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Literature / Big List of RPG Plots

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"The Big List of RPG Plots" was created by S. John Ross from examining hundreds of Tabletop RPG adventure modules and originally published as a supplement to his game Risus in 1999. In 2002, he has uploaded an updated version of it to his (now archived) website, but it is also available as a free PDF on DriveThruRPG. Owing to the nature of the source medium, these "RPG plots" are not Plots in the classical sense of rigidly structured sequences of events, but combinations of Inciting Incidents and Plot Twists that have to be adapted to and brought to life by Player Characters. The list is intended as an aid for Game Masters who need to come up with entertaining adventures on short notice.


The Big List of RPG Plots

  1. Any Old Port in a Storm. The Player Party seeks shelter in a place that turns out to hide something dangerous, secret, or supernatural. Common twists: The shelter contains the source of whatever they have been trying to avoid. It is the entrance to a Hidden Base (see below). They are Trapped With Monster. It is a Haunted Castle, a Town with a Dark Secret, etc. — and they are not welcome.
  2. Better Late than Never. The party gives Stern Chase to bad guys who try to escape after doing something evil. Twists: The party is more familiar with the bad guys' means of escape than themselves. The bad guys pull a Try and Follow move. If they manage to cross a certain line, the party must give up the chase, e.g. due to Jurisdiction Friction.
  3. Blackmail. A villain blackmails the party into doing his dirty work for him. Twists: The players unwittingly hand him the leverage over them by pursuing a fake adventure hook. To thwart him, the party has to team up with other people he blackmails. Instead of the party, the villain blackmails their friends or charges.
  4. Breaking and Entering. The party must nab an object or a person from a secure location. Twists: Instead of stealing (or kidnapping), they just have to sabotage (or to assassinate). The "object" is information that has to be broadcast. The heist has to be a Ghost Run. They don't know that the location is secured. The object has to be Replaced with Replica.
  5. Capture the Flag. The party must Storm the Castle. Twists: They first have to muster additional forces. They have to plan with flawed or incomplete intelligence. They have to coordinate with allies or rivals. There are Innocent Bystanders in the combat zone.
  6. Clearing the Hex. The party must clear out a place where bad things live, such as monsters, rats, etc. Twists: Violence Is Not an Option. The party first has to learn more about them. A Haunted House. An alien infestation.
  7. Delver's Delight. A classic Dungeon Crawling adventure. Twists: The treasure the party is after is Cursed or otherwise dangerous. It isn't in the dungeon, but somewhere else entirely. It already belongs to someone by law. It has a will of its own.
  8. Don't Eat the Purple Ones. A Robinsonade on a Deserted Island. Twists: The party only has to survive for a short time before they can be rescued. They have to discover some fact about the environment to complete The Great Repair.
  9. Elementary, My Dear Watson. A Whodunnit mystery. Twists: The party or someone else is Wrongfully Accused. They have to work together with an Inspector Javert. They have to Turn in Their Badges half-way through the investigation. The climax is a Courtroom Episode.
  10. Escort Service. An Escort Mission. Twists: It's a Live-Action Escort Mission or a MacGuffin Escort Mission. The destination was destroyed or taken over by the enemy. It is a political defection. It has to be a Stealth Escort Mission.
  11. Good Housekeeping. You Are in Command Now of some large organization and must keep it running smoothly. Twists: Old management knew something bad is about to happen and wants the party to take the fall. The party's new underlings resent them because they liked the old boss.
  12. Help Is on the Way. Someone is in danger and the party must rescue them. Twists: It's a Hostage Situation or The Siege. Any potential rescuer risks needing rescue themselves. The rescuees aren't human. It's an Unwanted Rescue. The danger isn't human, but a natural or man-made disaster, The Plague, etc. The rescuees cannot leave because they are tending to something or someone immobile. The party starts off as rescuees themselves and have to Bring Help Back.
  13. Hidden Base. The party discovers a Supervillain Lair and must either Bring News Back or sabotage it on their own. Twists: The party has to figure out how to use local resources to defend themselves inside the den of evil.
  14. How Much for Just the Dingus? Multiple factions, including the party, are after a MacGuffin hidden in the area. Twists: The natives require all sides to present their need for it before them. It was being shipped through the area when the transport went down or vanished.
  15. I Beg Your Pardon? The party is attacked or threatened by an unknown party. Twists: The attackers want something the party carries without realizing it. They are Avenging the Villain from a previous adventure. They mistook the party for someone else.
  16. Long or Short Fork When Dining on Elf? A party with No Social Skills must complete a diplomatic mission before Poor Communication Kills. Twists: Someone set them up to fail on purpose, to sabotage the negotiations.
  17. Look, Don't Touch. The Stakeout or some other spying operation where the party isn't allowed to interfere. Twists: Whoever they are spying on gets into trouble, forcing them to choose between continuing the mission and saving them.
  18. Manhunt. The party must track down a missing person. Twists: The person was taken hostage (possibly to lure the party into a trap). They are dangerous and have Escaped from the Lab. They are valuable and have escaped from a Gilded Cage. They are written specifically to invoke Lima Syndrome with the party. They have stumbled into another adventure (as protagonist or victim). An entire group has gone missing. They aren't really missing — the party has been hired to track them down on false pretenses.
  19. Missing Memories. One or more party members are suddenly Amnesiac Heroes. Twists: They were pulling off a Memory Gambit or have otherwise deliberately Repressed Memories.
  20. Most Peculiar, Momma. Vagueness Is Coming and the party must stop it. Twists: They are unwittingly responsible for it. The big problem is of an entirely different nature (technological, personal, biological, chemical, magical, political, etc.) than it first appears.
  21. No One Has Soiled the Bridge. The party must Hold the Line. Twists: The party was given faulty intelligence. The enemy has a valid reason to want to destroy whatever the party is protecting.
  22. Not in Kansas. The party is Not in Kansas Anymore and must find a way back. Twists: They were brought there for a specific purpose. They were brought there by accident. Some of their enemies were transported along with them.
  23. Ounces of Prevention. The party learns of an Evil Plan in motion and must thwart it. Twists: The initial tip-off was a Red Herring to distract them from the real plan. There are actually two evil plans underway, with no apparent way to thwart both.
  24. Pandora's Box. A Sealed Evil in a Can was released and must be stopped. Twists: The released evil cannot just be beaten — it has to be rounded up and re-sealed piecemeal. A Plot Coupon is required to plug the breach. Make Wrong What Once Went Right is a related premise.
  25. Quest for the Sparkly Hoozits. The party goes on The Quest for a MacGuffin. Twists: It is a Dismantled MacGuffin, and the remaining parts still have to be found. Someone else has taken it (stole it, legitimately owns it). It is not a physical object, but information, an idea, a formula, etc. The party has to go undercover to obtain the MacGuffin with guile and stealth.
  26. Recent Ruins. The party must investigate an Unexpectedly Abandoned place. Twists: Whatever caused it to be abandoned remains a present danger. Its inhabitants destroyed themselves. It is a Ghost Ship (or spaceship). It is a Ghost Town, but marked as a Boom Town on their maps.
  27. Running the Gauntlet. The party must run a Death Course. Twists: There isn't any actual danger, just someone attempting to communicate with them.
  28. Safari. The party must hunt down a large, dangerous creature in the wild. Twists: The creature is Immune to Bullets and to everything else the party has. Another group protects it. Its lair contains a hook to another adventure on this list.
  29. Score One for the Home Team. The party must win a Big Game, a Tournament, etc. Twists: Other contestants cheat to win. The party's true goal is not victory, but something else pertaining to the contestants or to the arena. They only have to prevent the villain from winning. It is a Secret Test of aptitude. It devolves into a Blood Sport.
  30. Stalag 23. The party must execute a Great Escape. Twists: The Guards Must Be Crazy because something happened in the outside world. The party was hired by the prison to proof-test it from the inside. Other inmates alert the guards out of spite or revenge. The party was undercover but got mistaken for actual inmates. They have to escape in time to take on another adventure outside.
  31. Take Us to Memphis and Don't Slow Down. "Die Hard" on a Vehicle with the party onboard. Twists: The "hijackers" are actually government agents executing a caper. There is a secondary danger that the hijackers refuse to acknowledge. Other passengers are hostile to the party.
  32. Troublemakers. The bad guys are doing bad things, and the party must stop them. Twists: The bad guys are wanted alive and unharmed. They have made preparations in case they got captured. The "bad guy" is a monster, a dangerous animal, or an intelligent creature everyone thinks is a monster. The bad guy has Good Publicity. The trouble is diplomatic or political, so the party has to make peace, not war.
  33. Uncharted Waters. The party are Bold Explorers scoping out unknown territory. Twists: The territory itself is dangerous. It is wonderful and valuable — and something doesn't want the party telling anyone about it. The party is stranded, cuing into Don't Eat The Purple Ones.
  34. We're on the Outside Looking In. Any of the plots above, but Inverted (e.g. instead of hunting a beast, they are themselves hunted, etc.).

The Little List of Nearly-Universal Plot Twists That Work With Almost Any Plot Ever