Corpses have very few uses. “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE NECROMANCER SAID,HYUCK HYUCK” – I said very few. Stop making them and start telling a story with these 10 plot seeds.
I don’t have a hatred of combat encounters by any means – I enjoy a good tussle and flexing my characters’ builds and abilities. Having said that, having your entire game rest around random encounters or unavoidable bloodshed can feel pretty shallow to modern players and draw them away from storytelling. When most problems are solved by lopping off something’s head – lopping off something’s head seems the answer to every problem.
That’s not to say that combat should vanish from your game – instead, let combat feel like a reward for navigating a situation well enough to know who the enemy is and how to stop them. If you have a bunch of “murder hobos” on your hand, instead of eventually punishing them for using the most well-developed mechanic in the game, pick up one of the following 10 plot seeds and base a session around it. You might be surprised by what you see.
Again – combat can be a part of the solution, it can even be part of the problem, but none of the following scenarios should be easy to solve with the swing of a sword.
1. Survival Against Danger
A quickly devolving situation puts the party in fight or flight.
- The party is hired to find and recover researchers that went into a dormant volcano. When they finally link-up with the researchers, they learn that the volcano is about to erupt! They have only minutes to find the cause and stop it or escape with the researchers, leaving the town below to fend for itself.
- An assassin has framed the party for the prince’s murder. Now, the entire city guard is looking for them, swarming the streets in all directions. The party must prove their innocence from prison or… find the assassin and get them to confess to the true crime.
2. Unknown Magical Upheaval
Some magical effect has changed the rules wildly, and the party must find a way to contend with it.
- The town of Gold Hills, which the party is resting at, is thrown into chaos when gravity inverts – sending dozens of people, animals, carts, and the tops of buildings 300 feet into the air. The young sorcerer responsible is unaffected, but can’t control their power. The party must think their way out of the situation before gravity returns to normal, and an accident becomes a massacre.
3. Understanding A Different Viewpoint
A group or the party does something amoral due to tradition or fostered belief that the party does not share.
- An Eladrin envoy has come to Whisperwood to collect young elves and firbolg to bring back to the Feywild where they will live out their days away from their family. The Eladrin’s Archfey leader believes the ancient practice to be healthy for the forest, even if the citizens disagree.
4. Personal Stories or Relationship Development
A story central to 1 or 2 characters evolves in an unexpected way.
- The fighter’s old war buddy tracks down the party and hires them to help clear out an old castle full of with bandits. “It’s important, old friend. A lead on my family.” The castle actually has paintings of the fighter’s parents in the bedroom, and the war buddy seems genuinely confused.
5. Completely Insane Situations
The party has to contend with a strange situation that may break verisimilitude to reach a destination or further a goal.
- Two stark-naked wizards duel across a river from one another as their crafted stone golems beat the hell out of each other on the only bridge crossing for miles. One wizard screeches “He stole my goat!” and the other calls back “I don’t even like goats!” before summoning a blizzard.
6. Politics or Group Relations
The party is stuck between doing the lawful thing and the right thing, and must choose a side.
- The magistrate has put a 500 gold piece bounty on the head of a teenage girl and “all of her ilk” for stealing a bolt of silk – the funeral shroud of the magistrate’s recently dead husband.
7. Guest Characters Herald Problems
When a friend comes to roll dice, they introduce a whole new set of problems for the party.
- Jamie visits for Chrismas and their character Elazius is on the run from a kill-squad of hobgoblin Iron Shadows – seeking an ancient, powerful relic that’s in the warlock’s possession.
8. Slice of Life
The party gets time to breathe and explore the world as average people.
- The party goes shopping for new clothes and equipment. They bump into a new friend who’s heard of their exploits and have a nice meal at a local eatery. Then, they meet with several swords for hire to hire 3 new guards to watch their ever-expanding menagerie of pets and work animals. The rogue has a chance to skulk and sulk in equal measure.
9. Kidnappings, Looming Threats, and Unavoidable Concerns
The most tricky of the bunch – the party has to find an answer or a work-around to a current problem.
- The party’s Cleric (player absent for the session) is kidnapped by a vampire countess. Her demands? The nearby town was stricken blind by magic and blame her for their affliction. The countess prays the party prove her innocence and the Cleric will live.
- The party has been hounded by a peculiar dragon for weeks that seems intent on befriending the group. When the clumsy creature fumbles its way through town after them, the party must pay a hefty fine or make amends.
- A party member contracts a troublesome disease. The party Cleric treats the disease easily, but when the group comes to town – the disease spreads like wildfire among the citizens far more quickly than the Cleric can treat them.
10. Ethics and/or Morality
The party made a decision previously that comes back to haunt or reward them in a bittersweet exchange.
- The party have slaughtered hundreds of goblins that have attacked them for months. Only now do they meet a mercenary company that claims to have been kidnapping the “little devils” for profit. The goblins, because of it, have chosen to attack first and ask questions never.
- When a group of entertainers flag down the party for a festive and enjoyable evening of food and wine, things quickly get out of hand, leading to the death of the entire troupe over a card game the rogue chose to cheat at. When entering town, the party sees wanted posters for that very troupe, but the citizenry hold the troubadours in the highest regard – folk heroes.
Here’s the thing – Combat is obviously central to Dungeons and Dragons and many other Tabletop RPGs – because those systems and arbitrating those situations are the most mechanically complex, not because it’s your primary solution.
When bloodshed doesn’t shortcut a situation, you’ll find your players FAR more invested than you originally believed.