Tempus Fugit: History for Games
When? Where? Why?by Mithras, edited by Drew Meger
July 18, 2001
Tempus Fugit: History for Games
When? Where? Why?by Mithras, edited by Drew Meger
July 18, 2001
"The first, and one may say the most necessary, task for writers of any kind of history is to choose a noble subject and one pleasing to their readers" Dionysus of Halicarnassus
Historical roleplaying games have been around almost as long as the hobby has. Right at the beginning we had the richly detailed historical settings of feudal Japan to play in (Bushido), the strictly hierarchical world of Napoleonic sail (Privateers & Gentlemen), the Roaring Twenties as depicted in Call of Cthulhu and Gangbusters, and the Wild West of Boot Hill.
As the hobby progressed new historical vistas opened up, but some remained far more popular than others - and remain so today. Feudal Japan enjoyed countless reincarnations and is currently the inspiration for Legend of the Five Rings. The Wild West is alive in the form of Deadlands. Call of Cthulhu remains the best-selling period RPG on the market.
These eras are ripe for gaming and the fact has been recognized by designers. But I for one recognize that there are a hundred other equally game-able settings out there. And with a little rewarding work any one of them can be turned into a great RPG campaign. But why bother? Who needs the hassle? Why not create your own fantasy setting? Good questions. Using an historical era is a double-edged sword, really. On the plus side, you get a fully-detailed and consistent world to play with. You get access to all the game aids of historical research from costume designs to maps, floor-plans, royal houses, detailed chronologies, information about food and drink, illustrations of coins, ship deck-plans, weapon types, important personages, political scandals, revolutions, secret societies, wars, and spectacular events. It's a ready-made world waiting only for the player characters to step in and breathe life into it.
Of great importance to those who care - the world is logical and consistent. And for history fanatics like myself, there is a distinct thrill to be had at roleplaying within a well known historical era, interacting with famous people and institutions, visiting well known locations, or actually being present at a key historical event. Am I alone? I hope not!
Of course, there is a negative side as well. First off, you have to do all of this research and that can be time consuming. The era can be very limiting in the types of scenarios it can offer you, or in the kinds of characters it allows. For players of GMs who require much more freedom of action or thought, most historical settings are way too restrictive. No horse-riding? No iron? No female adventurers? No flashlights? Pah! One way around this is the introduction of 'setting-appropriate' magic or high-technology, but that's something I want to explore at a later date!
If you're reading this article then I'm hoping you want to give straight history a chance - or are at least interested to see how it can be done ...
Your first consideration is: what era? You want to try something different, right? Something not done in a published game before. I personally recommend that you have a look at those settings you're already familiar with. That familiarity will speed up your research significantly. Know about WW2? Then how about a game of French resistance fighters? If your tastes run to Arthurian legend then consider Dark Age Britain. Play to your strengths.
This basic fact has to be addressed: check out what's already available on the shelves. You can save a ton of research simply by picking up Pendragon or GURPS Camelot. Steve Jackson Games' GURPS line has become the essential stopping point for historical gamers since its worldbooks are authoritatively written, well-researched and comprehensive.
Let's say, however, that your chosen era has no published equivalent. You fancy running a game set at the dawn of history - with Sumerian or Babylonian city-states competing for resources, god-kings like Gilgamesh or Hammurabi leading chariot attacks, life over-shadowed by the stepped ziggurats and their powerful priesthoods. You have images of Hollywood epics, casts of thousands, deserts, and lush irrigated gardens (like I said - play to your strengths ... this is something I know about!).
Now what? First off - don't be proud. Begin your research small and work up. Don't go ordering J.S. Cooper's 'Sumerian and Akkadian Royal Inscriptions. Vol I: Presargonic Inscriptions' from Amazon.com, thinking that any research is good research. As a GM you do not need to find out everything you can about your period, you need to find out as much as you need to run a game.
Feel no compunction in turning to children's history books. These offer short but very broad accounts of your era, they take nothing for granted and are usually lavishly illustrated. A modern trend in British history teaching is to focus more on 'how people lived' than on following wars and dynastic politics. For roleplayers this is a good thing. You can also pick up a broad overview of Mesopotamian history from an encyclopedia (whether CD-ROM, on-line or printed).
Look for something that interests you. It might be an enigmatic character (such as King Hammurabi), it might be a place (the city of Ur), an event (the invasion of the chariot-riding Kassite tribes), or just a state of affairs (the rise of Assyria and the time of great empires). Keep a roving eye open for conflict of any sort, that essential gaming ingredient that will power along any historical campaign. Look for dynastic struggles, foreign invaders, religious disturbances, rivalries, jealousies, and rebellions. A time of peace without menace does not often make good gaming material..
You think the work's over now you've chosen your era - forget it! Now you must pick a start date, review the chronology, look for a good story arc, think of adventure seeds and generally poke around that setting till it bleeds!
I like to brainstorm with a blank sheet of paper, trying to fill it with as many 'cool things' as possible. Try to focus in on a 10-20 year period and gut it, rip things out and stick them on your sheet with impunity. Famous people, battles, important dates, inventions, cool buildings, and so on. You may find something even more cooler just off your time frame, so push it around a bit like the lens of a microscope. Picking just the right time for an RPG setting is crucial because it gives something to thrill your players and buzz you too. I'm going to settle on 1180 - 1150 BC, a time of massive ancient empires squaring off against each other, while being over-run by hoards of mysterious tribesmen from the deep deserts, mountains, and the seas.
Now for every 'cool thing' on your sheet (hopefully you've got a bucket-load - I could count at least twenty on mine!) try to come up with an adventure seed for each one. Don't sweat too much if you can't. These seeds probably won't be that much use as the core of an adventure, but will help you hook them into your adventures when you're writing them. Let's say one of your 'cool things' about Babylonia in 1180 BC is the historical appearance of the first camels, ridden by a new savage desert tribe called the Aramaeans. Your adventure seed might be: characters must steal camels and trek deep into the desert to find the tribal centre of the Aramaeans, before the tribe can mass an attack that will wipe out the frontier defenses.
Next look at the chronology of your chosen time period. What's happening overall? How many different 'big stories' are underway that produce big historical events later on in your time frame (or even well beyond them?). Try to identify a few of these. In Babylonia circa 1150 BC the mountain-men from Elam take over Babylon and the Kassite dynasty in power crumbles. In Egypt at the same time the pharaoh has died, but his wife and courtiers are being prosecuted for trying to overthrow him. A century later-on the cult of Amun-Ra becomes so powerful that it creates a break-away Egyptian theocratic state. Elements of these 'big stories' can be woven into the campaign as rumours, adventure seeds, side-shows or even the focus of an entire story-arc.
One of the story arcs I'd always intended to do in a Tudor roleplaying campaign was centered around the dissolution of the monasteries. What did the commission that toured the monasteries prior to the dissolution (the player characters!) actually find? This historical horror game would involve plenty of investigation and a face-to-face report given to the dreaded Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, maybe even to King Henry VIII himself!
The focus of this ancient historical campaign may be for the player characters to discover that Elam is growing in power, that it has a secret network within Babylon, and that this network is undermining the Babylonian royal house ready for the surprise attack. Or the PCs could be involved in a long-running investigation into the plot to kill the pharaoh. In the light of history, then, these sub-plots and adventure seeds will prove quite prophetic and fitting. Why roleplay in a detailed historical setting if the historical process thunders by without carrying you along with it? Personally, I'd feel a bit cheated if that happened to me.
In next month's article, Find Me A System! I want to discuss how to pick a suitable rules set with which to run an historical game. How do you decide? What changes do you make? Do rules differ with era? Are generics like GURPS best?
Hope you'll check it out,