If you’ve never seen the animated TV series Disney’s Gargoyles, I recommend you check it out. It is an American animated tv series created by Greg Weisman, which has some complex story arcs and dark tones for a 90’s cartoon, and it mixed modern-day with medieval times and reality with legends. They had drawn from topics like Shakespeare plays and various myths and legends from around the world like King Arthur and Cúchulainn and even bringing in the Illuminati.
Gargoyles tells the story of a pack of gargoyles who were frozen in time for a thousand years and re-awakened in the modern-day. In this series, Gargoyles were protectors of man, watching over their castle at night before turning to stone at the day and having the castle protect them. When they came forward in time, they declared the city under their protection and go about fighting crime there, and this is where the complex storylines begin, with at least one referencing events from over 50 episodes prior.
Beyond the main cast, there’s various reoccurring characters with their own motivations and alliances that change over the course of the series. There are characters who were supposed friends before one double-crosses the other and now they’re enemies, and there are enemies who become allies for various reasons and various lengths of time. It sounds complex, but it is pretty well written a series and the stories it tells can be quite entertaining.
From a gamemaster perspective, you want to weave your stories to keep the players on the edge of their seat, keep them interested and in some cases keep them guessing as to what is coming next. You want them to actually feel your NPCs are real people, not just figures on a sheet for them to interact with. MMOs are an example of this where PCs would run in and do the usual keywords to activate events and then run back out to farm the next quest-line. Players do this all the time in tabletop games too, glossing over interaction because they feel there’s no point interacting with NPCs. By making rich non-player characters who actually have their own drive, their own desires, their own needs, you’ll actually give your players reason to interact with them. I will go more into this in other articles, but don’t make the NPCs seem like they were just waiting for the PCs to show up and fix things.
Secondly, the story arcs themselves are some of the best things about this. First off, the drawing from legends and myths and fiction gives a large collection of stories to tell. They made use of areas all across the world including Native American, African, Egyptian, Irish, and Norse. This shows to me you that you can get stories from everywhere if you take time to look, and it also shows that perhaps you may want to consider the myths and legends of your game universe and what you can do with the players. You can choose to be extremely overt or you can just work with small pieces, as I will show in the examples below.
For more overt examples, the King of Dragon Pass video game had you having to learn the lore of a myth before you could partake in the Heroquest of it where you enter the realm of the gods and re-enact a myth specific to one of the gods for certain rewards. There were chances of success and failure, up to and including dying while on this quest. What sort of stories do the faithful believe in your world? Do they have something like the tasks of Hercules perhaps or God’s test of Job? You can have characters go for a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the great holy founders of their order to seek purity or a vision of what they should do, such as the opening of the Knights of the Nine add-on for Oblivion. Although not so spelled out, you could say that the move O Brother, Where Art Thou was an example of characters following in the challenges of those who came before. The Chzo Mythos games by Yahtzee had a character who took part in multiple trials to prove his ability as a special figure, though not directly called out as such until the end.
For some smaller examples, there’s the appearance of the characters in Gargoyles from the myths I’ve described. For instance, there is a complex arc involving the character of Macbeth from Shakespeare’s works and then there’s the stories involving King Arthur that they did. Another example is in the TV series Roar, which took place in 400 AD Ireland with Conor trying to unite the Celtic clans to rid their land of the Romans. The show freely mixed Christian mythology, Celtic mythology, Druidism, and smatterings of history, such as Longinus, an immortal cursed by God for interfering with his plans. By Christian tradition, Longinus was the centurion who stabbed Jesus Christ with his spear during the Crucifixion. This spear, the Spear of Destiny, was supposedly the only weapon that could release Longinus from his curse. Thor: Blood Oath is a comic storyline spanning a handful of books and made Thor and friends gather mythical items from Norse, Greek, Celtic, Japanese and Egyptian myths, encountering various figures from each of those areas; while it overtly references the mythical items it is not directly following the story.