Most roleplaying games display a curious paradox. The player-characters, the ones controlled by the players, are literally the only people in the game setting with free will, yet they tend to show a crippling lack of agency. Player-characters are forever getting hired by bossy patrons, handed orders by their commanders, or being assigned quests by passive-aggressive wizards.
There's the so-called "sandbox" style of play, in which the player-characters wander around a setting having encounters, but in practice that often devolves into either a series of muggings, or desperate flailing as the players look for some obvious adventure hook. Many game systems have "random adventure generators" but most of those could more accurately be called "mission generators" — ways to randomly determine what the bossy NPCs are telling the heroes to do.
Surely there must be a way to create adventures which aren't pre-scripted, preserving player agency, without leaving them with nothing to do except kill everyone they meet. I decided to come up with a way to randomly generate situations in the game setting, situations which could then be used to create adventures.
I began with George Polti's famous "36 Dramatic Situations" and then reduced the list based on what kind of physical actions the characters are likely to perform. So Polti's situation 3 (Vengeance for a crime) is physically the same as his situation 4 (Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred): both involve killing or punishing someone.
Some of Polti's situations seem more like "backstories" to me: his situation 16 (Madness) isn't really a situation in itself but rather the potential cause of others (perhaps 2: Deliverance, or 19: Slaying of a kinsman unrecognized). The same applies to his 17 (Fatal imprudence) or 32 (Mistaken Jealousy). So those get dropped.
Since players make the moral choices for their characters, some of Polti's situations involving self-sacrifice or the consequences of bad choices don't really apply. My players may want to sacrifice themselves to save another . . . or they may run away. So those drop off the list. (Note that self-sacrifice is a theme of games like Delta Green, but that still can't be the hook for an adventure. Rather, it's an "emergent property" of the setting and the situation.)
Once you start this kind of reduction it's hard to stop. I finally managed to boil Polti's list down to a dice-friendly list of six situations.
So: how do we apply this list to a roleplaying game? Simple. Pick one non-player character or creature in the setting — if there's a random encounter table, just roll a die. That's person or element "A." Roll on the Situation Generator Table below. For additional elements (B, C, etc.) roll again on your encounter table or pick from the list of NPCs. Inanimate objects (represented on my table by "X") can be whatever seem appropriate, or possibly rolled on whatever "random treasure table" your game system features.
Now, notice that these aren't "missions." Simply because A wants object X doesn't mean A is going to hire the player-characters to get it. Maybe A is trying to steal it and the heroes have to protect it. Maybe the heroes learn of A's desire and can use that as leverage to get something they want from A. Maybe they will try to rob A's lair while A is away trying to get X. Whatever.
Generating situations rather than missions means the players can decide how to react. This puts more agency back in their hands — and frees the Gamemaster from the drudgery of shepherding the players along the path of a scripted adventure scenario.
Situation Generator Table (roll 1d6):
- A desires B: Someone wants to win the love, loyalty, or services of another; or help that person escape from danger. There may be a guardian (C) who wants to keep B away from A, or a rival who also desires B.
- A wants to capture B: Someone wants someone else alive, but that person resists. There may be a person C who wants to prevent this, or a rival who is also trying to catch B.
- A wants B dead: Or ruined, or exiled, or whatever. Again, there may be guardians for B, rivals who also want B dead, or someone who wants to take B alive.
- A wants to go someplace: This is either an escape (in which case there's some person B who wants to keep A from leaving), a journey (in which case there are encounters along the way), or an intrusion or attack into a place (in which case B may be guarding the destination).
- A wants to solve a mystery: There is a secret A doesn't know; possibly some person (B) is trying to keep A from finding it out.
- A wants X: Someone wants a thing. Its location may be unknown. It may belong to someone else (B). There may be a rival (C) who also wants it.
Worked example: to show the Situation Generator in action, let's turn to the venerable Dungeon Master's Guide for the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, by the mighty Gary Gygax himself. Consulting the random encounter tables for Rough terrain in a temperate climate*, I roll a 63: a Gynosphinx. Then rolling on my own Situation Generator I get a 2: A wants to capture B. I roll again on the random encounter table and get a 73: a Troll.
So the Sphinx wants to capture a Troll. How does this affect the player-characters? If they encounter the Sphinx she may bargain with them, asking if they've seen her quarry or demanding their help. They may simply see the Sphinx searching. If they run into the Troll it may beg for help hiding from the Sphinx, or offer to pay the heroes for protection. Perhaps they'll decide to capture the Troll themselves and trade it to the Sphinx for treasure or information.
Things can get very interesting once the Gamemaster has generated multiple situations in the same area. A second set of rolls for that same patch of Rough terrain indicates that some Orcs are looking for a magical Bowl of Commanding Water Elementals, which is currently guarded by a Wraith (evidently in a tomb). The Sphinx might know where that tomb is hidden. And why do the Orcs want the bowl?
I'm probably not the first person to take this approach to adventure generation, but I've made good use of it in games I've been running, and as always the random table makes a good spur to creativity. I'd love to hear feedback about this — has anyone else used a similar method? Are there situations I missed?
*God, this takes me back . . .
For more situations from my brain, buy my new ebook Monster Island Tales!