Pretty much the only thing I like about CNN’s website is its “CNN Trends” bar, which can easily be used as an adventure plot generator.
Almost every time you visit, it will be displaying a string of clipped news bits — a mix of tragic, weird, tawdry, and sensational stuff, unconnected and just waiting for you to come along, connect the dots, and turn them into an adventure.
Given that it’s a news site, a modern-era game will be the easiest fit, but time periods and genres are fluid things when it comes to adventure ideas (the basis for our book of adventure plots, Eureka). You can use the Trends bar to come up with adventure ideas for a wide range of RPGs.
Here are screenshots of the headline bar on three different occasions, followed by adventure ideas I pulled out of my ass based on each of them. The Trends bar is computer-generated, and as I visited the site on three consecutive days you’ll see some overlap. (For less or no overlap, wait a few days between visits.)
My technique was simple: I read the whole bar and ran with whatever popped into my head, tweaking as I wrote. I didn’t research any of the stories associated with each trend, nor did I read them — and that’s very deliberate. A headline snippet like “Student killed” is a real-world tragedy, and I’m not trying to trivialize that. For my purposes here, I’m only looking for gaming inspiration; in that case, that there was a student who was killed.
Cloning Farrah Fawcett is just the beginning
Here’s a modern adventure plot I spun out of those items in about three minutes, ignoring the ones that didn’t click (Bob Filner and Nelson Mandela):
University scientists have recently discovered the oldest human DNA, unlocking the secrets of human cloning. An evil cult obsessed with Farrah Fawcett breaks into the lab where the scientists work, killing a student during the break-in, and kidnaps the scientists.
With the scientists locked in a plane bound for the cult’s headquarters, other cultists place a Craigslist ad looking for Farah Fawcett memorabilia that might have her DNA on it. When a Farah fan responds to the ad, they steal the item he brought to sell — a hairbrush with strands of her hair — and kill him.
A bad winter storm forces the cult to make an emergency landing in the PCs’ city, and one of the scientists escapes. She bumps into the PCs and enlists their aid. Or the plane never takes off and the PCs get involved by investigating one of the two killings, or a relative of one of the scientists hires them to find their missing loved one, or…
Soul-trapping revenge porn tapestries
Let’s do fantasy this time (in about four minutes), this time flagging each Trend item as I use it:
Two rival kingdoms have clashed for centuries over border disputes, diplomatic slights (real and imagined), and just about any other cause of discord they could find [Elian Gonzalez]. One of them has finally decided that only black magic will bring their rival low, and after consulting their astrologers [Mars] they commission a set of tapestries depicting the beloved scions of the rival empire in compromising, painful, and shameful situations [‘Revenge porn’]. Once complete, these will trap the souls of those depicted on them for one year, robbing the neighboring kingdom of its future heirs [Year in photos].
The PCs learn of the tapestries when the first nobles disappear (sucked in by the tapestry’s magic), and must track down the tapestry-weavers, eliminate the mages performing the rituals, and ultimately reunite the souls of the nobles (for more will be trapped before they finish) with their bodies.
Nutty preacher hypnotizes people into sex-slavery
I’ll do sci-fi for this one, again flagging what I used for inspiration. This one took five minutes:
A crazy [Mental illness] preacher [Billy Graham] who can shapeshift to take on the appearance of others has been impersonating politicians [Nelson Mandela] in order to gain access to the halls of power. Worse, he has the power to temporarily hypnotize people just by shaking their hands [‘The handshake’], enabling him to lead them back to his ship and turn them into sex slaves [Sex slavery].
The PCs learn of his sinister machinations when they encounter a family who escaped from the preacher’s slave-ship. The family shows the PCs photos [Year in photos] that expose some of what went on during their time in captivity — enough to get the party rolling, but not enough to capture the preacher right off the bat.
None of these adventure plots will win any awards, but as starting points I think they’re pretty decent.
For our purposes, the Trends bar definitely has its good days and its bad days — but sometimes all you need to get the ball rolling with game prep is to kick your thought processes into a new groove, do some free-associating, or shake things up with some weird-ass brainstorming/stream of consciousness note-taking.
It’s not limited to CNN, either: Most news sites, and “news” sites, list their top stories. But I like CNN because of the mix of stuff in the Trends bar and because of its brevity. Longer entries, like full news story titles, restrict my creativity in ways that one- or two-word snippets don’t.
Give a try and see what you think!