Whether I’m running a game, or playing a character, one of my goals is always realism. When I say “realism”, I don’t mean that I have to track every ounce of water characters drink in a survival situation. I also don’t mean that I feel the need to run a simulation of an entire economy to figure out what products are available in a town. Despite my penchant for resorting to math to solve a problem, my goal of realism isn’t about numbers.
Instead, my games and characters have to feel realistic, at least to me. It’s inevitably my biggest complaint with play styles such as power gaming. The more that either the plot or character behavior exceeds my invisible mental barrier separating real from unreal, the more my engagement with the game begins to break down.
When I’m creating my own characters and plot ideas, of course, I try to make them feel as if they could step right out of the game. Partly, this is a function of the little model of the world that we all build in our minds as we accrue experiences. What could make things feel more realistic, however, than basing them off the real world?
My biggest inspiration probably tends to be our own history. I’ve played characters based on historical figures like Tamerlane, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great. My players have fought the battle of Thermopylae, with the part of the Persians played by a hoard of undead.
Apparently, I do this so much, that Bryan’s taken to Googling details of my character background to get more information. I guess I have to start mangling my names more thoroughly. In any case, history provides an unbelievably rich source of gaming ideas. One great resource for this is…
There’s a whole lot more to Wikipedia than history, however. I’ve mentioned before how easily I get trapped in my Wikipedia delves. It was Wikipedia, among other resources, that brought me to play an ascetic priest loosely based on Sufi dervishes.
If you’re ever lacking for ideas, try the following trick. Look up a marginally related topic. If you’re playing a fantasy game, for example, open the page on swords. From there, take the first link to a subject that’s unfamiliar to you. Repeat that step a couple times, and I guarantee you’ll hit something that blows your mind. This is exactly how I stumbled on to the “Vehmic court”, which I found completely fascinating.
I’ve found that a book dedicated to a single person, or a small group of people, will make them far more sympathetic than a broad survey of their period of history would. I’d have a hard time playing a character with whom I couldn’t sympathize. While history can tell you what happened, a biography is more likely to explain the context, and provide a better idea for why it happened.
While I’d certainly read about Tamerlane before, it was a biography of the historical Timur that made me want to base a character on him. Similarly, everybody’s heard of Julius Caesar, but it was the Twelve Caesars that brought me to incorporate him into a PC. While I haven’t created one from my recent forays into biographies of the American Founding Fathers, it’s only a matter of time.
Role playing games have long borrowed from folk tales the world over. Open up any D&D Monster Manual, and you’re looking at a distillation of a thousand years of stories. Whether it’s Bahamut, barghests, nagas, or the Tarrasque, you’ve probably encountered the progeny of countless cultures.
One aspect of this subject that I find endlessly fascinating is Comparative Mythology. This field seeks to find patterns in the old stories, which might speak to cultural interaction, or even say something about humanity itself. A widely known example of this is Joseph Campbell, and his Monomyth. These patterns can provide guidelines for your stories and characters that will make them seem both realistic, and somehow familiar.
Another great way to get ideas is just keeping an eye on current events. Here you can find a never-ending pool of conflict, controversy, and heroes to add flavor to your games. The expulsion of some Roma groups from France a couple years ago inspired what I consider to be probably the best game I’ve run so far.
Here’s a trick that I just stumbled on to. If you’re looking for historical examples of international conflict, simply look at a map. Check out an area, such as Europe, with lots of complex border lines. Zoom in, and look for the places where they do something out of the ordinary, veering to create peninsulas or even islands within another country. Look that area up in Wikipedia, and I guarantee you’ll find some interesting history.
For example, follow the border between France and Spain west, and you’ll stumble upon Andorra, the Catalan-speaking sixth smallest country in the world, with the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell as co-princes. You’ll also notice Llívia, a Spanish town completely surrounded by French territory.
This trick even works within a country. If you check out the southern border of Intwischa’s own home state of Michigan, USA, you’ll notice a strange jog. Looking this up, you might stumble upon the Toledo War, in which the militias of the territory of Michigan confronted those of the state of Ohio over the strip of land around Toledo. Though we lost that city in the final compromise, we gained most of our Upper Peninsula.
Stranger Than Fiction
The real world can provide great ideas, all the more crazy for the fact that they’re true. I say this often in my Stranger than Fiction series, but it’s no less true. Hopefully I haven’t given away all my secret methods here.