Researching the Setting as a Games Master

There are a massive amount of Role Playing Game (RPG) settings on the market today.  And for each of those settings there are probably another ten that have come and gone out of print since the phenomenon started in the 1970’s.  Many of these settings are completely alien to our own existence while others have enough of a similarity to allow for historical research to assist in presentation of the game.  In my in-person game I have gone from a god-slaying relic hunters paradise to now starting a new campaign, largely based on pirates.

It is set in the world of Pathfinder, Golarion as detailed by the kindly people at Paizo.  It may be set in a world of high magic and fantasy but a lot of it is embedded in pure piratical play.  I have been planning to play this campaign for quite some time and now the time is here I actually feel well prepared because I have been immersing myself in the world of pirates bit by bit over this time.  But what was the world of the pirate like?  You ask most people what their favourite pirate story is and most these days answer the Disney Pirates of the Carribean franchise of movies.  Not me though, I like the old books that I used to read like Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, the story of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins.

The new campaign

So what was pirate life really like?  I don’t really know but my game will cover only a smidgeon of the reality of life on the open sea.  I used to sail and I know the hardships of being at the mercy of Mother Nature but I can imagine that the life of a pirate contained a whole lot more pain, suffering and danger than I ever suffered on a yacht.  My game will highlight the tropes of such books as Treasure Island and other pulp adventure books on pirates that followed into the 20th century.  This is my exposure to the genre, being a boy reading the books that my Grandfather read and sitting in school holidays watching the great black and white movies from the 1950’s and 60’s that were pirate based.

Everyone has a bad pirate accent that they can use in game and over the past two weeks I have been using mine liberally.  The players have watched the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and some of them are beginning to speak in the same manner.  My daughter said to me after the first game “How do you know that they really talked like that?” and I simply replied “Because they are pirates.”  After all, what other reason could there be!  But for all my preparation such as reading the modules, preparing the ship, watching some movies and visiting some websites, I have found myself thinking about what my daughter had asked and wondering am I cheapening this experience by not making it as immersive as I can be.

I am now thinking about what were the realities for a pirate and how can I translate some of the more interesting concepts and aspects into the game to embolden and enrich the experience?  Do I hit the library and study what the life truly was?  Do I investigate the roots of the common tropes of the fiction to find out if they are embedded in reality, or are they creations of the very books that popularised the adventure ideals of the pirate lifestyle?  Were there really chests spilling gold buried on lone islands and maps with large X’s on them marking the spot of wealth unimaginable?

When I Games Master (GM) an RPG I find myself continuously trying to one-up myself.  I love gaming and all that it implies and I always try to add that little extra detail, tweak that story in just the right way so that I want my players to remember the games long after they are done.  I want them to remember their games like I remember some of mine.  But is all this preparation the way to do it.  Certainly getting older has increased the depth of storytelling I am able to provide and the depth of emotions I can employ or attempt to manipulate.  But are these, along with the added inspiration that in depth research the things that make a game memorable?

My impulse buy this morning

I don’t really have an answer to that.  My gut tells me that it isn’t while my mind tells me that if you enrich every detail with research, preparation and immerse yourself in the subject that it has to lead to games that will live on in memory for a long time.  As I am someone that is on the surface a very logical person, I tend to follow my head and hope for the best.  I am immersing myself in pirates at the moment and rereading my modules to see where I can add to each of these stories.  Most of my impulse purchases at the moment are piratical themed.  I am thinking of grabbing an eyepatch to use while GMing, and even perhaps finding a tricorne hat to complete the get up.  I bought a RPG for PS3 called Two Worlds II largely because it had an add on pirate story and a brooch with a piratical theme.

Coming together my impulse buys and my need to look at pirates from a new researched perspective struck me in my local news agency.  I was standing in line to purchase my wife the paper (she likes to read the Thursday through to Saturday papers, no others) and I saw a table with bargain books on top of it.  My eye scanned the table as I did not want to get out of line and saw nothing of interest.  That was until I began to turn around I saw the table had shelves almost on the ground and there staring at me was a book called Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crighton.  Michael Crighton tended to be a large researcher and in reality I don’t like reading textbooks too much so perhaps this is one of the ways I could look at pirates from a researched and adult perspective.  I sincerely hope so (it cost me $9 to buy so no biggy).

As you can see, I have given my game a lot of thought.  Once upon a time I used to turn up to give a game armed with nothing but my books and my imagination and shoot from the hip.  I still do this style in my Traveller campaign but I do have a love of sic-fi just as much.  Anyway, as I bought this book I wondered if my preparation is excessive?  I wondered what do other people do and could they benefit from my perspective on how to prepare?  That is what this post is all about, sharing with other GM’s what I do to prepare myself long term for a campaign that I know I will be running.  I have known that I would be running this game for at least nine or ten months and so have taken a long term view to preparing.  Things are a bit different if I have only a short time scale.

So let me know what you do?  Let me know if this helps?  Either way, I hope this has been an enjoyable read.

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