I’m currently working on a Victorian-inspired campaign setting. I know, there are like at least—and this is just a rough guesstimate (not even a precise guesstimate)—forty eight thousand of these out there already. Why make another one? I’ll get into that later. But right now I want to talk about research.
I studied a lot of 19th century British literature (not just Victorian) in grad school, even published a paper, so I’m having no problem finding source material. I’m going as far back as the Romantic era, Coleridge in particular, since Gothic literature continued to influence poets and artists up to the turn of the 20th century. Poe’s in there, too, and all of the French poets he inspired, and Marx’s Capital (lots of vampires and werewolves and ghosts in control of the arcane constructs that are colonizing humanity); I’ve been reading everything from Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna to China Miéville.
I’ve got about 30 books, articles, poems, and films in my “Appendix N” right now. It’s like writing my thesis all over again, and it’s easy to get bogged down, or just to get so into reading and learning and absorbing information, that I never get around to actually writing. So here’s what I’m doing about it: I read a source, I take some notes, and then I don’t look back at it again.
I’m trying to keep the research at arm’s length for a few reasons. Most practically, constantly referring back to what I’ve read means I’m not writing. But I also don’t want to just put a fantasy paintjob on the Victorian era, faithfully reproducing historical details in D&D terms. What I want is to get a feel for the time and to capture the major themes without just doing “Fantasy London” or whatever. I have zero interest in steampunk; my interest lies more along the lines of the use of Gothic aesthetic figures as a way to describe and come to terms with the new social and economic order taking shape in this era. Hopefully this approach will result in a game more interesting than gears on a corset and goggles on a top hat, but steers clear of a super serious, not-your-grandma’s, grim’n’gritty reflection on class struggle, slavery, imperialism, and patriarchy. It’ll be pretentious1, how could it not be, I’m making it, but shit, I like games that let you go into a cave and kill everything and not have to think about the orc babies.
So anyway, the research I’m doing will help me get into the thematic space I need to be in to write this thing, but I don’t want to be shackled to notions of historical accuracy, so once I’ve read something, I’m not going back to it. I have to remind myself that this isn’t scholarship; it’s a game.
1. Pretentious, like having footnotes in a blog post. Reminds me of this classic from Jeff Rients. God, I can’t believe that post is almost a decade old.