If I had to guess, the one work that has inspired rpg adventures the most is the Indianna Jones series. You commonly see analogues of the weighted idol puzzle from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the dark god summoning from Temple of Doom, and the “Jehovah starts with an I” floor grid from Last Crusade. No matter the system you’re playing, these elements or some version thereof will probably pop up. As tried and true as all these tropes are, most of them are still crowd pleasers and variants still show up in published adventures.
Pulling from such well-known, ubiquitous sources is a safe bet, but you run the risk of crossing the line from familiar into boring. You can only face so many evil armies trying to recover an artifact of awesome power before it all starts to run together. So let’s take some time to leave the realm of action movies or pulp novels. Let’s go ahead and leave the 19th, 20th, 21st centuries behind entirely. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have a strong suspicion that your group doesn’t have a ton of familiarity with the following works.
Composed in the late 13th century, Njal’s Saga tells the story of a blood feud that spans generations in medieval Iceland. The story begins with a spurned ex-lover cursing the warrior noble, Hrútur, to be unable to consummate his new marriage. As a result, Hrútur is divorced and Icelandic law dictates he must return the dowry he received to his ex-wife’s father. Through a legal loophole, he challenges his former father in law to mortal combat to retain possession of this small fortune. Being no match for the much younger and more skilled Hrútur, his in-law is forced to decline this challenge and forfeit the money. While this maneuver adheres to the letter of the law, it clearly violates the spirit. This episode sets in motion a decades-long intra family strife that is remarkable not only for it’s warriors but for it’s lawyers.
Iceland is home to the Althing, the world’s oldest parliament. For as violent a reputation as middle ages Norsemen have, they had an extremely well-developed legal system. And here’s where the adventure setting starts to take shape.
Imagine a party of characters coming to a land similar to dark age Iceland. Fearsome berserkers walk the streets and give the players the false perception this is a cutthroat and lawless land where only the strong of arm survive. However, the legal system is extremely sophisticated, detailed, and difficult for outsiders to parse. Lawyers and scholars wield just as much power as the most formidable knights. As the players explore ice caves and ruined castles, their actions are set against a backdrop of long simmering family rivalries, shifting alliances, and legal shenanigans. Seemingly innocuous actions by the player characters can be interpreted as taking one side or another and embroil them into a bitter feud between houses. Killing one too many direwolves could wind them up in front of a law keeper, who sentences them to retrieve a phoenix egg as a fine.
Measure for Measure (William Shakespeare)
Moving on from being subjected to the legal system in the example above, we have a situation wherein your players become the law.
Without copy/pasting the entirety of Sparknotes for Measure for Measure, the plot centers on Angelo, a judge who has been entrusted with the safekeeping of Verona while the Duke is away on a diplomatic mission. The intricacies of the play don’t apply here, and what I would prefer to focus on is the setup.
After gaining a small measure of local fame in their city, your players are placed in charge by a duke/mayor/authority figure that can’t trust anyone else. No sooner has the ruler left does a torrent of squabbles and legal challenges fall in front of them. Of course, whatever is brought to the players is a melange of hearsay, rumor, and half-truths. The players may have to unravel what happened between a half-ogre tavern owner and a gnome magician that left a dozen townsfolk permanently polymorphed into squirrels. Or maybe a local bishop begs the players to arrest the captain of the guard on charges of corruption that hinges on evidence that may or may not be fabricated. Whatever the foibles end up being, just make it so there’s no chance both sides end up happy. This arc should culminate with a rising insurrection helmed by an aggrieved NPC the players ruled against earlier.
Judge Bao- The Case of the Black Basin
Judge Bao was a real historical figure from the Song Dynasty in China. His reputation as a fair and just minister raised him to legendary status after his death and inspired myriad dramatic and literary tales. Most of which involve him solving crimes like an ancient Perry Mason.
In one tale, a traveling silk merchant takes lodging for a night at the home of Zhao Da, a skilled pottery maker. Driven by greed, Zhao poisons his guest and burns his body in the kiln to destroy the evidence. Zhao uses the ashes to make a fine black basin. He then uses the basin to pay a debt he owes. Unbeknown to the potter, his victim’s spirit possesses the basin and tells its new owner the story of his demise.
Having your players find a haunted wash basin or pot would be a decent starting point for an adventure, but what if instead of a murderous pottery maker, we have magic item smith? The players could find numerous sentient magic items. Each one imploring the finders to quell their restless spirit and giving a clue that helps solve their murder. After collecting enough artifacts, the party can go on to challenge the murderous smith, who is the de facto BBEG.
Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (Chretien de Troyes)
Part of the larger body of Arthurian Legends, the story of Yvain follows the titular knight as he gains glory, loses his honor, and has to earn back his lost reputation. It’s not so much Yvain’s story I’m interested in, but rather the setting: the haunted Brocéliande forest. The inciting incident centers around a mystical spring and magic stone deep in the woods. When water from the spring is poured on the stone a powerful storm brews. After Yvain’s cousin performs this ritual, a mysterious, angry knight emerges to challenge him.
Your players begin in a world where most dungeons have been explored and looted, the most dangerous monsters have been hunted to extinction, and magic has dwindled to little more than parlor tricks. Hungry for adventure, the players must venture forth in search of the fountain. Along with the deluge, pouring water on the sacred storm will also repopulate the world with mythical beasts, unearth hidden tombs, and revify magic in general. But along with this resurgence, spectral knights are summoned and are out for revenge against the players. Not everyone in civil society sees this change as a good thing, and as the players gain notoriety, they must contend with factions unhappy with the new normal.
The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)
This last example is, from a mechanical/gameplay perspective, the most out there. It’s also a good potential remedy for all the “forever GMs” out there.
The Decameron’s frame tale is about 10 nobles who flee plague ravaged Florence and attempt to ride out the worst of it in a secluded manor. They busy themselves each evening by taking turns telling stories eventually totalling 100 by the end of two weeks.
In this scenario, everyone will have a character. Each session the game master will rotate and they will provide a one-shot adventure from the perspective of their character. Everyone else will play through the scenarios until it’s their turn to run the game. It doesn’t matter if any individual dies during the course of these ‘tales’ because their character is just representing a character in the story (sorry to get all Inceptionesque).
It would be a good way to experience a slew of different play styles and plots. And if you’re a competitive bunch, once everyone has had a turn, you can vote on which adventure was the best and crown a winner.
Now, all this isn’t to say that you can’t keep writing quests where your players avoid poison dart traps in jungle ruins or retrieve a magical stone from some cultists. But there’s literally thousands of years worth of stories to pull from. If you step outside the realm of modern blockbusters, you may just find the next iconic arc your players won’t ever forget.