Writers like Herman Melville (Moby Dick) and Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) infused their stories with scientific and historical trivia, and used it as a base for their fiction. Technology changes, but human psychology doesn’t (much), so news from any period can be used to create characters and events for any game setting. Sometimes I feel certain forms of entertainment –- let’s take comics as an example (and the movies based on them) –- suffer, because it seems the writers only read other comics for inspiration (Alan Moore being an obvious exception). A whole world of bizarre facts is at our fingertips, to challenge, inspire and horrify. So I say adapting true tales to adventures should not only be easier than dreaming them up, but can create more eccentric and complex characters than you’re used to encountering. I’m about to embark on this process myself for the two worlds I’m running games in: Nights of the Crusades and the Great Game playtest.
Cracked.com is a site of facts and commentary, written by comedy writers. Currently, they have articles titled “5 Horrifying Ways Lightning Strikes Are Worse Than You Think” and ‘6 Sworn Enemies Who Teamed Up and Kicked Ass”. I’ve just learnt that lightning spells should have horrible, permanent scarring and side effects, but because both my games have war as a theme, I’ll search the latter for an adventure/character seed. One of the 6 sworn enemies pieces is about black musician Daryl Davis who has a closet full of Klu Klux Klan robes from ex-members he won over through friendship and rock’n’roll.
This next bit is important for our purposes: Generalising the story so it transcends our world and could be applied to other, fictional ones. This example becomes “a person combating an organisation, that hates similar people, through friendliness and music”.
Nights of the Crusades is as full of fanatical organisations as you would imagine, and the Great Game includes cults and soldiers; so creating a fearless bard-ish character would be perfect. Maybe he encourages the PCs to give up a predictable plan (of punching the cult towards less anti-social views) to focus on lowering their membership peacefully.
TED.com hosts talks about Technology, Education and Design. Scrolling through their videos I found “How to create a mini forest anywhere”, “Can we prevent the end of the world”, “How to topple a dictator”, “How great leaders inspire action”, “The psychology of evil” and “Underwater astonishments”. I’m going to go with the last talk to create a species of strange, bioluminescent creatures that live in caverns (for Nights of the Crusades) or dark clouds above the City of Screams (in the Great Game). The PCs will encounter them sooner or later (perhaps as part of a scientific expedition), witness a battle between them, and will need to avoid their hypnotizing lights.
The world news I find most interesting contains investigative journalism that plumbs the depths of human depravity with a code of media ethics (though it’s arguable whether any meet this standard, as no one can agree what media ethics are). An agency with a bit of edge is Vice News; though I’m ignoring stories about obviously horrible and controversial topics for this article. I’ll focus on the Environment and Crime sections. I’ve now read “The Tone on the Ground Was Sheer Terror and Panic: Looking Back at the First Ebola Outbreak”, “Fight for the Forest” and “Leaked Video Shows Reporters Taking Cash from Mexican Drug Lord”. The topics are plague, corruption and environment vs infrastructure –- all appropriate themes for Nights of the Crusades and the Great Game. The last story details a journalist getting paid by drug lord from the Knights Templar cartel (funnily enough, organisations sharing that name exist in both games) in exchange for advice on how to improve his media reputation. The media in Nights of the Crusades would be the poets and scribes, whereas the Great Game has pamphleteers and newspapers; so this could almost be a quick copy and paste.
Tabloids and local news
Tabloids are sensationalist news agencies, often including “bizarre news” sections about animals and ridiculous/extraordinary human feats. These agencies don’t let truth get in the way of a good story. Does it make sense to include tabloids in an article with this title? Yes! They contain the perfect seeds for tavern rumours. The National Enquirer is the king here. Then you’ve got the Fortean Times. But local news is also great. NT News is one of Australia’s Northern Territory papers. At the moment it contains the following headlines: “The Grey Lady? ‘Ghost busted'”, “Crab takes on alligator, wins battle with hilarious pinch”, “Territorians try shark wrestling”, ‘Insect makes home in man’s ear”, “Family take on croc-infested river” and “Kangaroos box in Aussie street”. Generalising the article about the family in a rickety boat in dangerous waters (FYI; their adventure didn’t end in disaster); we have a side-quest for our PCs about a stupidly lucky family ill-prepared for a dangerous journey.
So stringing it all together, within a campaign where a hateful, insidious Lovecraftian cult is the main nemesis; we have our PCs meet with a character seeking to attract members away from the cult’s teachings through understanding and poetry. The PCs can follow their new ally’s advice or not. They journey to the cult’s city of operations on a bizarre and dangerous path, beset on all sides by hypnotic, bioluminescent creatures. When they reach the city, the PCs see that the local population believes the cult acts in their best interests so will not help them –- unless the PCs can uncover the corruption amongst the city’s poets and pamphleteers. The strange creatures beyond the city walls are kept there by the cult -– but they claim to protect the citizens from the beasts. Cult mouth-pieces remind the populace that anyone is free to leave, but will surely perish once they reach the habitat of the hypnotic monsters. It is discovered that the cult harvests the bile of the creatures for a hallucinogenic potion –- the source of their control, power and wealth (bear-bile harvesting actually happens in some parts of our world). I’ll just have to flesh out this concept with either the Nights of the Crusades or Great Game setting. Bam!
As a timesaver, I’ve “Liked” Cracked, TED, Vice News and the NT News on Facebook, so that my feed is constantly updated with stories (as a side-effect, my Facebook wall is much more interesting than when it was filled with photos of food and my friends’ children doing things I consider boring). Because of the process outlined above, a regular part of my day has become filled with adventure and character seeds.