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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

When in Rome ... Adapt!

by Mithras
February 7, 2002
edited by Drew Meger  
Last column, I began to adapt a set of roleplaying rules to fit a particular historical setting. My era of choice was the later Roman Empire (circa 260 AD), my game of choice was D&D3E. Hopefully you've got your own ideas. You might want to use Big Eyes Small Mouth to run a Wild Wild West campaign, or Pendragon to run a game of Water Margin-style Chinese overlords. Maybe it's as simple as writing up a set of clichs for a game of RISUS Victorians... Whatever the specifics of your intended game, I hope that my discussion here offers some useful advice.

In 'Cut & Paste: D20 Romans' I had space only to examine how the D&D character creation rules fitted my setting. As it happened, they fitted rather well! But bear in mind that I chose the game to exploit a number of its strengths. One of these was the class system, another was its 'over-the-top' use of magic, and yet another was D&D's encyclopedic store of monsters, spells, treasures, and magic items. I'm after a 'fast-and-loose' version of the late Roman Empire, where magic and monsters exist, but where the historical realities of life (and death) of this era are never far away.

I want a fantasy world that is fresh and non-Medieval, but that is familiar enough to me that I make it seem real and can draw upon historical sources to imbue it with historical flavor. I'm not seeking gritty realism, but a veneer of savage reality keeping the heroes within acceptable human limits.

Beginning The Checklist

But game lethality is not the burning issue. What is? The checklist. You need a checklist. A checklist that will answer the question: 'what do I need to address within my chosen game system to infuse it with setting detail?'. In other words how can I make plain old vanilla flavored D&D taste like the Near East in the 3rd century? Taking away the trees and replacing them with deserts won't work. Not on its own, anyway.

The best way to convert your rules is to conduct a quick read-through of the book. Keep a notebook handy. Character creation will come first and take up a lot of your time, as last month's article already explained. Watch out for anything that might not fit your historical setting. As I flip through the D&D3E Player's Handbook I note Table 3-7 Deities needs to be re-written with Apollo, Jupiter, and a number of other popular 3rd century gods in mind. I add it to my checklist. Again, at Table 4-6 Languages I come across another list that can be adapted historically.

I almost skip over Alignment (never really using it in my older games), but a thought strikes me and I make a note on the list to use the rules to provide typical alignments for the cultures in my Roman universe. I'm looking to use anything in the rulebook that allows me to meld setting detail and rules!

I consider changing the starting heights for Romans, then drop the idea as a waste of time. You might not. Humans as a race have never been taller, and you may want to reflect this fact in a historical rules-set. You may be able to get a cultural average and apply that figure to the game under conversion.

Coinage is added to the checklist next. Gold and silver pieces will be easily adapted to the gold aureus and silver denarius. And I'll make the gold coins pretty rare - I want silver to dominate. A rate of exchange will be easily to lift from the textbooks. Next up is weaponry and equipment. This won't be a hard job, just a matter of noting down which weapons have to go (like the crossbow, rapier, glaive, warhammer, etc.), altering any details of remaining weaponry (weights, cost etc.) and maybe adding one or two unique 3rd century Roman weapons to the table.

I'll make a note to do the same with armor. In fact, I note straight away that the armor names are inappropriate, as are the descriptions. It looks like I will have to write up a separate paragraph for each one. I'd like to retain the armor statistics on Table 7-5, but it looks likely that I might have to come up with my numbers as well. I get the feeling armor has been 'de-emphasized' in 3E and I want armor in my setting. Perhaps I can use the armor table re-write as an opportunity to redress this imbalance...

Combat & Magic!

There may be much or there may be nothing to change in your game's combat section, depending on how the combat mechanics reflect your intended campaign style. Realistic rules will emphasize quick kills, blood loss and death, a swashbuckling 17th century game will not. I've spent some time already preparing a list of elements in the D&D3E combat section that need modifying. I want a grittier, nastier-looking type of combat in my historical game. This isn't the place for me to explain the proposals. I make a note on my checklist.

Likewise Magic. I chose D&D3E because it offered such over-the-top classical fantasy magics in abundance, and I want a Roman fantasy! So I intend to alter magic little, if at all. I make a note to change the way in which wizards will recover their spell-casting ability, I want something more tied in with the setting. I don't care much for 'realism' here, more for setting flavor.

Since my wizards will be Philosophers, I might rule that 're-learning spells' will instead consist of carrying out mathematical calculations, figuring out all of the complex math problems that will crop up in the day to come. As a side note I make an addition to the list: schools of philosophy can be represented by the magical schools of specialization. New wizards must choose one, whether Stoic, Cynic, Neo-Platonist, Megaric etc.


The rest of the rules should not prove a problem. I note in the Dungeon Master's Guide the inclusion of NPC classes, and mention on my checklist that I need to equate certain professions in my Roman setting with some of these NPC classes. I make a note of the section on Guilds and Organizations on page 44. I must make up some of my own that will reflect the society of the time! These will provide great story hooks and can give me a way to tie player characters into the setting.

Further on I come across the section on magic items and note with alarm that weapons and armor crop up again in some detail. This teaches me a lesson - cross referencing. Change one aspect of the rules and you must be very careful that you address all of its implications, or you are going to be caught out mid-game. So magic armor and weapons go onto the checklist.

All is not lost, however, as the extensive list of magical items can be used to link setting and rules. Many of the 'Wondrous Items' appear in the classical myths as the paraphernalia of the gods. In 3rd century Rome I have the opportunity to make the connection. So that winged boots become winged sandals of Mercury, the amulet of health can become an ankh of Ra, and so on. One-of-a-kind artifacts may even be the very items used by the gods.

Beyond the Checklist

Once the checklist is compiled, I'm satisfied that there are no nasty surprises hidden away anywhere. Everything should be cross-referenced. I put the jobs in order and begin work, creating a custom set of notes, rules, and tables that I'll keep with the rules as play gets underway. If you intend to run the game for more than one session I urge you to write these customizations up rather than leave them as rough notes on scraps of paper. The idea of the checklist is that you can bring all of your historical modifications together, you are able to access them and use them as easily as the published rules.

Often it is a good idea to conform to the layout style of the game under conversion, writing up weapon descriptions in the same manner as the game, new encounter tables in the same style, and so on. It all makes your work easier to use. After you finish these jobs, the checklist then becomes a conversion log, listing changes to the game for future reference. As you purchase additional supplements you will need to go back to the checklist and add on any new modifications that require your attention.

Then the day will eventually come when someone actually publishes 'D20 Romans' and you find you've done a much better job of it than they have!

Lots of history next month,

Mithras TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras