Human history is filled with places and events that are so interesting and amazing that they just invite themselves to become the background of an RPG adventure. I don’t even mean specifically fantasy adventures; what has happened in these instances will happen again, certainly, because we were humans then, are humans now, and will be the same faulty humans for a long long time to come.
Quick note: History is subjective to begin with, as it is dictated by the interpretation of the narrator. I am completely aware that in some (perhaps all) of the places and events I describe below, pretty nasty things were happening to people, due to discrimination, slavery, and, well, genocide. I don’t refer to these, not because I don’t think they are important or relevant, or am trying to make light of them, but simply because I’m not an historian, would not know enough about them to start with, and would therefore not be the best person to begin this conversation. I’m simply picking broad events and areas and seeing what could be used in a narrative.
1) War Of The Roses/English Civil War
This is so much like Game of Thrones that… well, George RR Martin is actually on record saying he loosely used this as inspiration for a Song of Ice and Fire. It was family against family, brother vs. brother, with the ultimate prize being the English throne. The GoT connection is the best possible description. Dozens of noble families, whole branches of royal houses simply disappearing overnight, in some pretty heated battles. The Wikipedia entry has a family tree that just makes your eyes water with the effort of following who is cousin to whom. If you want an overarching conflict, with lots of deaths and noble houses, this is your jam.
300 Spartans fighting off a few tens of thousands (estimates vary) of Persian soldiers. This battle has been much embellished over recent years (with the movie 300, based on the graphic novel of the same name, itself a highly built up adaptation of the known parts of the battle). It would be the perfect seed for a few characters against an army. There’s not a lot of RPG material here as it was just a battle, but I’ve always thought that having the players as, say, spies or messengers moving against the background of the battle would be really cool.
3) The Byzantine Empire
This one has ‘fantasy RPG’ written all over it. From the exoticism of the ‘east meets west’ culture and language, to the gigantic palaces and temples, if you have a look at a lot of RPG core books, specially images of markets and buildings, you can easily see how Byzantium is a bit of an inspiration. On any random street, you could find products from all over the known world, and the palatial intrigue was ridiculous. It got so bad, the local rulers had to hire Viking mercenaries because everyone else in the area wanted to kill them. A good inspiration for cities, markets, commercial areas, etc.
This one has a lot of caveats, as so much of the City by the Tiber has been used in the past, by pretty much everyone, from RPG writers to Napoleon. If you want an ancient city, with streets, temples, slums, docks, etc, this is your standard.
5) The Silk Road
Although it was totally not a single Road, the Silk Route was in fact a series of trading posts and small stretches of road works that connected China to the West. This is the best possible scenario for trading stories/escort stories. It even has loads of ghost towns, built and abandoned, as the tides of trade ebbed and flowed.
6) The Great Wall of China
Just using a monument as a starting point, I mean, picture it: a mysterious, highly advanced kingdom decided to turn inwards and focus on itself and is so paranoid about attacks from the outside that it builds a gigantic series of walls to keep everyone else away. The functionality is immaterial. Imagine cresting a hill and seeing a wall that went from horizon to horizon.
7) Edo Japan
This is so appropriate that is has already been adapted to RPG’s, even to D&D. This was the time of the samurai and ronin and noble battles and ninjas. A lot of it has been exaggerated and embellished, but it’s still a background rife with warriors and noble ladies doing martial arts and emperors and so on.
What other historical places or times have you used in games, or indeed, think that would be good to use in games?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, three years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a couple of years, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-battle-of-thermopylae-480-bc-defending-the-pass/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.