Category Archives: Plot-a-Day

Plot-a-Day: Satanic Machinations

I’m an atheist, but I still enjoy a good satanic conspiracy. There’s just something about Lucifer’s fall and the whole idea of a secret organization devoted to spreading evil that’s very powerful – archetypical, you might say, and Satanists make for good villains – probably because they are, by definition, devious and capable of great evil in pursuit of their goals.

Satan – Dantes Inferno, by Gustave Doré

Since Halloween is once more upon us, let us look at some fun we can have with these minions of the dark prince.

Second Coming

The Satanists are usually keeping themselves busy preparing for the second coming by spreading chaos and destruction – take the current fad of Islamic terror and put Anti-Christians at its core.

The protagonists are small, well-funded mercenary unit in the pay of the Vatican (perhaps supported by a faction of the US government) and are trying to fight the encroaching evil – as time is of the essence they can not work within the law. As their enemies gain power, the dangers increase, until they have to fight demons in urban areas. (I am sure someone wrote this book already.)

Gates to Hell

Another obvious idea is a search for a magic book or satanic tome which opens the gates to hell (if you’re running a high-supernatural game or novel), allowing some of the Devil’s minions slip through and aid in the preparation for Satan’s return. In a more realistic setting, the Satanists are deluded – there’s no hell and of course the “magic spell” won’t work – but the heinous crimes committed by them are quite real.

The Devil Made Me Do It

In a less advanced society, “satanists” and witches (really anybody the locals decided they didn’t like very much) were blamed for everything from diseases to accident to bad weather. Such accusations usually ended in the painful death of the accused; your protagonists may need to clear their names (if there is enough time for rational discourse) or run for their lives. And in some settings, the accusations might actually be true – or the accuser might themselves be working for the devil.

Just a Bunch of Deluded Fools

A satanist (or other cultuist) based plot doesn’t have to do with the “real deal”. Religion, in any shape or form, is a great motivator to a great many people, on all ends of the spectrum. If the guys in the black robes brandishing daggers made from meteoric iron want to kill you, does it really matter if they want to use your blood to summon a demon or not?

Even if there’s no truth behind it all, Satanists (or any other cultists) can make a great red herring, or you can bait-and-switch your players (the cult is really a money-making scheme, for example). Maybe the satanists are employed by someone who lies to them, and employs them to do their dirty work to achieve some other goal. For example, a politician could use them as thugs to ensure his own election to office.

Star-Spawn of Satan

In a science-fiction setting, satanists might set up their own colony – far away from the usual trade routes. Such a society would be very dysfunctional; just take a look at the various sects that run afoul of the law almost every other year.

In the best case, members are just exploited for cheap labor; but usually, there’s rampant sexual abuse of both adults and children, violence, murder… The colony could support itself by piracy, and pirates that are unusually ruthless and ritualistically murder the crews of the ships they rob may be what brings the protagonists in as investigators.

Good Guy Lucifer

I usually assume that it’s best to play with the audience’s expectations. Keep them guessing. If your players assume that Satanists are “the real deal” then it turns out they aren’t, or maybe they are but the devil is really different from what everybody thinks. You could even make Lucifer the good guy – after all, the victor writes the history book – or in this case determines dogma.

Happy Halloween, folks.

A Short Note on Evil Clowns

Enrico_Caruso_As_CanioLife oftentimes writes the best stories. A French town has banned clown costumes and makeup after several cases of assault.

Of course, evil clowns are one of the big tropes of horror and while the current issue is – hopefully – just another social media fad, this incident is also perfect for a story or role-playing game session.

Your protagonists, who likely grew up on King’s “IT” and other horror lecture, may suspect the worst when they hear that clowns are terrorizing a small town for Halloween – and might actually be relieved when it turns out they are just local kids being idiots. Of course, and especially in the next few months, or based on their reaction, you could pull a switcheroo on them – some of the clowns are actually evil creatures.

If I were to run such a scenario, I would present ambiguous evidence and then swing the story based on my players’ theories and fears. And I’d bring circus music on my iPad and play it very faintly whenever they get into a clown encounter or are getting close to the Nest…

Martian Landscape (NASA)

Plot-a-Day: Planets of The Solar System – Mars

Our solar system is an awesome place for stories and adventure, and there’s also a lot we still need to explore and discover.

In the next half-dozen installments of Plot-a-Day, I will post ideas about the various planets, moons or asteroids of the solar system. And to star this series off let’s take a look at Mars.

Mars (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)
Mars (NASA/Hubble Space Telescope)

The red planet has fascinated mankind for thousands of years, and has been center to many a science fiction story over the past century: Martian invasions, Princesses of Mars, Ancient Canals, but also the human exploration and colonization of Mars are all subjects that resonate deeply with us. It’s a great place for all kinds of stories.

Continue reading “Plot-a-Day: Planets of The Solar System – Mars” »

Plot-a-Day: Not As Advertised

I’ve been victim to an employment bait-and-switch twice now although I guess one of these was without the employer’s intent. In the normal world, this means that you end up with a job you might not particularly like. In the context of a story, a role-playing game or other “fantastic” setting, the old switcheroo could have far more diverse – and more interesting – results.

  • The company is a front for aliens who are either exploiting our planet comercially – or preparing an invasion.
  • The board and most of the upper management are Cthulhu cultists or Satanists (see “The Nine Gates” for an example).
  • A restaurant secretly mixes unsavory ingredients into the food – Monster parts, mind control drugs, expired meat. And remember: Soylent green is people.
  • A pizza delivery service also delivers blood to local vampires.
  • A lab accident frees monsters from another dimension, ancient terrors, nanobot clouds, or killer robots that you didn’t even know existed.
  • Your employer is a shell company working on a secret government project to evacuate “worthy” citizens to another planet once the world ends due to the 2012 apoclypse / global warming / peak oil / alien invasion.
  • By day, you may work at the tech support for your local ISP. But at night you and your colleagues are expected to hunt down werewolves.
  • You are hired to work on a new fantasy movie, only to discover that it is being filmed on location and that the orc aren’t CGI.
  • Off-world colonists are promised a new earth, a paradise among the stars, but end up as indentured workers in the hellish Uranium mines on Niffelheim.
  • The search for a famous sunken ship you were asked to join is a cover for finding a lost nuclear submarine (this actually happened) or to check on Atlantis or the Deep Ones living off the coast of New England.

In fact, an employer could hide any kind of nasty truth from new employers. The stranger, the more effective the switch is, but you need to actually make it hard (not impossible) for the players/readers to guess. You will probably also want to throw out red herrings left and right.

Plot-a-Day: RMS Titanic

The Titanic probably needs no introduction. It sank on April 15th, 1912 – one hundred years ago. Since its story is featured in so many stories, movies and so on, I thought it would be a good opportunity to post a list of plot ideas involving the Titanic.

Continue reading “Plot-a-Day: RMS Titanic” »

Not Courbefy

Plot-a-Day: Buy Your Own Village

Just stumbled across a video reporting about a French village that wants to sell itself for 300,000 Euro.

Not Courbefy, by Peter Whelerton, cc-attribution
Not Courbefy, by Peter Whelerton, cc-attribution

It looks like the people of Courbefy have tried this stunt three times already, and all attempts to develop the village have failed. Quite honestly it’s not hard to see why, the place is out in the middle of nowhere and your 300 grand buy you less than a dozen run-down crappy buildings. No offense, Courbefy, but that’s just the way it is.

However, it occurs to me that buying or inheriting an entire village may actually be an awesome hook for a campaign, or a piece of fiction. Hollywood, I am sure, will turn this into a chick-flick: The village is bought by the rich city-slicker, ideally a foreigner, who is tired of the hectic life. The villagers are at first resentful of the new owner, because he’s so different, but after they sabotage his efforts to renovate the village at first they learn to accept him as one of their own and together they can turn around the fortunes of the village. The rich foreign city-slicker, naturally, falls in love with the only pretty local young girl, and aren’t you getting the feeling that you’ve already watched this movie?

Anyway, we can do better than that.

  • The city’s inhabitants are secretly occultists worshiping Great Cthulhu or some other dark god.
  • If the village is by the sea, the Deep Ones come out at night.
  • There could be any kind of criminal activity – smuggling of firearms, drugs, or alcohol. The later works especially well for a Prohibition era story or game. Depending on the setting, the smugglers could be the heroes.
  • Space aliens have been using the village for their cruel experiments, which is why so many people fled in terror. The whole sale may even be a plot to attract new people – though why the aliens would need that instead of just abducting people from the neighboring village will be hard to explain.
  • If this were an Enid Blyton universe, the characters are children of the village’s new owner, and will stumble across a treasure hidden in some old ruins.
  • Two words: Zombie Apocalypse.
  • It’s 1940. A few weeks after the protagonists start working on their village, the Germans move in and take over. They decide to use the village for a small garrison, or perhaps for a prisoners’ camp. Our heroes my even be seen as collaborators at first, and must win the trust of the villagers to organize a resistance force. A similar plot should work extremely well for a Twilight: 2000 campaign.
  • Old Dungeons & Dragons even included setting up a small barony as a major element of a character’s life. Possible complications include all the above (even Germans, though that may be pushing it a bit) as well as Orcs, Dragons, and vengeful Gods.
  • Nuclear war or asteroid apocalypse destroys civilization while the protagonists are in their village; it survives due to its isolation and the players need to survive and then kick-start a new civilization while dealing with the hungry mob that’s left over from the previous one.
  • And you can also turn the tables around; the players are locals who have to sell out of desperation, but the buyer has some nefarious plan for his new village.

A village is, of course, a good default setting for this kind of adventure. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t spice it up:

  • Location makes a lot of difference – It could be a small village in Colonial USA (especially for something Lovecraftian), in the Old West, an Oasis town in a desert somewhere, or perhaps even a small island in the Caribbean
  • The settlement could be in space: The Ceres colony, a waystation orbiting some gas giant, or a small and forgotten out-of-the-way colony world.
  • An abandoned fort out in the wilderness or undersea city may also do the trick

For any of these ideas to work, you’ll want to spend enough time to prepare the settlement and its environs, as well as all characters. Since the players will spend a lot of time in a small area you can’t gloss over detail easily.

Update, 2012-05-23: Henry River Mill Village, in North Carolina, is up for sale at a 1.2 million US$ price tag. It probably has a better chance of getting sold, considering it was featured in the movie “Hunger Games“. The movie angle could be used as a red herring o distract from the actual plot at first.

Plot-a-Day: Power of the Atom

Nuclear power is the stuff of our dreams. It promises clean and safe energy – no greenhouse emissions, no dependency on foreign oil sources. At the same time it was devised as an ultimate weapon, and thus has become the stuff of our nightmares. The iconic picture of a mushroom cloud is firmly burned into our collective cultural consciousness. Nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, nuclear war – each has the potential to keep you awake at night, if you are prone to worry about such things at all.

As a consequence, all things nuclear have crept into our pop culture wherever you look. Indeed, it stands to argue that nuclear war created post-apocalypse as a genre. Nuclear power can be a powerful element of a story, whether for a game or for fiction.

Nuclear War

Nuclear war, the prevention and consequences of it, are basically their own sub-genre of science fiction. It’s pretty much beyond the scope of a Plot-A-Day post to tackle it in its entirety. Some ideas, though:

  • Nuclear wars do not have to be global in scope; a regional exchange and its devastating effects can make for an interesting setting, since you will be able to highlight the damage and the suffering better as foreign journalists arrive among the wreckage.
  • Nuclear war can also occur on other planets, whether alien home worlds or human colonies, with our intrepid heroes having to prevent the catastrophe from happening. Likewise, a spaceship crew could stumble across a devastated world and attempt to piece together what happened. If the war is recent, interaction with the survivors is a source for endless topics and a neat way to run some temporary “post apocalyptic” stories.
  • One trope is to follow up the nuclear war with either the development of mutants, who may be very zany depending on your setting, or with a war of machines against the surviving humans. Think Terminator. This might be especially interesting if the war was regional – in this case, it becomes a sort of “alien invasion” setting. The rest of the world will quickly send in troops to contain the rogue AIs.
  • The prevention of nuclear war or nuclear strikes is another common idea. Think Crimson Tide. Works in any genre, really.
  • And if your character can not prevent nuclear war, in the right setting having foreknowledge of a nuclear strike may make for an excellent “race against the clock” type adventure. Perhaps the character are psychic, and nobody will believe them, or perhaps they are Space Federation agents charged with recovering an important item before a planet gets nukes.

Nuclear Accidents

  • Thanks to the Japanese, the specter of nuclear accidents is once again on people’s minds. One possible (classic) plot idea is a cover-up at a nuclear power plant after an accident – you can’t really keep a large scale disaster a secret, but perhaps some of the employees were irradiated and turned into Zombies, superheroes, or simply dead goo. Weird events at a powerplant could easily involve Cthulhu.
  • A “broken arrow” is a situation where a warhead was lost. Recovering it could be a lengthy adventure.

Other Nuclear Ideas

  • Suitcase nukes existed, though it is not known publicly how many of these were built, how many may yet exist, and if any of them “got lost”. Suitcase nukes are an excellent topic for an espionage-centered story, no matter whether it is “realistic” or James Bond over the top. If the suitcase nuke has been deployed, finding and disarming it may be more of a special forces scenario.
  • A nuclear explosion rips a hole in the space-time continuum and lets… something through. This could be anything fantastic, from aliens to monsters to magic pixies.
  • An espionage story could also attempt to keep the secret of making nukes from falling into the wrong hands. These could be Nazis (World War II or Alternate History), Communists (Post-World-War-II), Rogue nations (21st Century), terrorists (War on Terror), or even aliens (see H. Beam Piper’s “Uller Uprising” as an example)
  • A missile silo has been occupied by terrorists, and the protagonists have to go in and remove them before they launch the missile or take the warheads for later use.
  • There was a natural nuclear reactor in Gabon 1.7 billion years ago. Perhaps in a space opera setting this could be pushed to the extreme, creating a deadly natural environment. It’s probably too much of a stretch to posit natural nuclear bombs, but even if one of these extreme natural reactors sits on top of a volcano, any eruption may be a “dirty” bomb. The characters have to recover important documents or alien technology from a ship that crashed right into that hell..

Plot-a-Day: Genetic Engineering

Lugh’s comment on The Evil of Eugenics plot-a-day inspired me to write up a plot-a-day for Genetic Engineering. Lugh basically suggested that wizards created monsters in genetic experiments as a weapon against an undead horde, which is a nice and modern take on the origin of those creatures.

Genetic Engineering is really a staple of fiction by now. It usually goes horribly wrong, unleashing monsters or designer plagues on mankind. The sort of story you would associate with Genetic Engineering roots in Frankenstein and encompasses a lot of Post-Apocalyptic fiction; at the high end an unstoppable virus has become a popular alternative to global thermonuclear war for the purpose of destroying Earth to allow for such a setting or story.

Ignoring the total destruction of human society – which is usually a setting choice rather than a plot device – Genetic Engineering can be used in many ways in your adventures or stories.

  • The evil villain is breeding an army of unstoppable mutants – usable in (almost) any campaign and setting. The player characters need to stop him from unleashing that army. Perhaps the villain is already using some of his creations to terrorize the nation or to assassinate politicians that stand in his way. Even the Aliens movie franchise could be seen as a variation of this idea (and indeed, Alien Resurrection picks up on that theme).
  • Genetically engineered plants and creatures often feature in the colonization of other planets; realistically, Mars could be terraformed with their help. And you know what may happen next, of course – the plants used begin to mutate, the animals go crazy, and some may even develop intelligence. Depending on your setting this could result in anything from man-eating insects to a full exotic and alien ecosystem. Jungles on Mars! But that is setting. The players may have to investigate why colonists in an outlaying mining town disappear, and then find a way to exterminate the smart bugs, or they may even have to protect the new Martian ecosystems from an evil Colonial Authority that attempts to eradicate the “mistake”.
  • A lone mutant runs rampant in a city, and the PCs have to stop him.
  • Genetically-modified humans are patented and used as a slave labor force by an evil corporation.
  • According to urban legend, Stalin wanted to breed  human-ape crossbreeds to be used as soldiers. While there seems to have been little to this, at least one Russian scientist was conducting experiments to that end. No matter what the purpose, such experiments pass as unethical by today’s standards, and the PCs might have to look into a scientist who is doing follow-up experiments of the same nature. Or it could lead to a Planet of the Apes scenario.
  • In general, genetically-modified pets may go on a rampage.
  • A corporation on a distant colony world / in a dystopian future controls the world’s grain because it genetically engineered it in such a way that it is not viable after the first generation. Each year, the farmers have to buy new grain from said corporation which is abusing this monopoly more and more. The antagonists need to step in and end this injustice once and for all.
  • Genetic engineering is usually portrayed as “evil”, but it doesn’t need to be. A good, easy twist would be to offer a genetically engineered vaccine that is the only thing that can save mankind from a mutated plague; or a certain type of genetically modified grain that could solve a famine. If the producer of these is then less than clean – say, they also use their products for “evil” things – that sort of plot could offer a good amount of conflict of interests.
  • To cover another cliche: It’s not people who are behind the genetic experiments, it’s aliens. This can easily become zany, too, if you combine it with any sort of whacky conspiracy theory. Then twist it around and set it in a High Fantasy world.

There are surely countless other ideas, but that’s what I can come up with for now.

Plot-a-Day: Lost and Found

Things get lost. Sometimes, they are valuable or important enough that someone goes and looks for them. This sort of treasure hunt makes for a good adventure, especially if you run an investigative RPG like Call of Cthulhu, but even for a D&D camopaign it could be a welcome change of pace.

However, a pirate’s treasure is a little stereotypical. So, what other things could get lost that are valuable enough that players could start looking for them?

As it turns out, there are many, many things:

  • Keys or clues that lead to something else. (Bait and switch approach.)
  • Coins – many of them are collectors’ items and thus are worth much more than their face or material value.
  • Art objects, in the real world these are usually paintings.
  • Music instruments. Think Stradivarius.
  • Gems. Keep in mind that some valuable, named gems have not only elaborate histories, they are also sometimes said to be “cursed”, “unlucky”, “haunted”, or even to possess magic properties. For our purposes, such rumors could literally be true.
  • First (or early) editions of famous classical works.
  • Code ciphers needed to decrypt a secret message.
  • Items of historic significance. The declaration of independence. The original draft constitution of your conrepublic. The banner of the king’s grandfather that was flown for 180 days while his castle held against overwhelming odds. Lead miniatures with which a famous conqueror planned his military campaigns. Some of these could have great practical significance in your constructed world, too. “Whoever holds the scepter of the seven kings shall rule over the kingdom. So it is written in the book of laws, and so it must be.”
  • Illuminated religious tomes. Either for their historic or artistic value, or because they contain evidence that some people might want to keep hidden. In the Nine Gates, pages from a book are even used to open the gates to hell and summon Satan into the world. The Necronomicon is another classic example.
  • Expensive wine
  • Beer for which the recipe has been lost.
  • Teddy Bears. I kid you not.
  • Shipwrecks. These usually carry valuable cargo – and some have cultural significance. The search for the Titanic is a prime example.
  • Crashed airplanes, as a modern variation of the above. The hunt could be for survivors if it’s a recent crash.
  • Secret documents are an obvious item to look for – works in any setting, really, but it’s classic Cyberpunk or James-Bond-Spy-Adventure stuff.
  • Lost nuclear warheads (Broken Arrow).
  • Spaceships. This includes historic spacecraft (Liberty Bell 7), modern space ships for any reason (their cargo, the value they represent themselves, a rescue mission is a kind of treasure hunt too, or even alien technology if it’s a UFO). Alternatively, a space station or base. Such an object could be hidden in space, too, depending on your setting.
  • In a post-apocalyptic world, the PCs could be searching for a lost seed vault.
  • Every-day objects can be used as items the characters need to search. The treasure map in Tintin’s “Secret of the Unicorn” is hidden in the mast of a model ship. Hiding something in a hollowed-out book is already a trope. The British secret service once built a (working!) pipe that had hidden paper documents hidden inside it, and they also had a golf ball (that could be used) that had a compass inside it. The point is, you can hide important documents (magical gems, a dinosaur tooth, a piece of alien alloy) pretty much anywhere. And if one of these objects go missing, the PCs will have to retrieve it. Who else?
  • Human remains. Imposters have a harder time nowadays, especially if someone still has living relatives, because of DNA testing. Back in the days – or in less advanced settings – finding the actual human remains of the prince / wealthy industrialist may be the only way to prove that this guy who suddenly showed up is not who he claims to be. Alternatively, the PCs could be sent on a search for the remains of someone important. To illustrate, Hitler’s remains were scattered to prevent that they could become a reliquary for Neo-Nazis. Now imagine you have a Weird World War II setting, or post-WW2, where magic actually works – some of said Neo-Nazis might hunt for some small remains of Hitler in the hopes of being able to summon his ghost – maybe even bind his spirit into the body of a living “volunteer”, suited to be a best match by whatever twisted criteria that might entail.
  • Lost mines. The challenge here is that the object of the search is stationary and cannot be moved; the protagonists may find that it is on private land they need to secretly purchase, it may be in a national park where mining is now illegal, and/or they could get involved in a race against time to file a claim for the area.
  • Famous memorabilia – Elvis’ wig, that sort of item.
  • Watches. Some of these are valuable in and of themselves; in addition, they could also be custom-designed in that their mechanism triggers special events at a preset time and date that unlock clues to finding a greater treasure or secret.

Unsurprisingly, treasures and treasure hunting is also covered by many sites:

  • Wikipedia has a short list of Lost Treasure.
  • Lost Gold is another site which could provide good material for treasure hunting games.
  • Geocaching is a modern type of treasure-hunting game that is played via GPS positioning. You might wish to read up on this for modern settings – plus, a harmless Geocaching game could turn into something lethally serious in your story when the protagonists discover something they were not meant to find.

Plot-a-Day: Ten Uses for Asteroids

Asteroids. Big lumps of rock and metal floating in the endless void of space. The Dawn probe is about to enter orbit around Vesta, where it will stay a year before moving on to Ceres.

The Andiope Doublet (Image credit: ESO)
The Andiope Doublet (Image credit: ESO)

So I was wondering: What can you actually do with Asteroids? They seem pretty useless, but here are some ideas:

  1. Prisons: Try to escape from a ball of rock a few hundred kilometers in diameter, literally out in the middle of no-where. Good luck.
  2. Mining: Some asteroids contain valuable metals or minerals or even tiny primordial black holes, and could be a source of conflict if more than one party claims them.
  3. Warfare: Use them as a military base or crash them into a planet. It ensured victory over the dinosaurs.
  4. Secret hideout: Pirates, spies, alien invaders, mad scientists, religious fanatics, the Space Mafia, rich eccentrics, anybody who wishes to remain out of the limelight for a while may set up shop on an asteroid.
  5. Space ship: Hollow them out, put in quarters and a big drive system, and ride a chunk of rock to the stars. In theory you could even use the rock of the asteroid itself as reaction mass.
  6. Waystation: Use it as a refueling and resupplying depot on your way to the outer system, or assemble your first FTL ship using that asteroid as a base.
  7. Monuments: What better place for the grave of your early space heroes than an asteroid cemetary?
  8. Natural Hazard: Very dense asteroid belts might actually pose a hazard to spaceships. The asteroid belt in the Solar System doesn’t; but it’s a staple of Space Operae to posit belts where asteroid tumble about chaotically and close enough to each other to constantly bump into one another. If a belt is created within the story’s timeframe, say by destroying a planet, it could become a new hazard to hyperspace lanes or what have you.
  9. Doomsday: In fiction, asteroids have a habit of constantly crashing into Earth or other inhabited planets. The players could either be helpless to stop it, and need to deal with a society gone wild in expectation of doomsday, or are heroic heroes that get sent into space to help Bruce Willis blow up that approaching menace.
  10. Mystery: Back in the days, people thought the asteroids might be the left-over of a fifth planet that was ripped apart. They don’t have enough mass, among other things, so this seems no longer plausible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true in your fictional universe – and it might be the origin of asteroid belts in other systems. The players could hunt for artifacts from the fifth planet, prevent a similar fate from befalling Earth, could encounter Aliens in cold sleep, survivors from the catastrophe; or they could travel back in time to prevent the disaster (or, in a twist, cause the disaster in the first place to keep the timeline intact).

What other uses could asteroids have in adventures? How have you used asteroids in your games or stories?