The 36 Basic Plots

To show that adventures and games with at least a loose plot are indeed a good thing I present the following. It's based on a couple of things I've had floating on the HD for some time and haven't looked at again until recently and decided to put them together.

Assuming an rpg is at least in some part like a story, what are the different structural parts of the story and how do they work in the rpg?

Obviously the GM's only jobs aren't limited to setting and character. Plot is important if you want to give the setting somewhere to go. Theme and strategy then are needed if you want that direction to have some sense of purpose rather than being mindless meandering. Dialogue goes hand in hand with character but is influenced by plot events and appropriateness to the setting.

These are things that are used in constructing stories, but even if you don't believe that a good RPG is or needs to be "storytelling" it's apparent that these elements are highly useful to a DM. The 36 dramatic plots seem to be fairly universal in that stories can be boiled down to these essential elements. Using these in providing the basis for your adventures as well as for the campaign overall should yield results that will astound you and your players.

I've also realized that these make GREAT sources of ideas for starting a campaign.

Each plot type is given a name and then main characters or elements of it are in parenthesis followed by a brief example.

  1. Petition/Supplication (A persecutor, the petitioner, an Authority who is petitioned) A village is being run by an incompetent &/or domineering mayor so the people ask the king to remove him. The PC's could be citizens in the village, assigned the task of arresting the mayor or verifying the story for the king, or interested observers who take it upon themselves to see to it the mayor is deposed.
  2. Deliverance (Victims, Source of Threat, Rescuer) A VERY common RPG plot where a town is threatened by Orc hordes and the PC's must rescue them. But what if roles are juggled a bit? How about if the Orcs are threatened by the PC's and are "rescued" by an ally of the orcs? What if the PC's are the ones who need rescuing?
  3. Revenge (Avenger, Criminal) A PC seeks revenge upon an NPC or powerful monster for a wrong done to him; a PC is the object of revenge by someone or something which survives an attack by him; the PC's are caught up in someone else's plot for revenge.
  4. Vengeance by Family upon Family (Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative) Hatfield vs. McCoy? Capulet vs. Montague? That's Romeo and Juliet for the heathens out there though R&J also clearly falls under #28 & #29. But then that shows how plots can be combined. That story also provides all kinds of places for the PC's to fit in. They need not be standing in as Romeo or Juliet but could be friends or members of either of their families.
  5. Pursuit (Fugitive, Pursuer) Can you say "The Fugitive"? How about "Les Miserables"?
  6. Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune (Victim, Source of Cruelty or misfortune) A common theme for Greek tragedy with Fate being a common source for somebody's woes. Oedipus Rex springs to mind as fitting this mold as does the plot of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
  7. Disaster (Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger) I guess "disaster" put me in mind of Irwin Allen movies but it fits. Take his classic disaster movie Towering Inferno. The fire is in a sense the power that gets vanquished with Steve McQueen's fire Chief being one part of the victorious power and the messenger who brings up the moral of the story.
  8. Revolt (Tyrant, Conspirator(s)) Star Wars? American Revolution? French Revolution? Russian Revolution? I would HIGHLY recommend looking into the American Revolution as a source here.
  9. Daring Enterprise (Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary) Must be THE most common plot for D&D. PC's boldly go to the dungeon to defeat monsters &/or retrieve a specific treasure.
  10. Abduction (Abductor, Abducted, Guardian) Another well-known D&D plot better known as "Save the Princess/Prince". See below, however on matters of scale.
  11. Enigma (Interrogator, Seeker, Problem) Common plot with the PC's as investigators of mysteries.
  12. Obtaining (Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator) Less common I think because there's a tendency to think of the only opposition to the PC's being deadly opposition when a competitive arrangement can be more interesting. A good template that springs to mind is from Raider of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones (the obvious PC stand-in) competes with Belloq, the French archeologist. I'm thinking of a campaign where the PC's form a party that is continually competing against a rival group of adventurers for the prime dungeons to loot. Over the course of the campaign it escalates with their opposition becoming more ruthless or associating with powers even less scrupulous than they.
  13. Familial Hatred (Two Family Members who hate each other) A good basis for events directly related (no pun) to a PC or PC's being involved in the consequences of such events.
  14. Familial Rivalry (Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object) Similar to #13 but often with no less dire consequences. Another Shakespeare example - the daughters of King Lear fighting over who should inherit the land.
  15. Murderous Adultery (Two Adulterers, the Betrayed) Extremely common in movies but I've never seen anything approaching it in an RPG although the adventure fodder from it can be very fertile. Even more so as the adulterers involved are more powerful.
  16. Madness (Madman, Victim) The limit of involvement of madness seems to be a few isolated sages, the stereotypical mad wizard, and the relationship between madness and alignment. Literature and plays (mostly classical stuff) are good sources for game ideas involving madness. Greek tragedy and Shakespeare used it often. I'd say it's fallen out of use in modern times though, or at least it's use has changed with the advent of medicine and psychology.
  17. Fatal Imprudence (Imprudent person, Victim or lost object) Generally involved on a more interpersonal scale as when a young boy is careless with matches and burns down his house. However, I think another example might be Custer's Last Stand where his ignorance &/or arrogance led to a massacre of his troops.
  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (Lover, Beloved, Revealer) Note that this is actions other than adultery committed out of love. Maybe something like a brother murdering his sister's boyfriend because he doesn't think him worthy of her and is seen in the act by a blackmailer. Another possibility: a businessman who commits crimes to save his business and a loyal employee who wrestles with the choice of turning in his admired employer versus his civil duty.
  19. Kinsman Kills Unrecognized Kinsman (Killer, Unrecognized Victim, Revealer) Shakespeare used this sort of theme frequently as he used the device of people in disguise a LOT.
  20. Self Sacrifice for an Ideal (Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed) This is good for more than LG or Paladin types to be involved in as they are not the only type of characters who would have such deeply held beliefs. They're just the most obvious association.
  21. Self Sacrifice for Kindred (Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed) Now this is a rare one as its impact seldom rises above the interpersonal level. The first example that comes to mind is a child who sacrifices their own dreams and desires in order to provide for an ill parent or sibling.
  22. All Sacrificed for Passion (Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed) Not an overly common archetype but seen often enough in teen movies. For example, a geek who sells a prized collection in order to pay for something to win the affection of a girl he is infatuated with.
  23. Sacrifice of Loved Ones (Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice) The first thing that comes to mind here is from the Bible where God tests Abraham's faith and obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son which God prevents at the last moment when he is about to follow through.
  24. Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior (Superior, Inferior, Object) This is not necessarily indicating a personal relationship but possibly competitive standing or public perception of it. I'm thinking of all what is now an established genre in movies of the underdog team (generally sports teams) of misfits winning out over their rivals who are usually painted as obnoxious and arrogant.
  25. Adultery (Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers) Simple - Arthur, Guenivere, and Lancelot. This personal betrayal leads to the downfall of Camelot and similar circumstances could occur in a campaign.
  26. Crimes of Love (Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution) Indicates a situation where love is dissolved or destroyed because the actions of one are unacceptable to the other(s) though those actions are not directly related to the relationship. Example: a businessman ruthlessly crushes his competition and his behavior causes his wife to leave him.
  27. Discovery of Dishonor of a Loved One (Discoverer, Guilty One) Examples: A girl learns her best friend and schoolmate has cheated on a test. A noble learns his brother has fathered a child out of wedlock that will scandalize the family and lead to disfavor at court.
  28. Obstacles to Love (Two Lovers, Obstacle) So common it's barely worth providing examples. Name any 5-hankie weeper of your choice and if it's not about the disease-of-the-week it'll be about two lovers driven apart by obstacles or overcoming those obstacles to join or remain together.
  29. An Enemy Loved (Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater) Romeo & Juliet. Enemy Mine.
  30. Ambition (An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary) A general archetype that covers a lot of ground. Could be as low-key as someone overcoming shyness to win his girls heart, or as sweeping as the Red Wizards trying to take over the world and being opposed by the Harpers.
  31. Conflict with a God (Mortal, Immortal) How often do you hear of a PC being in conflict with HIS deity? Something to think about.
  32. Mistaken Jealousy (Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake) More Shakespearean themes.
  33. Faulty Judgement (Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person) Example: Andy's prize widget is stolen. Bob has always been jealous of Andy's widget so Andy assumes it was him. It is ultimately revealed, however, that Carl borrowed Andy's widget to show to the widget prize committee so that Andy could be justly rewarded.
  34. Remorse (Culprit, Victim, Interrogator) I like a good story of redemption. Try The Shawshank Redemption on for size.
  35. Recovery of a Lost One (Seeker, One Found) Could be Lassie looking for Timmy in the woods or the PC's returning the Black Skull of Death to the Keepers of Dangerous Things.
  36. Loss of Loved Ones (Kinsman Slain, Kinsman Witness, Executioner) Would seem to often be used in conjunction with other plot types like Revenge or Madness but it would start with this.

NOTE WELL: The plots noted above need not directly involve the PC's but can be the instigation in what the PC's are doing. Groups or institutions can substitute in most cases for individuals. Objects do not have to be persons or physical items but could be ideals like justice or integrity. Victims can also be persons, items, or ideals.

Too often RPG scenarios are VERY limited in variety. Daring Enterprises, Enigmas, an Abduction or two, and stereotype Ambition plots are all too often the extent of even a good DM's storylines. If you find yourself continually choosing from such a limited field try this. Divide the plots into 6 groups of 6 each and use 2d6 to select one randomly. No matter what it is, whether it immediately appeals to you or not figure out a way to MAKE it appealing to you. Brainstorm a few possible details with or without the PC's yet factored in. Once you have a combination that might at least fit into your campaign figure out where the PC's will come in either as a group or individually.

Now, whether you use it or not you're at least exercising your imagination in new directions. Keep working on randomly selected plots in this way until you get one that you'd actually like to include in the game. Don't throw away whatever work you've done on the others. Keep it tucked in a folder somewhere and drag it out once in a while. Go over them again, listing new possible angles, changes you'd make in light of campaign events, or if you're ever desperate - just polishing them up and adding details so you've got something to run.

Never throw resource material like this away. Even if it doesn't work now it might work at a later date because it'll be a new campaign, or simply new PC's or whatever.

I also wanted to say a few words about scale. That is, you can take these plots and change them radically by altering the scale on which they are occurring or over which they have influence. I tried to provide some sense of that variety of scale in my examples but try thinking in these terms:

Okay, you can see where I was going with this. One back-alley prostitute killing a thief is an event on an interpersonal scale. Maybe one of the PC's knew either the prostitute or the thief. Was the thief carrying something the PC's will need? Is the prostitute actually an assassin in disguise? Did the two know each other? Were they members of the same family? Were they from different rival families or organizations? Now we're on a household scale.

What if the thief was killed because he was operating in the wrong part of town belonging to a different thieves guild and the disguised prostitute was an enforcer? We're looking at a neighborhood level of scale.

Suppose, however that the assassination was part of an ongoing campaign to rid the town of all thieves by any means necessary? City scale. The object stolen by the thief might have been a scroll of ancient text that describes the secret location of the Tomb of the First King which holds a sword said to be destined to conquer the world. The consequences of this simple, otherwise non-noteworthy murder could be far-reaching indeed but at what level will the PC's be involved in it? How much will they know? That's what I mean when talking about the scale applied to the plots.

Once you've assigned some details to the archetype of the plot you often have all the framework you need and further specific events start writing themselves.

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