When escaping from some threat (e.g. extreme weather, hostile people, critters) the PCs find shelter in a cave. The inhabitants of the Cave may resent the intrusion. Caves in Mesoamerica were often sacred as they were considered the entrance to the underworld and this will flavour the adventure. In the Cave the PCs encounter one or more of:
- Priest or priests perhaps about to conduct a secret ceremony
- A dangerous animal associated with the underworld (e.g. serpent)
- A supernatural creature associated with the underworld
- Entrance to the underworld
- A wild tribe of Chichimecs
The occupants of the Cave can include more than one of the possibilities from the list above. For example, the wild tribe of Chichimecs living in the Cave are about to enact a ceremony led by their Shaman (Priest); this leads the PCs, if they participate, to hallucinate a trip to the underworld protected by various natural and supernatural creatures.
Other variations: It isn’t a cave but some ancient ruin. Ruins had a strong mystic aspect in Mesoamerica.
Inspiration: “Any Old Port in a Storm” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The villain has some leverage over one or more of the PCs and tells them to do things they don’t want to. The details really depend on the PCs.
Given a lot of “crimes” can result in death in Mesoamerica it might be easy to get the PCs in a vulnerable position. Perhaps they:
- are having an affair with a married person (death)
- wore clothes over their station (death)
- carried arms in the city (death)
- got drunk (death although plebeians have to get drunk twice)
The villain might be interested in:
- Information for financial, military or political reasons, or just for revenge
- Getting somebody dead
- Acquiring something of magical value (e.g body parts of a woman who died in child birth)
- Cash (unlikely)
It might all start by the PCs doing the villain a small favour that escalates.
Blackmail might also come up if the PCs want something from an NPC victim.
Inspiration: “Blackmail” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The villains come, cause problems then leave. The PCs have to catch them before they escape, return anything taken, and/or kill the villains. Bonus points for bringing the villains back for sacrifice. The villains could be:
- Chichimecs: Chichimecs, or some other enemy, raid into friendly territory, do some damage, kill some people, take some prisoners and loot, then retreat back towards their home. The PCs have to catch them before they escape. A twist might be that:
- one of the prisoners is known to the PCs and will be sacrificed unless rescued.
- One of the PCs is related to the raiders, i.e. is semi-civilised Chichimec themselves.
- Merchant: Merchants of an foreign nation have been in the city, secretly taken something of value and left again. The PCs have to catch them before they escape and return the item.
- Spy: Enemy Merchant-Spies have been in the city and are now making their way home with valuable information. The local authorities only realised the merchants were spies after they left and sent the PCs after the enemy.
- Slaver: A child known to the PCs is kidnapped by slavers and will be sold in the slave markets on the coast unless rescued.
Inspiration: “Better Late Than Never” from The Big List of RPG Plots
Somebody is missing and someone else wants the PCs to find the missing person and possibly bring them back. Alive. Variations on this theme mean the target:
- has run away
- has got lost
- just wandered off – they are fine but just haven’t contacted their family for a while
- has been kidnapped
- is dangerous and doesn’t want to be found and certainly not return
- is valuable and escaped from a place designed to keep him safe, cozy, and conveniently handy
- is bait to lure the PCs into a trap
- has a reason for leaving that the PCs will sympathise with
- has stumbled across another adventure (either as protagonist or victim), which the PCs must then undertake themselves.
- is a group such as an entire expedition or pilgrimage of some kind.
- isn’t a runaway or missing/lost – they’re just someone that the PCs have been hired to track down (possibly under false pretences).
Inspiration: “Manhunt” The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs go in, avoid or overcome the defences, get the target of the raid, get out. The target might be a significant item or person. The target itself could be passive or something dangerous or, if a person, just uncooperative.
The raid might be the result of a failed Pursuit … you’ve still got to rescue that friend who is going to be sacrificed or sold as a slave … you can still recover that item the enemy merchant purloined, etc.
The raid could also result in a Escort mission to get the target back home.
Inspiration: “Breaking and Entering” and “Delver’s Delight” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs must rescue a person or group from a dangerous situation. The hook is transmitted via courier, merchant, bedraggled escapee (perhaps a slave earning his freedom), or magic. The difference from a Raid is that the is that victim is not in the direct power of the threat … at least not yet.
- Village under threat by bandits. Think Seven Samurai but in Mesoamerica.
- Village under threat from volcano or flood or disease.
- Merchant expedition are besieged. One group of Aztec merchants were besieged for four years.
- Noble under threat of kidnapping either in the City or a foreign one. Works best if the Noble doesn’t realise he is under threat.
- A Noble’s wife or child was part of a convoy that was ambushed. The relative was last seen running into the bush.
- A friend is falsely accused of a crime and dragged off to court. Bear in mind that Mesoamerican courts didn’t muck around … accusation was fairly quickly followed by trial and execution.
Inspiration: “Help is on the Way” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs have accompany a valuable object or person between two places. The destination might be the owner or just a safe place. Obviously the journey must be dangerous with enemy groups an chance getting in the way.
I particularly liked the twists mentioned on The Big List of RPG Plots:
- The thing or person is troublesome, and tries to escape or sidetrack the PCs.
- The destination has been destroyed or suborned by the enemy, and the PCs must take upon themselves the job that either the destination or their charge was meant to do when it got there.
- The person is a person attempting a political defection.
- Safe arrival at the destination doesn’t end the story; the PCs must then bargain with their charge as their token (exchanging money for a hostage, for instance).
- The PCs must protect the target without the target knowing about it.
- A Noble visiting his estates.
- A young bride-to-be travelling from her home city to the grooms. Presumably a political marriage.
- Priests, perhaps with a God, going to perform a ceremony in the remote site.
- Merchants on a major expedition.
- An Ambassador.
Inspiration: “Escort Service” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs are competing with one or more other groups to attain something valuable from a specific destination. It is not just about speed as the PCs will have to outthink their opponents and deal with the locals as well.
- A groups of Priests carrying a God were ambushed. Bear in mind the Aztec priests were in the habit of carrying a effigy of their god on a frame. The God, in this case, was abandoned on the field. The PCs must rescue the God before before an enemy group finds the God and sacrifices it.
- A Noble’s wife or child was part of a convoy that was ambushed. The relative was last seen running into the bush. The PCs are to rescue the relative, if they are still alive. A hostile noble faction wants to find the relative to exert political pressure.
- A rare herb, or flower, or some such is needed for a ceremony. The herb is apparently growing in the mountains in a certain valley. The high priest has sent the PCs to collect some. A rival faction wants to prevent the PCs returning in time for the ceremony … thus causing the High Priest considerable embarrassment.
Inspiration: “How Much For Just The Dingus?” from The Big List of RPG Plots
For some reason the PCs must travel through a dangerous area. The danger isn’t personal in nature – the place itself is the “villain” of the adventure. Even if not personal the PCs might be still be killed, robbed, humiliated, debased, diseased, or even educated.
A variation is that the place isn’t dangerous at all, and the various “dangers” are just more or less peaceful attempts to communicate.
Inspiration: “Running the Gauntlet” The Big List of RPG Plots
Friendly spy-merchants have identified a lucrative addition to the empire. The PCs must capture the village, town, city. Their responsibility includes sending (or being) ambassadors, through training and assembling a force, to actually attacking the target. Bear in mind that the entire reason for taking the place is money, so don’t go killing too many people. The place has to be attractive so might be:
- A key trading node
- Source of obsidian or precious metals (copper or gold)
- Source of salt
- Source of tropical products such as cocoa, feathers or rubber
Inspiration: “Capture the Flag” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs have to clear an area of bad people or perhaps just unwanted normal people. Examples are:
- Members of a long established but unfashionable underclass. For example Aztecs clearing an Otomi village to make room for Aztec colonists.
Inspiration: “Clearing The Hex” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs have to eliminate a supernatural infestation. They will probably need priestly backing. The obvious symptoms of the infestation might be natural, e.g. a swarm of frogs, with only the underlying cause being supernatural. In this case killing frogs isn’t going to help … the PCs will have to understand the problem, find the cause, and solve that.
Inspiration: “Clearing The Hex” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs are find themselves in a strange environment with inadequate skills and insufficient knowledge. To survive they must find food and shelter and/or also cope with any locals. The particular situation will dictate where the emphasis lies … locals or food. Getting home may also be part of the goal. Example survival situations include:
- Chichimecs come to the big city
- City folk in the wilderness
- Highland folk in the lowland jungle (or vice versa)
- Mainland folk in the Caribbean islands
- Shipwrecked Spaniards
- Merchants opening up a new territory
- Ambassadors visiting a distant culture
The PCs may or may not know anything about the new environment in advance. They may even have acquired incorrect information that may cause them grief.
Inspiration: “Don’t Eat The Purple Ones” and “Long Or Short Fork When Dining On Elf?” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs are explorers – for example Aztec merchants or Conquistadores – and their goal is to enter an unknown territory and scope it out for both personal and imperial gain. The goal is to gain access to new sources of resources, e.g. gold, obsidian, quetzal feathers, cocoa plants, cotton plantations, etc. Check out the tribute lists of the Aztecs for what they considered valuable. The Conquistadores was almost solely interested in gold, now, and lots of it.
Of course something is there to make the exploration hard. For starters the local population were probably quite content before the interlopers arrived. The location itself could also poses problems, e.g. volcanos, altitude sickness, untracked jungles, storms, disease, etc. That means this plot is quite similar to Survival and Running the Gauntlet plot lines but more greedy.
Inspiration: “Uncharted Waters” The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs, while travelling or exploring, come across a hornet’s nest of bad guys, preparing for Big Badness. In Mesoamerica that probably means meeting raiders from across the border, e.g. Chicimec, or the next island, either preparing an expedition or on their way. In the Caribbean the scariest danger would be Caribs, the local cannibals who were prone to launching raids on their more peaceful neighbours to collect two legged food. Mind you being captured by any Mesoamerican people would lead to a nasty end, often in the cooking pot. The PCs must either warn the good guys or do a pre-emptive strike themselves, or both. If the PCs decide to start a war themselves they might also face a Survival challenge.
This scenario could also have a supernatural variation based around Ruins or a Cave. Although the bad guys won’t be cannibals the implications won’t be pretty for the intended victims.
Inspiration: “Hidden Base” The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs have to solve a crime by assembling proof from witnesses and clues. The finale is the confrontation with the accused perhaps in a courtroom. Common twists of a investigation plot are:
- Dead witnesses
- Endangered witness
- Accused is innocent
- The PCs are the accused
- Unwanted ally
- “Taken off the case”
The PCs may or may not be willing investigators. For example, Jafar in the Three Apples from the 1001 (Arabian) Nights was most unwilling but committed to solving the crime – he was going to be killed if he didn’t solve it. Three Apples has a couple of common twists including a guilty party professing innocence and coincidence leading to find another culprit.
Inspiration: “Elementary, My Dear Watson” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs are ordered to watch a person or wild animal, or scout a new locale. They are only to watch, listen and learn. They are not to make contact or let themselves be known. This could be problematic because:
- The target spots them.
- The target gets into trouble and the PCs must decide whether to mount a rescue.
- The target is going to do something really bad and the PCs must decide whether to prevent this.
Inspiration: “Look, Don’t Touch” from The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs are unexpectedly attacked or threatened for unknown reasons. They have to defend themselves whilst solving the mystery. The reason depends on context, probably from an earlier adventure. The villains might:
- Want something the PCs have. An Mesoamerican example could be a sacred relic. The PCs might have looted this in a previous adventure, or picked it up as a curiosity in the great market, or been given it by a wandering priest who has their own agenda for acquiring it then passing it on.
- Want revenge for a dead friend or relative.
- Have mistaken the PCs for somebody else.
Inspiration: “I Beg Your Pardon?” The Big List of RPG Plots
A fort guards a natural choke point on the border preventing entry into the homeland. This point might be mountain pass, ravine, river crossing, road through a swamp, or track between the jungle and the sea. The PCs are assigned defend the fort from impending or possible attack. They must plan their defensive strategy, set up watches, set traps, and so on, and then deal with the enemy when it arrives.
- New, but suspect, information arrives that suggests the enemy are by-passing the fort on a nearby but secret path. Do the PCs counter this new threat or defend the fort, or try to do both?
- The post to defend isn’t a border fort, but some other location of religious or political importance.
- The post isn’t a border fort and the PCs sympathises with the reason for destroying it.
Inspiration: “No One Has Soiled The Bridge” The Big List of RPG Plots
The PCs are trying to capture or kill an elusive and prized creature. The challenges are the environment, the creature’s ability to evade them, and possibly its ability to fight them. Mesoamerica doesn’t have much in the way of big carnivores. Jaguars and Mountain Lions are the biggest so the expedition could be a trip to the coastal jungles or mountains to hunt these big cats. Another possibilities is the Coyote – so a trip to the wilderness to hunt these.
Variations to make this more challenging:
- PCs hunt alone to prove their manhood
- The creature is a un-naturally large and fierce for its type
- The PCs think they’re hunting a single creature but there is actually a group and they start hunting the PCs
- The creature is supernatural and hence immune to the PCs’s normal weapons
- Other people actively protecting the creature
- The creature’s lair allows the PCs to stumble onto another adventure. A good candidate is the Cave.
Inspiration: “Safari” The Big List of RPG Plots
Score One for the Home Team
The PCs are participants in a race, contest, tournament, scavenger hunt or other voluntary bit of sport. And they must win. The big game in Mesoamerica is the Ball Game. Unlike other parts of Mesoamerica the people in the Place of Reeds are keen on the “Hockey” ballgame played with a stick and a ball slightly larger and heavier than a modern baseball; the players wear skirts rather than the more conventional loincloth. If this is a big game with religious connotations, rather than just a serious social game, some of the players can lose their lives as a result.
There are some possible twists:
- The opposition are happy to win by any means, i.e. cheat. And that can easily lead to …
- The game gets deadly. Actually players in a ballgame could and did die, so deadly is a relative term. But normally fatalities were due to the injuries from the ball but other players could also get physical.
- There is some deeper reason why the PCs are competing. For example to:
- keep another contestant safe
- spy on another contestant
- get into the place where the game is played
- The PCs don’t care about winning but do want to prevent the villain from winning.
- The event is a deliberate test of the PCs abilities, for example, as part of the selection process for an organisation.
Inspiration: “Score One for the Home Team” The Big List of RPG Plots
Plots to convert
?? TODO: finish converting the following scenarios to the Place of Reeds ??
Most Peculiar, Momma
Something both bad and inexplicable is happening (racial tension is being fired up in town, all the power is out, the beer supply is drained, it’s snowing in July, Voyager still has fans, hordes of aliens are eating all the cheese), and a lot of people are very troubled by it. The PCs must track the phenomenon to its source, and stop it.
Inspiration: “Most Peculiar, Momma” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
The PCs are somehow unwittingly responsible for the whole thing. What seems to be a problem of one nature (technological, personal, biological, chemical, magical, political, etc) is actually a problem of an alternate one.
Ounces of Prevention
A villain or organization is getting ready to do something bad, and the PCs have received a tip-off of some sort. They must investigate to find out more about the caper, and then act to prevent it.
Inspiration: “Ounces of Prevention” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
The initial tip-off was a red herring meant to distract the PCs from the actual caper. There are two simultaneous Bad Things on the way, and no apparent way to both of them – how to choose?
Somebody has tinkered with Things Man Ought Not, or opened a portal to the Mean People Dimension, cracked a wall at the state prison, or summoned an ancient Babylonian god into a penthouse. Before the PCs can even think of confronting the source of the trouble, they must deal with the waves of trouble already released by it: monsters, old foes out for vengeance, curious aliens who think cars/citizens/McDonald’s hamburgers resemble food, and so forth.
Inspiration: “Pandora’s Box” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
The PCs can’t simply take the released badness to the mat; they have to collect it and shove it back into the source before it the adventure can really end. The PCs are drawn in to the source and must solve problems on the other side before returning to this one. A secret book, code, or other rare element is necessary to plug the breach (maybe just the fellow who opened it). A close cousin to this plot is the basic “somebody has traveled into the past and messed with our reality” story.
Quest For the Sparkly Hoozits
Somebody needs a dingus (to fulfill a prophecy, heal the monarch, prevent a war, cure a disease, or what have you). The PCs must find a dingus. Often an old dingus, a mysterious dingus, and a powerful dingus. The PCs must learn more about it to track it down, and then deal with taking it from wherever it is.
Inspiration: “Quest For the Sparkly Hoozits” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes
The dingus is incomplete when found (one of the most irritating and un-fun plot twists in the universe). Somebody already owns it (or recently stole it, sometimes with legitimate claim or cause). The dingus is information, or an idea, or a substance, not a specific dingus. The PCs must “go undercover” or otherwise infiltrate a group or society, gaining the dingus by guile or stealth.
A town, castle, starship, outpost, or other civilized construct is lying in ruins. Very recently, it was just dandy. The PCs must enter the ruins, explore them, and find out what happened.
Inspiration: “Recent Ruins” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
Whatever ruined the ruins (including mean people, weird radiation, monsters, a new race, ghosts) is still a threat; the PCs must save the day. The inhabitants destroyed themselves. The “ruins” are a derelict ship or spaceship, recently discovered. The “ruin” is a ghost town, stumbled across as the PCs travel – but the map says the town is alive and well.
The PCs are imprisoned, and must engineer an escape, overcoming any guards, automatic measures, and geographic isolation their prison imposes on them.
Inspiration: “Stalag 23” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes
Something has happened in the outside world and the prison security has fallen lax because of it. The PCs have been hired to “test” the prison – they aren’t normal inmates. Other prisoners decide to blow the whistle for spite or revenge. The PCs are undercover to spy on a prisoner, but are then mistaken for real inmates and kept incarcerated. The PCs must escape on a tight schedule to get to another adventure outside the walls.
A bad guy (or a group of them, or multiple parties) is kicking up a ruckus, upsetting the neighbors, poisoning the reservoirs, or otherwise causing trouble. The PCs have to go where the trouble is, locate the bad guys, and stop the party.
Inspiration: “Troublemakers” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes
The PCs must not harm the perpetrator(s); they must be bagged alive and well. The bad guys have prepared something dangerous and hidden as “insurance” if they are captured. The “bad guy” is a monster or dangerous animal (or an intelligent creature that everybody thinks is a monster or animal). The “bad guy” is a respected public figure, superior officer, or someone else abusing their authority, and the PCs might meet hostility from normally-helpful quarters who don’t accept that the bad guy is bad. A balance of power perpetuates the trouble, and the PCs must choose sides to tip the balance and fix things. The “trouble” is diplomatic or political, and the PCs must make peace, not war.
We’re On The Outside Looking In
Any of the basic plots in this list can be reengineered with the PCs on the outside of it. Either the PCs are accompanying other characters in the midst of such a plot (often being called on to defend the plot from the outside, as it were), or they are minding their own business when the others involved in the plot show up, and must pick sides or simply resist. For instance, with Any Old Port In The Storm, the PCs could already be enjoying (or native to) the shelter when a strange group arrives. If the “the PCs are unwelcome” variant is employed, then perhaps the PCs will be the only voice of reason to still the religious fervor, racial prejudice, anti-monster sentiment, or whatever else is the source of conflict.
Inspiration: “We’re On The Outside Looking In” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
The PCs find themselves on the receiving end of the adventure. Take any of the plots here and reverse them, placing the PCs in the position where NPCs (often the villain, fugitive, etcetera) normally are. Instead of hunting, they must be hunted. Instead of fixing, they must avoid getting “fixed” themselves (ow). Alternately, leave a classic plot intact but turn the twists upside down, making them twistier (or refreshingly un twisty).
Other rough ideas for Aztec Plots
I made this list back in 2006. It overlaps a bit with the above but has some new bits as well.
- Merchant expedition
- Rise of monotheism
- The Gods leave
- Ball game
- Avoiding inauspicious name day
- diplomatic expedition
- My first captive
- Family slave
- Marriage across classes
- Uppity merchant
- Slaving expedition
- Perils of divination
- Noble power play
- Rebellious province
- Corrupt Judge
- Corrupt Tax Collector
- Adultery – finding proof
- Chichimec raid
- Sorcerous control
- Love potion
Plots that don’t translate so well
I couldn’t think of an easy translation to Mesoamerica for these plots.
Take Us To Memphis And Don’t Slow Down
The PCs are on board a populated conveyance (East Indiaman, Cruise Ship, Ferry, Sleeper Starship), when it is hijacked. The PCs must take action while the normals sit and twiddle.
Inspiration: “Take Us To Memphis And Don’t Slow Down” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
The “hijackers” are government agents pulling a complicated caper, forcing the PCs to choose sides. The hijackers don’t realize there is a secondary danger that must be dealt with, and any attempt to convince them is viewed as a trick. The normals are unhelpful or even hostile to the PCs because they think the PCs are just making matters worse.
One or more of the PCs wakes up with no memory of the recent past, and now they find themselves in some kind of trouble they don’t understand. The PCs must find the reason for the memory lapse, and solve any problems they uncover in the meantime.
Inspiration: “Missing Memories” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
The forgetful PCs voluntarily suppressed or erased the memories, and they find themselves undoing their own work.
Not In Kansas
The PCs are minding their own business and find themselves transported to a strange place. They must figure out where they are, why they are there and how to escape.
Inspiration: “Not In Kansas” The Big List of RPG Plots
Common Twists & Themes:
They were brought there specifically to help someone in trouble. They were brought there by accident, as a by-product of something strange and secret. Some of the PCs’ enemies were transported along with them (or separately), and now they have a new battleground, and innocents to convince which guys are the good guys.
Other places to look
When I get time I’ll try to interpret The 36 Plots for Mesoamerica.
Loren J. Miller, The 36 Plots
Dramatic plots. I haven’t delved into these yet.
S. John Ross, The Big List of RPG Plots
Hack and slash plots. You can also get the Big List of RPG Plots PDF.