A Mysterious Lady
Welcome, I'm Martin Lloyd and all things going well, I'll be writing this column for a few months. The lady on my right is Clio. You've probably seen her before, sitting quietly in the corner, lurking by some out of the way shelves in the library or bookstore. If you haven't talked to her, it's your loss, Clio doesn't go out of her way to meet people, you have to make an effort - but she is worth it once you get to know her. A fascinating, mysterious lady, and the muse of historians - who occasionally feel obliged to write about her in the first person.
Clio doesn't talk to many people because she is so often misrepresented. Boring, difficult, dry and stale are some of the more common unkind things said about her, so understandably she's a little shy about meeting people. Roleplayers, she feels, are a permanent let down. Despite forever professing an interest and expressing their opinions of her very few have actually bothered to get to know her.
Why should they? After all they have new worlds to explore, dragons to slay, galaxies to conquer and alien races to meet. Clio is rather scathing about this. "I know the truth of all myths" she says, "and those northern raiders from the wastes haven't got a patch on Eric Bloodaxe. There was a man you could really live in fear of. These roleplayers wouldn't know a convincing society if it had hanged them under an obscure clause in its legal code."
Once you get past this kind of thing, she can be quite kind, but given the difficulties involved in getting to know her - the reading of books, visiting of museums and scrabbling in dark corners - why bother ? Well, as a roleplayer who's bothered to make the effort I'd like to make a few suggestions.
Clio, or history as many people call her, has an awful lot to offer gamers. Tolkien, whose Middle Earth stands as one of the most convincing worlds of all time, knew this full well. Middle Earth is peopled by Anglo Saxons, Vikings and Celts if you bother to look closely. Tolkien himself studied Anglo Saxon texts and spent many hours translating and reading aloud both these and Norse sagas. The influence on his own writing is clear to see.
The effect of history on roleplaying world builders is equally obvious. Castle Falkenstein is set in a warped Victorian era, AD & D has placed itself somewhere in medieval Europe, White Wolf have gone to the trouble of releasing supplements for the Dark Ages (well, late medieval ages actually), The Wild West and Age of Reason, among others. Oddly enough the people who play these games rarely bother to do much research on these periods and rely on the books, many of which are themselves poorly researched. (Plaudits to WW and Chaosium Inc. for actually doing some homework here.)
So what can Clio offer? Well for one thing, if you ask her nicely for a background, you'll find that she's got more than you know what to do with. "Anything that ever existed is here," she says, tapping her head, "although some of it I don't remember too well". The good news about her backgrounds is that they're always complete - you don't have to wonder what the kingdom next door was called, or whether stealing food was a capital crime - Clio knows.
You don't have to go far in search of a plot either. Clio knows more about invasions, coups, uprisings, murders, betrayals, scandals and madmen than anyone else. "Want a real villain?" she says. "That Louis X was a right one, having people bound in sacks and thrown in moats, keeping bishops in cages and so on. Of course for all that he wasn't a bad king - even if he did keep turning up to diplomatic meetings in ten hats."
Clio does a nice line in player handouts and GM aids too. Looking for a castle floorplan? You could do a lot worse than Krak de Chevalliers, the 'Bone in the throat of Islam' as the Arabs called it. Need a magic ring or a royal signet? Clio will wave vacantly at the piles of archaeological references in the corner of her room. "There'll be something in there" she says airily, "I suggest you pick something with a bit of a past though - take Charlemagnes lance - he thought it was the spear that pierced Christ's side. When the Carolingians fell on hard times they sent it to the English King Aethelstan as a gift. Nobody knows what happened to it after that."
If you want really unusual magic items, hunt about for what people really thought was magic. "Try the foreskin of Christ," she says. "Oh, don't look so shocked, men could be very practical about religion. After all, Christ was Jewish so he must have been circumcised, the rest of him ascended to heaven following the resurrection but that bit got left behind - or so people thought. No wonder there were thirteen of the things floating about in the fifteenth century. It wasn't like they were averse to making forgeries (or believing in them) - and you can still see some of the jewel encrusted cases they used to keep the things in."
Many of the roleplayers I know say they'd like to get on better with Clio, but it's too much like hard work. They say, why bother with all that research? It's too much effort, they moan, especially for the poor GM, and besides the real world is boring.
Which is rubbish - except for the bit about hard work. WWII with Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Iwo Jima and the horrors of Aushwitz and Hiroshima made the War for the Ring look like a stroll in the park, with the challenge of the Enigma machine making the whole Mount Doom episode look like a minor inconvenience. Captain Kirk wasn't half as interesting as Admiral Nelson and Nero wins the mad emperor prize hands down against any of fiction's attempts. Why? Because they were all real - no-one will ever tell you these things were impossible, you'll never have to fudge or justify the outrageous flaws in your backgrounds. Murdered his mother (at second attempt), his rivals, his children and his wives, and burned his city, impossible they'll say, no one would do that! Ah, but he did, and is all the more interesting for it. Elric eat your heart out.
So what can you do with all this information? Well that all depends on your game. If you're running Space Opera then historical settings are out. But there's no reason your space pirates shouldn't be based on the pirates of the Barbary Coast, or operate as Privateers under letters of Marque like Sir Frances Drake.
Even freelance piracy was a wonderfully complex institution. Anyone pirates captured was obliged (at gunpoint) to sign letters of piracy. From that moment on, even if they were rescued the British Navy would hang them - at sea trials were too difficult and prisoners too much trouble, so anyone who'd signed letters of piracy was hanged. What the pirates got out of this was a guarantee that their prisoners would fight to defend the ship if it was attacked. The only exception to all this was ship's carpenters - at sea carpenters were just too valuable to kill.
Now doesn't that sound like a good plot ? Your star-trekking crew are captured by pirates and forced to sign papers. Since this particular sector of space is under martial law, they're dead even if the navy rescues them - all except for the ship's engineer because he's too valuable to kill. There, an exciting original plot that gives the party a number of moral dilemmas and draws its inspiration from a real setting.
If you're running games in a fantasy setting, just move characters and situations out of history and into your reality. Do a bit of research and unleash Ghengis Khan on your players as a ruthless but brilliant Goblin warlord, albeit one whose lands are marked out by peace, low crime, religious tolerance and free trade. To his foes he is an alien and unstoppable terror, to those who survive his conquest he's the best ruler they've had in centuries.
For me though the real buzz comes from running a full blown historical game. England, 1086 - William the Conqueror has died, Anglo Saxons chafe under the boot of Norman oppressors and hope that the faint remnants of their royal family will return from Hungary to save them. France, 1789 - the revolution sweeps the streets of Paris and the world looks on in horror as the Ancient Regime comes crashing down. America 1858 - the Civil War rages while the great powers of Europe stand by enjoying the spectacle of their upstart rival self destructing.
Even if your players don't want to change the fate of nations, what could make a better backdrop for a game than history? I'd far rather play a character living through the pandemonium of the French revolution with all the images it conjures than have the GM announce there's some rioting going on about taxes. Think about all the films ever set in Vietnam or the World Wars. Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan only work because we know that that kind of hell on earth really did exist.
In the coming months I aim to provide a historical perspective on some thematic issues such as power and religion, and to suggest how these themes can be implemented in roleplaying games. I'll then look at some perennial bugbears such as the feudal system and how it really worked (more interesting than you think). At some stage I'll try and outline the best sources I know of roleplayer friendly information. I may also provide crash courses in particular periods, an introduction to the Victorian era, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance and the Ancient World. If you feel there's anything you'd like to know about post something to the discussion group, that's what its there for.
Feel free to comment on this column, harangue me, criticize my dates, grammar and spelling, suggest new themes and ask questions. I'd love to hear from you, even if I don't have time to reply to everything.
Reading ListGood general introductions to history, what its all about and how its written are