Today, I’m going to talk a bit about those familiar cliche adventures that we all know, and how to twist them to make them a bit less tired and predictable. You know the ones I’m talking about – a girl from the town or a princess has been kidnapped and needs rescued from the person or creatures who did it; goblins raided the town and stole a bunch of stuff, go kill them and get it back; everyone knows there’s a monster is the nearby woods, but it never bothered anyone before, until some children went missing over the last few weeks.
The problem with these stories is the same thing that makes them still be popular: we’re familiar with them. We all know the way the story goes, and all the usual ways to change it up. Maybe the princess is a prince; maybe the goblins were forced to do it by the orcs that took over their warren; it isn’t the monster’s fault, but the evil druid looking to drive the monster into a killing frenzy.
At the core of it, there’s nothing wrong with the base story. Someone has gone missing and presumably needs rescued; outsiders are causing trouble for some reason; an old and frightening danger has awoken again. They just need spruced up in ways to make them less familiar and harder to predict. The princess has been kidnapped, but she arranged for it because she’s sick of her family’s plans for her; trying to drag her back is essentially going to be forcing her into captivity and she’s not going willingly. The goblins didn’t steal anything; the townsfolk drove them out in the first place and took the formerly peaceful goblin clan’s stuff; they’re raiding the town to get their things back and a bit irked that their stuff is being misused by humans. The monster in the woods isn’t there anymore; it died or left many years ago; the kids are going missing because someone in the town made a deal with an outsider and has to sacrifice innocent victims to hold their side up. Only a few more need to go missing before the pact is done with.
So how do you go about coming up with twists that aren’t stale? It depends on how strong your will is and how much free time you have to lose; TV Tropes is an excellent resource, because you’re almost certain to find the specific plot you’re working with and a listing of the tropes that make it up. The simplest thing to do is to pick two or three of the tropes and see if you can invert them in a way that makes a meaningful change to the story. Just be careful; that site can swallow you whole if you aren’t careful, and the next thing you know there’ll be fifteen tabs open and six hours of your life missing.
Another method is to script out how you expect a normal version of this plot to go, and then ask yourself “What if the exact opposite happened?” Normally, for a rescue-the-princess plot, someone has kidnapped her; what if she took and knife or some blackmail and forced her kidnapper to do it? What if, instead of her being kidnapped to fuel some sorcerous ritual, she’s the sorcerer and enthralled her kidnapper, intending to use them to perform the ritual in a bid to transcend her mortality? The PCs bust in on a mind-controlled goon holding a dagger over her as she lays on an altar in a trance; of course they’re going to think she’s enchanted and her thrall is the villain – right up until she charms one of them to try to get the ritual finished.
As you can see, the story can be twisted into an entirely new form just by deviating one plot point in an unexpected and unfamiliar direction. How do the PCs handle the princess aiming to becoming a lich? What do they do when they go back to the king and queen? Leaving her alive just means she’ll try again eventually. Killing her means she either becomes a lich or they have to explain a royal corpse to the ruling family. The permutations roll on for quite a while from that one alteration.
So give it a try! You might be surprised how much of a difference one change can make, and how good of a story it can produce from one of these ancient cliche plots.