So You Want To Write An Alternate History

A few years ago, I played in my first (and currently only) GURPS game. It was set in the early Age of Sail, using GURPS rules for tech levels where we had to find a new heir to the crown in Tudor-era England after an explosion kills Henry VIII. The game was, in predictable fashion for my group and the system, a little wacky: the leader of the sailing expedition had neglected to put points in either sailing, swimming or leadership. The doctor was a manic depressive pyromaniac (aboard a wooden ship). Our priest was actively planning to betray the party, and the rest of us learned it, leading to each trying to out-scheme each other. The game never finished, but for all the craziness, I still have fond memories of it.

Jump to years later, a weird confluence of events leaves me with a head bursting with ideas for a campaign. Just as this is happening, Genesys is released by Fantasy Flight gGames and a few very talented individuals publish a review about it. While chatting about this new system, I made an offhand remark, something along the lines of, “The only way I can explain this setting is if our characters from Age of Sail really mucked things up, hahaha.” As I sat back, smiling at the thought, something began to gnaw at me. What would have happened?

“Oh my god..” I said, as I began to mentally tally up years. “I can make this work. I have everything in place. I have everything I need to write this campaign. All I need to do is write an alternate history, and then everything will be easy!”

Let’s cut to months later, and my setting is nowhere near complete. There were plenty of surrounding reasons why, but one thing I ran into was that creating this alternate history wound up being so time consuming and difficult that I began to slip.

I don’t say this to deter people. Alternate histories make wonderful fiction settings, and offer opportunities to ask “What if…” questions that you might not get in a standard Dungeons and Dragons campaign, or even a post-Apocalyptic setting such as Apocalypse World. It also means that you are doing enough research to gain some of the benefits to using real world locations as settings. It’s the basis of plenty of video games (Bioshock Infinite and the Wolfenstein franchise immediately come to mind) and is the core of the Tabletop RPG Deadlands. Instead, what I want to do is share my Do’s and Don’ts that I discovered throughout the process.

Do: Strike While the Iron is Hot

Scrawl down whatever ideas you have. Assume that you will forget anything that you don’t have written down. Inspiration can come from countless sources, but you often get a head of steam at the start and begin to slow down. While you can, get down as much of your total vision as possible.

It helps to ask the question: “And then what?” Make a change to history: a different adviser is favored, a battle is won or lost. Think of the consequences of that action, and scribble down what you think they would be. The more you ask that question, the more you can find yourself writing.

Do: Research the Time Period

It should probably go without saying that if you want to build an alternate history, you ought to know a bit about the real thing. Going in completely blind while first coming up with the idea is fine, but it also opens up the door to screwups. It is a wise move to read up a bit so that fewer things can catch you unprepared. The fact that you might be wrong about something is less important than the fact that almost inevitably a player will come and point it out. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but one of the goals a GM has is keeping their players immersed. Glaring flaws can break that suspension of disbelief.

Research can come in a multitude of sources: Wikipedia articles, documentaries, academic articles, friends, or even historical dramas. (The Tudors has played in the background during some writing sessions). Used book sales are great tools, as they will often have odds and ends and things out of print that can set off a spark. (And never forget your local library! – Ed.)

Don’t: Get Obsessive in Your Research

Somewhere along the way, I contracted Wikipedia distraction syndrome. There were too many interesting points, too many ideas, and I had to keep finding out the next step. It was too much, and I began to panic that I wasn’t able to finish it all. After a particularly busy week at work, I returned, sat down and realized that I couldn’t remember what half of the things I had researched were for.

In the end, I began to ask myself a simple question: Is this something my players would want to base their characters around? The more I asked, the more I realized that a lot of it was me trying to be clever. Suddenly, writing became a lot easier. You don’t need to perfectly remember true historical details, because with enough time, you can use For Want of a Nail logic for however you want to take it. You don’t need everything, just enough that you have a ready answer, and even a wrong one (from an objective view) can be used as a storytelling tool.

Don’t: Throw in the Kitchen Sink

I know! When you come up with an idea for a campaign, and everything is clicking, there are often more ideas than you know what to do with. The problem sets in when things stop immediately clicking, and you look at your notes and wonder how you are going to fit it all together. The truth is, you don’t have to. Nothing is stopping you from taking something out, or not explaining it right now, other than the fact that it’s something you’ve grown attached to. A warning sign here is if you are trying to come up with more things to make the previous things make sense. If it’s not there, let it go for right now. You can always potentially find a way to work it in later.

Do: Let Your Players Throw Their Ideas into the Setting

For a GM, players are an invaluable resource. You are, after all, ostensibly making the setting for them, so their input should be a part of it. Importantly, they are a fresh set of eyes, and a sounding board for you, and they will carry with them experiences and knowledge that is not your own that can make your setting better.

I can remember asking the GM from the old Age of Sail game if he remembered some of the details, and he asked me why. When I explained it to him, it was less than five minutes later that I got a message back going “OH! This is what I want to play!”

It was a character type that I had not even considered making, but it made a bunch of the other things that I was struggling with make sense. More than that, it got him invested in the game, and it gave me more clues about how I wanted to build it.

Don’t: Refuse Outside Input

When someone works on a creative project, the last thing that you enjoy is when someone else rips it apart. It sucks, and it is absolutely vital to the process. Things will make sense in your head internally, and it’s only when someone who hasn’t been deep in your head get a look that flaws get noticed. Ideally, you have people who you trust to be editors, but even then there is a very good chance that players will bring up something you missed. Rather than being frustrated, you can use it as a way to get that player invested: ask them how they would fix it, and build the answer with them.

Do: Leave Openings for Players to Write the Plot for You

You will see one word pop up a lot in this article: invest. Simply put, how do you get your players to invest in and care about what’s happening in your game? The easiest way is to get them into the head of their characters, and tailor encounters to include things that involve them. There are plenty of games which include mechanics for this: the Obligation system in Edge of the Empire keeps a list of tailored threats that might strike at any time, and when they do, they are personal. Other systems, especially ones with a White Wolf background, offer Merits and Flaws, where players willingly take on flaws for a mechanical advantage. These can include hated rivals, or a malevolent force that follows you, or a neurosis that a clever GM can use to build the plot.

It can also be done subtly. One player in a recent game really wanted a certain item, and the GM gave it to him…but made him clear up a point about his background as a noble as part of the process to explain how he got it. With his backstory expanded, the GM found a way to involve him in a grand conspiracy…with his mother as a major antagonist! Very often, players will hand over extra plot hooks willingly. Games which integrate them well have a better chance of resonating with the players, and you have an opportunity to start from scratch on the setting to bring them in. Use it!

I hope this has been useful. Hopefully, I will have more for you soon about actually building a setting using Genesys, and with some more luck some Actual Play logs after that. In the meanwhile, I want to hear stories about settings you’ve built, and the difficulties that you’ve run into. 

Header image from Onward to Venus, with art by Greg Broadmore and Peter Dennis.

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