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RPG Book Review: Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots To Inspire Game Masters

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Have you ever found a sandwich that’s so big, juicy, messy, and full of sandwichy goodness that you can’t figure out where to start eating it? That’s kind of what happened when I grabbed a copy of Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots To Inspire Game Masters by the authors of Gnome Stew. This book should be like crack to not only roleplayers in general and gamemasters (GMs) in specific, but should also provide infinite ideas for novelists and short story writers seeking inspiration for their own works.

For those of you who aren’t gamers or roleplayers, there’s a huge and growing population of people who play tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) and who also write articles throughout the blogosphere. Gnome Stew (GnomeStew.com) is one of the more focused, schizophrenic (i.e. multiple-writer), and excellent gaming resources on the web today. I typically peruse the Gnome Stew RSS feed at least once a week to get an idea of what’s going on in gaming and steal get ideas for my own gaming blog (the Moebius Adventures blog).

The amazing folks at Gnome Stew evidently had their “eureka” moment in June 2009 and it took twelve months from that point to create this huge storehouse of ideas and inspiration for the community. As Martin Ralya, the owner of Gnome Stew, points out in his introduction, “To call Eureka a labor of love would be an understatement.” That love certainly shows.

Before launching into the plot descriptions themselves, the authors choose to provide a chapter about how to use the book. That takes up less than 20 pages of the 300+ the book fills. However, without that information, it would be much more difficult to hunt for ideas on a particular topic. They have provided four different ways to find the perfect plot — by theme, primary genre, sub-genres, and tags.

The themes they use are the 36 Dramatic Situations written by Georges Polti in 1917. That book poses that there are only 36 basic plots used in all the dramatic works ever created or that ever will be created. It’s quite an idea and it’s still in use today by drama students, authors, playwrights, and many more. You can read the book in the public domain here. In terms of RPG plots, this helps by boiling down the initial idea succinctly and then building on it in the text of the plot description.

Genres are broken into four general categories. In this case, a genre is just a set of criteria for a setting that also lends itself to describing the overall tone or assumptions for stories fitting those criteria. Here they use three main categories — fantasy, sci-fi, and horror — and add a catch-all “other” category for any plots that don’t fit in the first three.

When you get to tags, that’s where the real fun comes in. It’s obvious the editors and authors thought long and hard about how to make this book useful for readers; like genres, tags in this case are just additional descriptive words to categorize a particular plot. These tags describe things like the type of challenge involved in the plot, what creatures and enemies will be encountered, what kinds of non-player characters (NPCs) and relationships are central to the plot, the play style, and the setting. Beyond that, there’s also a broader “features” general category for elements that don’t fit anywhere else.

Each of these descriptive methods is used to create its own detailed index so that you can simply peruse any of the indices for a particular idea or term. That certainly helps when you’re faced with the sheer volume of work presented in this book. Your other approach is simply to start at the beginning and read until inspiration strikes or you find what you are looking for. My problem with that is that I have hardly dented the fantasy plots, which come first, so going that way who knows if I’ll ever make it all the way to the horror section!

There’s no way to do justice to the myriad plots described in the book, so I’ll just talk about one to provide an example of what you can look forward to.

“Vengeance Taken for Kindred upon Kindred” has a long title, but immediately I knew it was describing what I call the “Hatfields vs. the McCoys” problem. It’s a family feud at its heart. And in the fantasy version described in Eureka, it’s a tribe of orcs that’s split down the middle after a chieftan dies and his twin sons want to take the tribe in different directions. Stuck in the middle is a local town. With a war coming between these two factions, the player characters (PCs) must figure out how to save the town.

The plot goes on to describe the problems at hand, including the fact that they can’t face down all the orcs by themselves and what happens when the town mayor tries to make a pact with one camp for protection from the other… There’s just enough information to provide a framework for an enterprising GM to roll an adventure around it.

At the end of the plot description, there’s a section describing what other genres it can easily be adapted to, including action horror, cyberpunk, grim and gritty fantasy, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, traditional fantasy, and western. The section also describes all the various tags associated with the plot idea — alliance, deadline, innocent, isolated area, mass combat, sandbox, tactical planning, and villain.

As a GM, I think I could take this idea and spin it at least three ways right off the bat, which is awesome. It’s this kind of inspiration with crunchy details that really sets my brain on fire.

So if you’re a GM, a player, a writer of any sort, or just like noodling about story ideas, Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots To Inspire Game Masters by the authors of Gnome Stew should provide you literally hours and hours of gaming fun. As another review of this title suggested, with 501 plots at your disposal, that’s more than a year’s worth of adventuring time for even the most aggressive gaming group!

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About Fitz

Fitz is a software engineer and writer who lives in Colorado Springs, CO, with his family and pets, trying to survive the chaos!
  • http://www.enginepublishing.com Martin Ralya

    Thanks for a great review, Brian! I agree that Eureka has a lot of potential for story-focused folks outside of gaming, and I think that crossover appeal is pretty cool.

    It’s a small photo, but I’m pretty sure I recognize you from the Eureka seminar we just did at GenCon 2010. :-)