Not Rescue the Princess AGAIN!
There are many tried and true role playing adventure themes: rescue the valuable kidnapping victim, slay the evil monster roaming the countryside, find the precious artifact, beguile the sultry and provocative Wood Nymph Queen and make her your love slave, to rule the forest by your side for all eternity while her entourage of nearly as sultry Wood Nymph Princesses breathlessly await your every order, and...
There are many tried and true role playing adventure themes: rescue the valuable kidnapping victim, slay the evil monster roaming the countryside, find the precious artifact, beguile the sultry and provocative Wood Nymph Queen and make her your love slave, to rule the forest by your side for all eternity while her entourage of nearly as sultry Wood Nymph Princesses breathlessly await your every order, and that sort of thing.
With the exception of the last one, nobody really gets too excited playing through the same standard adventure themes over and over. After you've rescued the mayor's daughter from the evil Goblin King, rescued the wealthy merchant's son from the pit of eternal torment, and rescued the prince's second cousin's best friend's pet iguana from the crazy necromancer taxidermist Murray, everybody's ready for something different, and dare I say it, challenging.
While it's been said that there are only a few basic plots that every story fits into, the details, setting, and characters can make all the difference. You can take any basic plot and make it new and interesting by adding a little creativity to each of the main story elements.
It's my firm belief that the Non-Player Characters make any adventure. If you can come up with a few really interesting NPCs, especially if they play a big role in the adventure and can become recurring characters for your group, you're already off to a great start. My last article was all about making creative characters, so if you haven't yet, go read it and apply the concepts to building yourself a few primary non-player characters.
Once you have your main characters, think about what they might do that would give the players a reason to interact with them. They might meet the players with a request for assistance if they are basically aligned with the party, or they might have done something that would make them the party's enemies. After you decide how the NPCs will interact with the party, you can build your story to support that, then add some plot twists.
If you want to have some kind of rescue mission, don't have the party rescue the mayor's daughter. Why would the evil baron want to go to the trouble of kidnapping that annoying brat? He'd be more likely to steal the mayor's prize horses for himself and his private guard. Now the party has to manage to fight the men on the horses without hurting the animals they're trying to recover.
As you can see, I like to make little changes to the theme that make things difficult for the party, and hopefully piss them off when they realize that they have to do more than run in and slay everything in sight. I think most people will agree, a smug GM is a happy GM.
Also, don't automatically make every interesting NPC into an enemy that the characters will have to fight. The antagonists are important to the story, but so are the NPCs on the party's team. They can accompany the party (dropping hints, giving help, getting in the way, or betraying them) or just meet up with the party to give them a task or help them along their way. The mayor's eldest son who insists on going along, but always seems to get himself into deadly situations that the players have to rescue him from, can be more of a challenge than the enemy guards.
Now that you have your main NPCs, you need a few main locations where the action will take place. The players need a place to start, a goal, and several stops along the way, depending on how long the adventure will take and what sort of obstacles you have planned for them.
As you did with the characters, you can take some standard locations and add some interesting details or change things around a little to make it difficult for the players, and more fun for you.
Instead of having the players meet their wealthy patron in an inn, make him a member of the thieves' guild. He can then meet them in his hideout, forcing them to be escorted in blindfolded, and without their weapons.
Instead of the evil wizard living in a secluded tower in the wilderness, make him the Wise Man of a small village. He just lives in one of the huts and dresses like everyone else in town. You'd never know he was an evil wizard just looking at him. In fact, the party might end up asking him for directions to the evil wizard's secret lair and trying to recruit townspeople to help fight him. Unfortunately, all the innocent townspeople love the wizard, and will attack the party to defend him. Oops.
Just a few changes like this add a lot of difficult situations that will make the group use their heads, and keep them interested in what's going on. When you make the characters and setting different than your players expect, they have to pay attention to the details if they want to succeed, so everyone gets more involved in the game.
An added bonus is that when you make the important elements new and interesting, you can still drop in your standard Thug 1 and Thug 2 to keep the party busy in a fight. They'll be too busy thinking about how to deal with your plot twists to realize that they're fighting stock characters. That way you get to save yourself some time, and your players still get a memorable game.
Just keep in mind that your players probably expect standard characters and plots, so your changes are not only interesting, they'll probably be a big surprise. Use that to your advantage, and you can really mess with their heads, one of the GM's favorite pastimes. Creative adventures are more fun for the players and the GM.