Here are my seven fallback plots. These are the ones I come back to most often, with variations. There’s some common threads between them: the opportunity for a big cast of NPCs, a place or thing to protect, the chance to build up something over time. I’m sure you’ve seen most of these, but maybe you’ll find a new idea or twist on an old one here.
The PCs gain an inheritance, in particular a location. This can comes from a NPC which we collaboratively develop. In this case, we offer a nice opportunity for the players to define themselves in relation to that (now deceased or missing) character. Alternately, they’ve never heard of this person—which opens up a set of interesting questions.
The location becomes a place to be explore: hiding secrets, mysteries, and weirdness. These can be doled out and discovered over time. You also get a bonus with scenes of the PCs making the location their own. Other opportunities: sealed away monsters or persons, groups who also want the location, some process the PCs need to figure out and maintain.
The location may come with other externalities they have to deal with: some kind of office or role, additional things (like businesses elsewhere), or a service they’re expected to fulfil (like a detective agency). This adds some more complications and a potentially a nice range of NPCs.
In addition to this, there’s the big mystery of what happened to the person who gave them the legacy. Where did they go? Who killed them? A good way to back this up is to have the person leave behind a cryptic document with notes. I did this for the first Changeling the Lost game I ran, creating a physical artifact for them to work through.
Bonus: leave signs that there were supposed to be one or two more persons to gain the inheritance: who are they? Where are they? Why haven’t they shown up?
2. Big Party
The PCs are travelling/arriving/called to a big party. Usually this is a celebration: a wedding, a grand ball, cementing of an alliance, a retirement send-off. I start with the basics of the celebration—what it is, some of the forces involved, and the names of a few key players. Then players get a chance to define who they know and their complex motivations for going there. In the case of Hearts of Wulin, my go-to is a wedding. I establish these details before the players come up with their personal entanglements.
This starts with travel to the location. Unless the PCs are explicitly a group, I split them up in groups and have them encounter things on the road. This are signs that not everything is right for the party: assassins sent to intercept them, overheard nefarious plans, the body of a dead messenger, etc. At some point I bring the two pairs together, often in a large conflict.
Here's an example video of a Hearts of Wulin one-shot using this.
If it’s a longer journey, then the travel’s an opportunity to pick up rumors and hear how people feel about the key NPCs (particularly if it’s some kind of royal ball). They can also pick up travelling companions along the way, introducing NPCs over time. Weird stuff may happen, perhaps suggesting someone is trying to delay one or more of the PCs.
For other ideas about Journeys, see here.
Once they get to the party, the chaos of preparations will make following up on those threads a challenge. Plus, if your stories already has lots of established interpersonal connections, matters of the heart may drive things more than a mystery.
Another good variant is having the players travelling to a tournament or contest.
3. Why is This Room on Fire?
A classic which many have used. It’s basically a collaborative set up which puts the PCs into the center of the action. You ask the first player the leading question and get them to establish some basics. Then you go around to the others to get them to fill in additional details: what blocks your means of escape? Who is threating you right now? Who else is in danger? What valuable thing do you want to rescue? And so on.
There are many variations on this: Why is the ship sinking? Why did these goblins just draw swords on you? Why is the alarm going off? Who just stormed the room? Why is the room flooding? Who just set off the explosion? Who kicked off this shoot out?
You can do this after establishing a few facts about the setting, but I like to start from zero. Often I have a general couple of plot ideas for where we could go next, but my goal here is to integrate details the players come up with into that any ideas I have: the foes established, the reason they were there in the first place, NPCs established.
Another old classic and echoes the Room on Fire set up. Here we’ll srt the reason everyone is travelling, some additional NPCs, and some details about the transport. This works well to bring together disparate PCs who are meeting for the first time. More games these days have built in character bonds and connections, but if you want that to come about in play, this is a good way to do it.
In mid-transit, something happens to the vessel. A legendary leviathan sinks their ship, a freakish storm destroys the tracks across the bridge, a massive walking dungeon swallows the rest of their caravan, razor-teethed monkeys are dropped atop their dirigible. Immediately the PCs have several objectives: stop or mitigate the attack on their transport (if possible), rescue other people, and make their own way to safety.
The crash can leave the PCs stranded, now having to make their way back to civilization. That sets up a nice travelling segment for the adventure and a chance for them to lean about one another. It can also set up some mysteries to be solved: was their transport attacked for a reason (look for an object, chasing someone, etc.)? Is the weirdness of the attack a harbinger of something larger happening in the land? What’s up with the odd behavior of one of the surviving NPCs? There’s some room for collaborative development here.
5. Story of Vengeance
This starts by telling the PCs that each of them has suffered at the hands of [Foe]. This may be the reason they’re already together or it could be the impetus for the first adventure which draws them together. I tell the players this ahead of character creation. It helps if you start with a sinister name for them to hate.
Then in Session Zero, I got around and have the players develop their adversary, asking a question to each player in turn: what group or faction do they serve? What’s their role within that group? Why do they have so much pull and power? Who is their right hand beat-stick NPC? Who is their left hand advisor NPC? What weird resources do they have access to? What other group seems to be in tight with them? What’s their biggest recent success? What’s their biggest recent failure? What’s the word on the street about them right now? and so on.
After this I have the players do their character introductions—after which I have them tell me what this enemy did to them. By doing it in this order, we get a nice collaboratively created threat and the players have had a chance to think about how their backstory collides. If you’re building bonds or using Backstory Cards, do those after folks have establish connections to the object of vengeance—so that these don’t undercut or contradict what they’d begun to come up with.
6. Power Vacuum
Some massive shift of power has happened: the Ruler has died, a barrier to a particular place has been removed, the power of a criminal head has been shattered, the Vampire Lord has been defeated, the Warlock Overlord has been defeated. Now the players have to go in to claim their piece, maintain order, or protect something.
There’s a lot of room for collaborative building here—either fully or with a mixed approach. What needs to be defined: who has fallen? Why have they fallen? What’s the limits of the space left open (an organization, a neighborhood, a kingdom)? What are the factions and persons vying for the prize? What are the threats facing the area? Who might oppose the PCs directly? Who do they know there?
Once that’s established, then you can figure out the PCs motivations—why are they going there? If they each have individual motives, versus a group goal, then how did they come together? Who are they connected to within the area?
I’ve used this in a couple of ways—a fantasy game where they played crown agents going into a realm which had been magically closed-off for decades, a superhero game where the team protecting the city was destroyed, another fantasy game where armies had done away with a villainous ruler left a capital devastated. The Base Raiders rpg works from this premise as does Legacy: Life Among the Ruins.
7. Joint Responsibility
The players has been given a joint duty—a task which will take some time and require some development. The obvious version of this is a travelling journey story where they have to carry something somewhere or protect someone along the way. That’s basically Lord of the Rings.
But my preference is for groups which have to take care of something more static. The GM should develop the broad outlines of what the duty is and then let the players fill in details about the locale and people.
I should stop off and mention here that Microscope remains the best tool for this. It’s applicable to many of the scenario starters I’ve mentioned here. And it’s a great way to build player buy in.
The PCs might be authority figures. I ran a long City Guard campaign where they were sent in to oversee a new neighborhood created as the result of a natural disaster. In a Legend of the Five Rings campaign, they were all, despite their youth, senior officials within a newly created Minor Clan. They had to secure the region, establish order, and protect from external threats. In my fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica, they were important figures on each of the sky ships of a fleet fleeing into the ether.
This set up asks that you give the players some authority. They might be beholden to senior persons, but they should have the ability to make change on the ground. They should be trying to enact positive change, they shouldn’t end up being cops or oppressors.
For lots more ideas and advice on TTRPGs check out the whole Gauntlet Blog Index