by Tobie Abad
Find inspiration and ideas from real experiences that one gets when travelling to a different country. Here are some ideas which I've had based on experiences I've gone through during my many trips to different parts of the world.
When I was studying film at UCLA under the New York Film Academy, I had a host of classmates from both different parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico. There was a lunch I had with some classmates that I would never forget because the discussion just made me realize how little some of us really knew of each other's countries. A classmate learned I was from the Philippines and very eagerly asked, "Since you are from the Philippines, how long do you have to travel in order to use the internet?" At first, I was flabbergasted. Why would this guy think that? I know my country was referred to as one of the "third-world countries" in the past, but did it really make people think the internet... or better yet.. the computer was so "rare" a thing for us Filipinos? His succeeding question cleared things up more for me, "The Banawe Rice Terraces... must be nice seeing them every morning in your bahay kubos?" It was a matter of representation. Any Filipino Cultural events overseas feature our ethnic history and traditional roots such as the tinikling dance, the bahay kubos, these were very symbolic of the Philippines, and yes in some rural parts of the country there are Filipinos who live in such. But then I realized when someone mentions to me "Antartica" I think desolate ice landscape like in the cartoon Happy Feet. I fail to think there are houses and buildings there. When I think "Hawaii", my brain conjures up images of nothing but beach resorts and volcanoes. But Hawaii actually does have buildings too.
|The grandeur of Banaue Rice Terraces. Photo by Jose B. Cabajar|
This Honest Ignorance is an aspect you can add to your games whenever your players explore a new territory/land/colony/planet in the game which has a notable feature or location. Maybe the City of the Dead turns out to have a thriving red light district and night life with dancing lights and towering alcoholic drinks. Maybe the Fortress at the Ice Wall turns out to have an active green forest sanctuary beneath the icy walls, kept alive by natural hot springs. Maybe the Forest Planet at the edge of the system turns out to only have the forest as its "preserve" area and 80% of the planet has become a massive tourist honey pot with numerous space stations, hybrid karaoke bars and interplanetary restaurants.
Because, yes, it does happen in the real world. So there's no harm in revealing that Hobbiton might actually have a small Humantown around its fringes, where human settlers strive to live amongst the hobbits in peace.
What Works For the Local Stomach...
In a trip to Hong Kong once, I could not resist a chance to dive deeper into the cultural experience by having a taste of some local food hawker's cuisine. It was some bread thing that was deep fried then rolled onto reddish powder. Admittedly, it was delicious. An hour later, my stomach was cursing the universe. I wasn't sick or ill. I was, however, realizing my stomach was not used to the food (whatever it was in the end, I honestly never got to ask again!) Likewise, many foreign friends of mine have braved stuff which we locals feel are ordinary street food including the (thanks to shows like Fear Factor) "infamous" balut, which is a boiled fertiziled duck egg, and at times have a moment of being uncertain if they have a bum stomach for the evening or not. While usually the symptoms pass quickly, or at least, are expelled once the toilet is visited... the idea of safe, local and edible cuisine having a temporary adverse effect on the player characters is another angle to consider throwing at them.
Maybe the undead Warlord they visit offers them sauteed corpse-eating rats, or maybe the intrepid adventurers try some of the local fruit from a nearby stand... and before the next hour passes, their stomachs make it quite clear that it did not like the decision they made. Maybe the dignitary the team was to protect who suddenly falls ill was never really poisoned by a non-existent enemy, but merely stole in a few siomai to try and instead had trouble digesting it afterwards. Or maybe at that alien planet the heroes visit, the stalls with beheaded roasted alien heads turns out to be just carved bacon in the shape of their race's heads which for them is as acceptable as us humans "displaying possible clothing on petrified remnants of our women, men and children."
|Sri Mariamman Temple. Taken by Terence Ong in May 2006.|
Religious Practices can be inherently scary to the outsider.
I recall how when my partner and I were at Singapore, I chanced upon a temple that was beautiful and frightening at the same time. The Sri Mariamman Temple was colorful and filled with so much imagery, I could not help but feel somewhat intimidated by its massive presence. Other than the fanged figures and blue-skinned gods, there was the real fear of doing something that a local might find insulting, or offense to their faith, and the presence of the temple might "permit" them to punish me for the transgression! This same experience can be something translated into a role-playing game scene. Take any local deity in the game, consider its religious practices, and find a scene the player characters can bear witness to without being given the proper context. In the Philippines for example, during Easter, some practitioners engage in what seems to almost be a competitive display of ascetic ritual of self-flagellation, bearing of tremendously heavy crosses, and in many cases even actual crucifixion! Imagine if a similar practice happens in your game world, and the players chance upon the event without knowledge of it? What if the practice was a "reenactment of the martyrdom of a Saint" and what the players think they see is a criminal act in progress that others are merely watching unfold? Or imagine an alien quadrant where wearing the remains of your recently deceased relative is a common practice, and when the players visit, they see the crowds walking around with dismembered hands, heads, and the like hanging from their belts.
While this might be ripe for comedic value, this can also be a good way to reflect how our own human practices may seem alien, unthinkable or unacceptable for outsider civilizations. Maybe in one magical island, the act of kissing is a formal declaration of goodbye, suggesting one or the other will die within the day. And maybe the foreign hosts surround the two player character lovers with so much gifts on that day, since they assumed the two were saying their farewells.
Lost is Lost
Finally, new locations always mean getting lost. Yes, the group is camped at the Red Lion Inn. But who is to say there is only ONE Red Lion Inn? Maybe those markings under the sign actually were meant to specify which one, just like how there are many branches of a said hotel in a single country. Maybe the map the players purchased is no longer updated and many roads have been renamed a few times.
Maybe the city actually changes on certain hours of the day. Maybe the modular city of Gestappe in the Orion Cluster has five configurations, each one for a certain ten hour period. Or maybe its as simple as the route the player know can't be backtracked on vehicles due to all the darned one-way roads.
|by Jen SFO-BCN|
Maybe you can then throw stuff in modern day travel into a medieval or science fiction setting. Consider Couchsurfing. What if some places have people who allow spirits/aliens to possess them to "visit" the location as a tourism thing? And what if a crime was committed during such a moment? Or what about areas which are intended only for locals? Maybe the players discover as "tourists" they are not permitted to interfere in certain activities, no matter how mundane. And a single act of charity on their part to help becomes a huge issue as some see it as outsiders imposing their influence on their privacy. Those tourists going around indiscriminately taking pictures of anything they want? Imagine a bunch of wizards who visit your town, then cast spells indiscriminately to make clones of the people they find fascinating to "bring home with them." Or aliens who take "copies of your memories" to watch when they get home. Ideas such as those can be a story arc onto themselves.
There are a lot of gaming scenes and sources of inspiration to be found in real life experiences. Keep an eye open and always know that every single day has something you can throw into a game for more fun.