Clio's MemoryMartin Lloyd February 24, 2000
Clio and I are watching television, The Three Musketeers, to be exact. Not surprisingly she was unimpressed.
"It was nothing like that!" she complains, "I was in that century and it wasn't anything like that"
"But its not like anything." I plead, "It's a story, entertainment. Nobody really thinks it was like that"
"Yes they do, that's why you spend so long telling those roleplaying friends of your what it was really like..."
And she's right. Hollywood, straight to video film makers and anyone who ever filmed any version of Robin Hood (except perhaps Robin and Marion starring Sean Connery) have a lot to answer for. Its all very well for people to complain that no-one has an accurate vision of the past, but its another thing to understand where they would have got one. It is a bit much to expect the Costners of this world to take valuable screen minutes explaining medieval life when they could be escaping from Istanbul in a catapult before trekking from Dover to Nottingham via the Scottish borders. Even in Britain, where the BBC has an enviable reputation for period drama, no-one expects TV to deliver authentic historical life as entertainment.
Clio, of course, has a solution.
"People should just look around themselves a bit more. History is everywhere, its just that most of the time you don't notice it"
She's right. There is an awful lot of history just lying around. From recent times, where idle factories and deserted dockyards stand as mute testimony to the work once done to the doughnut shaped mounds that dot the English countryside, denoting the presence of old hill-forts and communities, now almost invisible unless viewed from the air. So if you're out to get a feel for a period my first recommendation is that you go and look at it. Be it colonial encampment, Civil War battlefield, Ante-bellum plantation or Gold Rush town go and look at it, walk around it and remember that not so long ago this remain was a real functioning part of society, as much as your house, school or office is now.
Of course many of these things should be viewed in context. A hill-fort really is just a doughnut shaped mound of earth unless you've got a little knowledge to bring it to life. Which brings me to the next thing Clio wants you to look at, which is written evidence..
So far I've suggested that textbooks and other scholarly guides are the best introduction to a period, but the evidence itself can be fascinating if read properly. The thing is that a lot of the evidence is quite difficult to read well, and not just because S's look life F's.
At one level, reading source material (the name historians give to evidence) is no different to reading anything else. The words speak for themselves, or do they? Think about it, when you read that Elvis has returned from the moon and will be touring next spring you're bound to be a little sceptical. After all, you almost certainly read that in a newspaper, and they'll print anything to sell a few copies.
Thing is, the men of the past were no more reliable as witnesses than the newspaper editors of today. Take those men of virtue in the church. For a long time in Europe the church was the only source of literate men, and all lawyers were literate. When your society is built entirely on property laws and records of ownership as much of Europe's was (backed up by a healthy dollop of good old fashioned muscle) this puts the church in a rather strong position. They knew more about the law than anyone else, they owned more land than anyone else and they had more lawyers than anyone else. They also represented a massive political lobby. Relying on the church to tell the truth about land ownership is like expecting the NRA to take an unbiased view of gun ownership - it wasn't going to happen.
Take the good old Doomsday book, a staple of the English education system. Compiled by England's Norman conquerors in 1086 some 20 years after the conquest of 1066 it set out to document every piece of land in the kingdom. (The name comes from superstitious peasants who became convinced that an audit so complete could only precede Judgement Day.)
In fact King William was not carrying out Gods auditing, but his own. The book described the kingdom, outlined who held which bits of land and who from. Ultimately of course everything belonged to the king - more or less. In fact everything belonged to the Saxons and the Normans had stolen it. The Doomsday book was a key part in legalising this theft - documenting the legal fiction that individual Normans had inherited the land from their Saxon predecessors.
The book was also part of the Norman's ongoing campaign to control the church. Under the Saxons the church had owned its own land and the king could not redistribute it in the way he could that of his other followers. The Doomsday book documented the fact that Church land was held of the king and was part of a major attack by the monarchy on the prerogatives of the church. In these circumstances the clergy ordered to compile the book had even more reason to be economical with the truth.
"That's all very well" says Clio "But the Doomsday book wasn't exactly thrilling was it? Tell them about something exciting."
"Alright then, I'll tell them how to use source material in their games"
Take this piece of material. It comes from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
"And three Irishmen came to king Alfred in a boat without any oars from Ireland, whence they had stolen away because they wished to go on a pilgrimage for the love of God, they cared not where. The boat in which they travelled was made from two and a half hides and they took with them only enough food for seven days. And after they came into Cornwall they went immediately to King Alfred. Their names were Dubslaine, Macbethath and Maelinmuin. And Suibne, the greatest teacher among the Irish died."
Or, to put it another way three strangers arrived at court, having undergone a journey of some hardship and bearing the news that Suibne had died. This is the sum total of knowledge about these men, but the authentic text adds a little to any scenario you use it in. Perhaps the PCs are hard on the trail of the Irish and discover this entry in the chronicle. Perhaps the PCs were hoping to find Suibne, or perhaps you just use the entry as part of an opening description for a game set in Alfred's' court.
More up to date material can be found in Antony Beevor's excellent book on Stalingrad. Perhaps your players are sent to the front lines, and approaching the fighting they find this letter written by a German soldier
"Father, you kept telling me: "Be faithful to your standard and you'll win" You will not forget these words because the time has come for every sensible man in Germany to curse the madness of this war. It's impossible to describe what's happening here. Everyone in Stalingrad who still possesses a head and hands, women as well as men , carries on fighting"
Material like this helps convey things that players have a hard time dealing with. Like the fact that warfare is a mass of chaos in which finding people is a near impossible task - think Saving Private Ryan here. You don't even need to use material in context. The German soldier who wrote home to his father could equally well be a member of Star Trek's federation fighting on some far flung planet. The veracity of his experience and emotion is what counts.
Try contrasting the kind of orders soldiers receive:
"We shall never surrender the city of our birth. Let us barricade every street. Let us transform each district, each block, each building into an impregnable fortress"
With the situation on the ground where NKVD troops were ordered to shoot anyone who retreated, never mind deserted. For characters assigned to a war-zone from elsewhere the contrast between official reports and what was really happening could prove extremely disorientating.
Photography is another source of inspiration. Glancing through photographs of Stalingrad two images have leapt out at me. One is of an army doctor covered in mud and blood carefully taking down a letter dictated by a wounded soldier. Another is of a surrendering German general being marched past the dead body of one of his own soldiers.
Maybe one of your players is the doctor taking down the letter, and maybe it contains important information. Or maybe your players have just captured a general and killed plenty of men in the process. A photo like this one could turn celebration into sober reflection. It depends on the atmosphere you want to create.
Source material goes a long way toward turning a dull, flat description into a gripping piece of narrative. It also has hidden depths which can become plots in their own right. Next month I'll look in more detail at how to get players to learn about your world and act appropriately without becoming bored. Till then I suggest you start by capturing their attention and hinting at a game so fascinating, dramatic and compelling that they can't help but want to know more.