One thing I haven’t seen very much in the history of the games I have played in is events that don’t have much actual explanation given in the in-game world. For more detail on this, I am referring to events that are mysterious in cause and aren’t hand-waved as a ‘A wizard did it’ or something that will later have an explanation in the storyline. I am referring to things that get put in the unsolved mysteries books and have people examining this over the years trying to come up with a rationale for it to have happened.
An example that would work from a mundane viewpoint is the burning dog rain from Oblivion. Now, while it does has a reason as it was part of a quest that the player was doing where a God had decided to make it rain dogs essentially for the Lulz, from an in-game standpoint, the average citizen has no idea why the rain of dogs came from the sky. It is like the idea of the plagues of Egypt sent by God as seen in this clip from Prince of Egypt.
Some more examples of exactly what I am talking about come from the comic Mysteries from XKCD, seen in the image included here, that talks about the various sort of unexplainable mysteries that have happened and whether there is an explanation or not. For detail on the points mentioned, the website ExplainXKCD covers the topics in detail for each comic and this one is here. Some great examples that I may have to include a variant of in my game are:
- Salish Sea Feet: Over a dozen dismembered human feet were found between 2007 and 2016 on the coasts of the Salish Sea in British Columbia (Canada) and Washington (United States).
- Mary Celeste: The Mary Celeste was a sailing ship found adrift off the Azores Islands, mysteriously abandoned yet otherwise undisturbed, in 1872. Most likely the crew abandoned ship, wrongly believing it was in danger. Its name has become a watchword for mysteriously abandoned ships.
- Kentucky Meat Shower: In 1876, a number of chunks of meat fell from the sky in Kentucky; this was possibly projectile vomit from vultures.
The fact that these have explanations and can be justified in different ways does mean it could have in-game story consequences, or it could just be another random event that happens in the life of people. If we step away from the Paranormal type of events to more normal things with lack of explanation, there are a ton as some are sampled in this RPG.net post. A couple of my favorites from that are the Nazca Lines, Sailing Stones, and the Stone Spheres of Costa Rica. This Google+ Community, Suppressed Transmissions talks about stuff that could be linked to ‘Conspiracies, Secret History, Horror, Alternate History’ to quote their description. One of the first that I ever heard of was the Antikythera Mechanism which was an “ancient analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astronomical purposes. Reminded me somewhat of the star room from Myst where you could see the constellation of a specific date and time as part of a puzzle.
Also, this is without factoring in such things like the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other such constructions that we may understand but might have deeper meaning if you start looking at the belief that many of the world’s most renowned sites sit atop Ley Line meeting points. Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Giza, Easter Island, Puma Punku, Lhasa Tibet, the ancient ruins of Mohenjo Daro, Findhorn in Scotland, the Bermuda Triangle, the Arizona vortices, Angkor Wat, the Nazca Lines, numerous obelisks, and sacred domed structures around the globe are on these meeting points and are connected if you were to draw lines between them. If you begin to think about that
One could, realistically, build a plotline around such connected elements. It has been done in a number of movies, such as Stonehenge Apocalypse, the Syfy movie where the image above came from. Another example comes from Beast Wars cartoon where aliens known as the Vox created standing stones, floating landmasses, a hollow moon, and other such items. You could also look at shows like The Librarians and Warehouse 13 where the magic in the world from the ley lines bled into items that are now housing special properties and need to be collected for various reasons. This could be interesting if you tie in with some ‘modern day’ special events like Manhattanhenge, when the setting sun is aligned with the east-west streets of the main street grid of Manhattan, New York. Could make for an epic scene if something were to happen right at that time, the players trying to compete with the sun dipping below the horizon as a physical example of the ticking clock.
If you want to make things interesting for the players when they encounter it, remember that things may be given flowery names in the writings previously because of how they looked or where they were placed, such as the ‘Sheba’s Breasts’ mountains in King Solomon’s Mines because they are mountains shaped like their namesake. If we start factoring the idea of how magic might ebb and flow in the world, like in FASA’s storyline for Earthdawn and Shadowrun, where you can see various connections such as listed here or here and there is a great detailed historical timeline, so you can see how maybe your world could have times where things were fantastical and then they went back to ‘normal’ and then fantastical again. Speaking of mysteries and Shadowrun, there are some other great ideas you could use in campaigns to give a little mystery and plot hooks, like the great Dragon Dukkelzahn’s Will where the dragon is giving away some things that become plot hooks later on in the story and others which are meant for the GM to use as hooks.
With this ebb and flow of magic, you could have various interesting encounters and scenes. The TV show Roar has a good example of this, where we are in 400 AD and following a young Irish man Conor as he seeks to unite the Celtic clans to repel the Romans. In this, we have one of their opponents being Longinus, an immortal cursed by God for interfering with his plans. For those who don’t know, Longinus was the centurion who stabbed Jesus Christ with his spear during the Crucifixion. The spear was said to become the Spear of Destiny, a powerful artifact, and was supposed to be the only weapon that could release Longinus from this curse. There were other episodes of the show that used Christian, Celtic and Druid mythology along with history to flesh it out. You can see another such example of cross-mythology in the 6 part comic mini-series Thor: Blood Oath where to help friends Thor is tasked with recovering magical apples from Yggdrasil, the skin of Dionysus’ magic pig, Tuatha De Danaan spear, Japanese sword Grasscutter, and then shout their victory from a hill on top the Egyptian temple of Toth.
The source of a strange event could be from anything. Pick a topic that interests you and put it into your game; the idea here is that there isn’t always a reason why it happens, just that something does happen. The Vampire the Masquerade character Caine was based on what could have happened to biblical Cain after slaying Abel and being cast out. Gargoyles had all sorts of elements in its story during its cartoon run, Macbeth, Oberon and the fae, myths from all over the world. It is a smorgasbord of ideas all put into one show and it worked out well. Not everything was given an explanation and it didn’t need it, just that it could happen was enough.