Create Endless Adventure Ideas
This is my in-depth step-by-step guide to coming up with endless amount of exciting adventure ideas that you and your players can't wait to play with.
Coming up with ideas used to be extremely difficult for me, as I'm not a naturally creative person. But for the past couple of years, I have been running adventure brainstorming sessions (a few GMs get on a voice chat and we write an adventure in a couple of hours), we have brainstormed dozens of adventures and playtested/published quite a few. I have learned a lot, and in this post, I will teach you everything I know about creating ideas that are exciting for you and for your players, in a reasonable amount of time, without ever hitting a creative block.
If you're struggling to come up with good ideas, by the end of this guide you will have more ideas than you know what to do with.
Start with a clear goal
Intentional constraints dramatically simplify the creative process, so the first step is to narrow the infinite space of possible ideas down to something your brain can handle without entering the choice paralysis mode.
The more specific you can get - the better. I recommend that you at least pick a genre and a couple of adjectives describing the kind of adventure you want to create:
- Lighthearted comedy-heist
- Post-apocalyptic fantasy
- Intense spy thriller
- Gritty western
- Sci-fi horror
The four components of an Idea
A good adventure idea is usually based on one of the following four elements, or an interesting combination of them:
- Important Objective - an exciting problem that your players will try to solve, the goal they'll try to achieve, or an evil plan they'll try to prevent.
- Interesting Setting - world and locations where the adventure takes place, with a unique twist (unusual location, nature, inhabitants, culture, etc.)
- Cool Characters - a cool antagonist the players will have to defeat. With interesting goals, motivations, occupation, appearance, personality, powers, and the problems they're causing. Also, to a lesser extent, some other characters players will meet.
- Supernatural Element - interesting magics, technologies, items, or creatures.
Your idea can grow out of any one of these elements. Can you think of an exciting goal, setting, character, or magic you would like to build your story around?
If you aren't sure which one to start with - try making a couple of ideas in each category, and then mixing them together (the ideas should be unrelated to each other, try to make them as different from each other as possible).
Take a look at some examples:
- Setting + Supernatural:
A lavish castle where all inhabitants have been mind-controlled by the brain slugs.
- Setting + Problem:
A grotesque experiment has escaped from the mad scientist's laboratory.
- Supernatural + Problem:
A love potion has leaked into the water supply.
- Supernatural + Goal:
You have been hired to obtain a lock of hair from the elusive Sasquatch.
- Character + Setting:
A noble Paladin has arrived at the Pirate City to bring law and order.
- Character + Problem:
A socially awkward prince will lose his claim to the throne unless he finds a wife by next Friday.
- Character + Supernatural:
A pompous King has been turned into a Rat by his evil Vizier.
If you have an idea for some very specific part of the story (you want your players to fight a certain monster, visit a certain location, find a specific magical artifact, etc.) - you can grow a story around that. Expand the idea and see if it leads you to one or few of the core components I've outlined above.
- I want my players to attend the King's feast:
- Problem: They learn that someone has poisoned the food.
- Supernatural: The cooked boar has left a ghost who is determined to ruin the feast.
- I have a cool swamp battle-map:
- Setting: The Swamplands of No Return.
- Character: Swamp Witch who holds a Terrible Secret.
- I want my players to find the Scroll of Sweet Slithering Snakes:
- Character: It is being held by a brilliant, powerful, and extremely paranoid wizard.
- Setting: It has been lost in the Basilisk's lair.
Blank Page vs Lego Blocks
It is difficult and unnecessary to try to invent everything from scratch, just by staring at the blank page and trying to make something up by thinking really hard. I struggled with this a lot, it was one of the main causes of my writer's block.
Instead of staring into the emptiness of a blank page, creativity should feel like playing with lego blocks. You take existing ideas and tropes you're already familiar with, and try to recombine them in new ways, or change them and turn them into something new.
Picking Apart Stories
You obtain the lego blocks to play with by picking apart your favorite stories - movies, TV shows, books, games, comics, and so on.
Look through the list of interesting stories, and extract the idea components out of them:
- What did the main character want in this story, is there an interesting problem they were trying to solve?
- Does the story take place in an interesting setting?
- What are some of the coolest, most memorable characters that you've seen in this story?
- Does the story explore some interesting magics or technologies, does it involve some supernatural creatures?
Not all stories will have all the four elements, but in most of them at least one of these components is really strong:
- Solve a murder despite memory loss (Memento)
- Diffuse the bomb before the bus stops moving (Speed)
- Defeat a skyscraper full of terrorists by yourself (Die Hard)
- Teach a young girl to kill so she could avenge her family (Leon)
- The Matrix
- Wasteland (Fallout)
- Jurassic Park
- Walter White
- Jack Sparrow
- Indiana Jones
- Ace Ventura
- Time Loop (Groundhog Day)
- Sentient Toys (Toy Story)
- Body Switching (Freaky Friday)
- Mech Suit (Iron Man)
or a combination of these components is really interesting or unexpected:
- Shared dreams + Heist = Inception
- Romeo and Juliet + RMS Titanic = Titanic
- Bank Heist + Zombies = Army of The Dead
- Time travel + Undo the Butterfly Effect = Back to the Future
- Sentient Animals + Avenge your Father = Lion King
- Time Travel + Robot Rebellion = Terminator
- Escape from Monster + Xenomorph = Alien
- Timid teacher + Become a Crime Lord = Breaking Bad
Build a library of these elements. Many storytellers keep this library in their heads, but I recommend using this google docs template to create a digital library of ideas.
Start collecting ideas. Whenever you see a movie/book/game that you enjoy, extract the ideas you liked the most, and add them to your collection.
This library is like a big box of lego blocks - when it's time to create an adventure, you can use them to assemble a new and interesting combination of ideas that you haven't seen before.
For example, let's take a few elements from the lists above and recombine them into something new:
- Romeo and Juliet + Bank Heist
A love-struck teenager asks the players to help him commit a bank heist to impress the father of the girl he's in love with, a crime boss of a powerful mafia family.
- Sentient Animals + Ace Ventura
A crazy druid with the personality of Ace Ventura leads his army of sentient flying squirrels to take revenge on the lumberjack village that's destroying his forest.
- Robot Rebellion + Hogwarts
The animated suits of armor and the stone gargoyles have been hijacked by unknown magic and are wrecking havoc on a magic castle. The players must rescue the royal family from the castle that came alive.
- Titanic + Zombies
A zombie outbreak on the ship leads to a catastrophe, players must survive on a sinking ship full of zombies.
The trick is to realize that there's already an endless amount of creative ideas out there, made for you by thousands of storytellers, and these ideas are already good (since they're taken from the stories you like). You can just take the good ideas out of context, and make them different and unique by changing the genre, details, and combining them with other creative ideas in new ways. Then all you have to do is to assemble all these new ideas into a story that makes sense.
The easiest way to come up with an adventure idea is to just adapt one of your favorite stories, changing only a few details.
Alien in a Fantasy world
Stop the cruel power-hungry emperor who tries to build himself an army by breeding dangerous Xenomorph-like monsters.
Die Hard in a Magic Castle
Vampires took over the magic school, you're the only ones who can rescue their hostages before they get turned into vampires.
Honey I Shrunk The Kids
Evil witch poisons the players with a shrinking potion, they must escape and travel through her (now enormous) magic hut to the top shelf where the enlargement potion is stored.
The best way to make such adventures more original is to adapt ideas from different genres and mediums. If you're writing a fantasy adventure - adapt an idea from your favorite Sci-Fi TV show (like Rick and Morty or Firefly), from a game (like Last of Us), or a musical (like Nightmare Time by Starkid).
Recombining the Elements
Combine two interesting ideas together to create something new, mix and match the tropes, putting them together in different ways (like playing with lego blocks):
Sentient Animals + Lord of the Rings
Players play as mice who have stumbled upon The One Ring, and are now humanity's last hope.
Rescue Mission + Scary Monster
The players are hired by a cooky wizard to find and return his runaway pet. His pet is a zombie chimera made out of fury and rage.
Pirates + Floating Islands
Defend a floating pirate town (think Tortuga) being attacked by a massive flying ship of the Royal Navy, sent to “bring order and civilization to Fera Ley and put the pirate problem to rest”.
Notice that the individual ideas don't have to be that interesting or original - you can just lift them from other stories, which is very easy to do. The unique combination of two simple ideas is what makes your story creative, unique, and original.
Changing the Elements
Another way to build on top of the ideas and make them more original is to change them in interesting ways.
To change an idea, you need to take one of its key elements and reverse it (do the opposite), exaggerate it (take it to the extreme), or replace it with an entirely different element (idea from a completely different story or genre).
Reverse the Goal: Rescue the Dragon from the Princess
A cruel princess has kidnapped the baby dragon's mom, and is forcing her to fight in a coliseum. Help to rescue the big mama dragon.
Reverse the Key Character Trait: Evil Batman
Protect the city from a ruthless high-tech vigilante driven by his misguided code of honor.
Change the Setting: Typical Train Heist story, set on a Zeppelin
Rescue an innocent person being delivered by Zeppelin to serve her life sentence in prison.
Exaggerate the Supernatural Element
Solve the disappearance of cows in a village where everyone is secretly a werewolf.
Combining Your Own Ideas
Make a list of 5-10 ideas using the methods above, and then combine/reverse/exaggerate some of these ideas to make something even more unique and interesting.
- Zombies on the Titanic + Ace Ventura
The zombies have been released by a crazy zombie-rights activist who has steered the ship into the island where he's planning to build his own zombie utopia.
- Runaway Chimera + Pirates of the Floating Island
Players must protect the escaped gargoyle (a protected species) from the crew of flying pirates who are determined to capture it.
- Shrinking Potion + The King's Feast
King's enemies have added the shrinking potion into wine, and now players must help the king to fight off the rebellion despite being the size of an ant.
Using Images and Adventure Prompts
Just like extracting ideas from books and movies, you can extract them from artworks, which are a goldmine of useful ideas. ArtStation has a lot of beautiful artworks, and the functionality that allows you to categorize them and build collections. You can install the extension that randomly shows you a new artwork every time you open a new tab in the browser. Add the most inspiring images to your collection, and then use them as prompts to come up with ideas.
I have already built a pretty big collection of cool ideas, and created a tool that recombines them for you automatically. Try using the Adventure Prompts Tool - generate random prompts and try to pitch a few ideas based on the combinations of these elements.
I recommend setting a 2-minute timer, and challenging yourself to pitch a story idea based on whatever random prompts you end up with. These pitches often end up surprisingly interesting and creative, and in 20 minutes you can create 10 such pitches you can add to your list of ideas.
It is much easier and more fun to do this together with a friend - take turns generating prompts and pitching ideas, then build on top of each other's ideas using the methods described above.
More Good Sources of Story Ideas
Aside from passively collecting ideas from the movies you're watching and the books you're reading, you can actively research ideas. Browse the lists of stories until you find an element that gets you excited, and build an adventure around it.
- IMDB list of top movies and TV Shows.
Use advanced search to narrow them down by genre, rating, etc.
- Lists of TV episodes on Wikipedia:
- Adventure Lookup
- Big list of RPG plots
- Follow RPG.
Your adventure idea isn't complete until you have figured out the Primary Objective your players will try to pursue - a Problem they will be trying to solve or a Goal they will be trying to accomplish.
The Primary Objective is the core of your story, the most important element you need to figure out. Once you know the Objective - everything else will fall into place, because almost all the other elements of the adventure are defined in relation to the Objective:
- Adventure Hook is the moment at the beginning of the adventure where the players encounter the Problem they must solve or establish the Goal they will try to achieve.
- Antagonist is the primary force that stands in the way of the players, their goal is the opposite of the heroes' Objective.
- Challenges and Encounters are the obstacles that the players will need to overcome on their path to the Objective.
- Intriguing Mysteries are bits and pieces of information the players will gather throughout their adventure that are required for them to accomplish their goal.
- Surprising Twist is the moment in the middle of the adventure when the players' Objective changes in some way - they realize that it's not what they once thought it was, or some complication makes it much more difficult to achieve.
- The Climax of the adventure is the moment when the Objective is resolved, when the players succeed at accomplishing their goal (or, rarely, fail to do so and lose).
Resolving the Objective will be the single most important event in the story, it will determine whether the characters succeed or fail, the thing the "final battle" revolves around.
Stories are about Problem Solving
Stories and roleplaying games are fundamentally about creative problem-solving.
Adventure Ideas are fundamentally problems. They create an exciting, challenging, important goal for the players to accomplish.
This is the fundamental "game loop" of an RPG - the GM puts an interesting problem in front of the players, and they find creative ways to solve it.
Big problems are broken down into smaller Challenges. In every scene the characters try to solve a small problem, their successes take them closer to achieving their goal, the setbacks and complications take them farther away from that goal.
Players encounter a big problem at the beginning of the story, they go through a series of challenges that add up to ultimately solving the problem at the Climax of the story.
This gives the players a sense of progress, makes them feel like their actions are meaningful, make an impact on the world, add up to some larger purpose. The Primary Objective is that purpose.
What makes a Good Primary Objective
The Primary Objective is a specific thing the players must do in order to succeed in their quest. A specific action they must take that will resolve the main conflict.
Primary Objective must be:
- High Stakes - players should care about accomplishing it. It should be very meaningful and important to the characters and to the world they live in. Players should have a good reason to pursue it, whatever it takes.
- Exciting - the problem should be interesting to solve, the goal should be desirable to achieve. Players will spend the whole adventure doing everything in their power to accomplish this, so it should be something fun to participate in.
- Difficult - the objective should be difficult to accomplish. It will be the main source of challenges and conflict in your story, it will create a lot of struggle for the characters, and you want your players to feel epic and heroic when they succeed.
- Kill the dragon to save the village.
- Break out an innocent from an unassailable prison.
- Stop the Villain from opening a portal into the Demon Dimension.
- Solve the crime to prevent a war between the two kingdoms.
Objectives and Villains
Objectives come in two types, like two sides of the same coin:
Players really want something, and the villain stands in their way.
- Rescue a princess from a dragon.
- Journey to a distant location and find treasure.
- Broker peace between warring kingdoms.
- Perform the heist of the century.
Villain really wants something, and players must do whatever it takes to stop them.
- Prevent the villain from performing a terrible world-ending ritual.
- Make sure the villain won't get their hands on a powerful artifact.
- The Villain wants to kill or kidnap someone, and the players must protect them.
- The Villain is pursuing the players, and they must escape to survive.
So any idea you have for an Objective is actually two ideas - it is either something the players want to pursue ("Kill a Terrible Monster"), or must prevent the villain from obtaining ("Protect an Adorable Creature from the evil Hunter.").
Looking at the Objectives this way doubles the amount of ideas you have, and helps you to come up with interesting and unusual stories (by swapping the Heroes and the Villains, telling the story from the perspective of the Antagonist).
Just as described above, taking ideas from your favorite stories (and changing them a bit) is one of the best ways to come up with your objective.
Unlike the other story elements, the objectives actually tend to be pretty generic - there's a limited amount of story archetypes (the goals the heroes can pursue). There are about 10-20 most common objectives that 90% of the stories revolve around. What makes an objective unique is the specifics of the story, all the other elements of the adventure idea that surround the objective.
When you watch movies and read stories, learn to notice the objective the heroes are trying to pursue, and compile a list of your favorite ones.
Here are some of the most common objectives:
- Obtaining some important item (McGuffin), creature, person, or information.
(Train robberies, fetch quests, rescue missions, spy missions, capturing fugitives.)
- Killing/defeating a Villain or a dangerous monster who's up to no good.
(Horror movies, superhero movies, many sci-fi and fantasy movies.)
- Traveling to some distant location through dangerous territory, or ending up in a dangerous place and trying to survive and return home.
(Most adventure stories).
- Solving mysteries, finding out the truth.
(Most detective and mystery stories).
- Invading, Defending, or Escaping a location.
(Heists, prison breaks, many action movies).
- Convincing/manipulating people, gaining power through non-violent means.
(or preventing a villain from doing one of the above).
Here you can see the full list of the objectives I have compiled. You can go through the list and try applying each of the ideas to your premise, that is a sure way to generate a lot of new and interesting story ideas.
Very often the objective will grow naturally out of the story idea you have developed.
- Start with a Villain - come up with an idea for a villain, and figure out what it is that they want that the heroes must try to prevent.
- Start with the Setting - what's wrong with the world the heroes are living in, what must be fixed?
- Start with the Supernatural Element - some kind of magic, spell, technology, or a creature is causing problems, and the story is about resolving those problems.
Most of the time when you have any idea, it's possible to figure out what kind of Objective it naturally leads to. Is that something heroes want? Is that something they fear? Is it causing some problems they must solve?
- Villain - Crazy scientist obsessed with world domination.
Objective - stop him from performing his dangerous experiment.
- Setting - a dystopian world where the good has won, and is now ruthlessly oppressing the evil.
Objective - incite the monster rebellion and lead it against the Paladin army.
- Supernatural Element - a magic Trident used to control the Kraken.
Objective - steal it from the Pirate Lord who's currently using it to control the seas.
One of the best ways to make the Objective more interesting is to add some restriction to it that makes it more difficult:
- Problem must be solved using social/political means only.
- Problem must be solved stealthily, secretly, undercover.
- Problem must be solved under time pressure.
- Players must avoid violence, collateral damage.
- Players must compete with the rivals.
- Players must cooperate with the enemy.
- Players have incomplete/false information.
- Players have limited resources/preparation.
- Players must do it while protecting someone.
- Players must do it under scrutiny/supervision, bound by strict rules/laws.
- Target must be unharmed.
Developing your Ideas
Now you have countless ways of finding adventure ideas, and strategies to create infinite combinations of them. You know how to come up with an exciting premise for your story, and an objective for your players to accomplish, which makes the process of creating the rest of the adventure very straightforward and easy.
The next step is to make a list of 5-10 ideas, pick your favorite one, and develop it into a story. To do that, you can use the brainstorming template - it will guide you through the process of turning your idea into a story.
I also wrote an adventure writing course, which is available for free here. In this course I share everything I know about creating adventures, and guide you through a straightforward step-by-step process to creating your own one-shot adventure. If you've enjoyed this post - you will really love the course.
I hope you found this guide useful. If you have any questions, feedback on how I can make it better, or your own tips on creating adventure ideas - please leave them in the comments.