Well look no further - here's 20 ways to bring a little excitement back to your bedroom...er...I mean, your gaming table.
Yeah, totally getting this tattoo, but not on my arm...
(Full disclosure, I put this together for my man-crush Zak Smith's "Thought Eater" contest, here, but now that I have been vanquished by a noble opponent, I can share).
So, here's my "Wand of Wonder for Adventure Design," if you will. Start with your adventure idea. Maybe it's "the mayor hires the PCs to stop goblins from raiding the town." Or maybe it's "the high priest sends the PCs to get an artifact from an evil lich." Now, take that idea, roll on the table below, and apply the results.
Wand of Wonder for Adventure Design
(roll 1d20, apply result to your adventure idea)
Roll Change-Up Your Planned Adventure By…
(1) Peripeteia, a/k/a “the Old Switcheroo” — In classical Greek tragedy and comedy, a peripeteia is a sudden reversal or change in the circumstances or core assumptions of the plot. Take your planned adventure and build one of those in. Maybe those goblins raiding the town have repented their ways and given up violence. Now, the PCs are left between a tribe of peaceful goblins and an angry mayor who wants the goblins dead – and if the PCs won’t do it, he’ll hire some other adventurers who will. Or, upon breaching the sanctum of the evil lich, the PCs find her beaten and distraught. She is evil, sure, but was tasked eons ago by the gods to guard the artifact – which was recently stolen, and now endangers the entire world. Instead of fighting the lich, the PCs must help her track down and return the artifact before it is too late.
(2) Boss For a Day — Keep your adventure setup exactly as planned. But the mayor, high priest, or other quest-giver does NOT want the PCs to handle the job themselves – oh no, they are far too valuable and important to ever risk on such a dangerous and/or minor mission! Instead, the quest-giver wants the PCs to track down, hire, and supervise other, more-expendable adventurers for the task. Now, the PCs get to experience all the joys of “middle management.” They have to round up and supervise a bunch of morally ambiguous murder-hobos who will, of course, demand ridiculous amounts of treasure before lifting a finger, burn down the inn, pick fights with the locals, loot and pillage everything in sight, and ultimately screw the job up royally – leaving the PCs to pick up the pieces and finish the task.
(3) Start in Media Res — Jump right past the adventure idea you had, either to the middle of the action, or to its aftermath – right where a new, more complicated story is about to begin. Start the game with the PCs already battling the goblin king in his lair. After the battle, the PCs discover that the real adventure is just beginning – deciding how to deal with the surrendering goblins, figuring out a way to haul their cumbersome treasure back to town, getting the mayor to actually pay out the extravagant reward he offered. Or start the PCs in the lich’s sanctum, while the now-defeated and slowly disintegrating lich cackles and taunts them. It seems that the artifact is sentient, and is already telepathically summoning every powerful evil wizard, cleric, and monster in the region, all to ensure that it never reaches the high priest who can destroy it.
(4) Bring on the B-Team — When the players show up, hand out character sheets for their hirelings, henchmen, allies, and friends. Then inform them that their regular characters embarked upon your planned adventure several days ago, but have not returned. Not content to wait any longer, their hirelings, henchmen, allies, and friends have resolved to retrace the PCs’ steps in the hope of rescuing them. It is up to you whether the PCs were actually defeated or captured, and really need rescuing, or whether the PCs just got side-tracked, decided to stop over in a brothel, are planning a surprise party, etc.
(5) Shift Genres for a Night — Take your adventure idea and rework it to fit within a completely different genre. So, if your adventure is a standard heroic fantasy quest, take all those same elements, rework it, and run it as a horror story, or a pulp romance, or a murder mystery. Maybe those goblin attacks are all the work of a single, deranged goblin serial killer (a short, green “Jason”?). Maybe that lich is happy to do anything you ask, but only if you can solve her latest love-triangle dilemma (Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, but Edward is a red dragon and Jacob is an unusually handsome mind flayer).
(6) Make the Bad Guys “Good” — Keep your adventure exactly as planned, but replace the opposition with traditionally “good” monsters. Then devise a plausible, justifiable, and reasonable explanation why a good-aligned creature would engage in the otherwise villainous activities. Instead of goblins, the village is under attack by normally peaceful wood elves. Are they being controlled by some evil wizard? Have greedy loggers from the village ignored the elves’ pleas to stop? Or are both sides arguably in the right – e.g., the villagers need to continue logging to survive, but the land is sacred to the elves. Or, instead of a lich, the PCs find a silver dragon guarding the artifact. The dragon explains that she has been posing as a lich for hundreds of years because it helps keep the riff-raff away. The dragon confirms she has the artifact wanted by the high priest, but is afraid she can’t bear to part with it for at least a few hundred more years. Now, the PCs must decide what to do. Do they fail their quest for the high priest, who urgently needs the artifact? Do they battle an otherwise friendly and good-aligned silver dragon? Try to steal it and return it? Something else?
(7) Break the Rules (Or at Least a Key Assumption) — Change one of your game or campaign world’s default assumptions for a night, but NOT in a way that screws over your players. Maybe there is a planetary alignment that greatly strengthens magical spells, allowing even apprentice-level wizards to draw forth vast amounts of power. Maybe the gods themselves have placed a wager on the outcome of the PC’s quest, with some providing boons and advice, and others placing new and surprising obstacles in their way. Maybe the god of death himself is taking a holiday, so no one – not the PCs, and not the monsters – can die regardless of their wounds. The change be temporary, but fundamentally alter how the PCs approach the problem.
(8) Unlikely Team-Up — Choose one (or more) of the PCs’ most hated and feared adversaries. When the PCs show up to accept their quest, they find the villains already present. It seems that the villains have also agreed to undertake this mission, and work with the PCs, for reasons selfish, altruistic, or entirely unknown. Can the PCs work with their enemies? Do they use the adventure as an opportunity to settle old scores? Or will they grudgingly come to respect their former foe?
(9) Reverse the Plot — Take the adventure you had in mind and reverse as many parts of it as possible – including, but not limited to, the quest-giver, the goal, and the opposition. For example, instead of being hired by the mayor to stop the goblins, maybe the goblin king sends an envoy to hire the PCs to stop (through diplomacy or combat) other adventurers and townsfolk from making repeated attacks on the goblins’ lair. This can lead to a fun “reverse dungeon,” where the PCs are planting the traps, setting up guard rooms, and organizing and training the goblins. Or, instead of being hired by the high priest to assault the lich’s lair, maybe the lich wants to take a vacation, and is willing to trade away powerful magic items in exchange for the PCs serving as “guard dogs” for her haunted castle during her absence?
(10) Too Much, Too Fast — The adventure proceeds as you planned, but the PCs’ employer gives them way too much firepower for the task. Complete overkill. Perhaps the mayor offers to loan the PCs a (recently confiscated) Staff of the Magi or other powerful magical item. Or perhaps the high priest agrees to bestow upon one of the players the full measure of his own mighty power for the duration of the quest. The goal is to give the PCs so much raw, uncontrolled power that the real challenge becomes restraining themselves from blowing everything around them sky high. When the mission is done, do they return the incredible power they have been loaned? Or do they betray their employer and try to keep it?
(11) All Too Easy — Keep your adventure the same, but today is the PCs’ lucky day. Downgrade the opposition until it is almost laughable. Maybe a plague has recently ravaged the goblin tribe, and the handful of warriors they can muster are sickly and weak. Maybe the “lich” is really just a human charlatan, relying on ghost stories and folklore to scare everyone away. The adventure is not a test of the PCs’ prowess or cunning, but of their moral character and mercy. How long will they slaughter hapless, plainly overmatched foes before their conscience retrains them?
(12) Toolbox Changeup — Pick one or more of the “tools” that you regularly use in your game (miniatures, maps, handouts, pictures, wandering monster tables, a GM screen, pre-prepared notes, character sheets, initiative rolls, dice, or whatever) and put them away for a night. At the same time, pick a tool that you almost never use and try to work that into this session’s game.
(13) Freaky Friday — The adventure proceeds as originally planned but, early on, the PCs stumble across an old skull, a mummified monkey’s paw, or some other obviously magical item. The item is cursed and, when messed with, causes all of the PCs’ minds to jump to a different body. Ask everyone too pass their character sheet to the player on their right. Now, the adventure just got much harder, as our heroes must complete it while still in the “wrong” bodies. The means for removing the curse are up to you. Consider awarding bonus XP, hero points, inspiration, or your own preferred “player treat” for roleplaying the voice and mannerisms of the player/character whose body they are borrowing.
(14) It’s All About the Competition — Keep your adventure setup the same, except that the quest-giver has decided to use the threat or problem as an opportunity to learn, once and for all, who are the greatest heroes in the land. All of the PCs’ rivals show up to compete. The group that solves the problem will be the toast of the town, and lavished with praise and gold. The losers will become a joke. Now, the PCs must rush to accomplish their goal, while facing sabotage along the way.
(15) You’re (Probably) Too Late — Everything in your planned adventure is true, but change things so that, part way into the game, the PCs suddenly discover that they have much less time than previously thought, and are perhaps already too late! The villain’s nefarious plan came to fruition early. The goblin camp is mostly empty because they have already departed to raze the village. The lich has already activated the magical artifact, triggering an imminent apocalypse. Now the PCs must scramble to come up with a new plan on the fly, or maybe just find some way to mitigate the impending disaster.
(16) Swap Your “School Of Magic” for a Night — If you are running an “old school” game, switch it up by injecting some “new school” mechanics for the night. For example, you might use something like John Wick’s “The Dirty Dungeon” (here) to let your players build the goblin tribe’s dungeon at the start of the session. If your regular style is more “new school,” give Matthew Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” (here) a read, and try to incorporate as many elements as possible in your next game.
(17) False Flag — The person giving the PCs the quest is not who they think (because of mind-control, illusion magic, intellect devourers, he took a bribe, or any other reason) and his or her motives are different than represented. Maybe the quest-giver is really just a villain in disguise, hoping to lure the PCs away before launching his latest scheme, lead them into an ambush, discredit them, or use them to destroy his villainous rivals. Maybe a group of doppelgangers wants to assume the PCs’ identities once they are outside of town. Or maybe an old boyfriend is trying to stage a heroic rescue, in hopes of reconciliation.
(18) “Uh, What Did We Do Last Night?” — Think Memento the RPG. Begin the session just as the PCs approach the main villain of your adventure. Unfortunately, a curse or magical mishap has just wiped out all of their memories for the last few days, and now they don’t remember where they are, who hired them, or what they are supposed to do – they need to piece all that together from clues and interrogating monsters they recently defeated. At least one clever villain with a plausible, but utterly false, story about why the PCs are here is recommended.
(19) “No, You Do It” — A couple days before the game, give your notes to one of your players (the one with an interest in GMing) and ask him or her to run the next session. You play one of the group’s hirelings or followers – preferably someone who is dumb and generally just goes along with whatever the PCs decide. Play dumb and reveal nothing about the adventure – the goal is flip your perspective, and see how the adventure you wrote and planned to run feels from the other side of the screen.
Uh, yeah, maybe don't hand over the screen to that lady from Dark Dungeons...
(20) “And Tonight’s Guest Star Is…” — Grab someone from outside your regular group and ask them to “guest star” as an NPC for the session. Tell your guest star in advance that they cannot personally hurt, kill, or steal from any of the PCs (to avoid hurt feelings), but that otherwise they should make life as difficult for as possible. VIP protectees, local guides, and villains who talk a lot, but hide behind and army of goons can all make good choices for the NPC.