Creating Dynamic RPG Plots from Plot Elements

I love storytelling as a DM, and I love player agency and character stories.  The railroad was never for me so I have always shied away from published adventures in favour of building my own.

Here's the list of emergent plot elements we scribbled in session 1 of our fictional campaign:

Places The graveyard of the Gargants The Town of Fallowmarsh
Antagonists The massing forces of the Undead Enemies of the Elf who would see him fail The Goblins
NPCs The Hermit The Halfling's Father
Things The Gargantbone Spear The Sundered Harp The Beast The Silver Key
Scenes [use of the Bard's abilities] [use of Paladin powers]

I'm trying to keep these fluid, they can (and will) change so the connections will be fluid too - nothing is fixed until it comes into play.

From this I can scribble some ideas of how these elements might be connected:

Goblins! Image(cc) FJF Toledo
The hermit knows the whereabouts of the Beast (this is already established but I'm writing it down anyway so I don't forget!)

The hermit is the Halfling's father.

The enemies of the Elf are seeking to reforge the harp and use its magic to overwhelm the massing forces of the undead.

The harp was broken in an epic battle long ago in what has become the graveyard of the Gargants.  The Goblin shaman knows the whereabouts of the graveyard but not whether the rest of the harp is still there.

The Beast threatens the town of Fallowmarsh and the ancestral homelands of the Goblins.

The Undead seek the Silver Key (to open an ancient portal? or activate an artifact? let's find out.)

It doesn't really matter which of these I ultimately keep or use, by writing them down I'm starting to get ideas for adventures.  Fallowmarsh can burn down to the ground, the Spear might never be found - or needed - but we have some ideas we can run with. That's the point of the exercise.  We take the story where the story goes in play.

Knowing we're heading to Fallowmarsh next session, I decide to plan an adventure there:

The sheriff of Fallowmarsh wants bold adventurers to seek out the leader of the Goblins and parlay.  She knows that something is driving the Goblins from their lands into the area around the town, and knows the town can't muster the troops to drive them back by force.  She's willing to offer payment, room and board at the town's inn, and/or information on the whereabouts of the Hermit...

That's a good enough hook I can use for one or more of the potential plots, and it allows the Bard to do some socialising (and you know how Goblins love dancing).

As a twist I can see I could have some undead ready to throw into the mix (drawn to the Key) to do some foreshadowing of the other threads, and let the Paladin have some spotlight, or an elvish agent (seeking the Harp) to bring some spotlight on the Elf Monk...  Will I use them?  Who knows.  Does it matter?  Maybe one will become the adventure for the next session, maybe not. Let's see what happens.

The elements in the grid and whether they are in the spotlight tells me where to focus my planning; I can draft up a couple of NPCs and a list of potential stat blocks for the Antagonists, and maps etc. for any Places I might need in the next couple of sessions.  If it's not likely to be relevant now or soon then don't plan it!  But do it in a way that can be reused in case it doesn't become relevant immediately.

If we were playing something like Dungeon World I could make a couple of Fronts from these, if it was D&D I might want to do more and draw up a level-or-two-worth of adventures and encounters.

When we play I'll see which of the potential plots might solidify and become canon in the fiction, and if the events of the next session throw up a new plot or plot elements.  How things change in play is coming up next in the series.

That's my process, I would love to know if you find it helpful or if you can offer any improvements!


  1. This is so cool, I never thought of doing something like this. If I try to do a sandbox game I can never keep all the threads in my head so I just end up running published adventures.

    1. Me too! I found it really helps to focus on a few "important" threads. To be honest I lose the thread of published adventures too, especially when they are a wall of text or players go off-piste.


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