Re-Reading the News

 Posted by on February 15, 2011  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments
Feb 152011

The big game is coming up and you need a different adventure for your group of experienced players.  Everyone has played through the usual stuff millions of times and it’s time for something fresh and new. You sit down to write… and nothing comes to mind.  You’re drawing a blank, unable to even come up with a  basic plot line to build upon.  Don’t worry, there is an under-exploited technique at your fingertips!  The news!  Yes, regardless of the style or genre of roleplaying you’re doing, a local newspaper or news website can readily furnish you with a near-infinite variety of unique plotlines, story ideas and surprising twists on common stories.  Providing you know how to utilize this resource effectively.

Gathering Raw Resources
Collect some news stories that interest you, regardless of whether or not you feel they can be used directly. The intent is to simply collect ideas – don’t be too selective and don’t try to rewrite any of them at this stage. Make sure to grab more stories than you intend to use so that you will have a variety of plot elements to draw from.

Refining And Distilling
Now you need to extract the essence of these stories, to distill them into their pure form as a usable raw resource, if you will.  To achieve this, simply write a 2-3 sentence description for each news story, stripping out as much setting specific information as possible.  This is important as it will force you to distill the story down to it’s essential concepts without any extraneous details.

Blending The Elements
Now review everything and look for ways to reinterpret these purified story elements so they better suit the genre and setting of your campaign.  You can combine elements from multiple stories to build your adventure.  Also, don’t hesitate to add setting-relevant elements to the mix so as to more strongly tie everything into your campaign cultures or any previous plots from earlier adventures.  Use these raw story elements to tell a bigger story for your players.  Your story should create a conflict that could either endanger or entangle your players’ characters so that they are drawn into your adventure.

Walk The Talk
To illustrate this technique, I created an original plot for a fantasy adventure based on real-world current events.  I gathered seven news stories from local newspapers.  After writing them down as short descriptions, I picked these three to combine into a single adventure:

  1. Popular night-time Burlesque performers are at risk of being deported to their country of origin due to their immigration application being called into question.  Local supporters rally in protest and support of the performers’ desire to stay.
  2. An immigration consultant is charged with seven offenses of misrepresentation and one count of forgery of false school documents provided to clients to permit them to stay in the country under student visas. The consultant was also using an alias. If found guilty, he will spend ten years in prison.
  3. Another human foot washes ashore, making it the seventh such find in the past four years, all of which remain unsolved cases with no known accidents, attacks or murders involving severed feet and no identities for any of the found feet. The investigators are asking the public to help by coming forward with any info they may have.

The Plot Thickens
The players come upon an angry mob of people in a town square, gathered around a billboard. The locals are angered over an announcement posted on the board canceling all future performances by a popular pair of bards. Further investigation will reveal that the performing pair were jailed as spies from a neighboring kingdom. The general consensus is that they are being falsely accused. If the players go to the board to read the notice themselves, it will say the bards’ names and where they are being held. Next to this posting is another one about the jailing of a government official suspected of concealing spies using forged documents, his name is also given and he is being held at the same location as the bards.

Just as the players finish reading the billboard, a man dressed in wealthy clothing declares that he doesn’t believe these scandalous claims against the bards and that he is willing to pay anyone who can clear their names. This will likely gain the attention of the players who should be given the opportunity to offer to help. The wealthy man will tell them that the two bards have been performing in the town for the past four years since they came here from the neighboring kingdom. He will go on to provide the name of an official who can help as he was the man who assisted them in becoming citizens so that they could stay here.  Of course, this official is the same man mentioned in the second posting on the billboard.  The PCs will need to visit him in prison to gain more info.

Now you as the GM need to make some decisions. Who is the “bad guy” here? Are the bards really spies? Did the official betray his king by assisting their entry? Is the official working for the enemy, or falsely accused? Are there actually any spies involved at all or is it just a big misunderstanding? Whichever way you decide will determine how to attach the final piece of the plot – the severed feet. I decided that the bards were innocent, that their citizenship documents had been forged by the official, but only because they couldn’t afford legitimate ones. The official was indeed a bad guy who had been aiding spies in gaining entry, with the two bards simply getting caught in the middle.

The severed feet?  The players will come across this grisly detail if they talk to any of the guards at the prison.  They believe it to be unrelated, but in truth the real spies have been killing important local officials and dumping the bodies at sea.  The feet washing ashore are the proof needed to capture the real spies who are Doppelgangers pretending to be the officials they killed and replaced.  In fact, they are the ones who charged the official of forgery and the bards of spying to both keep their secret safe and to provide some convenient scapegoats to prevent anyone one from suspecting them as being spies.

The Doppelganger and the double-cross aspects are my own devising, but as I said above, you’re allowed to add elements to help ties things together.  Now, to clear the names of the bards, they will need to determine the identity of the spies.  There are numerous ways one can do this – a Scry spell on the feet may help, interviewing the imprisoned official before he is killed (the doppelgangers won’t allow him to survive to go to trial), the 8th level Clone spell will recreate the deceased individuals body from their feet, as would the Resurrection spell.  Of coure, good old fashioned investigation could work too.  Perhaps the jailed official knows who has been replaced by Doppelgangers, perhaps one of the Doppelgangers keeps a secret journal, etc.  The rest of the details, stats, and specific challenges can be custom-created by you. The news stories have fulfilled their purpose in providing you with a distinctive jumping off point for crafting your adventure, the rest of the technical details can be filled in just as one would do normally.

As you become more practiced with this method you might be tempted to cut corners to save time.  The one step to not omit is the paraphrasing of the original news stories, this step really is integral to the process and you would be cheating yourself of the full strength of this story-crafting method if you omit it.

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Spiralbound began imagining worlds at a very early age. Once he discovered roleplaying, his fate was sealed. Now he had a pseudo-legitimate justification for all his worldbuilding and compulsive research into every topic imaginable! When not toiling away at his real world profession, he can usually be found toiling away at his obsession of imagined worlds! During particularly wild and indulgent delusions of grandeur, Spiralbound hopes to one day be published with RPG and novel credits to his name. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  6 Responses to “Re-Reading the News”

  1. Great tip! I’m gonna have to start mining the local news for plots and schemes!

  2. That’s very clever! Even more fitting in the supers genre, actually, but easily applicable to any game. I really must try this…

  3. Thanks for the comments. Agreed, a supers, mystery, spy or otherwise modern rpg would be most transparently able to mine real world news stories for campaign plots. “Genericizing” the real world news stories is what allows you just as readily apply them to other genres. Using the technique I outlined, I could have used the same news stories to as easily create a plotline for a space opera game, a horror game, a supers game or anything else I was playing. It’s all in how you dress up the stripped stories.

  4. Good article, but I like the newspaper’s fine print as well.

  5. It’s a great article to boot the way I think. Imagination is not my strong suit…improv is. So most times I let my players dictate which way they want to go. This technique will give me to opportunity to be more structured, by basing my ideas around current events. I will actually try to incorporate this more into my Gamma World campaign. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Dillon: You can thank Tourq for the newspaper. It wasn’t in my original acticle, but I approve of it’s addition! 🙂

    Alton: I’m glad that it will be so helpful for you. Specifically for Gamma World, you may also see a benefit from adding 1 or 2 current events from a medical or tech themed news blog into the mix. Blending 2-4 current news events with 1-2 new medical discoveries could inspire all sorts of wackiness! 😉

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