Has this ever happened to you?
Your players have just absolutely steamrolled the King of Swords, which was supposed to be the big boss of the story arc, but they killed him in three turns using that grenade launcher you gave them without thinking of the repercussions?
So then you tell them they notice a caged prawn-man in the back of the King’s throne room because you want to slowly spout some lore about kings and prawns to slow your players down because the whole session was supposed to be this epic fight but now it’s over and you’re not prepared, but the players aren’t interested in talking to prawn-men because you already had them get conned by a prawn-man-con-man two sessions ago but you forgot about that?!
So then they’re on their way to the next quest location and you don’t have a single map or NPC written out for when they get there, so you’re desperately looking for something, anything to put on the side of the road to distract them?!?
Well, that’s never happened to me, because I make lists.
I originally started working on this list as a worldbuilding exercise for Icosa, and then filed it away for use in my own personal campaign, which takes place in that world. However, this list of 20 starters for improvised diversions just might help you out of a tight spot someday. It follows a time-honored method of making things up on the fly.
Here’s the recipe:
Roll a d20, consult the table, make any tweaks necessary, and read out the flavor text. Then, mark a few lines and nodes on a piece of paper. This will serve as a map. Place a few monsters, items, traps, and maybe an NPC in the floorplan (perhaps also pulled from a table), and hey presto! You have something that will entertain curious and/or paranoid players for the rest of the session and part of the next one.
Disclaimer: This works best (or exclusively) for improvisational GMs running rules-light games! These are really just thought-provoking improv prompts to quickly direct your imagination to something.
Second Disclaimer: This list was made for a very particular setting featuring swords, sorcery, super-science, mutants, and robots. Many classic roleplaying games could accommodate most of these without too much adaptation, but they probably won’t work so well in your gritty, low-fantasy, urban suspense campaign. Your mileage may vary, use at your own risk, etc.
Anyway, on to the list:
Irth is a land of ruins. It is so full of ruins, in fact, that there exists an entire class of people (known as ruiners) who earn their livelihood by exploring those ruins and selling the treasures they find within for money or power. From the concrete superstructures of the Deep Past, to the chrome spires of the Age of Attendance, to the remains of civilizations that have risen and fallen within our own Age of Abandonment, mystery and danger abound if you know where to look.
- A grave, black staircase stands before you, hewn from a single stone. The landing is open to the sky; it leads nowhere. As you approach, you begin to hear a low hum. Your skull shakes. The air tastes like iron—or did you bite your tongue?
- A crumbling pink tower of salt-stone rises from the sand. Every nine seconds, it briefly vanishes from existence before reappearing a moment later with a faint crackling sound. Through the tall, narrow slit of an entrance, you can make out stairs descending into the darkness.
- Through the trees, you glimpse a metallic dome, polished and shining in defiance of the rust and decay around it. The soil in a ten-meter ring around the base of the dome is barren, devoid of any plant life. There appears to be a seam in the shape of a doorway.
- Nestled along the cliff face are three towers. In their day, they would have been perfect triplets, straight and tall. Now, they lean against one another like dominos, ever on the brink of collapse. A warm light flickers in the window of the eastern tower.
- The treads of an ancient war machine break the horizon—the cavalry of a forgotten army. The colossal construct must have broken down midway through fording an enormous trench. It is doubtless brimming with archaic munitions, and perhaps even weapons. The enormous loading bay lies open.
- The husk of a concrete structure from the Deep Past leans at a precarious angle in the mire. Its exposed rebar is draped in vines; its weathered face is wrapped in lichen. The dark portals of its windows gaze like doleful eyes. Hundreds of families used to live in these towers. Now, there is no one.
- A massive, stone-carved head rests in the undergrowth, fully ten meters high. The eyes are set deeply below its brow, and its alien visage is twisted into a sneer of contempt. The pupils appear to be hollow, and big enough to fit through. What might be hidden within if one were able to scale the stony face and climb into the head?
- At the lip of the caldera, you spy a ruby-red pyramid. Unexceptional. But as you skirt the volcano’s edge, the pyramid appears to rotate with you, only ever exposing one of its four faces, as if refusing to commit to a single spatial orientation.
- A rotting tree stump the size of a small manor rests before you. What bark remains on the ancient trunk is decorated with the carvings of the ancient tree-dwellers of the Age of Attendance—known collectors of divine mechanisms. There may still be a few relics stowed within.
- The bleached bones lie in eternal repose over the rolling dunes—a reminder of the desert’s pelagic past. The colossal skull sports clear signs of recent habitation: a fire pit, still piled with ash; a drying rack for the meat of desert reptiles; a crude watchtower from which to survey the endless sands.
- The wooden portions of the palace burned long ago; all that remains are the elaborate columns. The plaza of pillars stretches into the distance like a forest of uniform, evenly-spaced trees. It is difficult to see more than fifty meters ahead through the lattice of columns—one could easily get lost. This place is certainly home to both the treasures and follies of the palace dwellers.
- The cavern gradually transitions from glistening stone to gleaming steel, intricately machined with a precision that is no longer possible. Modules of inscrutable function protrude from the chrome walls. The components might be valuable, but this arcana has been desecrated by the water and mold of the cave. But perhaps, deeper inside…?
- This facility, now surrendered to nature and grown over with grass, was once the nursery of the living-metal soldiers that won the August War during the Age of Attendance. There are rumors of these ancient warriors still wandering in the forest, bereft of purpose, but no one believes them anymore.
- According to legend, the observatory was destroyed by an emissary of one of the Outsider Lords; it was considered heretical to seek to lay eyes on the home of the Gods. The entrance has sunken below the ground, but the fallen telescope might serve as a ramp to the upper levels. Mind the shattered lens.
- A grand dodecahedron rests in the silt of the riverbed. Each tremendous face is inscribed with a different character from an unfamiliar script. One of the faces near the water is missing, and a deep, rhythmic thumping, as of a heart, emanates from within.
- Amidst the mundane ice floes, a monumental glacier glides imperially through the frigid strait. It has clearly been carved into a palatial dwelling of some sort by human (or humanoid) hands, but it is now partially melted and apparently abandoned. Upon closer investigation, the ice is not the only thing glittering in this frozen ruin.
- It is difficult to believe that this goliath scrap heap once flew through the skies above the plain, but that is what the legends say. Until recently, the wreckage was garrisoned by an enclave of mutant engine priests, but they seem to have suddenly abandoned it.
- The wizards who live outside the keep say that this enormous rock is a piece of the moon, and that it is considerably larger on the inside than it appears to be. They also claim that the snaking corridors within are liable to shift and twist, causing one to lose the path. Curiously, they advise exploring it while inebriated—this mitigates the effect, they say, but they refuse to explain why.
- Before you looms the walking labyrinth, the greatest and strangest design of a bygone madman. It advanced against his enemies, who were forced to traverse the maze or be dragged beneath its treads when they stopped to rest. It now lies abandoned where it broke down. It is said to have swallowed a few notable warriors. Perhaps their corpses still bear the weapons and artifacts that gave them their power?
- The cosmic sword that cleft this giant wound into the earth is still here, jutting from the canyon as if reaching out to its absent master. There must have been a reason the Outsider smote this particular spot. As you gaze into the canyon, you begin to make out the shapes of ruins in the cliffs—perhaps an ancient stronghold of subterranean heretics?