In essence, there are only three basic plots*: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself. This may seem limiting. The reality, as we know from television, movies, and literature, is practically infinite. Combinations of these conflicts in addition to considerations of scale and the devil of details broaden these simple forms to encompass the whole of the human story.
When you understand that man against monster falls in the Man fighting Man category (assuming the monster can think), it's pretty obvious which of these conflicts gets used the most in our hobby. That's a bit limiting and can lead to a boring, predictable gaming. As both Players and Game Masters, we would do well to consider the other two types of conflict.
Man vs Nature
More than simply throwing unthinking animals/monsters at the PCs, conflicts with nature explore the hostilities of the environment. The baking and lifeless desert sands, the austere and unforgiving vacuum of space, the shadowy and trackless wilds of a primeval forest: all these can leave a PC just as broken, bruised, or dead as any fiery alien or brutish ogre.
- Remember the Journey - The path to dungeon can be just as harrowing as the ancient (but somehow flawlessly functional) death traps inside. GMs, don't handwave every journey; include natural obstacles (mudslides, chasms, briars, ion storms, sargassos, etc.) that require some thought and action from the players/characters to pass. Create appropriate incentives and consequences to ensure that the players don't just walk around the chasm. Perhaps time is of the essence. (Another team is taking a different route to loot the same dungeon; the prince will die soon without MacGuffin's Mighty Panacea; or, for even more nature, winter is coming.) Something even more dangerous could lay on either side of the obstacle (That path lies through the Death King's valley; Captain, our only chance to evade detection lies through the heart of the Bleak Nebula.)
- Deprivation - Finding food, water, and shelter can be an adventure unto itself. Go read Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky if you need further proof (or simply because it's a good read). Perhaps it's my scouting background that makes this so obvious a source of drama to me.
- Resource Tracking - Though record-keeping seems to be out of vogue currently, players tracking their steadily dwindling supplies can really ratchet up the tension. As a GM, it will be up to you to make this feel like something other than decreasing numbers on a sheet: describe the gnawing hunger, oppressive heat, the frightening lightness of the food sack, and the ashy choking thirst.
- Improvisation - As a GM, prompt players to cobble together their needs from their surroundings. This can be whatever mix of action descriptions, skill rolling, meta-game currency expenditure, and what-have-you that works for your group. Describe the environment while reminding the players of the PC's needs. As Players, ask questions and don't be afraid give your hunches a shot. You'll be building crude spears and lean-tos in no time flat.
Man vs Himself
This one is trickier. Some groups do this naturally. Players make characters with the expectation of moral and emotional dilemmas, with the expectation of growth. Some GMs have a knack for pushing emotional buttons and crafting moral quandaries into encounters. Even if the game you're playing doesn't support these things mechanically, there's still quite a bit you can do.
- Give your character at least one ethical or psychological failing (gambling addiction, obsequiousness, alcoholism, blind rages, depression, impulsiveness). Let the Game Master know that you'd like this issue addressed in the game.
- Encourage, in-character, the other PCs to consider the moral reality of what the group is about to do. Maybe slaughtering that Gnollish village for the sake of a few silver isn't the most ethical way to pay for a new sword. Perhaps there's a less terrible means to accomplish your goals. Perhaps your characters can become more than grave-robbing scumbags and/or space pirates. Alternatively you can explore just how far these characters are willing to go to get what they want. Where is that line?
- During character creation, ask for all your players to include one character flaw which they would like to be highlighted in play.
- Don't forget consequences. If the characters are acting like thuggish monsters, have NPCs treat them as such. Depending on the group, you'll either piss your players off or encourage them to create less morally repugnant characters (YMMV).
This is far from an exhausting treatise on the topic, just a few thoughts and some hopefully practicable advice for broadening your games. Plus it's an excuse to use my English Major education. Woohoo! Esoteric applications for esoteric knowledge. Tune in next week for an application of New Criticism to Roleplaying Games!**
*I know these are actually conflicts; I would argue that sans conflict there is no plot, how very Randian of me.