There is one fact that most writers and GMs need to realize: our imaginations are nothing compared to the twists and turns of history. Games based on certain points in history, whether realistic or with some fantastical elements, allow for an opportunity that no GM should pass up: the chance to do research.
Admittedly, not the most exciting moment in a GMâ€™s career, but if the GM does it properly, it can bring more depth to a campaign and make it feel even more immersive and real to the players, even if it has elves and dwarves in it.
Fortune’s Fool is a prime example of this. One of the first non-Warhammer 40k games I have GMed, it is set during the Renaissance, which, as RPGs go, is very different from the usual fantasy or scifi tropes we are used to. As such, it brings your players into a type of world they are not necessarily familiar with.
My decision to actually study the Renaissance was not just for curiosity’s sake, I must admit. I always aim to give my players a unique experience with each game I run. So, for the first time, I went into a library to study history. Of course, the last time I went to a library to look at history books, I was doing a class project for high school, so I was admittedly a bit rusty.
Through my research, I learned a plethora of information about the Renaissance period I wasn’t aware of. Struggles for powers,Â incestuousÂ romances, religious persecution. It was a horrible and beautiful period in history and it was a great breeding ground for a GMâ€™s imagination. Fortune’s Fool turned from the simple monster of the week bash I had originally planed into a story of political power, dark arts, and a bit of Cthulhu mixed in just to spice things up.
Unhallowed Metropolis is another example. The game takes place in a future victorian society in a hellish wasteland of death and decay. I will admit, the game’s sourcebook is a great source of material for anyone to game with. But, I wanted something a bit more. To give it more of a Victorian vibe that resonated with the past. I thought the best way to do this, since this was a game of monsters, was to modify one of the existing creatures. I chose the anathema, which in Unhallowed Metropolis, is any created monster, like Frankenstein. I then looked at history and viewed what the Victorians viewed as monsters. I quickly found a example that fit perfectly: Whipping Tom.
In history, he was just a man. A disturbed man who was scorned by a woman and thus decided that all women must be punished… with a whipping from his whipping stick. But before he was caught, he was reported as a monstrous being with a giant face out of proportion with his body. Similar monsters of that time, like Spring Heeled Jack, had a similar format. A human body but with something slightly off.
Thus, my anathema became Whipping Tom. Like Victorian monster stories, he was a man of unusual proportions, but that wasnâ€™t enough for this setting. Neo-Victorian society is an even more dark and disturbing setting than history allowed. Whipping Tom had to became a more bestial and powerful creature as a result. And as for his urge to smack a woman’s behind, it had to become a bit more sadistic. He was a monster who would grab women and beat them to death with a metal rod. This was a monster of Victorian legend brought to un-life in a future Neo-Victorian London, and my players had a hell of a time trying to kill it.
Historical settings can lead to a depth that not only your players will appreciate, but you yourself will enjoy messing with. All it really takes is to crack open a history book and look for the really interesting bits. Trust me, it’s never hard to find.
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