Just like our world, a tabletop RPG campaign won’t feel real without a few absurdities.
Check Out This Fantasy History
As the Prince toured one of the Altermann Empire’s outlying regions, his palanquin took a wrong turn into an alleyway, leaving his guard retinue behind. A barely-trained teenage wizardry student approached the palanquin and stuck the Prince with a single magic dart, killing him instantly.
Upon hearing the news, the Emperor blamed the Indeaux Confederation for the assassination and declared war. The Indeaux called upon their allies, the Rotans, which led to the Cenauts coming to the aid of the Empire. The resulting war spread, consuming the realm in in death and flame for years and setting forces in motion that would produce a second, even more deadly conflict later.
Needs a bit of work, right? The whole premise is a bit arbitrary and flimsy. A teenage assassin just happens to be in the right alley at the right time and manages to hit with his spell on the first attempt, and miraculously the guards aren’t present? And all of that leading to not one, but two massive wars?
It is dodgy, it’s a bit too weird to believe. But it happened. As you may have already noticed, this is a fantasy version of Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to WWI, which in turn led to WWII.
Weirdness & Stupidity Abound
Here’s another weird bit of history: the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up because very smart NASA engineers couldn’t communicate their concerns about possible O-ring failures in a way that their managers would understand and act on. Or consider how it is that the term “Indian” became the term used by Europeans to describe people who have always lived in the Americas.
Cargo-hauling vehicles are called trucks in the US and lorries in the UK. In the midst of famine in the early 1930s the USSR imprisoned or killed hundreds of thousands of its most productive peasants. People today watch videos of other people watching videos.
Our world is full of weird, contradictory, frustrating, stupid, illogical bits. And as a commenter in a recent /worldbuilding Reddit thread put it, “If you’ve created a world where nothing stupid, preventable, and bizarre has happened in history, you’ve made an unrealistic world.”
I think of this as The Jumbo Shrimp Rule. In any made-up world there should be plenty of weird tidbits — oxymorons (like jumbo shrimp), nonsensical behavior, strange cultural norms, odd obsessions, inexplicable beliefs — that make the world more than a combination of straightforward ingredients. Jumbo shrimp makes a world feel more real.
Injecting Jumbo Shrimp
When introducing these elements into a campaign I don’t always conjure up an underlying reason until one is needed. Why do all the most badass warriors in this land arm themselves with unwieldy glaives despite their impracticality? I’m not sure for now, but I want to differentiate them.
Later I’ll come to the idea that a great hero three generations ago used a glaive to cut down a fearsome monster, and since then anyone who wanted to be seen as a hero picked up a glaive. Hmm… they probably are therefore also the best damned glaive-wielders anywhere. They can probably do things with glaives that fighters in other realms can’t even imagine, and their glaives are the best-balanced, best-crafted in the world.
The glaive example is something I made up to illustrate the concept of injecting jumbo shrimp into a campaign, but usually I just rip off from the real world. Players don’t have to know the source of the inspiration, but weirdness adapted from the real world usually also has the advantage of feeling weird but not too weird.
Here are some examples of real-world weirdness, some of it humorous, some of it down right horrendous, all of it ripe for ripping off:
- Years of Catastrophe in a Few Months: (Hardcore History 48 – Prophets of Doom — “Murderous millennial preachers and prophets take over the German city of Munster after Martin Luther unleashes a Pandora’s Box of religious anarchy with the Protestant Reformation.” Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is a must-listen if you’re interested in the ugly side of human history, and this episode is chock full of craziness.
- Oddball Sports: Snail Racing — What if this were Dragonsnail racing?
- Consistency Be Damned: Adolf Hitler was of average height and had black hair, but espoused a belief that tall, blond-haired men were the Platonic ideal (except when Slavic of course). Internally-contradictory ideologies are the norm, not the exception. Perhaps the Anti-Dragon League rides dragons into battle.
- Fashion Will Always Be With Us: Anything fashion-related is fair game, and is inherently goofy to outsiders because it is divorced from practical concerns. I have no idea what the far-future equivalent of a mullet-sporting, dayglo-wearing 80s teen might be, but where there are humans, there will be fashion (even if only underground).
- Meanings Change: “Utopia” has come to mean a perfect society in popular vernacular, but the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More describes a nation that few modern readers would consider tolerable, much less ideal. Imagine a PC picking up an ancient tome that has been described as being full of easily-learned and beneficial spells, only to find that it contains some useful spells and some that drain mana while providing no benefit.
- A Villain’s Fixation: 3,000 Pairs of Shoes for One Woman — I’m imagining the villainous CEO of a megacorp who has a personal museum with over a thousand pairs of sunglasses.
- If Everyone Else is Doing It…: Everyone knew the Dot-Com stock market bubble would collapse eventually, but everyone figured they’d be smart enough to get out before the bubble burst. They were wrong. I wonder what would happen if all the survivors of a near-future apocalypse foolishly believed that .44 AMP ammo was worth more than any other round — and traded amongst each other accordingly — until they all realized nobody had any .44 Automag pistols for those rounds.