Story inspiration is everywhere. I love pulling story ideas from the things I see, the movies I watch, songs I listen to and books I read. The first iteration of the Shark Bone Podcast was all about pulling story inspiration from media and work-shopping it into something usable at the table.
I want to do more of that. This article is more of that.
I read a lot. It’s something I developed a love for early in life and has stuck with me all these years. Recently, I finished American Gods by Neil Gaiman and decided I was going to tear into it to look for story ideas. I’m not going to gear this completely towards GM’s, however. Story ideas are important for players, too. And there are plenty of seeds for both in this book.
I picked up this book because so many people around me recommended it over the years and said it was amazing. I’ll be honest and say that it wasn’t my favorite. I give the book a solid 6/10. The book is well written and the characters are absolutelyamazing, but the story meanders around so much that I was constantly losing the threads.
I read the version with the author’s preferred text, which is linked above. It was long. Because the story was so hard to follow, I almost put the book down a couple of times, but soldiered on because everyone said it was so great. I was sure that the story would pick up and that all the threads would be wrapped up neatly and I’d understand all the bits that were confusing. That didn’t happen. Even so, the characters are so well-written and realized. I wanted to see what would happen to them. I cared if they lived or died, if they reconciled, if they got what they were searching for. For that alone, I’m glad I finished it.
I want to begin digging for story ideas on the player’s side. With so many great characters who feel so alive, it’s not hard to find inspiration to make characters you play at the table better.
The first idea I grabbed was giving a character a useless hobby. On the whole, I think Shadow’s coin tricks are exactly that. It’s a small detail that he uses to draw attention to himself, for the most part. It also makes him different that any other characters that might find themselves in that situation. It will serve that purpose at the table, as well. Your borderline corrupt cop who likes making origami to pass the time is a lot different than any other borderline corrupt cop. Those useless hobbies are also a fun way for the GM to customize small bits of the story for the character. Bribing your way past a bouncer with a perfectly folded crane is much more flavorful than bribing them with $20.
Next, I want to talk about character goals. Goals are wonderful things for a character to have and I very much encourage you to come up with goals for your PC, even if the game you’re playing doesn’t specifically call for them. With that said, Shadow doesn’t have any specific goals throughout most of the book. He goes along with the story simply because he has nothing better to do. That takes him on a grand, multifaceted adventure and he meets tons of interesting people and has experiences he’d never have, otherwise. It made me think and reconsider my stance of “Always have a character goal”. It’s OK if your character doesn’t have a goal. But, if you choose not to have a goal, go with the flow and see where that takes you.
Towards the end of the book, though, Shadow does find a goal. He finds something he cares about, and when he does, he throws himself into it completely. He literally gives his life to accomplish the goal. Is your PC that driven with their goal? If they’re not, is there a goal that they might be that driven to accomplish? Maybe you should switch to that goal.
Finally, for the player’s side of things, the book made me think aboutcharacter relationships. It’s no secret that a character with ties to the world is more involved in the story and has more hooks hanging off of them for the GM to use. Those same relationships are also examples for the player to know how the character relates to the rest of the world. So, the character hates their mother. Does that affect how they respond to other mothers or motherly figures in the world? If they had a trusted mentor betray them, how does that affect relationships with other mentor figures? These relationships don’t have to be with living characters, either. As long as your PC has a memory of someone, you can use their relationship to that memory as a template for other relationships in the game world.
One more thing about relationships: your character’s perception of those relationships may not always be 100% true. As they say, reality is in the eye of the beholder. Just because your character has a tie to someone who is a great friend doesn’t mean the other character feels the same. They might simply tolerate the character or perhaps they feel more than friendship and await your PC’s proposal. Don’t be surprised or upset if the GM plays those characters different than your idea of them.
For the GM side of things, I pulled a couple situations and a story hook that you can use to make things interesting at the gaming table. The first situation is that the PCs are hired to work for someone who turns out to be much more connected/powerful than they thought. This is an easy, and fun, way of getting the group involved in something that is “above their pay grade”. Because their employer is so much more powerful and connected, they’ll be running in circles they’d never had access to, otherwise. The social expectations they encounter could be completely different than what they know. They may run the risk of serious consequences for the most minor of slights. Also, they’ll be able to network and make some very powerful friends that prove very useful as the story advances.
The second situation that I thought would be fun is that of a shadow war. I thought this aspect of the book was rather fun, even if I didn’t see it get a lot of treatment. The fact that the war was being fought in the shadows and behind the scenes meant that the public saw very little of it. All the rumors and bodies left in its wake meant that the general public knew something was off, but had no idea what was going on. I think this would be a great situation for the PCs to be in, especially if they are working for some powerful patron. Perhaps the group needs to go clean up a battle site to recover some artifact or dispose of bodies the authorities would find strange. This situation is very Men In Black.
The last thing I pulled from this book is a story hook. A god has died and you must resurrect them. There are so many situations that could surround this hook. Why does the god need to be brought back? What happens if they’re brought back wrong? Who’s going to step into their place if they’re not brought back? What’s going wrong with the world now that the god is not there to do their job? To make this situation even more serious, I would add a timer of some sort. Perhaps they only have until the next sunrise. Or maybe the god’s child will be born in not more than two weeks and if the god is still dead at that time, the child will inherit their power. It could even be tied to decomposition of the god’s body. Once the heart can no longer be awoken, the god cannot be raised.
This book is full of really fun ideas. These are just a few of the ones I liked in particular. I hope they inspire you and your games.