by Aaron Allston
You've just dropped your characters into a new setting, one unfamiliar to them. With only a few choice descriptive words and incidents, you have to make this setting alive, believable and interesting for them. The problems is, you don't know the setting any better than they do. Whether it's New York City, ancient Rome, 19th-century Transylvania or Arcturus IV, if you've never been there, you have only your own imagination and any available reference works when conjuring up this setting for your campaign.
Well, that's not so bad. After all, your players aren't likely to have any more intimate knowledge of Shogunate Japan than you are. But when it comes to knowing the setting, it's better to be one step up on your players, rather than equal to them in ignorance.
Yet the reference works you're likely to turn to first are probably the least helpful. Encyclopedias will give you all the academic information you want – but won't tell you how to describe the bite of the Russian winter wind, or what the Scythians' arrows sound like when launched in screaming volleys.
In the years I've been GMing, I've run across a few reference works that are particularly helpful to Game Masters in search of settings and flavor. In the following paragraphs, I'll describe the ones which have been the most useful to me.
In the overall-usefulness category, the winner is:
For articles about unusual societies on modern Earth, the contributors write from the perspective of the 20th-century Western reader. When they see interesting habits, customs, rituals, courtesies, and other cultural variations, they describe them in precisely the same language and viewpoint you'd use to describe them to players.
And, for historical / fantasy GMs, the magazine looks at the remains of ancient cities and other sites, often commissioning detailed paintings showing these areas as they might have looked in their prime – very helpful to GMs trying to describe exotic settings.
Geographic contributors retrace the explorations of historical and mythological figures, describing the day-by-day difficulties the original explorers would have faced, speculating on the procedures they must have followed. In recent years, the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Jason of the Argonauts, Sinbad the Sailor and Odysseus, have all been covered in this way.
Articles examine ancient cultures from the perspective of modern archaeological experts, as well as writers – travellers and historians – contemporary with the culture. And there's no easier way to invent an interesting alien culture than to merge a fascinating but little known Terran culture with a bizarre, alien physique!
Because Geographic is a magazine – one which represents a variety of material with each issue – you'll find that not every issue has something of interest to you. You may be a subscriber for a while before your library of issues is a regular help to your campaign – but it's worth the time and trouble it takes to accumulate those issues.
In the contemporary Earth category, the winner is:
The Baedeker Guides to Europe were originally published in the 19th century, and now have been appearing for a century and a half. They're tourguides – those helpful publications which tell the traveller where to go, what to see, and how to spend his money . . . but the Baedeker guides are notable for their extras – full-color photographs, color reconstructions of ruined sites, numerous interior maps, historical and cultural notes, site descriptions broken down by topic, a section about practical information (phone numbers and important data), an index and a full-sized fold-out map bound into the book.
There are Baedeker guides in print for numerous countries and quite a few important cities. They're published in the U.S. by the Prentice-Hall "Spectrum Books" division and are easily recognized by their red binding.
Other reference works useful to the GM of a contemporary Earth campaign include:
State almanacs. These provide detailed information on, among other things, topography and flora and fauna of local areas.
Access Press guidebooks. These city guidebooks include lots of street maps, perspective area maps and building drawings.
Flashmaps, from Flashmaps Publications. These are small guidebooks on important cities, presenting different types of information on successive, identical streetmaps. Flashmaps come in handy when you need to know all the restaurants in a given area, how to find the nearest bus stop or where the subways go.
Tourist-information maps. Such maps, often available from local Chambers of Commerce, point out distinctive landmarks and other places of interest to visiting characters.
In the 1930s-America Category, the winner is:
During the depression, a good many out-of-work writers were hired by the Federal Writer's Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration. The FWP churned out a number of historical and descriptive documents, including this series of guidebooks to the America of the late 1930s.
Recently reissued by Pantheon Books, WPA guides to New York City, Florida, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, New Orleans, Washington D.C. and Texas (published by Texas Monthly Press) are now in print again. They provide city maps, histories and in-depth cultural and social notes on these settings during the Depression.
Other references of interest to the pulp-era GM:
New York: The Wonder City by W. Parker Chase, reprinted in 1983 by New York Bound. Originally published in 1932, this is another New York City guidebook. It's notable for printing small photographs of dozens of important buildings and sites, and for its numerous capsule biographies and descriptions of important New Yorkers.
Baedeker Guides and other tourguides. The tourguides printed in the 1930s are also very good resources for detailed setting information for GMs of widefaring campaigns.
Time Capsule series. In the late 1960s, Time/Life Books printed a series of Time Capsule books – compilations of short articles and news condensed from the pages of Time magazine. Each of these books is like an entire year's worth of newspaper articles, broken into sections by topic – National Affairs, Crime, etc. – and arranged chronologically. I don't know how many of these were printed; I only have years 1923 and 1929, but they're awfully useful.
These books are a cross-section of the reference works I find especially helpful when GMing. Since my own campaigns center around contemporary Earth, Depression-era Earth and mythic Greece, not all the volumes I find handy will be of use to you – but I hope many of them will.
As a final note, here's one more cheap and easy trick to load yourself up on information for the setting you're visiting:
Simply read any good and well-researched piece of fiction set in that time and place. If you plan an adventure set in 15th-century Japan, or a fictional culture much like it, then read James Clavell's Shōgun. Going to imperial Rome? Try I, Claudius. Visiting the British Empire in the Victorian Era? Pick up George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Shamelessly borrow characters and scenes which will add color to your campaign. After all, you're trying to satisfy the imaginations of numerous players – it's not unfair for you to draw on the imaginations of numerous writers.
Copyright © 1997-2021 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.