#RPGaDay2020 Day 19 - "Tower"


One of the questions that people ask professional writers is "where do you get your ideas" and the answers are so varied. Neil Gaiman gets some of his from sculptures that a friend makes. Some people keep notes of random shower thoughts, and correlate them later to see if they mean anything. Others get their inspiration from events, locations, discussions or dreams.

For people who run role playing games, it is just important that we have places where we get inspiration, because after a while, there seem to be only so many dungeons, looted shops, bandits, marauding monsters and evil lords to overthrow before you seem to loop around.

What follows is a list of the techniques that I personally use to find inspiration when I'm creating stories, and how I use them to make even the most well-tread events seem new.

The Players

The very best place to find inspiration is from the players. When they tell you want they want to do, there's a good chance that they'll enjoy doing it. Also, if you are running more of a sandbox game, then the players will actually create some of the elements of the world--both by "encountering" them, or by drawing connections. As GM you may decide if there's a connection or not, but the fact that the player thinks there may be one helps direct what occurs when they follow that connection.

Applying decent ad-lib skills and even a reasonable underlying structure to the world you are running also lets you create consistent and interesting situations that the players will have fun with. I spoke earlier about the "feather" principle--where players sometimes get distracted by meaningless details. But this can also work for you because if you throw out several minor hooks, they players will go after the one they find most interesting--and that should lead to something "new" that they enjoy.


This is a very basic technique but is critical to me. Because I co-create the world, we will often spend a couple of hours on the phone or instant messaging just throwing out ideas. Some of them are brilliant and wonderful. Some sound good but don't hold up to extrapolation. Others don't resonate with one person, and so we work them until they do. And some ideas, meet all the criteria for success--but not for what's coming up. This process is probably where I get most of my foundational ideas--that direct the campaign for a month or two at a time, and implement the details using other techniques.

For example, recently the part decided they wanted to "make money fast"...so we created some scenarios of how they could make money, and what it might look like throughout a story arc. We got something we were happy with, and then stopped, because I create what happens on a given day, and John actually plays the game--so the session-level details need to be mine.

The Internet

I use the Internet to get un-stuck sometimes, or to look for a specific encounter. I think the most common common example of this, for me, is that I sometimes look for battle mats--area maps that I can put miniatures on in Roll20. But then I find a map that is so cool I decide that I really want the story to end up *there* at some point. The players may choose their goals and actions, but I will be hoping to work them to that map, just because it inspires me.

Side note: There's a whole treatise on predestination and free will sitting here if anyone else wants to pick up the essay ball and run with it.

Random Devices

This is another favorite technique, and today's art illustrates exactly what I'm talking about. I'm not a big fan of the idea that randomizers or divination sources actually work. However, the best of these divination devices contain well-known themes and/or can inspire your imagination through the implementation of those themes and the underlying art of the work.

Story Cubes are just images, but if you are looking for what happens next, role some cubes and come up with "tree", "road", "eye" that may give you inspiration that someone is watching the road through the forest...and that can lead you to who and why and what they are after, and how does that tie to the characters. A bit of inspiration later, and you have your encounter.

The game Invisible Sun, by Monte Cook Games actually includes a device called the Soothe Deck which is an Oracle Deck. It doesn't fit a typical set of deck rules--rather, the images and symbols are designed to inspire, and at the same time because each card looks like a major arcana with assigned meanings--one card can direct the flow of an encounter to entirely new directions. A key success factor the Soothe deck is the the world of Invisible Sun is driven by magic and coincidence--so you can directly apply a card even if there wasn't a use for it previously. The card says there's a time limit...look at that, now there's a time limit--and it's up to you now to figure out how the world sets and then enforces a time limit.

Tarot decks are a fantastic tool. The best decks maintain a set of themes and symbols while interpreting it in the artistic style and imaginings of the artist who created a given card. The Tower, which is Major Arcana card XVI, has well-defined meanings depending on whether it's face up or down. Drawing that card can provide inspiration for what happens next. But the Tower usually has other elements: a craggy landscape, a broken or falling tower, lighting and falling figures. But some tarot decks might make this an orderly cause-and-effect relationship between the elements. Others might emphasize the resulting damage instead of the cause. The card at the top of the essay really captures the violent and chaotic event of the lightning strike itself, which would lead me down a completely different path of thought in creating a story.


These have to get mentioned, even if I don't use them often. It includes random encounter tables, Cypher generation tables, personality tables and many others--just roll a die, consult a table and accept the results. There are companies who have found great success over the years by creating these tables and selling them as resources for GM's who need to keep their game moving efficiently.

You see a "woman" with "6" children who "is a baker"...in the middle of this dank forest. And HERE is what happens.

In the distance, you see a "troll" with "orange" hair, a "scythe" and "a golden bracelet"

Languages and Names

I get a lot of inspiration from language. I both steal and create languages for Trinity, and sometimes a theme or story that seems difficult becomes interesting when I consider what it would be called in the native language. One specific example of this was a new race of humans that the party hadn't encountered before. As I developed a language for them, certain themes came out, and I was able to realize how they fit into the history of trinity, the great migration of humans to Trinity in the first place, and how the existance and fear of cerrtain creatures was ingrained in them--just because a couple of words were similar in the created language.

Names are a bit strange, but also a source of inspiration. There is the traditional issue of parents naming their child, and then when they see the baby for the first time, decide that name doesn't fit or another name does fit, because of when or how they were born, themes going on at the time or whatever. When I create an NPC, that NPC gets a name, and after naming them, I realize that "Hadid" would never behave a certain way, so I have to change his behavior and motivation, which can change the entire basic encounter that I had created to something more unusual.


My last trick is to take something that is expected and twist it slightly so that it's unexpected. In Numenera, Monte suggests taking situations three levels of "weird" past what the players can relate to, as a means of maintaining a mystery where not even you know everything that's going on.

I was very proud of an encounter I created--when I found that the D&D 3.5 template for ghosts could be applied to a plant. Now I had a tree ghost who had lost its dryad...and its problem had to be solved before the area was save for any person to enter that forest.

My favorite was a extra-dimensional bar, where the players had to earn coins to move onto the next phase of the dimensional walk. Each coin was earned by defeating a puzzle in the bar. The puzzles were some of the most basic and trite puzzles in RPG history, but I twisted them all so that the players had to do something new. 

  • One was a rope tied to a door, and if you pulled on the rope, it revealed a coin, but you were never strong enough to be able to get the coin. Eventually, the player got frustrated and said "Fine! I push the rope instead!" and it worked.
  • They had to clear rats out of the basement of the bar (and their 13th level characters all became first level and had to each get the killing blow on their own rat.)
  • And there was "beat the person at a drinking contest"..which was impossible if you drank his special brew, but there was nothing in the rules that said you couldn't drink water.

This simple act of changing things just enough that the expected didn't work made the "puzzle" and "bar" scene completely different and memorable.

In conclusion, today's essay is about where I draw inspiration from. I include the different techniques I use, and who how they relate to whatever I'm working on: world building, story arcs, encounters or overlays to elements of the story. Sometimes, these build a strong and predictable story structure that everybody understands and just needs to go through the motions. And sometimes, the elements people expect are there, but are as unstable and dangerous as a falling Tower.

About the Art

Today's essay is actually inspired by the art, rather than what I normally do which is to find art that illustrates a point I'm making. When I saw the word "tower" I had a few thoughts of what I'd do, and figured I'd pick a random tarot card to both illustrate and inspire. However, what I found were dozens of just amazing cards--and it completely changed the direction I was going to go. 

I ended up choosing the work by N-arteest, because it had all the traditional elements, but presented them in such a unique style even compared to the other choices that I had to use it. It brushes against the uncanny valley, by being almost realistic and yet surreal to great effect.


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