Okay here’s something I’ve done since forever. So long now that it seems obvious but it’s not. And it’s an RPG superpower if you’re the kind of ref that’s doing a lot of creating. I’ve touched on it before with respect to the tarot, but it’s far more general than that. I also embed it into games now.
Often all you need to get going is one kernel of an idea. Not a good idea and not a whole idea. Just an idea. And if you give yourself two, that’s even better. Once you have a couple of things (let’s call them nouns) you’ll find that your creative brain can take over — why do they work together, how do they clash — and build something interesting.
So let’s say you want to create a new monster. As with anything you want it to be about something, to have a theme, to have some cohesion. What I find (and find in others) is that if I start with a blank page I fall back on good ideas I had in the past. That’s fine, those ideas are still good, but I really want new ideas. I want things I haven’t thought of before. And the best way to do that is randomness.
Out in the interverse there are tons of noun generators. They just pick from a random list of nouns. This turns out to be the most useful thing ever. Now, keep in mind that not all nouns are created equal. In fact only about one in five is worth your attention. But if you set that generator to make ten at a time and click a couple of times you’ll find two that excite you together.
These are oracles. Random words that trigger more creative work. You start with a context (monster, plane, city, disaster, whatever), you generate the oracle (or oracles) and then create.
Let’s make a monster for a wrecked space station (always have a context). This is not pre-cooked so it’s a genuine test of whether this works or not. It doesn’t always.
First run of ten I get:
Lion is the obvious one so I’ll skip it. I’m torn, weirdly, between “welcome” and “motion”. “chit-chat” and “choice” are luring me too. Let’s take “welcome”.
Second run I get:
I like “cylinder” here, though I’m also thinking cool things with “tsunami” and “drum”. But let’s stick with “welcome cylinder”.
This is a pretty straightforward one. I’m picturing a hovering metal cylinder that’s designed as a kind of maitre d’hotel, a greeting bot. It’s smooth, featureless, because it’s designed to be deployed in a formal setting and it can be decorated as needed. Its sole job is to make people comfortable in their surroundings, to anticipate their needs, and get them situated.
But this is a monster. So it used to be a greeting bot. Now it’s out of place in this context I’m trying to populate with monsters. Let’s say it’s a wrecked space station. So one of the things that still works in this damaged and decaying space station is the greeting bot. It really wants you to take a seat in the dining lounge. It’s very powerful, with effectors that can push and pull you with great strength. And the dining lounge is formal attire only — black tie, no space suits.
But the dining lounge is in vacuum.
Well that worked out! I got more than just a monster, I got a whole story. Oracles are magic.
I use these a lot in Soft Horizon games — there are a bunch of tables that are designed to just give you cues. For example, in Sand Dogs, one of the conceits is that the gods who sleep in the tombs have left their garbage around and it’s all intensely weird, unknowable. All anyone can know about a piece of godjunk is what it looks like and how it obviously interacts with its surroundings. Yes this is directly from the Strugatsky brothers but it’s not new to them. And this is still in flux but here’s what we have right now — there’s actually more but we start with rolling two descriptors, an adjective and a noun. Roll for each:
- Empty * Container
- Blue * Spindle
- Full * Page
- Jittering * Fuzz
- Golden * Ring
- Round * Cover
- Black * Limb
- Dead * Eye
- Ceramic * Engine
- Pliant * Tube
So if I roll 3,9 I have a strange artifact best described as a “full engine”. What is that? What does it look like? What does it do when it’s just sitting there.
There are more tables to help figure out what it “does”. Maybe it heats up, maybe it repels things, maybe it just hovers there. The point is, it’s weird, it’s inexplicable, and maybe it’s useful. Even if I can’t think of a use for it, I bet the players can.
In the Soft Horizon handbook there will be more general oracles. Certainly each plane will have an element, a single overarching concept that determines everything else about the plane. In fact since its inception this has been the one thing Soft Horizon has always had — planes have a theme, an element. An oracle.