As a GM, many a time I run into a situation that I know nothing of, am not prepared about, and need something, NOW! Maybe it is a freeform adventure and plot was not prepared, maybe I prepared some plot, but the characters chose completely different direction to go into, maybe they just went to a pub while on their quest, and I have no idea what is in this casual non-campaign-significant pub.

I have discovered the One Sentence NPC contest results priceless for such situations. On the other hand, the printed adventure plots and detailed NPC-s are useless to me during play - I find them useful only before the session, when I am preparing.

I think another example of a tool I am looking for are name generators. Yet another is the List of Forest Threats.

What other tools could be used to create in real time adventure scenes? Note that using a PC is not real time, though I do have a printer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer to another question seems a lot on topic here. If PZiviani would just expand on that! \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Oct 22, 2012 at 14:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Probably my question is a duplicate to this one! \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Oct 23, 2012 at 11:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another great answer, relevant here! \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Oct 23, 2012 at 11:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer is incredibly on-topic here! \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Oct 24, 2012 at 9:18

5 Answers 5


A couple of idea I have used in the past.

Tarot cards:

Just draw a few cards and see where those take you. Maybe a new NPC or a location or an event get generated. Use the cards to inspire you to get some improvisation.

As a side note, you could build your own set of tarot-like cards with images/themes that fit better in your world. For example, in Earth Dawn, you could have 7 suites of 7 cards (one per name-giver race, each with different aspects of said race.) and the trumps could be 7 Horrors -- one representing each Biblical sin and one for The Great Hunter... You can get the players to contribute to the desk as well.

Cut ups:

Cut up some words, lots of words and the stranger the better. Now, pick a few and make a sentence out of as many as you can describing the new situation. This was used by William S. Burroughs in The Ticket That Exploded.


Do an image search on Google with some weird prameters or on photo.net. Pick one that you like best and start describing it in a way that fits within the current situation. Having a few books like CGTalk Expose books may help you more than a search but do cost more.

But fundamentally, you need to get better at improvisation but this is another question really. ^_~

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Posted a question on where to get tarrot cards to give it a go \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Oct 23, 2012 at 7:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great idea, @Sardathrion - you should edit that in. (Also, Everway had this approach as it's primary mechanic; you might take a look at that for inspiration.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Tynam
    Oct 23, 2012 at 18:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion, tarrot are outstanding! As someone on this site said, it is far easier to make something from something, than something from nothing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Nov 7, 2012 at 10:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Vorac: You are welcome. I used both "regular" tarot cards and made up desks before with great success. I had a player that used his own made up desk as a divination tool from his own techno-religious character background. It worked wonders. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 7, 2012 at 11:11

There's no situation (unfortunately, mind you :)) in which something bad couldn't happen.

Simply consider the scene you're stuck in/with (NPCs, creatures and items that are or may be present, environment, weather, location and nearby locations) and ask yourself the question: What may go wrong here? Jot down your idea (or ideas, and pick the most intriguing) and a few key words of what/who such a bad turn of events would require to be present and what reasons -- yep, Why? is your next helper -- may lead to them... and there you go. :)

To provide an example, I'll use your casual non-campaign-significant pub. What may go wrong in such a place? A brawl might break out. Why? Because someone stole a purse, or hit on someone's sweetheart, or got bitten by someone else's dog, or was simply looking for a fight. Perhaps two rival gangs just noticed each other. What else may go wrong? A fire may break out. Because of a clumsy cook. Or because of the already ongoing brawl. What else? A small dragon (or a truck driver, or UFO pilot, depending on your setting) might die of a heart attack on its way home and crash into the pub out of the blue. Should that happen, people get hurt, people find stuff, people decide to handle said stuff differently... and a brawl breaks out... :D

(I know this is probably not the kind of "outside" aid you're looking for, yet independent mental keys / routines are the best tools for storytelling - and all "outside" aids require them too, anyway.)

Edit: You may of course replace "wrong" with "dramatic", "interesting" and so on. (It was meant in a "writerly" sense, referring to +/- stuff out of the ordinary.)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ IMO, this is an insightful answer, that however places too dark a flavour. Things need to get interesting, not necessarily wrong. Also pubs do not burn down to the ground every evening :D \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Oct 23, 2012 at 6:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Vorac I'm glad you liked it. :) As for its darkness, "wrong" is perhaps not the best word, as it has that darkish tone. Understand it to mean "interesting and resulting in some kind of conflict (which is the base of any kind of writing, storytelling.)" :) As for pubs burning down: you're right, absolutely. But when your PCs arrive, and you're stuck in your story... that's never an ordinary evening, is it? ;D \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Oct 23, 2012 at 18:04

I often use these situations as excuses to highlight something interesting about the locale and its culture. So rather than trying to be random about it, I'll go back to whatever I learned about (or created) during adventure prep. For example:

  • If our heroes are in an open city that is being contested by two warring neighbors, when they step into a bar, I set it up so agents of each neighboring power happen to be in the bar. One thing leads to another, and a brawl breaks out. The personality specifics of the agents aren't as important as the larger issue, which is the tussle over control of the city. The PCs can react as they please, either getting involved, or simply gleaning information from the situation.

  • On the trail of a marauding band of trolls, the PCs get a wild hair and decide to explore the forest. I don't know much about the forest, but I do know that there are a few small orc tribes infesting it. So the PCs get ambushed by a handful of those orcs. I use average values for the orcs, throw in an oddity or two, and let the PCs handle it. The point isn't to make a perfectly-matched encounter. If they overpower the orcs, that's fine, but as the encounter is unfolding, I can also start thinking up what should come next. Perhaps the orcs get out their horns and call their buddies, which makes the players realize it's best to get back to going after the trolls.

In general, the more throughly I know an area (geography, politics, religions, cultures) the easier it is to improvise.

For NPCs, I usually find a list of personality attributes and randomly pick two or three of those attributes if necessary. In general, though, most NPCs in these sorts of situations are fairly one-dimensional, and that's OK.

Sometimes as a GM I get hung up on creating a subtle, clever encounter that matches the flow of whatever I've designed. I find that actually players can rarely tell which elements of a session I created ahead of time and which I put together on the fly.

Sometimes the spur of the moment elements actually are more fun for them, too. That's probably because in those moments I'm looser as a GM, more attuned to what the game needs right now, rather than some grand plan.



CD's can do this for you, I've used them in the past very successfully for this when stuffed for an idea; pick an album at random and then work through the tracks to build an insto-plot or scene; it helps that a lot of albums are themed. Let's try one for a plot...

Album: The Seeds of Love - Tears for fears

  1. Woman in chains: A lady has been kidnapped and is imprisoned.
  2. Badman's song: The villain is well known and taunts the ladys betrothed
  3. Sowing the seeds of love: But the villain intends to sway the lady with magic, the party are against a deadline to catch him
  4. Advice for the young at heart: The party must convince the ladys bethrothed not to come with them, or really, he's going to get himself killed
  5. Standing on the Corner of the Third World: The villain has retreated to a far flung corner of the realm
  6. Swords and Knives: The villian has a magically animated army of weapons as his guards
  7. Year of the Knife: Either the time they have to rescue the lady or the last final weapon to be deafeated
  8. Famous last words: Last words from the villian? Of course. A monologue to end him!

That was a pretty easy and cheesy one, but you get the idea, scenes can be generated in much the same way, just with a more compressed timeline.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point, +1. (My first World of Darkness campaign was based entirely on an Iron Maiden mixtape.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Tynam
    Oct 23, 2012 at 18:25

Truthfully, this question is a lot harder to answer as a "system agnostic". For some games it's a lot easier to come up with what I call "carbon copy foes". It's a simple formula I use for default stats/rolls if I need to conjure an NPC out of the air. In games like D&D it's sometimes as easy as blindly flipping through the MM until something fits the location. The other "carbon" method is to have some generic maps to use for both planned and unplanned settings (IE: "That's right folks, Forest Map 2 is out.").

I find that when a scene is ad hoc, having these sorts of things on hand usually keeps my players from realizing the entire thing is made up on the spot unless I tell them so because I always have notes to refer to.


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