by Jay Law
The Bard wrote, “What’s past is prologue.” To the mind of this GM, that can be taken quite literally when planning a game. The thing is this: No matter how creative, exceptional, or brilliant any one person can be, they are still just that. One person. Throw some more minds into the mix, toss ideas into a collective hopper, and you’ll see more variations on a theme, more permutations, and more brilliant ideas rise to the fore that you possibly could with just one of those folks holed up in a dark closet, rocking back and forth while summoning concepts out of the ether.
Now look at the past. How many minds were involved? How many schemers plotting? How many brilliant plans have been laid out, how many tried—win, lose or draw? And it’s all out there, waiting to be plumbed for use in your games, if only you leverage them.
This has been done to great effect in fiction. One of my personal favorite authors is a cat by the name of Tim Powers, author of books like “The Drawing of the Dark”, “The Anubis Gates”, “The Stress of Her Regard” and “On Stranger Tides” (No, not the movie. Forget the movie. Really. Please. It has nothing to do with the book). What these titles, and so many of his others have in common is that they take a historical jumping off point and weave fantastical fictions around them, creating a whole new web of nuance and recontextualize the mundane (if fascinating) history into something all new, something all his.
For my own part, I tend to chart a similar path. Take for example one of my favorite scenarios—“Operation Fat Rat”. It’s a one-shot for the Wild Talents system that asks the question “What if the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 had a cause different than that which history offers?” Without giving anything away that’s not in the blurb, suppose there was a singular, non-descript American citizen that was so intensely important that the Soviets would risk war with the United States to spirit her away from her family in Minnesota to an airbase in Cuba, for a flight back to Moscow. Suppose then that NATO shared the thought that perhaps this one woman was just that important, and would plan an actual invasion of the island nation as a diversion to the real mission—a black op to retake her, and bring her back to the US. What is so special about her? What steps would the USSR take to protect their prize?
This approach can be taken with virtually any event, with any wrap-around pretext you’d wish to build it on. The reasons can be all yours, 100%, just like Powers’ are his, and Fat Rat is mine. There’s still a lot of room to build a concept and exercise creativity, but by basing the game in known events, it allows the players additional context to buy into the game, and understand the setting.
And that, friends, is how the past can be your prologue.