Story Seek: Local History & Landmarks + 10 Story Ideas From California

Need some inspiration? Many game writers get ideas from historical events like the War of the Roses, World War II, revolutions of various kinds. But why turn to overused historical events and places when you have a wealth of inspiration in your home town?


  • Inspiration for maps and floor plans (especially if you personally visit)
  • Less predictable plot (small town history rarely makes the textbooks)
  • Learn about your local history
  • Support local historical societies and museums

You might find something interesting in the most mundane things. It could be a historical figure’s weird habits (see Winchester House) or a particular rock formation’s cultural significance (see Morro Rock) or something from the modern times might be interesting (see The Design Village). Here is my list of 5 Californian landmarks near me, each with 2 Plot Hooks!

Morro Rock (and the Nine Sisters)

Morro Rock (By Jeff Krause  via Wikimedia Commons)
Morro Rock (Jeff Krause/WikiCommons)

Morro Rock is a volcanic basalt plug that sits just offshore Morro Bay (effectively a tied island). There are eight other volcanic peaks splitting the valley. They are called the Seven Sisters, Eight Sisters, Nine Sisters or the Morros, depending on who you talk to. Most of residents only acknowledge seven of the Sisters, since two are on private property (Chumash and Hollister) and cannot be accessed. One of the Sisters is called the Davidson Seamount, and it’s actually two miles off the coast and underwater!

Awesome Labeled Panorama, Click for larger quality! (SLOHiker/WikiCommons)

They have cultural significance to the Chumash and the Salinan Indians, and there is actually legal debate over whether or not they can climb Morro Rock, as it is also a Peregrine falcon reserve. Salinan lore says Morro Rock is where Raven’s power resides, and where Raven and Hawk defeated the Snake Who Ate People.

Story Ideas:

  1. Nine serpent sisters were sealed away in volcanoes, but modern quarrying has released one…now she seeks to release the rest
  2. Each peak is occupied by archetypal animals, and one is being endangered by rival towns

Winchester Mystery House

Photo of the Winchester Mystery House
Winchester Mystery House (Library of Congress)

Sarah Winchester received half ownership of Winchester Repeating Arms Company when her husband died unexpectedly. After a session with a Boston medium, Winchester was convinced that the reason her husband and infant daughter met early ends was because the people killed with Winchester rifles were haunting her family. In order to appease them, she needed to build a home out West. And keep building. For 38 years, Winchester constructed a Queen Anne mansion. Seven stories tall with no architect, she allegedly communed nightly with the spirits on how to continue via a planchette board. List of interesting tidbits:

  • 500-600 rooms built (only 160 remain)
  • Repetition of the number 13 (bathrooms, steps on some stairways, place settings at tables, panes on windows, “special colored robes” for her seances, specially-added gas jets on the chandelier. cupolas in the greenhouse)
  • Spider web motifs in stained glass windows
  • Staircases leading into ceilings, doorways opening onto walls, windows between rooms, hidden rooms and hallways—all to throw off evil ghosts that might pursue her and to spy on her servants
  • A bell would ring at midnight and 2 a.m. (marking the arrival and departure of spirits)
  • Winchester never slept in the same room two nights in a row
  • Check out more at this website.

Story Ideas:

  1. Noble constantly constructing a mansion to escape evil entities hiding within
  2. Descendant of weapon creator (guns? or maybe a devastating evocation like Fireball?)  haunted by its victims

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle (By Fietsbel, derivative work: Durova via Wikimedia Commons)
Hearst Castle (Wikimedia Commons)

Hearst Castle was the dream home of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, drawn up by architect Julia Morgan. He called it “La Cuesta Encantada” — the Enchanted Hill. His newspapers were flown in via his private airstrip, which also brought special guests from the Hollywood elite in the 1920-30s. It was built during Prohibition, so it had lock iron gates for its wine cellar. He built two pools: the Neptune Pool (pictured below and featured in a Lady Gaga music video) and an indoor pool modeled after Roman Baths. He had an art collection rivaling most museums. Hearts had the world’s largest private zoo, and while it’s been long gone, you can still see zebra among the cow herds on the property. I’ve been here multiple times, because that’s what elementary schools in my area did for field trips…and apparently my university’s Journalism History class! If you (or a child you know) has read the steampunk Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld, the third book Goliath has a few scenes here and it was amazing.

Can't talk about Hearst Castle without showing off the pool (Stan Shebs/WikiCommons)
Can’t talk about Hearst Castle without showing off the Neptune Pool (Stan Shebs/WikiCommons)

Story Ideas:

  1. Newspaper magnate invites Hollywood elite for mysterious reasons (…psst, Call of Cthulhu)
  2. Private art collector hires people to find misplaced statue…it’s been walking around at night

Spanish Missions of California

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (Rennett Stowe/Flickr)
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (Rennett Stowe/Flickr)

Mission San Juan Capistrano (Lordkinbote/WikiCommons)

There are 21 Spanish missions up California established by Catholic priests of the Franciscan Order to convert the Native Americans and populate the Pacific coastline of the New World with “civilized” folk. Each mission is unique and has its own story to tell—mostly full of racism and colonialism. Californian 4th graders get to make miniature ones as history projects. The one in my immediate area is Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, but I used to live by Mission San Juan Capistrano. It’s definitely more interesting and an inspiration for plot hook #1.

Story Ideas: 

  1. Every year like clockwork, the hundreds of swallows fly back and make their nests at the church. But this year none came.
  2. Party is tasked with establishing religious outposts along an enemy coastline

Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard

Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard Source
Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard (Source)

This is the ultimate in hyper-local history! Every year, Cal Poly SLO (my alma mater) hosts a competition called the Design Village in the experimental structures lab where students from all over build something and live in it for a weekend. Most are temporary, but there are a few there from senior projects past. This area is called the Architecture Graveyard. It has 15 “permanent” structures from years past and makes for a great hike.

Story Ideas:

  1. Rumors of an area strange structures with no known origin appear once a year
  2. Players take part in a remote building competition where contestants start disappearing but their structures are still being constructed


SPECIAL: Gunn’s Plains Caves

Mark wrote up his family adventure in the Gunn’s Plains Caves in Tasmania and how it inspired him with mapping. Here’s an excerpt, but I wholeheartedly recommend reading the whole thing:

Once I was in the caves I could not help but to start looking around with a budding mappers eye!  I started to see paths and formations from the role playing perspective and I was amazed at what I found here.  How many times had I drawn a natural cave and assumed that it had a flat easy to walk on surface.  the only reason it was easy to do that here was because of the walkways they had put in.  Difficult terrain abounded!


Bonus XP: What local landmark could you build a story on? Any more ideas for the above landmarks?

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