Tempus Fugit: History for Games
Historical Props - Part 1by Mithras
March 14, 2002
edited by Drew Meger
Tempus Fugit: History for Games
Historical Props - Part 1by Mithras
March 14, 2002
edited by Drew Meger
This month I enjoyed a Viking treat. York (England), my nearest city, hosts a Viking festival each year and has done so for over a decade. The place has strong connections with the Vikings and was once conquered by Erik Bloodaxe to become the heart of a Viking kingdom in northern England. Today, York boasts a fantastic (and historically accurate) Viking recreation based on the plentiful archaeological evidence under the city streets. It's called Jorvik and is world-renowned.
So I booked into a hotel with wife and son for a couple of days to watch the climax of the 'Jolablot' festival. Despite severe flooding the previous day, a scheduled Viking longboat race went ahead. Teams from Ireland, Denmark, France, and elsewhere competed in short races between two of York's bridges. Crowds on the quayside cheered them on and the replicas fared well against the swollen river. As the teams clambered in and out I got to have a good look at these boats - they were beautiful. The carved wooden prows, in particular, were exquisite.
Following the longship races a procession of Viking warriors through the city ended with a pitched battle with Saxons on the green below Clifford's Tower. The procession, the various challenges being made, and the ensuing battle were all part of a retelling of an actual historical episode. I'm sure that every Viking and Saxon re-enactment group in Britain got stuck in! In fact, wherever you went in York you saw Vikings chatting, drinking outside pubs, strolling through the crowds ... a surreal experience.
For the rest of the afternoon we toured the Jorvik centre and its museum, waiting for the closing ceremony of the festival. This was to be a floodlit story and battle, and open to ticket-holders only. It proved worthwhile. A feud between a Saxon thane and a Viking lord over the love of the thane's daughter escalated into full scale war. It ended after much (faked) bloodshed with a torch-lit procession of Viking widows searching for their husbands. The firework display that ended the night had been a big secret, and it was spectacular. It also sent a shiver down the spines of my wife and I.
We'd only just been discussing the grisly episode in York's Medieval history when the Jewish population, sheltering in Clifford's Tower from persecution, were all massacred when the tower was set alight. They were burnt alive. The fireworks were coming from the empty shell of the tower and the bright glow, coupled with the billowing smoke vividly recreated something that we had talked about only an hour earlier.
What has my holiday got to do with roleplaying (besides the obvious historical connection)? The Jolablot festival kicked off a few ideas in my head, and inspired me to look at 'recreation' in the very specific table-top sense. Obviously the Viking re-enactors are full-on LARPers, but LARP isn't really my scene. I'm unqualified to talk about it.
But I do use props in my games; and I don't just mean shouting: 'this is the dagger you see sticking out of the king's back!' while waving a plastic toy commando knife at my cringing players. I want to share some of the historical prop ideas that I've used over the years with you. Use them, abuse them... come up with your own.
I see three types of props that are eminently suitable for historical roleplaying games; 1) Things that players use and see, 2) Things that characters use and see and 3) Out of game props. In this article I'll be discussing the first type of prop.
What do the players use, see, and pick up during a typical roleplaying session? Think about it ... maps, the GM's screen, the character sheet, dice, and not forgetting the entire character generation section in the rulebook. Everything the players look at, hold and read is an opportunity to convey elements of your game's historical setting. Not in an overt 'read this essay on Mayan archaeology' way, but in a very subtle, attractive, and unintimidating way.
Is there a point to it? Well, for most of us there is a finite limit to the amount of historical atmosphere that you can convey through speech alone. Even without resorting to period photos, essays, and other very overt props the GM can get a lot of period flavour for very little outlay by focusing on the player interface.
Character sheets must surely be the greatest contact point for players with the game and they are easily customised or redesigned with your era in mind. Why stick to white paper? There are plenty of nifty paper styles out there, from marble effect (Rome anyone?) to papyrus (Egypt and the Near East), parchment (17th C), and so on. Effect papers cost more money, but consider how often that single piece of paper gets studied, looked at, modified, studied some more - sometimes for months on end!
The same goes for fonts. Obviously they have to be readable first-and-foremost, but the incredible choice of fonts out there on the web provides the GM with a font for every occasion. For example, I dug out evocative fonts for games I was running in 1930's San Francisco, the Wild West, 19thC Germany, the Bronze Age, Stone Age, Dark Age, Celtic Britain, Medieval Arabia, Victorian London, and the Elizabethan age. Using just a simple hand-written style font gets your character sheet away from the form-filling stereotype - none of this has to be historically accurate!
You could also compliment the paper style and font with some artwork. Use either black and white clip-art, or (if you have book illustrations you fancy using and you're not too technical, trace or photocopy the line-art that you need). Keep it small and simple, preferably some kind of logo or symbology in keeping with the setting; hieroglyphs, runes, heraldic badges, or a distinctive weapon or helmet from the period are all good ideas. GMs with a leaning towards graphic design are probably already thinking of adding watermarks, creating faux documents from the period, and other advanced tricks.
Designing a fake document is difficult to pull off successfully, but it does have an inherent coolness about it! And of course it may not always be appropriate since these things are usually going to be fairly modern-era personnel files. The character sheet for a GURPS World War II game, for example, might emulate a GI personnel file. You might think that the personnel file approach means that you have to find an historical original to doctor, but not necessarily. Using a Courier font to emulate type-written script can do the trick, along with including a few useless boxes for 'official use' as well as a department header and perhaps a footer that gives the document's official designation and date of issue. A little historical license is required to create boxes for stats and advantages/disadvantages. Don't get too picky about this. Call them 'test scores' or 'aptitudes' or something. Advantages/disadvantages can be listed under 'psychological or physical evaluations' or something. It will all require some thought.
Dice. How can you get dice to fit the era? Most times you can't. Forget about it. But now and then, you have a chance to add a little detail here too. Running a Stone Age game? Then try a set of haematite dice (drool... I must get myself some of those one day).
For a campaign run in Stalin's Communist Russia you could use red dice sporting yellow numerals. I use a set of six-sided dice in Zenobia I swiped from a Roman boardgame called TABVLA and the numerals are all Roman: I to VI! You might think I'm grasping at straws here, but dice come in all kinds, you never know when colour or style will match the theme of your setting. Of all the suggestions here, altering dice type is probably the one to get least worked up about! But the option might occasionally arise.
Maps, of course, are a staple of table-top roleplaying games. RPG publishers have long recognized the opportunity to convey setting information via the medium of skillful cartography. Obviously you need not think about embellishing the GM's map since we're only interested in adding historical flavour to things the players get their grubby hands on. If the campaign or scenario requires a player's map then you might find it worthwhile to draw it out in a style fitting the setting. Again, you can purchase parchment-type paper and emulate a suitable font or writing style.
If you're stuck for suitable mapping paper, then I have a great tip. Take a piece of normal white paper that's just the right size for your map and smear one side with a used tea-bag. Make sure you really stain the paper. When you've finished, screw the wet paper up and leave it to dry. Step two involves smoothing out your paper and lightly brushing it with cooking oil. Once that's dry, you're ready to start drawing. Depending on your paper, your ink and your oil you might have to experiment a little with this process to get the perfect sequence. Sometimes it looks best if you draw the ink map first before you stain, sometimes not.
As with character sheets, you might want to add a nice symbol or illustration to your map. Keep it simple, out of the way and (hopefully) setting specific. A Roman map might have a Roman eagle or a legionnary standard, an Arabian map might have crossed scimitars or a geometric design; and remember that on a map, colour is a must! I could carry on to the end of this article just explaining how you might go about designing a historical map. This isn't the place.
Suffice it to say that it pays to use language and terminology that springs from your era, rather than substitute modern-day usage. Stonehenge builders lived in (what is now) modern-day Wiltshire, once a part of Wessex, but neither name should feature on a Stone Age map. Neither would the River Avon. Inappropriate labels cut through the ages and break the spell. A little research will give you names used at the time. If you can't find any, or they don't exist, then extrapolate from later periods or neighbouring lands.
My last remark on maps concerns the use of actual historical maps. Sometimes these will be useful and add greatly to the campaign. I have, for example, a thin (and worn!) colour atlas printed as a free giveaway with an issue of the Daily Mail from 1940. Its fully detailed, showing the new 1940 borders and all relevant shipping lanes, rail-links and cities. For a WWII game it is a very valuable resource. But of course the further back you go the less useful these 'real' maps are. I have a photograph of the very first map ever found (a Babylonian map of the world) and believe me, it is absolutely useless as a game resource! Now as the model for my own version... that's different!
I mentioned the GM's screen at the beginning of the article. I've never actually used a screen, my games are universally rules-lite enough to get away with a clipboard and a couple of dice, but a lot of GMs do use them. If the players can live without the tables and charts they display then I recommend you exploit the 'in-your-face' nature of the screen. Plaster it with a montage of historical pictures pertinent to the period. Anything, authentic or not. A movie still from Gladiator or The Messenger, a copy of the Pompeii mosaic depicting the Battle of Gaugamela, a painting of a ship of the line, a photo of Stukas diving on a British artillery position. Inspiring. Visually stunning. Atmospheric.
Before I wrap up this discussion of player props, I should warn you about the overuse of player handouts. Years ago, our AD&D referee unveiled a Viking-inspired campaign complete with a ream of hand-written essays on Viking mythology and culture. He insisted we read these before we created our characters - to groans and sighs of despair. So we pretended to speed read the lot and got on with playing the game; needless to say it didn't endear the campaign to us much! Never mind the historical setting, you should always begin your game with action (and by that I mean in-character play not spoon-fed exposition).
Obviously, by virtue of running your game in some past-time you are going to have to explain some (or all!) aspects of the setting to the players. Perhaps the best way to do this is with an orientation sheet (not sheets!) for their consumption during character generation. Include the most important facts as they relate to available character types. Note that the flourishes you might apply to character sheets are equally effective on this orientation sheet. A couple of well chosen pictures (of people and places) could be worth a helluva lot more words.
Before the game-proper kicks off, you could always hand them a second orientation sheet with a few details of daily life and more campaign-specific information. Avoid essays at all costs!! This warning also applies to setting information you might find in an RPG supplement (such as a GURPS worldbook). Pick out the pertinent facts and put them on an orientation sheet instead.
I've got plenty more to say on Out of Game props and Character Props, so please join me next month! Meanwhile, if you have any tricks or tips of your own I'd be happy to hear them.