In recent years I've become more interested in using randomness to aid in my creative process as a GM. I've worked on creating systems for randomly generating a variety of gaming elements, from dungeons, to species, to entire campaign arcs. One of my proudest achievements was my random NPC generator. It was one of the most ambitious programming projects I ever undertook, and I made a lot of progress with it. Unfortunately, my ability to construct the system was far more advanced than my ability to code the system, and the project has largely fallen by the wayside.
In this post, however, I'd like to talk about one of the simplest, most elegant and most entertaining systems of random generation I've come up with. I use it for adventure generation, but I imagine it could be adapted to be used for any length of narrative, up to entire campaign arcs.
The idea came to me one afternoon after an extended game of Magic: The Gathering with some friends. Most of my friends find the game much more entertaining than I do, so I was sitting out for a round. While they played, I browsed through the four boxes of cards I've accumulated, just enjoying the artwork. I came across one particularly devilish monster (I don't recall which) and thought it would be great to throw against my players in an upcoming session of D&D.
Then my eyes snapped open wide as I realized that Magic and D&D take place in environments so similar that every magic card is a potential element in a D&D game. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and worked out the system which, even then, seemed so simple as to hardly need codifying.
1) Either: predetermine the game elements the cards will represent, or decide to establish those elements after the cards are drawn.
2) Either: separate the cards into categories (artifact, creature, land, sorcery...), or decide to draw them from one huge pile.
3) Determine the number of cards you will draw. (and, possibly, from which piles you will draw them.)
4) Draw the number of cards you decided on in step 3, according to the conditions established in steps 1 and 2. Use any element found on the card (art, game effects, flavor text, or even just the card's name) as a seed from which to develop the game.
To just write it out like that doesn't seem very clear, so below are a few examples of this. For the first draw, I used the "Random Card" function on Gatherer. I won't predetermine which cards correlate with which game elements, nor will I separate the cards into categories. I will draw four cards.
The first thing that strikes me about these cards is the power and majesty of the Great Sable Stag. It seems a paragon of nature. This is in contrast to the Hellkite hatchling, which looks like a pretty evil dragon. Flashfreeze has some nice art of a sagacious old man on it, but I think I'd like to make this card into a kind of freezing trap which shows up in the game. Mentor of the Meek is kinda throwing me for a loop, but I've found that things work out best if I don't discard cards which are difficult to fit into the idea. Maybe I can maybe work him in as the questgiver.
After some additional mulling, this is what I've come up with:
In a town on the outskirts of society, near an immense and unexplored forest, there are no inns for the players to stay in. Here, there is a strong presence of temples which offer free hospitality to travelers. While staying in one such very crowded temple, the PCs find themselves sitting at a table with a group of elderly pilgrims equal in number to the party. After some brief role play has allowed the players to familiarize themselves with their table companions, the server brings food. Unfortunately, the temple is overcrowded, and only has enough food for half the people at the table.
This is a test. If the PCs share the food, or offer it to the elderly pilgrims, they are approached by a young monk wearing light leather clothing, and a sword strapped to his side. He asks if he can speak with them, and takes them to a small side room with chairs, a table, and food for the players. They have impressed him with their generosity, and he would like to ask a favor of them. In the deep forest is a creature called the Playton Stag. It is a beautiful, and terrible, creature. All other stags in the world are a reflection of this one great animal.
Recently, a nearby Ancient Red Dragon named Ashrain gave birth to a whelping, and is teaching him to hunt in the great woods. Normally this would be of little concern, but the temple's seers have foretold that Ashrain intends to continue hunting until her whelp can devour the Playton Stag.
To prevent this, the monk would like the party to capture the Playton Stag, and bring it back to the city where the monks can hide it until Ashrain grows bored of her grisly sport.
There is one snag, however. Any creature which touches the Playton Stag is instantly affected by a Time Stop spell, lasting one hour. The players must somehow return the creature to the town without ever touching it, lest they be easy prey for the creatures of the forest, or the dragons.
There are two things about this which I would like to point out. First, despite pulling 3 creature cards and a spell card, the game outline I worked up is not combat based. In fact, the primary goal of the adventure is more akin to solving a puzzle than anything else. Second, and most important, this is not an adventure I would have come up with on my own. It's not my style, which means that the system is doing exactly what I want it to do: making me think differently. Forcing me to break my own patterns by forcing me to try to find patterns in randomness.
I think the concept is pretty clear at this point, but I'll provide one more example to demonstrate the alternatives available in steps 1 and 2 of the process. This time I'll be drawing from my own collection. I will predetermine the elements the cards will represent, but I will not sort the cards into categories.
The first card will be what the heroes are after on this adventure.
The second and third cards will be the challenges they must face.
The fourth card will be the unexpected help along the way.
The fifth card will be what sent them on their journey.
The sixth card will be what special treasure they have an opportunity to find.
I will now draw from my collection, and post the cards below in the order I drew them.
Now, you might look at this and see it as an unfortunate draw. What the players are after appears to be nothing more than a mundane owl, their unexpected help comes from a mindless and violent creature, and one of the obstacles they must overcome is an attractive young woman. But this is precisely what we want when we predetermine what cards will be associated with which game element. It forces us to further stretch our minds, to further break from our own patterns. I'll keep this one short since the post is starting to run long.
After defeating a mad pyromancer, the party discover a journal whilst looting her body. It turns out she was hunting for a missing artifact. She had recently pinpointed its location: the ancient Amrou people who had hidden it had allowed an owl to swallow it, and enchanted the owl so that the artifact would be passed to its children. For generations, this family of owls has hunted among the Tempest Falls--a breathtaking and rare cluster of waterfalls in a far off land.
Along the way, the party is hounded by the forgotten descendants of those who first hid the artifact. However, if they looted a special amulet from the pyromancer, they will discover that it has an unusual ability. Whenever one of Amrou blood is near, it will summon a basilisk. The basilisk will attack the Amrou on sight--and will attack the players if it cannot find any Amrou nearby after being summoned. This makes any attempt at peace very difficult.
If the party successfully finds and slays the owl, the moment it dies, a great rumbling is heard, and an ancient war construct rises from beneath the earth to kill those who have breached the sacred trust of the Amrou.
Once the construct is defeated, and the players are finally able to examine the orb from the owl's belly. If they are able to use magic to identify it, they will discover that once per day, it may be used to attempt to force a permanent 1 step alignment shift in another creature. Will save DC: 17, may not be used on the same creature twice regardless of success or failure.
So there you have it. Generating new adventures via magic. It's not the only way of coming up with new ideas, but it's one very good and fun method to try.