Now, I’m personally someone who can take the daily newspaper and generally come up with a number of plot ideas, even if running a fantasy campaign, but not everyone is at that level, so the question becomes what sort of tools are there that might help inspire ideas for stories or challenges or encounters?
The basics are books and tv shows and movies, definitely. You have players exploring ruins, try some tricks from Indiana Jones moves or the Mummy movies or TV shows like Relic Hunter. You’re doing a sci-fi game? Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Babylon 5, Battlestar, the list just rolls off the tongue. There are a ton of books in each genre, and there was even one GM who said they were inspired by Soap Opera Digest in creating a town full of storylines. Don’t dismiss comics and cartoons as well; comics cover everything so you’re sure to find something, and as for cartoons. let’s say you’re running a fantasy game and need some inspiration, did you know Disney’s Aladdin not only had 3 movies but also a long running TV series, ripe with ideas you can use, as well as Hercules, Gummi Bears, even Tarzan. DuckTales has some episodes of treasure hunting that can be inspiring.
In all of that, do not forget folklore, myths and legends; just give them a slightly different spin. Maybe Hercules wasn’t super-strong, it was just that he was a showboat, taking credit for what other people did and Achillies wasn’t an invincible human, he was a living statue (or a robot, if you’re playing a futuristic game, just look at Aliens Resurrection) To quote from the Gargoyles’ comic, ‘All things are true… few things are accurate’.
I add to that the medium of video games. Running a dungeon? Classics like Tomb Raider or moderns like Skyrim, Dead Space and Mass Effect for scifi games, but there’s much more. I don’t know how many people played Tombs and Treasures, but that is an old NES game that has the player exploring various Incan style ruins and using a varied inventory to solve puzzles and go through a few fight scenes. I even have plans somewhere for a Legend of Zelda Water Temple style dungeon with floodgates to control access to various levels and areas. Tell me you can’t look at a Squaresoft or Bioware game and at least see one thing you’ld like to put your players through.
I find checking out the kids section of the toy store and book store to be helpful from time to time as well. Various puzzle books can be useful, for varioys reasons. For example, buy yourself a Sudoku book and have yourself a year’s worth of dungeon maps. They did a D&D reskin of Clue, so why couldn’t you put players in charge of finding some clues to determine who killed someone, maybe to save them from being convicted of it (or suffering the same fate). Some children’s puzzle books will have various puzzles like ‘How many moves does it take to get from this image to this image’ or ‘Decode the secret phrase’. Also, after watching Tabletop with Wil Wheaton on Geek and Sundry’s Youtube channel I have found a number of boardgames or boardgame mechanics that can be used in my roleplaying games. Check out the Fortune and Glory boardgames which is pull action movies and just imagine what a list of ‘challenge’ cards could do in coming up with plots; you start off exploring a “Maze of Caves” and after navigating the twisty tunnels you encounter “Stone Guardians” who happen to come to life and your only escape is across the “Perilous Bridge”. Sounds like something out of Twisted Tales the RPG. And as Sly Flourish will tell you, Rory’s Story Cubes are great for coming up with things on the fly.
Music is used by many writers to get into the creative mood, sometimes to the point of having a specific playlist for different characters so they can sink into their skin when they need to. Also, sometimes you’ll get inspired just by a lyric or a song title that may give you an encounter or a twist for a campaign. For example, Forgotten Realms had the Godswar where all deities had to leave the heavens and live among the mortals. Part of me looks at that and hears the song ‘What if God was One of Us’. There was another time, I was creating a storyline for a cyberpunk game and needed a way to tie a few events together. Luckily Queen helped me with that, ‘Out of the doorway the bullets rip to the sound of the beat’.
If you’re that sort of person, I suggest keeping a dream journal, because you may have a wacky dream and think nothing of it, but Majora’s Mask was stated to be based on the series director’s dream of the moon falling and crashing on Earth, and that is one of the most popular Zelda games. You can also keep some sort of journal with you as you go about, in case you need to jot down a random idea. I reccomend a small book or notepad as opposed to a phone, just because by the time you unlock it, open the app, and type or voice record, the moment could be gone. However, phones are great for taking pictures of places or things you want to see in a game. Reference materials help.
I do keep a pair of books of quotations around that I picked up at flea markets, but I find them useful from time to time to flick through the topic indexes, find an emotion or a theme I’m going for and then read a few of those. Sometimes, I’ll find a juicy quote that will make me picture a setting or a person that I can throw into the works. Some random image searches using a specific term in Google images or Deviant Art can sometimes be all it takes to inspire.