How’s it going guys, it’s your pal The Chief here! Today I’m gonna blab a bit about Past. So if you’ve heard this before, or already know this, I guess go grab a soda or something and come back when I’m done. I’ll let you know when that is.
d20 Past is a campaign setting for d20 Modern that was released in 2005. Unlike some of the other settings (namely Future, Urban Arcana, and Dark*Matter), it wasn’t released as a full-size hardcover book, but a softcover booklet (similar to Apocalypse), only clocking in at about 95 pages. But even with that seeming comparative drought of information, this book is practically bursting with cool stuff.
In the beginning, it talks a little bit about the point of the book- essentially, regular ol’ Modern is at PL5. (PL, or Progress Level, is a rating used to indicate the relative advancement of technology at that particular time period or society. We, right now, in real life, are at a point that the scale would consider PL5, so the default setting of Modern- i.e., right now- is PL5 as well.) Future covers PL6, PL7, and PL8. (It also talks a little about PL9- read this for more details on how to handle a PL9 game.) Past, meanwhile, is a set of rules geared toward the opposite end of the spectrum- it covers a five hundred year period from roughly 1450 to about 1950, which in Progress Level terms, would make it PL3 and PL4.
(In case anyone was wondering, the lowest on the scale is PL0, and the highest is PL9. Anything below PL3 isn’t covered in the Modern ruleset, and instead is handled by the regular Dungeons And Dragons game, which is PL2, and has its own internal rules for handling PL1 and PL0.)
My point is this- you have all of semi-recent history to play with. Past covers the entire period of time between the Gutenberg Bible and World War II. And seriously guys, so many cool things happened in this 500 year time span. Seriously.
- Columbus landing in the New World.
- The European renaissance (Copernicus, Galileo, Nostradamus, and such).
- Roanoke, then 20 years later, Jamestown.
- The Golden Age Of Piracy.
- The Salem Witch Trials.
- The foundation of the United States.
- The rise of Napoleon.
- The Industrial Revolution.
- The American Civil War.
- The invention of the airplane.
- The first World War.
- The Great Depression.
- The second World War.
That was only thirteen of the major events that happened during that time frame, and all thirteen are more than strong enough to support an entire campaign. (Okay, maybe not the plane one.) And that’s not even counting the things going on during the entire time, like the never-ending line of popes and kings. But this brings me to my real point- adventures. (Also, any of you soda-grabbing readers can come back now.)
History seemed to change by the month during this time. So much was happening, so much was about to happen, no one knew what was around the next metaphorical corner. Which means there’s plenty of room for cool plot hooks and adventures. Using this fantastic backdrop, here’s some of my favorites.
- And Yet It Moves: In February 1633, Scientist Galileo Galilei is brought to Rome before the Inquisition to defend himself against charges of heresy, stemming from his scientific paper defending the writings of Copernicus, which stated the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around- as the then-current decree of the Church stated. History books state that he lost the trial, and was under house arrest until his death nine years later. But why DID he lose? Was he truly wrong, and the Earth WAS the center of the universe? Did key evidence “mysteriously disappear”? Was there a conspiracy to silence him no matter what may have happened? Who’s to say he even did lose? Maybe the “official” history is entirely a fabrication- what if he in fact did win the trial, and the records were altered by the Church after the fact to cover up that they got proven wrong? Maybe the trials themselves were just an irrelevant smokescreen, eating up time and diverting attention away from the real plan- an invasion by drow from across Shadow?
- A Brief And True Report: On August 18, 1590, Governor John White landed on the island of Roanoke, Virginia, where an English colony had been set up five years before. However, to his surprise, the colony was gone- everyone was missing, the houses has been torn down- just a complete wipe. Governor White believed the scant amount of evidence they DID find indicated they had moved to nearby Croatoan Island, but he was never able to investigate, since a storm rolled in that prevented him from making the trip. Unfortunately, no meaningful search was mounted until over ten years later, which ended in failure when they went back to England without ever reaching either Croatoan or Roanoke. Ultimately, that meant there was no definitive proof of what happened to “The Lost Colony”, and their final fate is left for speculation to decide. And that’s where you come in. Why did they disappear? Did they merely move to another island and get forgotten? Were they killed by Native Americans in the area (although most contemporary reports state they had a positive relationship with the nearby natives)? Were they attacked by a raiding party- Spanish, maybe, or French- and then the attack covered up? Hell, who’s to say it wasn’t aliens? Acid rainers? Orc tribe?
- The Nearest-Run Thing: Sunday, June 18, 1815, French Emperor Napoleon I was in central Belgium preparing for the Battle of Waterloo. It eventually started a bit before lunch- some sources say 10, some say 11:30. The battle eventually ended between 9 and 10 pm that same night. While records differ on both the start and the end time of the battle, all records agree that it ended with a near-complete rout of the French- of Napoleon’s 69,000 troops, he ended up with 25,000 dead, 6,500 captured, and 15,000 deserted. Six days later, Napoleon would abdicate the Emperor’s throne. On July 15, he officially surrenders. He would be sent into exile on Saint Helena, an island about one thousand miles from the west coast of Africa, in early October, and he would die there six years later, on May 5, 1821. There are several different theories as to why Napoleon lost the battle, the most famous of which was issued by a contemporary of his, essentially stating that a combination of the poor weather, the timely arrival of a skilled British general, and the incompetence of a French attack near the beginning of the fight made it impossible for Napoleon to win. But what if that’s not the whole story? What if the British army had super-advanced (for the time) tech- machine guns and tanks? What if they had a mob of werewolves on their side? What if the French troops were suffering from a localized spread of, say, mummy rot?
- Seven Hungry Children: The stock market crash of Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, heralded the official beginning of the Great Depression. Over the next eight to ten years, the United States would hit an unemployment rate of 25%, watch the failure of over five thousand banks across the country, get crippled by a devastating drought known as the Dust Bowl, and cause the national debt to more than double in four years. And none of this is even taking into account the effect it had in other countries, most of which were equaled, and some even surpassed. In March 1936, a family of nine was in a smallish town in southwestern California, Nipomo. They had just been in Imperial Valley picking beets, and were on their way towards Watsonville to pick lettuce. Along the way, the timing chain in their car snapped, and they came to a stop inside a temporary camp set up for local migrant pea pickers. The father and two of the sons went into town to fix the radiator that had also been damaged, and the rest of the family was approached by a worker for the American Resettlement Administration. Dorothea Lange was there to take photos of the workers in an attempt to bring the plight of the poor to public attention. She saw this young family, and decided to take a few pictures of them to help her cause. But for about forty years, the identity of the woman in the photos was unknown. Why? Maybe she was a spy, working for some sort of rogue faction- maybe even a foreign power- who were the secret masterminds behind the economic collapse of the US. Maybe her information was purposely suppressed by the government, recognizing that an iconic image of sympathy would help them on the world stage. Maybe she was a member of the first race of men, the Hyperboreans, infiltrating the human race, using a poor migrant worker as a cover, and attempted to minimize the damage done to her mission by preventing her name from leaking, if not her image. (In actuality, a tip to a news reporter named Emmett Corrigan in 1978 eventually revealed her name to the world- Florence Owens Thompson- about five years before she died on Spetember 16, 1983.)
- The Extream Cold: Between February 1692 and May 1693, several trials were held in colonial Massachusetts Bay, primarily in Danvers, Ipswitch, Andover, and- most famously- Salem Town. Mass hysteria had gripped the land, and by the end, twenty people had been executed- most of them found “guilty” of witchcraft- with another five dying in prison. But why? Why did this happen? What caused these people to unnecessarily condemn 25 people to death? Was it, as cited earlier, mass hysteria? Was is ergot poisoning, as someone has posited? Or infected rye bread? Was it something more simple- mere cases of spite, jealousy, and petty backstabbing? Was it a natural effect of what one author called “isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process”? Or was it something more insidious- a government (not necessarily their own) conducting secret tests of a (to us) primitive mind-control apparatus? Maybe there was a lich or a vampire living in the woods outside the towns, attempting to keep the minds of the townsfolk occupied while he went ahead with his own inscrutable plans? Or perhaps a dragon demanding sacrifices?
Well, guys, I hope you enjoyed that one, because I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it! What I’m trying to say is, play some Past- you’ll have oodles and oodles of perfect opportunities for every situation you can think of. Just remember these two things-
- History is a playground.
- History is written by the winners.
In other words, what we know as “the past” is only “what happened” because we were TOLD that’s what happened. Who’s to say it didn’t play out some other way? Or for some other reason? And even if it is true, so what? That doesn’t mean it still needs to be true for your game. Players will assume everything that happened before the start of your game happened as commonly known- and any good DM has already thought of several different ways to exploit that by the time I get to the end of this sentence.
My point is (I have a lot of points- I think this is the third one so far in this article, though in my defense, they’re all basically restatements of the same idea), it’s all about playing with history- and that sentence is perfectly summed up with d20 Past. That’s literally the whole purpose. The book even contains a section, prominently displayed, right in the front of the book, detailing ways you may want to approach the usage of history. It also, uniquely among the campaign settings, contains a bibliography detailing books you can read to get a better understanding of the time, culture, and world of the period you choose. (For those of you looking for it and insisting it’s not in the book, you’re correct- it was released as an online only errata/web enhancement on the website.)
And that’ll be it for me, dear friends! This is The Chief once more, wishing you luck in your gaming career, and your life career Please join us next week- I’m planning a writeup on my favorite monster in Modern! Who or what, you ask? Find out next Sunday!
The Chief (everything is awesome)