1. Read Random Sections of the Source Books
If you are the type of GM who is always finding little bits of inspiration and jotting them down in a journal or note-taking app, this might be the solution for you. As GMs, we tend to store the information we use most often from the source books in our heads. That's great - it lets us run games efficiently without stopping to look things up all the time. But brains just aren't as good at retaining information as books are. That's why books exist, after all. By reading random sections of the source book, not only might you find that you are using some rules incorrectly, you also might discover rules or suggestions for things you don't normally use in your games. This can create a nice change of pace for you and your gaming group.
The Pathfinder Core Rulebook or the D&D Dungeon Master's Guide (any edition) are generally chock-full of rules about random things an adventuring party might run into. During one prep session I read the rules for fire and hot environments in the 3.5 DMG and I was inspired to create a house-fire encounter that played like a mini-dungeon, with areas of smoke that blocked sight and caused choking, areas of intense heat that did extra damage to the players, collapsing sections of the house that could act like traps, and a trapped homeowner who asked not only to be rescued, but to have the adventurers retrieve a valuable keepsake from an even more dangerous part of the burning building.
Monster books like the Pathfinder Bestiary or a D&D Monster Manual or Monstrous Compendium are also great sources of inspiration. The descriptive text for a well-designed monster is full of hooks that hint to a GM how the monster might come into conflict with an adventuring party, making for a more organic encounter than just having a random monster show up out of the blue. This is especially true of older editions of D&D, which tended to have smaller monster pictures and more paragraphs of text describing their ecology. You might also discover something interesting about a monster you would have otherwise dismissed. While flipping through Pathfinder Bestiary 2 looking for some undead monstrosities to populate a low-level haunted house dungeon, I chanced across the akata, a tentacled blue lion-like aberration. I learned that akatas hibernate in silvery cocoons that degrade into fragments of strange metal in the presence of other lifeforms, their bites infect their prey with larvae, and those they kill rise again as twisted fast-zombies that lash out with their tongues. Suddenly I had a much more interesting and cosmically creepy haunted house than just a building full of skeletons and ghouls.
2. Steal Your Plot from a TV Show
If you aren't so great at putting together exciting plots and encounters from little points of inspiration, try lifting whole plots and re-purposing them. This obviously works best if your campaign is pretty freeform and you don't have to worry about messing up a planned story arc. Get on Netflix of Hulu or Amazon Prime (or I guess the TV if you are into that) and watch and episode of a show. It could be a show you are in the middle of watching or a show you've never seen before. As you watch it, imagine your party taking the place of the main characters. How would they react to the situations and problems the show's plot presents?
It doesn't have to be a fantasy show - in fact it probably shouldn't be. While your group will definitely figure out what's going on if you run them through an episode of Game of Thrones, they will have a harder time recognizing a fantasy version of MASH or CSI: Miami or Agents of Shield. If you can, tailor the show you pick to the type of campaign you are running. If your players are high-level characters managing a kingdom, try The West Wing. If they are used to investigating creepy goings on in random villages, watch Criminal Minds or Scooby Doo.
It can take a surprising amount of imagination to steal the whole plot of a TV show for a fantasy RPG. Take the central conflict of the show, re-skin it for your fantasy world, and present it to your players as the next adventure hook. The killer in that episode of Law and Order might become a devil-worshiping cultist. The siblings squabbling over some petty thing in [insert Sitcom name here] might become childish noblemen fighting for the ducal seat. Heck, maybe you'll pit your players against a mage guild leader who is based on Gus from Breaking Bad. By the time it comes to the table, it might be completely unrecognizable.
For added fun (and to alleviate the guilt of stealing), tell your players what the adventure was based on after they complete it.
3. Create a New Big Bad Guy
If you don't mind throwing a wrench into the gears that are your ongoing campaign, stun your gaming group with the sudden introduction of a(nother) powerful force plotting their destruction. Start the session by luring your players into a trap, and then spring it with a really tough encounter. A tough encounter that your players will probably lose. This new Big Bad should know just how to get to your adventuring party and counter all of their most common tactics. The party should be left reeling from the blow they are dealt and barely able to escape from this worrying new threat. With any luck, the tough battle will take up a good part of the session and the party will spend the rest of the session licking their wounds and trying to recover.
Creating this new threat will take some finesse and a good understanding of your party's capabilities and limits. You don't want to underwhelm them with a quick and easy fight, and you don't want to kill them all off. Killing your party because you are out of ideas is pretty high up there on the list of Things GMs Should Never Do. But you should probably err on the side of making the big bad and their minions a little too powerful - you can always fudge things behind the screen to make sure things don't go completely tits-up. Don't be afraid to let one of the characters die, but don't take it too far.
It is a trope of fantasy RPG plots that the party will occasionally butt heads with the main Big Bad and the Big Bad will barely lose and have some sort of trick up their sleeves to escape to fight another day. In this scenario, you want to be sure your party knows that they are the ones who need to escape to fight another day. Give your PCs an escape route and subtly mention it throughout the fight. Maybe there is a swift-moving river they can jump into, or a portcullis they can slam as they flee. Or, perhaps, give your new Big Bad motivation to defeat but not kill your party - maybe he wants them alive to witness the destruction of everything they have accomplished.
If possible, tie this into what has happened in the campaign so far. Find some long-forgotten party that has been wronged by your adventurers (however indirectly) in the past and has had time to plot their revenge. It could be the thieves' guild they tangled with when they were level three, or the brother of the evil priest they slew in their first dungeon. If it is grounded in the story so far, it won't feel quite so out of the blue.
Try to set the confrontation somewhere significant to the characters, like their base of operations, a town they saved, or their favorite tavern. Turning a familiar location with positive associations into a place of conflict and defeat will up the emotional ante and add some great roleplaying hooks into the mix. As an added bonus, if the bad guy shows up in their home base, defeats them, and forces them out, you've got your next couple sessions covered as your party will inevitably want to re-take their base.
And don't be too worried about derailing your campaign. Adding this new plot thread might just add a fresh breath of life to it.
4. Give Them a Roleplaying Prompt and Sit Back
This requires a specific kind of roleplaying group - one that knows their characters very well and actually role-plays more than rolling dice. In fact, even if your group is more of the hack-and-slash type you might want to roll the (metaphorical) dice yourself and try this out with them. Give your party a non-combat related roleplaying prompt disguised as a story hook. Something that lets your players take control of the situation as they talk about their characters. You might not even have to roll any dice! And the best part - your players will probably love it! As the story slows down to focus on the characters and their interactions, it will be the players shaping the flow of the session. As a player, that is really cool.
This roleplaying prompt could be a social situation, a dilemma with no obvious right answer, or an invitation for storytelling. In a social situation prompt, the party is introduced into a, well, a social situation and allowed to run free. Maybe a nearby village is having a festival and they invite the adventurers as guests of honor. Maybe a nobleman wants to gain prestige by associating with the adventurers, so he invites them to his feast-hall. Maybe the party is trapped in an inn by a blizzard and they have to pass the time hanging out with the colorful locals trapped with them. The characters can relax and interact with each other and with NPCs to their heart's content. If you need to, you can fill time with detailed descriptions of sumptuous foods, rustic festival games, and colorful characters. Create a painting for your players to inhabit.
For a dilemma, the party is presented with a choice or problem with no simple solution. Maybe it is as simple as whether or not to trust a mysterious stranger. Maybe they are dragged into resolving a dispute where neither side is clearly right or wrong. For example, what would your party do in this situation: in a town suffering from a food shortage due to orc raids, a merchant who sold food at five times the market rate is tied up in the square accused of indirect murder, but he claims the added expense was warranted because of the extra security needed to defend against orcs.
An invitation to storytelling prompts the players to recount something about their characters, either about their backstory or about their adventures so far. This can be easier early in a campaign, when maybe not everyone knows each other's backstories. Perhaps the party shares a campfire with a travelling tinker who asks for their stories in exchange for his cooking and mending services. Maybe an aspiring bard is interviewing them about their adventures so she can immortalize them in verse. Or a wealthy jarl is offering a great prize to whomever can tell him the greatest story. The storytelling prompt should make sense in the game world, but appeal to the players' egos in the hopes of provoking some good roleplaying and character building.
Ideally, in any of these situations, the GM will be free to let the players fill the bulk of the time with their own creative energies, stepping in only to guide and enable. A well-deserved rest for a hard-working GM. But use this method with caution - if no one wants to tell their story, the session may fall flat. But hey, if all else fails...
5. Play a Board Game
If you really can't get enough material together for a good roleplaying session, there's no reason to waste a perfectly good gathering of game-hungry friends. Chances are if you are a GM, you probably have some excellent board games waiting to be played on your shelf as well. To keep in the spirit of the gaming session, you might try to play a game with similar themes to your campaign. If you haven't already, you might try:
- Tales of the Arabian Nights, an excellent board game that involves a lot of choose-your-own-adventure style gameplay and character-building elements.
- Once Upon A Time, a collaborative fairytale storytelling card game.
- Betrayal at House on the Hill, a horror game that will likely never play the same way twice.
- Lords of Waterdeep, a game set in the city of Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
- Munchkin, the competitive card game that famously parodies D&D. I would be shocked if you haven't already played it several hundred times.
Of course, there are tons of other great tabletop games out there, not all of which share thematic elements with tabletop roleplaying games. Failing that, you could even just hang out with your gaming group and talk like friends; that can be pretty fun too. Just roll dice every once in a while to keep up appearances.
-your empty-headed d20 despot