Growing Plots from Newspapers

I have talked about an ability I have to be able to read a newspaper and from the articles come up with at least five different plot seeds. I decided to give it a try using April 3rd, 2017th online edition of the New York Times to show the thought process I come up with for it. I will show it as close to a step by step process as I can put into words.

Step 1: Find an interesting article title.

One that jumped out to me immediately as I skimmed the opening articles on the site was “Explosion on St. Petersburg Metro Kills 11 as Putin Visits City“. Now, without even having read the article yet, I see possibility for this being an assassination attempt gone wrong. We don’t have a reason why or a group who will be responsible, but we know that they were planning to make this assassination when the leader was coming to the city. 

Step 2: Find a second article that stands out by title.

Second article that jumps out at me is titled “North Korea’s Nuclear Strength, Encapsulated in an Online Ad for Lithium“, which gives me the idea we now have a rebel group that is out to eliminate the rival ruler. Exact reasoning is as yet unknown, perhaps they are seeking to take over their lands or perhaps the replacement is going to be in their pocket. Let’s see if we can find anything else that inspires us in this plot through the newspaper.

Step 3: With What and Who, we need Why.

On the Politics page, there’s an article titled “Trump Inherits a Secret Cyberwar Against North Korean Missiles“, which plays off the warring countries tie from previous article, but it doesn’t have to. I could have gone with another article, like “At Kushners’ Flagship Building, Mounting Debt and a Foundered Deal” and made it about a group retaliating against the ruler because they destroyed a big important deal and it is now about revenge from something the ruler did that destroyed the deal.

The exact specifics of why don’t need to be nailed down, as they can live in the nebulous “Schrodinger’s Storyline Uncertainty” until the players decide to actually investigate the reason why. You can investigate sections like the Opinion pages or see if there’s any stories about the stars in the Arts/Culture section to spark an idea, like perhaps a lover’s tryst caused a relationship to fall through leading to the hurt feelings and that is why they want revenge. For example, upon selecting some key articles to support this extra why, I find “Dwindling Odds of Coincidence” which is an article about the examination of the ties between Trump becoming president and the Russians that supposedly helped him get there. Leads us back to the idea of taking out the leader to put a better one in place, because they were put there by a rival power group. Another article “New York Has a Great Subway, if You’re Not in a Wheelchair” could be used to make this be a rebel group who is looking to bring about change, focusing on the fringe group of society. Perhaps we have racism or sexism being strong in this world and the oppressed are making a stand against a leadership that has kept them down, turning it into a coup for them to take power and have their people rise up.

Step 4: Create the Players in this Plot

This can usually be done being away from the paper, but perhaps you want to go through and pick some personalities for your characters. I’ve been doing stories and Gamemastering long enough I feel comfortable drawing from a repertoire of personalities I have built up over the years, but if you want the extra support, finding articles that reinforce the sort of attitude and feeling you’re looking for here can help. For example,  an article titled “The Vin Diesel Formula: Brains, Brawn and Heart” in the culture section gives an idea of exactly that, one of the people in this is a strongman with a caring side. Perhaps a half-orc or similarly under-appreciated race that is compassionate for their people and is using their abilities to help them out. Extra fodder for the idea of a racial coup by the downtrodden if we decide to go that way as well.

Step 5: Run the Game

Once you’ve got all the pieces of your puzzle from the articles, you should be ready to put them into play in your game. You’ll need to shave off some of the serial numbers to use it in your own setting, which was where I touched on above about focusing more on the association of the titles to an idea more than the exact stories themselves. It’s why I focused only on the titles, because I wanted that gut reaction. If you feel you cannot come up with some way to take the sort of examples from above and figure a way to shape them into a plot that you can let your players run with, let me illustrate using a smaller example so there are less moving parts.

I was running a Shadowrun game and wanted to give the players a twist rather than the same sort of corporate raids on facilities. So, I had them hired to observe an area. They were taking guard patrol notes, checking who comes and goes, all the usual surveillance stuff. It was top priority they not be detected doing this because it could let the target know what was going on, or at least mean more guards in the area. Meanwhile, while they were doing this, there was a little noise in the alley near where they were hidden in their car. There was a woman outside the vehicle being accosted by a larger male figure. They then had the choice to help and hopefully not blow the mission or they could stay in the vehicle and let the woman succumb to the man.

My inspiration for that plot event? Taken from a country song by Garth Brooks called The Night Will Only Know. I had heard that song and the wheels in my head were turning with such lines like “They saw a woman pleading, Stumbling, begging, and retreating, ‘Til she became the victim of a foe. And they watched her fall in silence To save their own alliance, But the reason for the violence, Just the night will only know” and “Bound by their behavior, They could have been her savior. Now guilt becomes an endless debt they owe” gave me an idea for a situation I could put a pair of criminals in to see how they would measure up in completing a job versus playing a hero. They may have been able to successfully save the woman and completed the job successfully, or perhaps they would have blown the job and got no pay. Either way, the idea in that plot for me was to show the players that they live in a vibrant world where events take place around them that are unrelated to their job at hand. Though, looking back at it, I could have been really evil and had the attack be to draw them out of the vehicle and reveal themselves.

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