Fantasy! Grabby starting situation

edited January 2016 in Make Stuff!
You've got to run a generic fantasy roleplaying game, somewhat open-ended, in fifteen minutes.

You think of your favourite books, most beloved movies, nostalgia-inducing memories of past games.

What's your favourite fantasy-themed starting situation for an adventure?

Double points if it's easy enough to explain in a paragraph, and doesn't require background knowledge of anything else.


Young homeowner living a peaceful life discovers that his uncle has left him an heirloom which, unbeknowst to him, is an item of great age and power. The item belongs to a Dark Lord, who needs it to reign over all the world. Supernaturally-frightening creatures - servants of this Dark Lord - from a distant land are on their way to claim it at this very moment!

...and they can sense its presence, no matter where it goes!

(Lord of the Rings; you play the young homeowner and/or his traveling companions)


  • A cabal of young apprentice magicians accidentally unleash/create a mysterious & terrible threat: their teachers don't believe them, so they must battle it on their own, without exposing their own culpability in the problem.
  • The devil's dozen party is a bunch of criminals who are offered to pay for their crimes by attempting a suicidal mission against the nazis an evil lord. Those who survive the mission will be condoned.
  • You were once a monster and now your're a powerful force for good, but you've one flaw that will turn you into a trecherous killer again. The forces of darkness continuously bait you with gifts and powers hoping to draw you further into the darkness where they can control and manipulate you--hoping to unleash the monster within you again--their joy is to see you fall from grace. And you accept everything they give thinking you can out-wit them and get close enough to the seat of dark power to topple it. You've surrounded yourself with a motely crew of half-redeemed, misfits, troubled-souls, and outsiders; and you fill up your day-to-day schedule trying to save helpless individuals being crushed under the weight of dark forces--waiting and watching for your chance to strike at the heart of dark power and bring it toppling down, forever. You've got time on your hands: you're immortal. But it's a balancing act.
  • There's this sword. It belonged to your father. A magician, your mentor, prompts you to take it. You're young and idealistic; adventure ensues.

    (Star Wars? or King Arthur, you choose)
  • You and your brothers and sisters find out that your parents were murdered. Now you're in charge of the March, but there's no clear heir. Your uncle has a claim to the March, too, and there is a neighboring baron with designs on your lands and he's levying taxes to pay off some monsters/evil mercenaries to attack you.
  • RyRy
    edited January 2016
    Your crystal has crash landed here in the material plane. It didn't have time to make up memories for you so you've emerged half-loaded, just basic shape and aptitudes. The crystal says it will try to tell you how to fix it later, but for now you've got to move because the mountain we appeared on is starting to collapse in on itself. The crystal may be the reason for the mountain's collapse. The crystal tells you to please bring it with you.
  • Great stuff!

    A wishful note:

    It would be great if your example would include a bit about the larger situation - not just an "adventure hook", as it were, but an entire capsule for an upcoming adventure. In the Lords of the Rings example, it's the "unbeknowst to him..." bits.

    Ideally, a GM could read your paragraph, and with no other prep (except for maybe daydreaming some colourful descriptions, but that's always optional) play out an adventure (or even an epic tale).

    I'd say the James's (the first one) and Adam's come closest to that, out of the offerings so far. They're pretty self-contained. Star Wars/King Arthur is almost there!

    Lady Blackbird's situation (though it draws a bit on the character writeups, as well, so maybe it's not as concise...) is a good example, I think. (Not strictly fantasy, but close enough!)

    The ideal starting stituation gives us a clear idea of what might happen next, and what the protagonists might do about it, what choices they might face.

    I chose the Lords of the Rings example for this reason: it's pretty short. But if I am a PC in this story, I know what I need to do: run, find safety, figure out why this thing is desirable, and then what to do with it - protect it, hide it, destroy it? If I am a GM of some variety, I also know what's going to happen. The Black Riders are coming; if they get the Ring, the Dark Lord will threaten the entire world. Kind of like a Front in AW.

    I can thereby generate almost the entire plot of the Lord of the Rings, even if I've never heard of the book.

  • There's this sword. It belonged to your father. A magician, your mentor, prompts you to take it. You're young and idealistic; adventure ensues.

    (Star Wars? or King Arthur, you choose)
    Or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon:
  • edited January 2016
    Troubled teen gang members in a mostly-cold gang war find a cauldron that responds to wishes by manifesting helpful tools of violence. Little do they know that the witch-king of a magical fantasy world is the one reaching out to them through the cauldron, and his agenda is to corrupt and empower them into ruining their world enough to enable his coming. Hoping they never learn that they can use the cauldron as a portal between realms, he makes it as dangerous-looking to enter as he can.
  • Genius hacker is simultaneously approached by (a) a subversive "terrorist" bent on exposing a conspiracy and (b) spooky govt agents who wish the hacker to help them catch the terrorist and won't take "no" for an answer.

    It turns out the conspiracy is that the hacker's entire world is an illusion, the govt spooks are uber-powerful programs designed to destroy violations to that illusion, and the "terrorist" has left the illusory world but comes back to recruit genius hackers for the war against the machines who created it.

    If that's not what you meant by "fantasy", replace "programs" and "machines" with "wizards". :P
  • You're the entourage of the royal heir (fellow young nobles, bodyguard, tutor, fencing instructor, etc.), summering at a remote castle far from the capital. News arrives that the old regent, your parent, has been killed by mysterious forces, and there is some kind of coup taking place. Even now traitors and assassins may be near. Get the heir on the throne, or die trying!
  • edited January 2016
    The party awakens at a table on an inn. A la Hangover, they have no memory... of the past five years. Looks like it was a hell of a party given the state of the deserted place. The owner appears but instead of cleaning he starts packing his stuff to get away from the place, telling them that their debt has been already paid (by the cloaked man who was drinking with them last night) and their trunk is on the stable. They notice that each one has 30 pieces of silver in their pockets. Once outside they notice this is a small town in the middle of the desert.

    Their trunk contains a few things that trigger some strange memories: uniforms from the army of a country in the west, a card with the name of a prominent noble in the capital, a wanted poster with the faces of all the party, accused for the kidnapping of a princess and at the bottom of the trunk, wrapped... the head of the mentioned princess.

    Oh, and no necromantic ritual seems to work to contact her soul.
  • WarriorMonk: Whoa! Wild stuff.

    Dave: Transposing the Matrix into a fantasy genre is an interesting challenge! My first thoughts are that the Matrix is either a) the world of the dead, where people have been sent prematurely - perhaps, like the Sleeping Beauty, they are in an unnatural form of sleep all over the kingdom, or b) the dream world/spirit world, where we always have an "echo", but [some force] has forced everyone's consciousness into that mirror world.

    Presumably, meanwhile the other creatures/aliens/spirits/undead wizards are doing something, turning the world into a hell-hole or some such. That's interesting!

  • While the entries are all good stuff, I wonder if I can ask you to include enough "background" information to run a scenario/adventure/campaign from that premise? Don't include just the "player character's point of view", like a traditional adventure hook, but the whole premise. What's happening behind the scenes?

    The idea isn't to "draw in the reader", but to present something as concise but also as complete as possible. As Einstein said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler than that." (Or something of that sort, not an exact quote.)

  • WarriorMonk: Whoa! Wild stuff.
    Thanks! It worked wonders for a while on the last Anima campaign I GMed and finished. I made the rest more or less a sandbox but managed poorly the fronts. I made them too big and they moved too slow through the world in respect to the player's actions.

    Basically the BBEG used a magic contract in the party to turn them into their mindless servants (it was only later that they figured out it had been for 5 years. They were sent with those uniforms to a frontier to start a war, acted the kidnapping of the princess, but didn't killed her. Instead the princess managed to remove the contract magic and set them loose to stir things around and find out who was the BBEG behind this, following them incognito.

    The father of the princess eventually met the party at the house of the prominent nobleman, where other two rulers reunited to finally try to get what was going on and if any of them was behind it (everyone was on suspicion up until now for several reasons) It was a nice tense scene, PCs still weren't sure if they had killed the princess or not. The king analyzed the head and found out it was the work of her daughter, but couldn't guess why her daughter had feigned her death. So, he kept the bounty on their head but took steps to make sure they didn't got caught so easily by their men.

    Some bounty hunters on their tracks and assassins here and there held some more information, but eventually the players found an old temple of a cult related to the BBEG of the previous campaign, now long defeated. There they took a turn that changed the entire game: they decided to stay in that town and create a cult of their own based on the old one. They ended up convincing the entire town into their cult and turning the town into a trap for the forces against them. Of course, these were bigger than expected, so they ended up leading their faithful in a quest to find the legendary city of the ancient humans.

    When they got there, we played a sort of flashback with the players as the former kings of the ancient human nations, but each one got in secret a card with an agenda. It was things like "anything goes as long as your people survive" "Lives don't matter, but knowledge has to be saved" "Diplomacy is the only solution" "Whatever goes must be in your terms or you're out", and such, I can't remember all. I let players come up with whatever technomagical doomsday devices they could think of and we wrote them in cards and handed out to everyone randomly.

    Then we roleplayed the kings through an invasion of beings from another dimension whose technology and nature surpassed the weapons they had now. After barely resisting a first wave they were sent an ultimatum and had a video conference to come up with a plan. It was then that cards with the secret agendas came into play and created one of the best scenes we had ever played. I had the diplomatic solution, so I ended making a treaty with the aliens that limited the remaining humans into a reservation, erased their memories and limited their technology to medieval levels with some basic magic and genetic engineered beasts which survived from the great war.

    We got to narrate the epilogues for every king. My character ended up making a secret group to control the levels of technology, power and the amount of humans, to keep them from being a threat to the aliens, which let us live in exchange. Other king chose to protect the technology, another kept a DNA database of their people to help them survive the war. One more designed weapons to kill the aliens, which ended lost through the setting as legendary swords of black steel. And then the last king hide his floating city in a pocket dimension and became the BBEG from the previous campaign, who was bent on inflicting pain and bringing the humanity into conflict to make them stronger so they could eventually evolve and rise again to fight the aliens.

    We went then back to the main campaign with the original characters, seeing all this as an holovideo left by the BBEG in his city, and then the guy himself came in to face the PCs and challenge them. If they wanted to try and make the final fight against the aliens, they had to go through him and the ancient police left by the other king, a couple of A.I.s that were now the gods of the setting.

    That was more or less how the background of the setting ended up being, though a big chunk of it was made through play instead of being prepped.
  • Amended with some more background info:
    You're the entourage of the royal heir (fellow young nobles, bodyguard, tutor, fencing instructor, etc.), summering at a remote castle far from the capital. News arrives that the old regent, your parent, has been killed by mysterious forces, and there is some kind of coup taking place. Even now traitors and assassins may be near. Get the heir on the throne, or die trying!

    In fact, most of the nobility (including at least one of the PCs' parents) are secretly involved in the conspiracy, meaning that the throne is probably the least safe place for the heir.
  • Felan,

    That completes it, thanks!


    Sounds like the plot to the Princess Bride. (I can't get any kind of concise one-paragraph summary out of that wall of text, though. I suppose that's ok! However, it doesn't make it particularly useable for anyone else reading this.)
  • edited January 2016
    Transposing the Matrix into a fantasy genre is an interesting challenge!
    Maybe your real body is in a vat in a mindflayer catacombs, where ilithid children derive sustenance from feeding on your dreams. If you wake up, it's all sorts of bad news for them, but maybe for you too, as escaping the catacombs could be a sort of dungeon crawl.

    Every time your party clears a safe space in the dungeon, you can return to the dreamworld (via some ilithid device the catacombs are filled with) to use it to communicate with people at distance, exchange spells, and otherwise better equip yourself to fight the mindflayers in the real world and the dreamworld. Maybe spells you learn in the dreamworld work in the real world too? Or maybe, like uploads in the Matrix, spells are something that originates from the real world but is only useful in the dreamworld; the missions in the dreamworld would then have to be about something else, a la "The One" arc.

    In the dreamworld, certain dreaming mindflayers keep an eye on things, eliminating anomalies and attempts to wake people up. These dreaming mindflayers manifest as incredibly powerful creatures -- maybe Agent-style, or maybe Green Lantern-style, able to do virtually anything through intense exercise of will. Their main constraint is to not do the impossible in front of too many mundanes, kinda like with Paradox in Mage.
  • Interesting idea! Of course the Illithids would be involved with something like this. I'll start a new post!

    Meanwhile, please keep them coming!

    I'm still quite surprised at how spare and yet how rich the Lord of the Rings example is. There is everything there to seed pretty much the entire plot of the novels - no real new information is needed, except various locations and characters with different relationships to the developing plot, which is par for the course in any case.

    I've found while browsing around that this is a remarkably good source (although it falls in to the "some assembly required" category, or, if not assembly, at least some editing to cut it down to something manageable):

    Abulafia Fantasy Situation Generator
  • I like waiting rooms.

    No really!

    It generally surprises the players when you say "You're all in a small room with a couple chairs..." It gets them asking questions! Why am I here? Who arranged this meeting? Are there enough chairs? Are there any newspapers/magazines? Who is the receptionist?

    If they are there willingly, they should be based on the establishing questions they asked, they'll be on their best behaviour which should reduce the chance of "I set fire to the newspapers!" and other such shenanigans.

    It also gives them a chance to interact with each other idly. Once some of the details have been established you let them wait a little bit. Player A may ask Player B "So are you here for the Buskins job too?" Meanwhile Player C is brooding in the dark corner observing the others, and Player D is hitting on the receptionist. This situation starts to draw out their personalities.

    If things start to stagnate or get overly heated have the receptionist interrupt by letting everyone know that the ambassador/warden/sorceror/whatever will see them now.

    Try it out!
  • edited January 2016
    Ha! Nice. If you read Paul's opening post, you'll see that's not at all what he was looking for, but I do agree that that's a fun way to kick off a game. I once played a midnight LARP like that. :)
  • That's not at all what I was looking for, but I agree that it could be fun! I once started a parody D&D game with a sequence of "job interviews", where the interviewer asked the PCs about themselves, and filled out a "character sheet" in response to their answers. It was great fun, especially given my list of (rather surprising/funny) questions!
  • Sorry about that. I probably shouldn't have replied so late at night and so tired.
  • No problem! Add in a detail about what's *really* going on, and, baby, we've got a stew going! (Do you have one/some?)
  • Sudden Coup
    The party - a group of knights, paladins, monks, or other oathsworn folks - is on assignment to visit a neighboring city as part of their routine patrol. When they enter the city, a massive coup and civil war erupts between the current ruling faction and a host of allied traitors. The characters quickly learn that the existing Queen has been captured, and brutal house to house fighting is taking place to root out the remaining loyalists. The party can try to escape to retrieve reinforcements, help the underground loyalist resistance, try to negotiate peaceful terms, or even sneak in and rescue the captured queen.

    Predators Become Prey
    Each of the characters awakes in some state of immediate emergency - they're falling from the sky, they're underwater, they're inside of a pitch black cave, whatever - and don't remember how they got there. Once they get out of their predicament, they're in a strange and alien wilderness completely unknown to them. They're each of their clan's greatest warriors that have been taken by a super-predator race, brought to this isolated island, and must band together to kill off their hunters.

    Here, take this!
    The party is a group of friends, colleagues, or family members all resting or cajoling in the same place (a tavern, their workshop, their house, whatever). A wall bursts open, followed by an obviously epic hero (a powerful mage, mighty warrior, infamous assassin, the Kool Aid man, you get the idea). The hero is mortally wounded, clutching at her bloodied chest. She implores the group to take the McGuffin as far from here as possible, for the forces of evil are hot on her trail! Nice thing about this one is the item/hero/forces of evil aren't inherently any of those things, it could amount to little more than wizards squabbling between their demonic familiars, or it could actually be the thing that saves the world.

    I'll try to come up with a few more if you like these.

  • You and your companions performed many valiant deeds before you died, or so said the dark god who came to visit you in the endless fields of the afterlife. And you could again! You'd like that? To feel again? To taste and touch and smell? You see, something got loose. Something dark and dangerous and best left on its leash. For as long as it takes you to get the band (of adventurers) back together and track down your quarry, you'll be allowed to walk the world again. Some of your companions have since died and been brought back like you. Some are still alive. Some may still be dead. You'll find them, but will you defeat the beast? Will you want to, when you discover what it is? What will you do with your brief second chance at life and what will you do to avoid going back afterwards?
  • That's a nice pitch!

    But isn't this kind of an important part of the situation? (Below.)
    Will you want to, when you discover what it is?
  • No problem! Add in a detail about what's *really* going on, and, baby, we've got a stew going! (Do you have one/some?)
    When I used it as the opening for a long running Fantasy Craft campaign the waiting room was for an ambassador in a major independent trade city. The ambassador wanted the party to look into people from his nation, from a specific religious minority, going missing while in the trade city. Then offered the party a lead or two (though I can't remember what the leads were at this time).

  • That's a nice pitch!
    But isn't this kind of an important part of the situation? (Below.)
    Will you want to, when you discover what it is?
    It could be but needn't be. I didn't have anything in particular in mind, I just wanted to leave open the possibility that the dark god was leaving out some details, or lying. Maybe not though. I mean, it is a dark god - maybe it sent you to kill something good and noble, a former friend or a famous figure. But then again maybe not.

    This way you can make it about whether the heroes accomplish their task, whether they uncover the truth, what they do with their remaining time, what they are willing to sacrifice to regain they lives, etc. You have a couple different story goals to include or discard. I'm not sure if that's entirely what you wanted.
  • You are traveling players, alternately welcome and reviled everywhere. After your most recent performance of some stock morality play in some backwater village you don't even take in enough pennies to feed yourselves. But the cleverest among you has an idea - why not stage a play based on the notorious recent murder in the village? That will draw a huge crowd. And the murderer - that distraught peasant woman in the stocks over there sobbing her innocence - has already been found. What could possibly go wrong?
  • I mean, it is a dark god - maybe it sent you to kill something good and noble, a former friend or a famous figure. But then again maybe not.

    This way you can make it about whether the heroes accomplish their task, whether they uncover the truth, what they do with their remaining time, what they are willing to sacrifice to regain they lives, etc.
    Now that makes the situation interesting: they are sent to destroy something which is actually noble, or good, or neither but necessary. That makes this work, for me! Now there's something really juicy to play out. What will they do?
    What could possibly go wrong?
    Jason, this is a fun set-up. I really like it. It also sounds more like a pitch than a complete situation, though. What's the "behind-the-scenes" twist which makes it into a story concept?

  • I'm gradually going through these and trying to find a bit of a "formula", and slowly zeroing in on something. Keep them coming! Eventually I'll post my conclusions.
  • Mine is Barry Unsworth's book Morality Play. The twist is that in gathering the facts to write and perform the play, you discover that the "murderer" is innocent, and the guilty party has the power to destroy you all.
  • Do you mean that the guilty party is the local authority figure, or something like that? Interesting premise.
  • edited January 2016
    A forest-dwelling culture who has always has peace with the forest god-beasts is suddenly attacked by maddened god-beasts who are poisoned with iron. A quest must be undertaken to find the source of the poisoning and stop it! The truth of the matter is that Iron Town exists on the other side of the mountain, and their various progressive human social programs are funded by seizing territory from the forest, and shooting the god-beasts who try to stop them. (This is a movie. If you think you know it, you're probably right. Not announcing name cuz spoilers.)
  • @Paul_T in the book as I recall the murderer is the local Baron
  • edited January 2016
    Thanks! And what keeps the situation unstable? (In other words, can the Baron just choose to ignore the theatre players?)

    Dave, that one's pretty complete! Thanks.
  • edited January 2016
    Here's a weirder one:

    A demigod who's second in line for the throne of the universe behind his hated brother wakes up with no memory in a hospital on regular old Earth. As family members both friendly and hostile seek him out, his memories will return, bringing with them opportunities to seize the throne. Little do any of the demigod siblings know, their father is alive and watching, using their contest to judge who he deems worthy -- worthy of inheriting his crown, and protecting the universe against the monstrous powers that are beginning to rise against it. Look out, though! The threat of the monstrous powers is secretly spearheaded by one of the youngest siblings, who at first seems harmless but turns out to be the most learned in the magical laws that govern reality!

    I think the monstrous powers want to kill all the demigods and be in charge of the universe, which would probably make the universe more chaotic for its inhabitants, but I can't remember for sure.

    I don't know if all that counts as a starting situation or as a starting situation plus several twists...
  • Twists are good!
  • A Magistrate is en route to try the case; if there is evidence exonerating the peasant and implicating the Baron the magistrate will be obligated to hear it. And the players have that evidence all of a sudden.
  • Ah, excellent! Now it feels complete.
  • With an eye to leaving the choice of PCs open-ended:

    Under attack!

    You have the privilege of witnessing the debut of a new, formidable threat; if you survive the first impact you are the natural choice for dealing with it.

    For example, when a sinister dark knight comes to the halls of the king to bring a witch's threats everybody flees, except some slow-footed bold warriors who are immediately charged with the suicidal mission noble quest of tracking and killing the dark knight.

    Or the dead start coming out of their tombs; among the heroic, resourceful survivors of the zombie invasion all around the world, the ones close to the Death Caves remember the legends and think they might be able to go in and solve the problem. The PCs meet at the entrance of the caves.

    Choosing the chosen ones

    It looked like an ordinary fair attraction: a fortune teller, offering group card readings. The random fair visitors assembled around a table expected little more than entertainment, but as the cards accumulated in front of them and the veiled figure made unusually detailed and increasingly epic predictions about their future they began to feel uneasy. They felt even more uneasy when they received strange farewell gifts from the mysterious fortune teller, when the whole booth disappeared behind their backs, and above all when the predictions began coming true...
  • There is a little village and a solid castle nearby, called Whatever.
    The country is divided, and two nobles are gathering forces to fight for the throne, for the king is dying with no heirs. The Lord of Whatever might muster just enough warriors to bring almost sure victory to this or that noble.
    Meanwhile, invaders from a foreign country are looking at the castle of Whatever as their first target in their attempt to invade the country. The bother of the Lord of Whatever - and captain of the guards - just suggested to the Lord to surrender to the invaders, who will surely prevail against both nobles (and he clearly wants Whatever for himself).

    Yesterday morning a knight, face covered by a white cloth, rode up to the castle and dropped head of the Lord of Whatever in front of the guards, and left.

    A PC is the legit heir of Whatever.
    Another PC is the tutor of the heir; a religious man, but with weird powers.
    Another PC is the ambassador of one of the nobles, who just came to ask for support and to bring gifts.
    Another PC is the ambassador of the invaders, suggesting to surrender.
    Another PC is the lover of the heir, and knows where to hide and find support in the countryside.
    And so on.
  • Mine is Barry Unsworth's book Morality Play. The twist is that in gathering the facts to write and perform the play, you discover that the "murderer" is innocent, and the guilty party has the power to destroy you all.
    This was adapted for the screen as the (fairly good) The Reckoning.
    With Vincent Cassel as the baron.

  • More good stuff, thanks! I particularly like Whatever - nice and twisted and unpredictable.
  • Death and Taxes
    You are the tax collector's posse during a year when everyone knows the crops were shite and this area barely sold anything.

    You are knight with a manor between two powerful dukes. You have children married to either one. Then they go to war and demand that you pick sides.

    Dead Arch-Mage
    You are a group of apprentices to a well known arch-mage. The arch-mage is dead. You aren't sure who will get to the tower first, tomb robbing adventurers hoping to plunder your dead teacher's treasures, the arch-mage's enemies or the wizard's council - looking to re-assign you all to finish our your apprenticeships. Should you wait? Should you take what you can and run?
  • Nice! Thanks, Judd.

    Those seem like they cover the gamut from Dogs in the Vineyard to D&D to First Quest.
  • edited September 2016
    Here's a good link to a situation + character-starting questions:

    Situation Mining (Until the blood...)

    This link is from and/or inspired by here (the whole collection):
  • edited September 2016
    "Our love affair began when your grandfather sent my sisters and I to kill your father."

    Thank you, Kubo of the Two Strings. There's a story fuse just waiting to be lit there.
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