GMing From The History Book


“You’re in a tavern.”

Classic start, right? We’ve all been in that tavern. The one where NPCs go to find trap-layers and dragon-slayers. The Craigslist for quests lines. But that’s the problem. Tabletop RPGs live and breathe on their endless potential for innovation and surprise – the possibility that anything might happen – yet too often we find ourselves mired in the same plots over and over. Sure, rescuing captives, slaying monsters and uncovering Cthulhu cults are the meat and potatoes of GM-written modules, but players also know the story beats right off the bat: hear rumors, examine mysterious deaths, find monster and/or cult, kill monster and/or cult, then loot like there’s no tomorrow. You need something new to keep your party interested – or maybe not. Maybe, like me, you instead turn to the historical record and repurpose something old. Because using a history book as your GM’s guide can help shape your narrative into something players will remember for long after the last die rolls to a stop.

Module-Writing Made Easy

History is exactly that, a story. Every past event, from titanic clashes like the Napoleonic Wars to more personal events like the trial of Galileo already has a beginning, middle and end that clever GMs can easily adapt into an adventure. But better still, since these events actually occurred their relationships between cause and effect have a plausibility that GM-written adventures can sometimes lack. Plot twists come off as authentic rather than forced. Story developments have an innate sense of internal logic. Whether the players are key participants in the affair or merely caught up in the whirlwind of larger events, stealing plot details or settings from history can improve the depth of both your plot and general world-building. That’s why the greats do it – George R.R. Martin is upfront about the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire is The War of the Roses with a fantasy paint job, and Ken Levine wouldn’t have written BioShock: Infinite had he not watched the PBS documentary America 1900.

Just like these two, you can co-opt as little or as much history as you like – from full events complete with real people and places, to just the setting or even a single character, re-skinned to fit your world. Want to change history or bend the truth to make it more exciting? Go nuts. It’s your adventure.

Steer Clear of the Usual Suspects

World War II is overplayed as a setting. So is Victorian London. Part of the fun of historical settings is playing in a world that’s a little unfamiliar and where the players face new dramatic questions, and pop culture has already explored these events to a point where players will wind up reenacting or creating an homage rather than exploring new territory. You’re here to play your own game, not GURPS: Band of Brothers. Besides, if the party is too knowledgeable about events or people from the period, it steals some of the tension from the story. The solution is to stretch yourself – try out another decade, or even another century. If your last Call of Cthulhu campaign was set during the 1920s, lay out the next one during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Rather than Victorian London, consider the Regency or the English Civil War. Further, even if your players insist on a WWII or Victorian setting, you can deliver a twist with a change in geography – send them to British India on the eve of the 1857 rebellion or Singapore under Japanese occupation. Especially look for periods of social upheaval or chaos, since it allows the party to go a little crazy without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Use Setting to Recast the Adventure

Changing scenes can take a fairly humdrum plotline and make it something memorable. Imagine you’re writing a Hunter: The Vigil campaign where the players locate and disrupt a cult of Mages – pretty standard stuff. Now imagine a campaign where the hunters need to locate and disrupt the cult at Woodstock. They’ve got three days before the coven opens a portal to something horrible. Three days to find the Mages hidden somewhere amongst half a million people, all of whom are wearing weird clothes, chanting in made-up languages, and high on LSD. Think of the confusion and chaos that would occur. Consider the awesome soundtrack you could play in the background – chase scenes set to “Piece of My Heart,” backstage knife fights during “White Rabbit” and a breathless showdown as Hendrix belts “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Use novelty to your advantage. Murder investigations seem fresh and new if they’re in Ancient Egypt. Assassinating an enemy general takes on a different flavor during China’s Warring States Period. And there’s nothing to say Spanish Conquistadores never ran across Lovecraftrian horrors while trying to find cities of gold in South America.

Stir a Little History into Your Fantasy

You might think that this tactic doesn’t apply to settings like D&D, but actually that’s where this approach thrives. Dropping reality-inspired events into Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms works especially well because it both obscures the elements you’re using and lends a new perspective to in-game events. Orcs are more compelling and sympathetic characters if they’re sweeping in as part of a mass-migration like the Mongols or Saxons rather than just raiding a village because they’re Orcs. Catching your players up in historical analogues also makes them feel like they’re experiencing something momentous, with consequences that will continue well into the future. Cataclysmic change is also a great way to combat the complacency that sometimes sets in during a long campaign. If your players are getting too comfortable, knock them off-balance. Hit them with a natural disaster like the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, forcing them to abandon their quest so they can rescue survivors and fight off armed looters. Have them find ore in an uninhabited mountain and spark a Gold Rush. During college, I GM’d an entire year of the swashbuckling fantasy game 7th Sea exclusively off of adapted historical plotlines, ranging from French court intrigue to the British bombardment of Copenhagen. As a finale, I threw the players into the Pazzi conspiracy, where they found themselves defending a stand-in of Lorenzo de’ Medici from assassination, then hunted his assailants through the streets aside angry mobs. Array the entire might of history against your players, and you’ll give them the satisfaction that they’ve changed the world – or that they merely survived the storm.

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Pictures, Songs and Maps

Ten minutes of Googling and you can have enough images to illustrate an entire campaign. Snapshots of monasteries, cruise ship schematics, presidential photographs, cathedral floor plans. Twenty minutes of iTunes or Spotify and you’ve built a period-appropriate jazz soundtrack for your players shoot up gin joints in Chicago or investigate Punk clubs in 1970s Detroit. Best of all, you can snag maps of historic cities and re-label them to fit your needs, so your players can plan their advance street-by-street. These little artifacts will fire up your players’ imaginations like nothing else. For one Spycraft campaign, I printed photos of Khrushchev giving a speech and circled random officers in the background as targets. For another game, I handed out a portfolio that had maps of 16th century Florence along with period sketches of major buildings. None of these took long to prepare, but my players clung to them like they were precious objects.

Continuity vs. Alienation

Historical fiction tends to play with our expectations about a period, both highlighting the similarities with our own time and making us confront the strangeness of an alien culture. I like to call these opposing forces as continuity and alienation. While every work of historical storytelling has both of these elements, a single work will usually choose one above the other for dramatic effect.

Works that privilege continuity tend to make us empathetic with the characters and their struggles. This can either be through putting them in situations that are universal, proving people are the same across eras (the political machinations and stresses of the presidency in Lincoln, for example) or alternately, highlight the beginning of trends, ideas and inventions that continue to the present day. The best example of the latter is the film L.A. Confidential, which abandons almost every symbol of the 1950s buried in the popular consciousness – from poodle skirts to the Cold War – in favor of 1990s-resonant issues like highway construction, police brutality, institutional racism and celebrity culture. The effect is that the 1950s of L.A. Confidential feels very modern, the birth of our current era rather than something older and separate. That helps us as an audience connect to the plot, both because we recognize the parallels and because we realize we’re seeing the genesis of our own way of life.

Alienation, by contrast, simulates culture shock by confronting the player with the strangeness of a period. In these narratives, things the characters consider “normal” social conduct, standards of hygiene or belief systems come across as foreign or even barbaric. Alienation narratives take everything weird or different about a period and throw it right in the audience’s face. Uberto Eco’s novels, like The Name of the Rose, fit into this category. So does Django Unchained and HBO’s Deadwood and Rome. All of these works focus on the most extreme aspects of their period in order to deliver a world that pushes the audience’s boundaries and upsets their comfortable assumptions. While stories that focus on continuity adjust the world to suit the audience, in alienation narratives the audience has to adjust to the world.

When designing a historical adventure, it’s important to think about whether you want players to feel at home in the era or challenged by it. Both can be fun and interesting – and you can mix-and-match them like Neal Stephenson does in the Baroque Cycle – but be mindful of what you’re using and why.

Adapting Players to Historical Settings

Some players can find historical settings constrictive or even offensive, but you can take measures to mitigate this. The first step is to make sure you yourself understand the setting. There’s no need to read multiple books on the period (though you can certainly do so) but it’s generally advisable to at least do a little research online, spot-read a few chapters from a history book, take in a documentary or two, or watch a movie about the period before you start writing the adventure. The next step is to get the players comfortable with the period. In my experience, it’s a bad idea to assign reading material – no one ever looks at it – but you can hand out packets that contain a timeline of major events, a list of well-known politicians and celebrities, and a glossary of period slang. The latter is easy to find online, and a certain type of player really jumps at the chance to spout words like “juice joint” or “horsefeathers!”. If you really want to get everyone on the same page, host a party where you all watch a movie or TV show that features the era. The ideal time to do this is before the players write their characters, so they know the world they’ll be inhabiting.

The reason you want to introduce this framework is that inevitably one of your players is going to chafe under the restrictions. I once ran a Call of Cthulhu game where all the players were students at Miskatonic University in 1927. This led to some conflict with one of my players over the restrictions her character fell under – she couldn’t join the all-male shooting team, for instance, and the gender-separate living arrangements meant that she had to sneak past university chaperones to engage in any late-night plotting in the men’s dorm. Similarly, players who choose to play ethnic minorities will face prejudice during certain times in history, which can make both players and GMs uncomfortable. If this happens, suggest that the player channel their frustration into their character by joining in-game feminism or civil rights societies – or maybe the head of the skeet shooting squad thinks the no-girls-allowed policy is stupid and bucks the trend by letting her practice with the team. Now, instead of being left out, that player is a feminist pioneer – the first woman on the Miskatonic Skeet Team. This acknowledges that prejudice is present in the world, but doesn’t make the player feel punished for choosing a minority character. However, you should never let sexism or racism become so insurmountable as to keep players from choosing the character they want – if either element makes you or your group uncomfortable, tone it way down or drop it completely. Historical fidelity is great, but everyone’s here to have fun and tell stories, not simulate the worst parts of humanity’s past.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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