Imagine the scene: A group of hardy adventurers slip through the woods. They know that they are facing a cult of Bane-worshipping hobgoblins, and they can hear the cultists chanting ahead. They enter the clearing, engaging in battle with the foul foe. But then a howl comes from behind them! Bugbear shock troops charge in from the rear flank, out of dense thickets, and what seemed like it was about to be a decent fight is suddenly a tough one!
A battle the players will remember? I would hope so. But I didn’t write the scenario. It was written by General William Howe, commander of the British forces during the early years of the Revolutionary War. It’s called the Battle of Long Island, and it was a tough loss for the young Continental Army. I had never heard of it, because I’m not normally a Revolutionary War scholar, but a series I watched recently on the History Channel has me eyeing this time period for ideas, now.
The point is, you never know where inspiration will come from. It’s important to open up to new ideas and to be a kind of idea sponge. If you do, almost anything can become fodder for your games.
Strange Media Influences
In my article for first time GMs, I recommended that you steal from the best. Allow me to expand that: Steal from everywhere! I was once stumped as to how to set a decent scene in a Werewolf: the Apocalypse game I was running. I was frustrated, and, to make matters worse, my then boyfriend wanted to watch the Masters of the Universe movie. I tolerated it as best I could, but when Skeletor became a god, this terrible movie gave me an epiphany, and the adventure I ran in my Werewolf game based on it became one of the moments that stands out in my mind as a moment of great storytelling.
The example of the Revolutionary war series is another great example of this phenomenon. Even if I didn’t want to use a specific battle plan, the Revolutionary War is a great source of inspiration for a game. Imagine an NPC in your game who was based on Benedict Arnold…a loyal man, a war hero, snubbed and insulted one too many times, who then goes on to betray his country, king, goddess, or whatever because his honor would not allow him to bear even one more insult. Or Benjamin Franklin…an aging wizard who plays the dandy at court, but who is secretly or not so secretly gathering influence to propel two countries into war. Heck, even the end of the Battle of Long Island is interesting: an eerie fog conceals the American retreat to Manhattan from the British. Perhaps a Primal Spirit allowing the side it favors a chance to fight another day?
Look Around You
Television, the internet, movies, books…all fine influences, but it’s hard to rival actually seeing something, or being somewhere, or even holding an item, for inspiration.
I’m lucky in that the area around where I live is chock full of theaters, museums, zoos, planetariums, aquariums, parks, weird graveyards, and more. If I want to ponder on medieval weapons and armor, I need go no further than the Higgins Armory Museum, only about 45 minutes from me. I can go to Hammond Castle in Gloucester, seeing a recreation of a medieval town square, also about 45 minutes away. I can see black bears at the Stone Zoo, only 20 minutes from my house, or lions at the Franklin Park Zoo, maybe 30 minutes away. I can go see dinosaur bones, lightning shows, Omni theater shows, planetarium presentations, and more at the Boston Museum of Science, maybe 20 minutes away at most. And I can even go see a ruined Civil War era fort on Georges Island by taking a ferry ride for 30 minutes.
Sure, I have some amazing stuff within an hour of where I live, but I know I’m not the only one. Do a little research, and you’ll find great stuff in your own location. And boy can this stuff be excellent inspiration. Georges Island has ghost stories. Salem isn’t far from me, with its witch hysteria. America’s Stonehenge has mysterious stone structures (look it up). Even sleepy little Gloucester has a sea serpent story! Think I can’t make a campaign from all that? Think again.
Get Back to the Land
If you’re running an urban game, then odds are you’ve got great resources around every corner to help you describe a scene. If you’re like me, however, running a game taking place in a pseudo medieval period, it can be harder to describe scenes based on what’s in your back yard. Soaring mountains, plummeting waterfalls, primal forests…if you’ve never experienced them, how can you describe them to the players?
One of my favorite sources of inspiration is just to get away for a weekend, or even a day, or a few hours. If I drive two and a half hours north of my home, I can be in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. You want soaring peaks? The Presidential Range, especially the mighty Mt. Washington, is a beautiful series of mountains that evokes the majesty you need to describe. You can even drive up Mt. Washington…but be ready for terror in the form of a lack of guard rails, a road that seems too narrow for 2 cars but has 2-way traffic anyway, and your brakes smoking on the way down. If you see a car that has a “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” sticker on it, give both it and the driver some respect. That’s no small feat.
But I digress.
Do I want plummeting waterfalls? Primal forest? A drive along the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains is about 30 miles of the most primal, awesome scenery one can ask for, including more of those majestic mountain views. If I stop at Sabbaday Falls, I can get one of the prettiest waterfalls and pools around. Add a stop at Rocky Gorge or Lower Falls, and I can swim in those mountain streams! Now that’s something to be able to describe. I recommend starting with cold.
What if I want caves? Well, if I want to make a weekend of it, I can drive four hours west to Howe Caverns or Secret Caverns, two very different but awesome caves within a few minutes drive of each other.
I could keep going to ever more distant places. I’ve driven all the way to Toronto from Boston. Once you’re unafraid of long car trips, you can really go anywhere. And longer trips give you the opportunity to go camping, an experience you should definitely be able to describe to your players! And hey, being out in the fresh air is good for you.
Just be sure to pack some bug spray, okay? And sun screen? And a first aid kit? And maybe take an experienced camper with you on your first few trips? Treat him or her to s’mores. Campers love s’mores, and there’s nothing like one you made yourself over a campfire. Don’t even try to sell me on the Pop-tarts. No comparison.
Bringing It Back to your Game
Whatever you can find around you can be inspiration for your game. Sabbaday Falls and its pool became the inspiration for a secret location in my D&D game. Camping with my Dad on Spirit Island in Maine became the basis for a Cthulhu adventure I wrote back in high school. A favorite quote from a book on medieval kings I read showed up in the mouth of an NPC I play in my LARP. The phrase “Land Only” in a travel catalog from my work became a town called Llandonley in a D&D campaign I ran after college. Inspiration can come literally from anywhere, as long as you’re open minded enough to see it.
Has there ever been something unusual that you turned into a piece of inspiration? Did your players later recognize it, or was it too well hidden? Is there a favorite source of information and inspiration you’d like to suggest? Let us all know.