat up a number of goblins, and run away from a vampire (I didn’t have the wooden stake that the book recommended would be my best bet). I finally made it to the ferry man, a secondary goal provided early on in the adventure. He stiffed me for three gold pieces, but I managed to cross the river in one piece.

Some villagers advised me before the adventure started to keep a good map of my wanderings. However, in the areas beyond the river I was teleported and transported to unmapped sections. So, now I’m lost!

Ah well. I just slew a minotaur, several zombies, and a ghoul, and my attributes have been steadily going up. I still have lots of Provisions left, and my pouch is brimming with gold. Even though I’m wandering without a clue in the lair of a legendary warlock, of which none have returned, my spirits remain high!

Have game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Story Sparks Part II – More Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together

Below are several story sparks–possibilities for introducing sub-plots or NPCs to help unite new player characters and to start interesting new adventures.

To create a rich, varied backdrop in which your players can react and interact, try combining more than one spark. You might even pick one or more at random and add your own connections.

I must credit Heather Grove’s fantastic Burning Void site for the origin of some of these Sparks, by the way.

The Burning Void

Someone Is On The Make

A city, royal, or imperial official has a scam or a racket going, and the players are an important element. Either they are unknowingly part of the scheme, they are in danger of finding out about it, or they may already know about it and are going to blow the whistle. Somehow, the PCs have to be manipulated, silenced, or otherwise rendered harmless. Perhaps they are even enlisted.

A Feud

The players become involved in a local rivalry, large or small. They are enlisted by one side or the other, perhaps without even knowing about the feud, or they get mixed up in a fight, perhaps a one-sided one. Maybe a third party gets them involved in something designed to escalate the trouble for their own ends?

In Jail

The party, or a friend or relative of a party member, receives an unjust prison sentence. The victim is convicted for something they didn’t do, the charge is badly exaggerated, or the sentence is completely out of line with the crime involved. The victim needs their name cleared, new evidence produced, or a jail break. If there’s a time limit, say thirty days before execution, so much the better! If they’re planning a jailbreak, just how do you follow a galley?

The Treasure

The party hears of a great treasure; however, there’s a snag (isn’t there always?). Only one man knows the secret of its true location, and he’s just been abducted. The captors might or might not know about the information their victim carries. The first order of business is to rescue the kidnapped before the real adventure quest begins.

The Secret Agent

The players meet, or fall afoul of, a spy. He could be a Royal agent working for the King or the Queen, possibly making this a Musketeers scenario. Or, he could be working against the throne, perhaps for a corrupt baron or another, rival country, and the players must discover and thwart his evil plan. This can lead to The Plot spark.

The Plot

The players find out that someone, somewhere, is plotting against the King or whoever is in charge. Whether the King or the plotters is the “right” side is up to the GM, and the players could either be the guys in the black hats or the good guys who save the day.

The Body

The players find a corpse. Who was he, how did he die, why, how did he get there? Are the PCs incriminated? Where was the corpse found and should the players have been there in the first place? Maybe they were robbing the place! Maybe they were the victim’s bodyguards? How are they going to explain the body to the authorities, if necessary? Are they going to be suspects? Did they know the dead person? Do they want vengeance?


Our heroes get a job to protect or save someone. The plot thickens with the identity of the person they’re guarding. Perhaps it’s some obnoxious lordling. Maybe it’s a powerful lord who doesn’t see any need for all this protection nonsense and is damned if he’s going to knuckle under to these peasants who keep trying to follow him about and tell him what to do? Think Winston Churchill or Prince Philip! Just the sort of smart alec loudmouth bound to get up your players’ noses.

If he’s a pretty good fighter in his own right, or thinks he is, then he isn’t likely to suffer fools lightly. Perhaps he’s the pampered younger son of somebody, who all his life has come up against paid soldiers who daren’t win, so thinks he’s Mister Invincible? Maybe he isn’t invincible. Just clever? Sometime he won’t be clever enough, and your players are secretly praying for the day!On the other hand, the Body could be a lot prettier.

The Princess due to enter a political marriage, or maybe the bad fairies have put a curse on her and the King is worried, or whoever she marries will be the heir to the Kingdom and there are suitors who, if they can’t have her, would rather she was dead? Alternatively, she could be just as obnoxious as the guy above and a lot more vulnerable! If she’s a tomboy daughter of the Musketeers she could be a good Fighter too.

The Job Offer

Not body guarding this time, but something slightly weird. Perhaps the PCs are offered a lot of money for an easy delivery. Why is someone willing to pay the party so much for something so simple? What’s in that package? Make sure there’s a penalty clause if they open it, of course, and then make sure they have to!The book, War of Powers, has an interesting way of getting its hero involved; he’s a courier hired to deliver a parcel to a wizard in a remote tower.

What he finds when he gets there, what’s in the package, and what he walks into is literally out of this world!Maybe the offer is just to watch someone and report on their activities? Who, why, and for what reason does the employer have for checking on the target? The party is getting paid– well paid–for curbing their curiosity, but is it enough to overcome that curiosity? Especially if it begins to look as though they may have more to gain by finding out what is going on, or if they realise that they just may be expendable unless they can get some leverage!

Another thought–just who recommended them for this job? How did their prospective employer find them? Maybe it’s a job they’re completely unqualified for. If so, how did their name come up? Do they need to convince their potential employer that they can actually do the job?

An Old Friend

Someone appears from a PC’s past, “back in the good old days.” A childhood friend, an adolescent sweetheart, a cousin or long lost family member? The person might even resemble the character concerned, to a point where they and the PC could be mistaken for each other? Where has the person been all this time? What has he been doing? What’s he doing now? What’s he doing here? What’s the reason he’s come looking for the PC? What’s he know that they don’t? Who is he?

The Patron

Here, we have the usual old guy in the pub recruiting adventurers. This time there’s a catch. He is one of the other Story Sparks: the Secret Agent, the Plotter, the Man on the Make, even the Prince of Thieves. Alternatively, he is working for a Story Spark NPC.He wants not just adventurers, but mugs. Oblique scapegoats. It’s up to your players to smell a rat and put one over on him.They just have to deliver this parcel for great pay, or the guy is the man who knows where that treasure is, or he’s looking for decoys to draw away the opposition? Think like the boss of a “firm” in the city’s underworld, looking for heavies–but expendable heavies!

The Staggering Drunk

The PCs encounter a staggering, stupid, falling-down drunk, totally useless and not worth bothering about. Except that he said something or did something important to the PCs. As a twist, perhaps he’s the Old Friend? Or, when the medics check, it turns out he wasn’t drunk but poisoned or brainwashed.Now he’s dead. Think, 39 Steps. Your players are now going to be wracking their brains trying to remember what he actually did say. And what about that notebook he mentioned? What do you mean somebody stole his things? The 39 Steps

The Gift

In German, the word Gift actually means “poison”. Within reason, that’s the way to think with this Spark. Sweet and enticing, but bait! One of the players gets a present, but with strings very definitely attached. How he gets it is up to you; by mail, special messenger, in a bequest; but make it as mysterious as possible. The next subject for consideration is what he gets. A map, a book, a scroll, a bottle of something? A weapon or musical instrument?Whatever it is though, it radiates evil, magic, something– but in a very low-key and unidentifiable way.

Just a feeling. Add any other “hints” you can think of, perhaps notes in a language nobody can read, odd hieroglyphics, a hint of something strange, but familiar.Who did it once belong to and what happened to them? Maybe the gift was actually meant for someone else? Mistaken identity again? Who was it meant for, and is he likely to come looking for it–or for the PCs?Just be sure to write the ideas down, because at some point you are going to have to explain this! It’s one of those Sparks though that you can count on your players to supply inspiration for.

If you can pique their curiosity, they will spend ages doing every sort of “test” they can come up with, trying and probably succeeding in finding the story behind the gift! Somewhere in that, if you listen, will be the germ of your plot.

Some interesting, related links:

Instant Plots Hooks

The Instant Plot Hook

The 36 Basic Plots


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Create Unique Races From Existing Monsters

From Chris D.

Following on from Stephen Colbert’s tip in #228 (which, in turn, was a follow up from Dean Roth in #227) I’ve ‘created’ a few races for a world that I tinker with as well, for the same reason as most others: the PCs know every creature in the book backwards.

As an example, I have the Caerae, a sleek, bipedal, cat-like creature, with matted fur, and a spooky, cat-like wail to communicate between themselves. It was easy–they are kobolds, but are catlike instead of doglike. I’ve also seen orcs that were described as being more goatish with curled horns, more pronounced muzzle, and goat hair over most of the body…

If you want to create creatures, but don’t have the time to do a full set of stats and history, just change the description and write it on an index-card with a reference to what creature really is. (Just don’t let your players see where you’re looking in the monster book. It might help to have the monster stats on the card as well.)

Changing the description has the players worried. They’ve never heard of these cat-like things, and it’s a terrible wail. And those big curled horns look very nasty…They don’t need to know it’s really kobolds and orcs, do they?

I guess this is the halfway point between Dean’s tip and Stephen’s tip. It’s not nearly as complex as creating a race from the ground up, but it has more effect on the players than a simple name change. (Though changing names between regions is a nice trick that I hadn’t considered either…Thanks Stephen!)

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Break Records To Motivate Players

From David MacBrian

I’m a long-time GM and a short-time fan of your newsletter.

My friends and I constructed a gaming system some years back, and it’s all that we have ever used. Different plot lines keep the world interesting, but the meat and potatoes of its longevity is an out-of-game record system.

For example, one of my players never seemed to do anything. He couldn’t get a grip on plot, didn’t seem to have any goals, and just sort of stood around. In that session I was more bored than I have ever been in my life. So, I made a list of things that he had done that nobody else ever had; even simple things, such as being the first person to visit city such-and-such, or to talk to so-and-so.

I told him of his ‘new records’, and ever since, he has been pushing himself to accept quests and go places and really immerse himself, looking to break even more records. Most of the other players have caught ‘record-mania’ as well, and while the records don’t directly provide anything (rewards, money, etc.) during the game they do provide for a better GM and player experience.

Anyone who uses this tip may want to write down frequently broken records, such as the most money ever acquired, because the players will remember the current standing record and it’s embarrassing when the GM doesn’t.

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GM Hosting Tips

From Joseph D.

I just read issue #228 about The GM As Master Of Ceremonies and had some additional tips:

  • When recruiting new players, let them know the potential show stoppers about the location: pets, smoking, and stairs. Anyone with issues can make an informed decision.
  • If your players keep online journals, send the files or URL to the new person. The new player will have a better idea of current events in the game.
  • This benefits all players: keep all local delivery menus in one place. If you have the time and equipment, scanning them onto a computer isn’t a bad idea either. Having the menus in one place cuts down the time when ordering. Use Post-Its to keep comments about the service and food.
  • Try to tie new characters to an existing PC (with the player’s permission). The new character may be a (distant) relative, member of the same guild, etc. This way, the new PC has in-game help and it reduces the chances of being sidelined.
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Classic Tip: Corkboard Maps

From Kyle C.

Here’s an idea that I thought of for not having a combat grid when you want one. I have Campaign Cartographer 2, along with Dungeon Designer 2 and City Designer 2, and I like to use them to print out a map for all of the places I plan on having an encounter in my game.

What I do is print out the map I want to use with a grid overlay and tack it to a small cork board that’s about the size of an RPG hardcover book. Then I use sewing pins with different colored heads to represent the creatures/items/ players on the board. I even write names on small scraps of paper to make “flags” for the different players/NPCs and such. This works very well for my group as well as myself.

Just remember to tell everyone to only push the pin into the board far enough to keep it still and everything will last longer. If you don’t have CC2 or a program like that you can just use grid paper and draw the map by hand.

For larger creatures that take up more than one space I cut a piece of cardboard out that’s the right size so I only have to use one pin for a creature.

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Atmosphere Software – Anyone Tried It?

From Johnn

Here’s a TinyURL’d link to some RPG sound effects software that I learned about from ENWorld. I’m just wondering if anyone has any experience with it. If so, what did you think?

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A Way To Bring The PCs Together

From Jan Phillip Miller

The Reader’s Tip in Issue #228 about Starting With A Riot by Nick Maggs made me think about the campaign I GM right now. I, too, wanted to start with a bang, and the players were unfamiliar with the system, so I thought I’d introduce them slowly to their skills, abilities, and disadvantages in terms of game mechanics.

The PCs all started with amnesia. Apart from being an interesting story hook, this approach allowed for some situations like, “Now you seem to remember…” or “This slimy frog triggers a phobia you didn’t remember having.”

During character generation I asked the players to leave 20% of their starting points unspent. This way, I could provide the players with some surprises and their characters with some means to achieve their goals. “Dorin, you just remember that you indeed know a bit about picking locks!”

Of course, you need to have players open for this type of game. Some may not like having the GM assign them skills or abilities, or having a character that knows even less than when you usually start 1st level. Ask your players beforehand if they are open for an experiment. For a new campaign with newbie players, it worked very well!