I've written before about how I often use reality for inspiration in my games. When I draw maps, I think about the geology and climates involved. When I come up with countries and cultures, my decisions are informed by the politics and societies of the real world.
Probably my richest gaming gold mine, however, is history. I often use real events as a spark for my characters, settings, and plots. Today, I'm going to go over some of my methods for stealing from the history books.
Stranger Than Fiction
You can get a taste of some of the things that catch my interest from my Stranger than Fiction posts. From the life of George Washington, to bizarre melting fortresses, these posts cover a variety of useful examples from history. You can bring these up from the past, and use them in a completely different context.
If you read biographies, "auto" or otherwise, of historical figures, you'll notice a common thread. People who steer history tend to lead very interesting lives. Of course, there might be some selection bias in there, since, if they had been boring, nobody would have written about them.
Either way, you can get a lot of cool ideas for characters from the "good parts" that have already been sifted by historians. Maybe your paladin has George Washington's strict sense of honor, enforcing justice as much upon his allies as his enemies. Perhaps, your scholar or wizard character was born to poor, uneducated parents, but, like Carl Friedrich Gauss, an influential patron noticed her genius and funded her education. Or maybe your inspiration is Emperor Caligula, who grew up having to force a smile beside the man who ordered the assassinations of most of his family.
History is also a great source of quirks and foibles. Alexander the Great, at times, would only drink from his silver helm. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid fitness buff, and pursued activities like boxing, judo, and skinny-dipping in the Potomac, even as president. The aforementioned Dr. Gauss discouraged his children from following him into mathematics, for fear that they would discredit his name. Of course, there were also Washington's famous dental issues, which plagued him for much of his life.
While people are certainly interesting, history is also about events. Personally, I like the ones in which, at least retrospectively, the course of history lay in the balance. Also interesting are the ones that are simply bizarre.
For example, in one battle, Genghis Khan was shot in the neck by an arrow. After he'd won, when he demanded to know who had shot it, a man stepped forward. For his honesty, the Khan pardoned him, and gave him the nickname Jebe or "Arrow." Jebe would go on to be one of Genghis Khan's most loyal commanders. Not only is the story interesting, but it begs the question, how would history have changed if one of mankind's most prolific conquerors had died from that arrow?
Another one is an example of the sheer randomness of the universe. In June of 1908, an explosion occurred over what is now remote Russia, which is today referred to as the "Tunguska Event". It's estimated that the detonation had 1000 times the force of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It left a zone five miles wide of scorched, limbless standing trees, surrounded by 830 square miles of partially burned, and leveled trees. The prevailing theory is that a comet or meteoroid blew apart mid-air from the strain of entering the atmosphere. Of course, this triggers thoughts of what would have happened if the event had happened over Moscow or London?
The world is full of fascinating places. That's doubly true if you take into account settings that have disappeared or degraded since their primes. Time is an incredibly destructive thing, after all, and human beings even more so.
As a prime example, take the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. You've got my favorite, the Colossus of Rhodes, standing astride the entrance to their harbor, one foot on either bank. There's also the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a building topped with a lush garden, built to please a homesick wife. Other lists of the world's wonders also included Babylon's very walls, which were so massive that chariots could be raced around them.
The Seven Wonders were a bit Greek-focused though. They wouldn't even have known of the existence of the Great Wall of China, which, including all its branches, measures longer than 13,000 miles. There are also natural features such as the Grand Canyon, or the Cliffs of Moher, which you might recognize from the sixth Harry Potter movie. Another example is the island of Cozumel, as it existed in the time of the Mayans, with its long white-paved road leading from the beach to the temple walked by hundreds of women nearing the end of their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.
Accidents of History
I also tend to like the little idiosyncrasies that occur when plans go awry. For instance, my post on the Cemetery of Vienna. This was built when Vienna was to be the capital of a great empire, which then promptly broke up, leaving the city with a greatly oversized cemetery. Also, consider the spire and deck at the top of the Empire State Building, which was intended as a landing terminal for dirigibles.
Steal and Tweak
Of course, you don't have to take any of these ideas whole cloth. You can use them for inspiration, and mold them to fit your needs. For instance, take George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. You can find the Colossus of Rhodes playing the role of the Titan of Braavos, with the addition of some defensive capabilities. You can also find the Great Wall as the Wall, now made of ice, but still defending the "civilized" lands from the barbarian hoards.
We're currently gearing up for a Dresden Files RPG campaign set in Victorian London. My first reaction to this, of course, was to do some reading on what exactly was going on in 1880's England. I had a great time skimming Wikipedia, and thinking of supernatural twists to put on historical events. This, and a suggestion from Bryan, were the inspiration for this post.
If you're trying to play a "historical" game, your strategy needs to change somewhat. Before, we were taking pieces of history, and incorporating them into a completely different context. Now, we're trying to maintain the context, while tweaking the pieces of history just enough to fit the game.
Capturing the Zeitgeist
For our upcoming Victorian game, I started off by skimming a summarized timeline of English history in the late nineteenth century. The period was marked by increasing exploration and contact with other cultures, and the beginning of the shrinking of the world, which has continued to increase through today. I kept an eye out for anything that hinted at exploration, mystery, and the sort of challenges that Dresdenverse characters might combat.
For instance, in 1875, the HMS Challenger surveyed the deepest section of the ocean, Challenger Deep. What might have been brought up? The United Kingdom is expanding its reach in Africa, and is consolidating its hold on India. What supernatural beings, knowledge, or items might be flowing into London? The London Underground was opened in 1863. What might have been found in the excavation? What might be living down there now?
There are so many fascinating historical tidbits, that I could easily have gone on and on with examples. This post took much longer than I expected to write, because I kept reading off on tangents while trying to do my fact checking. Just pull up a topic even slightly related topic on Wikipedia, and start clicking on linked topics. I guarantee you'll find something that will get your imagination going.