Meetings With Remarkable People

Compiler's Notes: GURPS Who's Who

by Phil Masters

Art by andi jones, Scott Reeves and Dan Smith

GURPS Who's Who is a slightly unusual project. It will consist of (at least) two volumes (with volume 2 due out later this year), each detailing 52 historical characters in GURPS terms. Each individual figure gets two pages, with a description in game terms, biographical notes, and ideas for using them in play. These characters can be used as NPCs (or even PCs) in historical, semi-historical, and time travel games, or as models for fictional game characters. The book contains lots of material on possible alternate histories, along with weird and illuminated stuff, but it's still at heart a historical sourcebook; each character has been intensively researched, and only individuals who were reasonably well-documented -- who could be handled as much more fact than fiction -- were selected for inclusion.

Meetings With Remarkable People

The How of It

Given that the book ranges across history, from Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh of ancient Egypt, to H.P. Lovecraft, the twentieth-century dreamer of weird dreams, there's an extremely large amount of research implied here. A single author could have written this book, given plenty of time and patience, but this wasn't really practical. Instead, Steve Jackson Games took a different approach; they appointed me as editor/compiler, and issued an invitation to potentially interested parties to create entries. This was a kind of competition, a way for new writers to show what they could do and old GURPS hands to amuse themselves by exercising their historical interests, and a nice way of putting the energy and knowledge of GURPS fans across the globe to good use. (I received -- and used -- submissions from North and South America, more than one European country, Australia, and New Zealand.) The Internet enabled us to run this reasonably smoothly and to a tight schedule.

The results were interesting, and rather impressive. I must admit that I assumed that I'd end up using one submission from each of 52 different people, covering some pet historical interest -- maybe two or three from some real fanatics. Indeed, some excellent submissions were on these lines, and given more time, I probably could have assembled a book with 52 authors. However, we didn't need to wait as long as that would have taken for volume 1, as some insanely energetic contributors came through with multiple submissions. GURPS fans, it turns out, include some people who must really enjoy reading biographies . . .

For the record, the first submission came in a couple of weeks after the first announcements went out; the character in question was Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe, complete with pet elk and prosthetic silver nose. This, incidentally, gave us our first example of one of the project's recurrent minor themes; how to fit GURPS game mechanics to the stuff that comes out of the history books. How do you handle a silver prosthetic nose? We found solutions to these questions, sometimes after some debate in the playtest groups. (Never mind the silver nose, the issue of Queen Elizabeth I's IQ stat saw some fascinating, and fortunately not excessively heated, quotation and counter-quotation from sources.)

Putting Stuff (and People) Together

As editor-compiler, my job was of course to assemble the book, tidy up the submissions (cutting some of them to length sometimes involved having to hack away some details that I'd love to have left), write the introduction, first "overview" chapter, and appendices, and generally give it some unity. As I worked on this, one minor point about the format of the book became more obvious.

As I said, it mostly consists of 52 two-page spreads from a number of people. That's 52 separate entries -- and yet, some of these people will have known each other -- or could have met, anyway. While I'm sure that GURPS GMs are smart enough to spot these potential interactions, the format of the book -- which generally works very well -- didn't permit them to be emphasized. Well, this article is an overview of the project, so perhaps it's the best place to point out a few interesting options.

Alexander's Tuition

The first possibility for meetings between characters from the book -- and one of the most obvious -- takes place in Ancient Greece. It's unlikely that either Alexander the Great or the philosopher Aristotle met the rather older cavalry officer and author, Xenophon, although it wouldn't be very hard to imagine him and Aristotle colliding, especially as Xenophon did have a passing interest in philosophy -- and his stories of Persia could in turn have been passed on to the younger man. Because Alexander and Aristotle knew each other well, with Aristotle being employed as Alexander's tutor. Indeed, the boyhood of the future conqueror would be a fascinating topic for time travelers to study, and they could take in some meetings with the founder of Western thought.

Then, leaving aside the married life of the Byzantine rulers Justinian and Theodora -- who were included in the book as a matched pair -- the next potential cross-links come in the Middle Ages.

Too Many Olafs?

One possible confusion that may be worth a warning; Leif Eriksson, discoverer of Vinland, met King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway, who was endeavoring to convert his lands to Christianity. This was not the same Olaf in whose court Harald Hardradi was raised; rather, they were cousins. They both worked to spread the religion; Norway evidently took a fair amount of converting.

Although Leif and Harald only overlap by five years, a long-running GURPS Vikings campaign could certainly take in meetings with both. For a bonus, after Harald's death in 1066, younger PCs could even travel east to emulate his career in Byzantium's Varangian Guard -- in the service of Emperor Alexius I, who also appears in this book. This could make these Last Vikings (or Saxon refugees) witnesses to the First Crusade.

Other medieval characters appearing in this book would be unlikely to collide, although really determined travelers could run into Ibn Battuta and Geoffrey Chaucer, somewhere around the Mediterranean, or could witness the roles played by both Chaucer and Joan of Arc in England's interventions in European politics. (Though that would require a campaign covering 20 or 30 years.) Still, things get more complicated with the Renaissance.

Paracelsus the Plot Device

Several of the book's 15th- and 16th-century European characters have overlapping lifespans and lived within a few hundred miles of each other (or less), but few provide such an easy mechanism for making connections as Paracelsus, whose early travels are not all known -- but who certainly went a long way in the search for knowledge. A particularly obvious plot would involve the young student of alchemy and medicine seeking out the aging genius Leonardo da Vinci in Italy or France. PCs could become involved if the old man asked the youth for some service in exchange for tuition in anatomy -- or if the cocky young Paracelsus gave Leonardo some information that demanded investigation. Later, Paracelsus could become involved in, say, the more secret machinations of the young Catherine di Medici, who might have found herself in a tricky enough position at the French court to need the aid of an expert in outre arts.

Meetings With Remarkable People

The Court of Gloriana

One of the running jokes between some of us who worked on this book was that it could easily have turned into GURPS Court of Queen Elizabeth I. In the end, only three characters from that setting appear in the book, but there could easily have been many more (and there'll probably be some in volume 2). As her biography notes, Elizabeth had a knack for picking good advisors, and also a taste for the arts. She sometimes employed the services of both John Dee and William Shakespeare, directly or indirectly, and doubtless exchanged at least passing conversation with both; it would be no great stretch to have both somewhere around the court on the same day (and some of Dee's ideas and reputation apparently influenced Shakespeare's work). Though Shakespeare's fortunes rose as Dee's fell, a tongue-in-cheek swashbuckling game could feature both the scholar-cryptographer and the enigmatic playwright -- and if, to borrow an idea from one of Ken Hite's past columns, some of Shakespeare's plays encode arcane information in their plot or language, Dee would likely be the best person in all London to explain it -- or to blame for it.

Dee definitely traveled around Europe; Shakespeare may also have done so, especially if one accepts some of the more romantic theories about his activities shortly before entering the theater. Thus, either could conceivably have encountered Tycho Brahe in Denmark (or elsewhere, if Brahe took a short study trip); Dee and Brahe are certainly two essential characters to appear in a secret magic or "weird alchemy" game set in this period, and as a crankish scholar living on an island, Brahe could be set up as the model for Shakespeare's character Prospero -- although he was, really, a much more earthy figure.

Moving on, one may note any number of leaders and rulers who must have known of each other, even if they never actually met -- Cardinal Richelieu and Oliver Cromwell, for example. (Those two would likely have hated each other, actually; the subtle Catholic eminence was almost the antithesis of the blunt Puritan revolutionary. Both could feature in a "Three Musketeers" based GURPS Swashbucklers game, anyway.) But as world travel became easier, the chances for glancing collisions grows ever greater.

Meetings With Remarkable People

Masonic Mysteries?

One pair of characters in the book with odd links are Benjamin Franklin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One of Franklin's lesser inventions was an improved form of the "glass harmonica" -- a musical instrument consisting of a set of revolving glass disks, moistened with water and played by a touch of the fingers -- for which Mozart composed a piece. This curiosity aside, both were Freemasons -- members of what was, at the time, an international society of generally independent-minded men. They do not seem ever to have met -- by the time Franklin was in Paris, Mozart was mostly based in Austria -- but both were travelers to some extent, and conspiracy-oriented games set in the 18th century could involve encounters with both. (The other noted Freemason in the book, incidentally, is the rather later "Emperor" Norton.)

North, South, East, West . . .

By the end of the 19th century, even those characters who were not noted as travelers could well visit several continents; Norton, born in London and brought up in South Africa, would probably be in San Francisco if Lola Montez' speaking tours ever took her to that city, and Montez could have crossed paths with Sir Richard Burton or even Charles Darwin with little difficulty. The question becomes more whether two characters would have anything much to talk to each other about, rather than whether they could have met at all. Even those who shared interests might suffer clashes of temperament; for example, Rudyard Kipling, a poet with an interest in technology, could easily have been introduced to Alberto Santos Dumont while the latter was visiting Britain, and they would probably have chatted enthusiastically about experimental aviation -- but what if Dumont had made his strong pacifist beliefs clear to the supreme poet of British imperialism? Likewise, Kipling might have met Nikola Tesla on a visit to the USA -- only to be annoyed by Tesla's bizarre personal foibles.

Still, interesting alternate histories could be spun off from meetings that might have been. Imagine a collaboration between Tesla and Dumont, for example (each noted in their time as clever fellows who moved in high social circles); how might the eccentric prophet of electricity have applied his intellect to questions of flight, aided by Dumont's practical talents and experimental bent?

Anyway, I hope that other people have as much fun using the characters in GURPS Who's Who 1, individually or variously, as a lot of us did preparing the book. Right now, I've got to get on with volume 2 . . .

Article publication date: April 23, 1999

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