Crossing over: bringing modern characters into TFT and other fantasy RPGs

March 31, 2022 at 9:16 pm

“The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity.”

— Grant Morrison

Fantasy fiction — from the Connecticut Yankee to the D&D cartoon — is filled with tales of people from present-day mundane worlds being transported to different dimensions to fight monsters, save damsels, and live a life more heroic. But strangely this is not a very common aspect of fantasy gaming. What if you could take modern (or near-modern) personalities and drop them into your favorite fantasy setting? And what would that look like?

Realistic not real

The first step would be to ignore a number of real-world problems that would get in the way. A person from the modern world would not have resistance to many diseases and ailments that afflict people in a pseudo-medieval world, and the lack of hygiene and food safety would play havoc on them. Not understanding the language would complicate matters, and not having a connection to or understanding of society would give them few options. Worst of all most of their skills and knowledge would be useless, and most of us only have a vague understanding of things that would be helpful. But where is the fun in that?

Someone from today’s world would have several advantages if they could survive or ignore the above. They would be (depending on the era that is being replicated) taller on average, and free from the effects of poor nutrition and lack of treatment of childhood diseases and other mishaps. If they have poor eyesight, they probably have corrective lenses that make them the equal of any scout. They might not have the fitness of a farmer or yeoman used to 12-hour days six days per week, but their baseline health would undoubtedly exceed those cramped in crowded cities or struggling for basic necessities.

Social abilities like carousing, sex appeal, or charisma would transfer more easily across the ages, although the travelers’ lack of grounding in these new societies could make them more difficult. A faux-medieval era would have more restrictions on the actions of women, or socializing among those of different social classes might be frowned upon.

While no smarter, the kinds of thinking modern people are trained in would be very different. Literacy in their native language is a basic standard, and even a high school graduate’s math skills are more than most scholars and engineers. People of previous eras needed to keep vast amounts of information in their heads, and their ability to memorize things must have been great. But a modern person’s facility with abstract thinking and problem-solving might even be seen as magical — or heretical depending on who they share their thoughts with.

Many common ideas might be dangerous to promote in a medieval setting, but modern thoughts on equality, freedom, and emotions give us an empathic understanding of others’ motivations that could be very helpful in commercial or diplomatic situations. Given the right circumstances, a tall, good-looking, charismatic personality might flourish in this strange new world.


Choose your path

There are as many ways to be transported as there are worlds to visit. Narnia can be reached through a cupboard and Thomas Covenant reached ‘the Land’ by stumbling in front of a cop car. The prevalence of Gates in fantasy RPGs (and the Fantasy Trip in particular) makes this an unimportant distinction. What happens after you arrive is the fun part. There are a few different ways to approach this.

Fish out of water is the most realistic way this can play out. People from the modern era would have limited useful knowledge and skills. If a character was a tradesman or a farmer, for example, their knowledge might be relevant, but their experience also relies on modern equipment unavailable in this new world. Just because they understand the theory and practice of a jackhammer or combine, they probably do not have the skills to recreate such implements.

Other skills might be transferable in limited ways. A modern hunter is not nearly as at home in the wild as one who hunts for their sustenance. Nor is archery or fencing as applicable when the targets shoot back and the opponents are swinging axes at your face. Characters in this approach would have to live by their wits and would need to improvise greatly until they managed to pick up the tools and talents to make their mark.

Sleeper cell is a gimmick that allows a modern character to quickly acclimate and get on with heroism. Like in Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, a modern personality could find themselves inhabiting a body from the fantasy world, complete with relevant knowledge and abilities. Perhaps they are two facets of the same person living in parallel dimensions, or the awakening of the mundane person’s heroic destiny. In TFT, Wizards or Heroes would be created normally, and the role-playing would be informed by other-world personalities overlaying their fantastic hosts.

Parallel prowess is a similar idea, except that fantasy world powers would grow out of the personalities’ real-world skills. Where the bookish Wiccan suddenly has mastery over arcane powers, the baseball champ picks up a mace like he’s held it all his life, or the Tae Kwon Do teacher can now perform the quivering palm of death. This could be fun if the players modeled their characters on their own strengths, and re-cast themselves as heroes of fantasy.

Away team is slightly different in that the characters make the journey into fantasy on purpose and with preparation. Rather than getting swept away to Oz by a tornado, the characters know about the gateway and perhaps the destination and make the leap consciously. These characters could have access to modern weapons and armor, communications equipment, and tools specifically for the task. A journey across the troll moors could be made much easier with a flamethrower or two. For TFT players, GURPS has sourcebooks for almost any genre that could be leveraged, and our own Territorial Expansion options could be used for western heroes to travel to Cidri. This is probably best suited for shorter story arcs as ammunition runs out, batteries die, and specialized equipment could be smashed by ogres or stomped on by dragons. Alternately, the characters might have access to their own world for re-supply, or manufacture ways to replenish their stores. Characters like these would probably disrupt a fantasy world unless they were bound by some kind of ‘prime directive’ to keep their presence unfelt by the populace.

Through the looking glass

Once you’ve decided on your approach to a fantasy world crossover, you need to determine what the character will do once they are there. The most obvious answer is to get home. Perhaps the Gate only works in one direction and the exit must be found. Or the heroes are the subject of prophecy and must perform some action before they can return. Making allies, uncovering mysteries, and facing strange beasts on their path back to the mall where they started.

Or, maybe the portal was created by an evil force that stole something from the modern world and needs to be stopped before unleashing chaos. Even worse, the force might be marshaling its forces to invade Earth and must be stopped before Iowa City gets overrun by orcs.

Perhaps it’s not malice. Maybe a Gate between the worlds was discovered by accident and creatures from fantasy start wandering out from the alley behind Starbucks. Are you brave enough to step into that shining light by the dumpster and find a way to close this dangerous portal?

Most adventure tropes can be tweaked to engage strange adventurers from distant worlds and faraway times. There are no limits when you open your games to the multiverse of possibilities. What would you do to bring modern personalities into fantasy words (or even the other way around? What have done in the past? Let us know in the comments below.