There’s a MtG-related Discord server, which happens to also have a channel for tabletop RPGs. It isn’t very active, but someone noted that Blades in the Dark was available in a bundle of some sort, so that sparked a little bit of discussion, as I claimed that because of how the game approaches the role of players, it’s actually easier to run than D&D, because there is not a lot of planning needed. Someone disagreed, so, as Ryan Hollinger would say, let’s talk about it. (Have I already used this somewhere? Not sure.)
The key to all creativity is having enough reference points. You don’t just come up with ideas from nothing, but you can take various ideas and combine them in new ways. You might not always be able to identify them, but they lie somewhere back there in your mind. Obviously, there are still differences between people. I’m not claiming to be as creative as quite a few artists or scientists, but yes, I can tell you how to run something like this.
In practice this means that you should just be curious. Don’t get boxed into a specific fandom or limit yourself to widely known pop culture properties. There is just so much out there. I often have several books I’m reading at the same time, like currently I’m reading Hellblazer vol 20, a spy novel by John le Carre, a book called Think Like a Mathematician (although when I’m done writing this, I’m probably also done with this particular book), a Finnish book on a prison camp after the Finnish civil war (1918), which happens to be quite close to me, and an artbook on Dishonored 2, which doesn’t actually have a lot to read, because it’s an artbook, but is still quite interesting (I left out several work-related books from this). I have no specific plans for any of these (well, except for the last one, which I bought specifically as a source of inspiration). I don’t actually read as much as I would like and most of what I read is nonfiction. I listen to various podcasts, watch various video essays (and other videos), watch documentaries and especially a lot of movies.
Well, you might need to go back some 30 years to start this… I decided to approach this by describing the sources of inspiration I have used at various points.
For background, in case you are not familiar with Blades in the Dark (and if you are not, I would highly recommend it), it’s set in one steampunk city, where the PCs are a group of scoundrels trying to make their fortune in this dystopian world. My version is somewhat less fantastic than what is suggested by the book.
First of all, the world allows the PCs to form a crew, which can be something like smugglers or assassins, so I decided that the major antagonist would pretty much be a stronger, more established version of whatever the players found interesting. This is common in fiction. Secretive organizations fight other such organizations and so forth. When they decided to be a cult (on which I’m writing a separate article on), I decided to go with a Masonic cult, with strong presence at the upper echelons of the society, largely inspired by Alan Moore’s depiction in From Hell (the graphic novel, not necessarily the movie).
However, right after the first session, I remembered my favorite serial killer. Why do I have a favorite serial killer? Because a couple of friends of mine like to try to make people uncomfortable by talking about this, but it has never worked on me, because the first time this happened, I had just learned about one very weird case.
In the early 60s, in a small backwater village of some 50 people in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Mexico, two brothers arrived. They were travelling conmen, who decided to con whatever they could out of these poor people. Apparently that wasn’t much in terms of money, but what they did get out of the locals was sex and drugs by pretending to be high priests of an Incan god (which tells you a lot because Incans lived way south in South America). The locals went along with it for a while, but eventually decided to demand some results from all the rituals they had been a part of. So, the brothers returned to the nearest larger city and asked a prostitute they knew to come with them t pretend to be a prophet they had been waiting for.
That prostitute was Magdalena Solis and she took her brother, who had been working as her pimp for a long time, with them. Now, we don’t know, but there’s a chance Magdalena hadn’t been very stable to begin with, having been pretty much forced into prostitution from a very young age, but when she arrived and experienced the worship of these people, she… began to suffer from delusions of grandeur and thought of herself as a god. When few of the locals resisted, human sacrifices began. Apparently, there were at least six such sacrifices, although some claim that the remains in their secret place of worship ssuggests many more, but since none of the locals would testify, she only received a sentence of 50 years for the murders of a police officer and a young kid who had been there to show where he had seen a ceremony.
(Not much is known about what happened to Magdalena after this, but according to Google, she’s still alive. I think this might be more of a question of not having information on her death. I couldn’t even verify the year of her birth, which Google states is based on Wikipedia, but the Wikipedia article on her doesn’t mention it. Interestingly, she received a reduced sentence based on her poor background. This seems to be quite progressive these days, when money rules in courts as well. One of the podcasts mentioned that they had tried to find the village of Yerba Buena, but weren’t able to. I can see a Yerbabuena on Google Maps and there seems to be a collection of buildings there, but there is no street view.)
Where did I learn about this stuff? I think I originally stumbled on this blood cult on Murder with Friends, which used to be part of the TYT Network, but was cancelled when they stop producing pop culture content en masse. I’ve since listened to several podcast episodes on this and I tried to get hold of a book on this, but at the time couldn’t find one (haven’t checked in a few years, so it’s possible that the book, the name of which I don’t remember, might now be available).
Based on this real life cult, I decided that the majority of the cult would be from an oppressed minority group in the city, who are waiting for something to help them out of their current situation. So, these conmen (who I haven’t introduced within the game yet, so I’m hoping my players aren’t reading this) are using their brethren as their personal crew of criminals. How does this connect to the pseudo-Masons? I decided that someone higher up learned about this group, tried to control them, but was also taken in by the conmen, because they (as their real-life counterparts) knew some fairly simple trick which would impress people in this world, who are not familiar with how stage magic works. On this I watched some videos on YouTube on the efforts of various skeptics to expose frauds, from Houdini to James Randy (well, these mostly).
What about the cult itself? What are they waiting for? When I needed to make a decision on this, I just happened to have a copy of Ilharg available.
I know one of them plays Magic, but he is not that active (as far as I understand), so I doubt they got the referance.
What else? There’s an inspector, who is investigating the cult as well. As she first came up, I had been just reading up on Vidocq, a French criminal, who became pretty much the first private investigator in the early 1800s. I’ve seen two movies on him (one set in his latter career starring Gerald Depardieu and one at the beginning of his career as a private eye starring Vincent Cassel, even based on those names you know the French take this man seriously) and I’m pretty sure he is the basis for many Holmesian characters (probably Holmes as well). I’ve tried to integrate various methods of Vidocq’s to my character, such as memorizing the faces of everyone interesting (the actual Vidocq would travel to prisons throughout France to memorize everyone).
Besides these, there’s plenty of small inspirations everywhere. I decided that the mansion they infiltrated in the early sessions had it’s walls covered by books, because it’s a good way to obfuscate the important ones (I don’t remember where I first got this, but this method was mentioned in the aforementioned le Carre book). I decided that the people studying a noble family were interested in using phrenology (a pseudoscience of figuring personalities from the shape of the skull) to prove one of their own was the heir of a nobleman the PCs had killed previously.
My point? Just have enough things you can base whatever you are doing on. Of course everything I’ve ever read or seen is going to influence me in some ways, even if that way is miniscule. In order to really play in this sandbox-y way, just learn stuff. It’s fun in itself. I just like knowing and understanding things. It’s part of the human experience.