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What are the best [not only RPG related] sources of ideas for a good scenario?

I'm not asking about ready scenarios, but inspiration to create your own.

For starters:

  • Shutter Island movie - good ideas for Cthulhu scenario
  • Detective series [CSI etc.] - they might not be the best acting ever and stuff, but there are some ideas for the "second bottom of the chest" in there.
  • Old european castles - while visiting some castles (especially small ones in the mountains - I've seen some in Poland and Slovakia) get leaflets or books with plans of the castles. They're sometimes more awesome and crazy than you could ever draw yourself. Just looking at the plans and reading what building was for what spawns tons of ideas.
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That's really, really open-ended -- the answer depends very much on the genre, what you yourself find inspiring, and so on. I'm not sure it's possible to answer it well. – Bryant Aug 20 '10 at 19:04
I think every answer for this question is good. It might be a good wiki – naugtur Aug 20 '10 at 19:19
This seems very much like a good candidate to be a subjective wiki question. The only "real," comprehensive answer to this question is "everywhere." – AceCalhoon Aug 20 '10 at 19:49
Ok, one more comment supporting the move to wiki and I'll click that checkbox. ;) – naugtur Aug 20 '10 at 20:19
+1 to make it wiki – RMorrisey Aug 21 '10 at 5:57

13 Answers 13

Bad movies, TV series, and books (novels and short stories). Yes, the BAD ones. A good one does thing fine and all you'll be doing is the same thing again. Bad on the other hand opens up so much more possibilities: Good plots to fix, threads to add, characters to develope, adventures, visuals... It's endless.

As a side note, short stories collections are great to find new authors and get lots of idea for cheap. Most book stores will have collections or if you are lucky to live close to a big author convention look it up. Writers clubs are a good source as well.

But back to bad media: warning, please wear your fire-proof gear as I am starting a flame war here ;> As an example of really bad: Alien 3. I am sure that we can all think of a much better execution of "Hard core prison gets attacked by horrible creature. The inmates and wardens need to work together to survive but will they?". Now, add a serial killer all too happy to continue killing even during the HC attacks, a sadistic warden ala Fly Over A Cookoo's Nest, and the wrongfully (?yeah right?) accused PCs and you have yourself a great adventrue.

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Alien 3 deserves the criticism it gets. It was so bad because they changed scripts and locations several times, wasting so much money that they had to make the final version on a shoestring budget. What's on-screen is not a multi-million-dollar movie, it's a B movie with a quality CGI crew and big-name cast. – SevenSidedDie Jul 26 '11 at 17:17
One nice note in Alien3, one of the prisoners says he made a deal for eteranal life. He survives. That was a nice touch. – Sardathrion Jul 27 '11 at 7:28
Bad movies aren't necessarily bad ideas. They're very often good ideas with poor implementation. – Muz Jan 28 '14 at 11:41

Engine Publishing has recently released Eureka 501, a 312-page tome of plot ideas. It received several good reviews, so it may be worth a look.

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I am quite pleased with it. – SevenSidedDie Jul 26 '11 at 17:09

Take a tour around in European castles and monasteries. It's a great source of inspiration for places. Visit small, offbeat cities in Italy:

In France

In Denmark

In Germany

If you want to focus on more dark scenarios, like those appropriate for Chtulhu or Vampires, I strongly suggest Cambridge, UK.

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Um, while this might be a good idea, it seems a little...extreme?...for the average DM on a budget. – Beska Aug 20 '10 at 20:07
GMs have parents :P If You're from another continent - then it's out of budget, but in Europe it's sometimes cheaper to go on vacation abroad. And there'sInternet :P – naugtur Aug 20 '10 at 20:14
visiting is the best option, but all these places normally have a deep history to tell, and reading it from books is also a broad source of inspiration. – Stefano Borini Aug 20 '10 at 20:18
@Naugtur: I don't think that, as a 41 year old computer programmer, my parents will feel the need to spring for my vacation to Europe to research RPG settings. :) Nevertheless, the idea is sound, if it is achieveable for someone. (And, of course, as you mention, a lot of related images are available for free.) – Beska Aug 20 '10 at 20:19
@Beska :D I meant in general ;) – naugtur Aug 20 '10 at 20:37

Real life.

Read the news, politics, and history. This should give you plenty of ideas for games, and it lends an air of well, reality to them.

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Fantasy novels. They're a great source of facinating ideas (and, indeed, the source of many of the ideas of D&D and several other role playing games.)

Excellent inspiration source series might include:

  • The Black Company
  • Elric of Melnibone
  • Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser
  • Lord of the Rings (much flavor is here that is glossed over in the movies)
  • Conan (the Robert E. Howard books)

There's much, much more of course, but those are some quick ideas. There are a million fantasy series out there, and while your milage may vary, these series come to mind quickly because they have a strong sense of setting that is deeply realized with vibrant imagery and tone.

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In call of cthulhu, I often just choose the year ( 1890, 1920 or 1990) and search for an event (1889: jack the ripper, what if the answer behind jack was something hidden by the government, paranormal events or cultes... and ideas just flow). So the best way to find inspiration is surfing wikipedia, bringing to life old stories and events and turn them into some freaky story.

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Read some of the books from Appendix N of the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master Guide. James Malislewski of Grognardia talks about it here. I picked up some of the ones I haven't read and they inspired me a lot.

Here is a Amazon list with all the books in Appendix N and a text list here.

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That's old school fantasy there, I like it. – C. Ross Aug 20 '10 at 21:24

Some online resources:

Some of the ideas on sites like this are short hooks or adventures, but often that's all you need to get rolling with something bigger: after that you have the characters, the plot, the just need to keep it going. They defeated the threat...but who trained him, and will he want revenge? Or perhaps to hire the characters to take his place? Perhaps his defeat was planned by a more powerful entity, trying to keep eyes away from the bigger picture. Once the plot is moving along, it can often be easy to expand.

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The second link seems cool, but the others are ready scenarios if I see well. – naugtur Aug 20 '10 at 20:16
@naugtur: yep, true...that's why I followed up with the commentary afterwards. A lot of times I can get big ideas from reading small adventures. – Beska Aug 20 '10 at 20:36

Read omnivorously. Expose yourself to art and history. Identify the conflicts that arise from the goals and flaws of real people and apply them to whatever game you are into.

Example: I just read a book about the Franklin expedition. Doomed by one old man's incessant need for validation and status, men bound by naval discipline and tradition to follow him into foolish, needless death. Too proud to adapt to the environment like the natives, too hidebound to challenge the man leading them into destruction. Real human beings in real conflict, with real flaws. Can you make a scenario out of those bones?

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I found reading non-fiction and watching historical non-fiction shows can bring amazing ideas that have the plus of being wholly your own, rather than a modification of a script or novel. It seems a little counter-intuitive to me, but I was amazed at all the clever ideas that came from reading some random physics book or watching a documentary. I say this as someone with a huge bias toward fiction.

Watching a show like "Historical Buildings of Scotland" or some such, I find I start to think "But where did they do this? And how did those people feel about that?" and suddenly you're thinking of a whole story and the people involved. This also adds a lot of realism to a storyline, which should never be underestimated, not even in a high fantasy setting. The more realistic something is, the more believable.

Also, having a clear idea of the mechanics behind the volcano eruption or why a castle would be laid out in such and such a way really enables you to bring a lot more detail to your descriptions. And when the characters inevitably do something bizarre and unexpected, having a solid base of general knowledge about the scenario enables your reactions to be quick and interesting.

One of the books that gave me a surprising amount of ideas was Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", which has the plus of being pretty entertaining as well. It's more about the physical world rather than society or whatever, and has some great disaster scenarios.

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Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) once said that at the core of any episode of Star Trek was a human story. For example, Worf is getting frustrated teaching his kid the ways of a Klingon warrior, but the kid does not want to learn. How many fathers/sons have had a very similar argument?

Simply put, even though you are using Elves, Klingons, or robots, there's no reason to leave them without humanity.

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I usually get inspiration from watching the History Channel. The inspiration doesn't necessarily come directly from the subject matter, but an image/video may spark an idea. Also, driving past an old building/house can get the ideas flowing.

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I find that I get my best inspirations from thinking up crazy situations. Remove the scene, context, and even the antagonist and protagonist. All you need to grow an excellent plot is a seed, and that seed is an odd relationship or an subtle irony at play.

For example, take a situation where a man in power takes everything a woman owns, and while the woman despises him, she comes to love him because his reasons for doing so were noble. The man could be a prince who at first comes across as arrogant, pays a visit to a woman whose husband hasn't returned from the war and fears the worst in order to collect anything that can be used in the war effort. The woman lashes out at him for taking advantage of her helplessness and is met with laughter by the prince and his men, and the prince likes the spark in her and decides to "take" her too. She responds by unsheathing daggers and promptly killing several of his men, but is overpowered. The prince spares her life, but insists she come to help the war effort and the woman, having no choice, obliges.

On the journey home, they get ambushed by ogre mercenaries who are a part of the larger orc army approaching the capital and so the adventure ensues. Along the way, you discover that the odds are really bad regarding the upcoming battle, and that the prince was merely trying to save his homeland. She develops an awkward and stubborn attitude towards the prince, who to her surprise has grown fond of her company. She too is surprised that she has grown fond of the prince, but will never admit it...

All this plot developed from the seed of a "a man in power takes everything a woman owns, and despite it all, she loves him." Then, you can weave in other such seeds which support your current storyline, while growing story and/or character background such as an elf who, despite being an expert in current events and in the know, is helplessly naive and trusts people too easily (who matter-of-factly bumps into the prince and the woman and they can't drive him off and later realize how much they need his expertise). Another example would be an Ogre who comes from a tribe which fights for peace, and claims to be against the war effort, though betrayal of his actions, is revealed to care little for anything other than gold. Imagine how they would interact with each other in certain situations..

If two characters distrust each other, imagine a scenario that would force them to cooperate.

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