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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

Historical Props Part 3, Installment 10

by Mithras
Jun 20,2002

 

Historical Props: Part 3

Installment 10

by Mithras

This month I want to finish up my review of props used to add atmosphere to an historical RPG. In the first part of this 'mini-series' I looked at in-game props, used and handled by the players themselves. Last month I looked at props that represent objects used by the characters actually within the game world. Here I want to discuss those out-of-game props that don't necessarily represent anything real within the game world, but simply add to the historical atmosphere and ambience.

'Fictional' History

Before I begin, however, I want to share a strange experience with you. I've been preparing a Lord of the Rings game for a group of children and needed to come up with a Tolkienesque introductory scenario. The first place I looked for ideas was in the copious historical annals of Middle Earth included at the back of the back of Return of the King. I was searching for a certain set of parameters. I wanted a quest or trek, I wanted the plot to be important to Middle Earth, I wanted to party of adventurers to be important people and not just outlaws or mercenaries, and I wanted there to be a full-on evil menace threatening the land. As I searched for something that could meet all of these goals I realised that I was using the same techniques I used to pick a historical setting. I go to the historical records with a 'wish-list' and try to identify the best fit date/event/location. The irony was not lost on me - here I was scouring a fictional history of a fictional world trying to find an 'historically accurate' event I could base a campaign around. Why not go with the flow and create a fictional event of my own, or alter the timeline to suit my purposes? Well of course that's a valid approach, but by adhering to a fictional history you maintain consistency and give the players a firm anchor around which they can base their characters.

Sometimes (as in 'real' history) things happen at the most inappropriate times, and plots must conform to a number of historical parameters (e.g. 'there were no orcs in the Misty Mountains at that time', or 'the Rohirrim had not colonized Rohan until T.A. 2510'). My advice is to exploit the timeline, don't let it dominate your games and screw up your plot ideas. Accept that it will from time-to-time dictate to you what is, or is not, possible, but scour those chronologies and pull events from them to give every scenario a direct link to the source material. You can go out and kill trolls in any D&D game going, but only in Middle Earth can you hunt down the hill trolls of the Coldfells north of Rivendell in revenge for their murder of Arador, proud Dunedain and grandfather of Aragorn. Every entry has the possibility to be a thread to bind a scenario to Middle Earth.

Out of Game Props

OK, back to the main feature of the article. Why use out of game props? Why not? As with the other props I've discussed in earlier installments of this column, use them if the benefits outweigh the difficulties. Do you want to go to the trouble? Do you think your players will accept the idea? Can you think of any suitable props? If the answer to any of these is no - then think again. Out of game props are just an over-the-top flourish, a luxury and a little bit of theatre to get players and GMs in the mood. These props could never be described as necessary!

Think food. Think costume. Think music!

Food is a common feature of most gaming tables, mostly limited to Coke, chips and Mountain Dew, right? Well that's all fair enough, but I can tell you that it used to be an uphill struggle to convey the atmosphere of a dusty Mexican village in 1887 while sat in my dark Canterbury basement in the middle of winter. So we bought a bag of nachos and a salsa dip - from there the obsession with out-of-game props began. At the next session of my homebrew spaghetti western we noshed chili with sour cream and followed it up with a drop of Tequila ... and another bag of nachos, this time with a guacamole dip. I knew that somewhere in my sprawling tape collection I'd got a copy of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtrack album, so I dug it out and played it in the background to great effect! I'm not quite sure any of it transported us 'as if by magic' to 19th century Mexico, but it certainly proved to be the most memorable session I ever GM'd. All the players got into it with a passion I'd not really seen before. I suppose the focus of the game was tight, and it was reinforced by the food, the drink and the music. The props on their own did not bring much 'historicality' to the sessions - but I think they stopped player's minds from wandering.

Of course it helped that we gamed at the kitchen table, and that they all loved the food. It was a slightly different matter during an Edwardian horror game. My sister was a player and had insisted we game at her place where she put on a spread of finger food. Not particularly inspiring, but I returned the favour the week after when the player characters had been invited to dine with a Lord and Lady at their country estate. I made the players drink tea from cups (with saucers .. arrgh the cultured horror!!!) and eat cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off (yuk!). To get rid of the taste we then had scones and cream. I borrowed a tablecloth for the occasion and those weird snowflake paper thingies (which my wife reliably informs me are called 'doilies'). As a point of interest I did lay the table before-hand and announced that anything consumed was 'in-character.' I must admit I was greatly impressed when the gruff sergeant tipped his tea onto his saucer and drank from that! And equally impressed with my sister who drank her tea so daintily. These are details missing from my usual historical games ... all in all the session had a cultured air about it which I put down in some measure to my culinary excesses. This was all blown away of course when the game turned into a 'hunt the lord and lady werewolves in the underground passages' type game.

My favourite foods came into play during a game set in the Persian Empire. With a bit of online research I served my players Persian rice (full of nuts and fruits) with naan bread and mint yoghurt. I know it was completely unhistorical, but Turkish Delight rounded off the meal and gave the food a decadent feel. For drinks I served up my own variation of the Persian sherbet (fruit juices mixed with water, sugar and crushed ice).

My one mistake was to serve Japanese sake during a Tokugawa Era game. Now I like the stuff (after the first few sips). The players, however, hated it. The game was also notorious for the Japanese court music I played for the first ten minutes of the session. Discordant, slow, painful - my players insisted I turn it off. The sake and the imperial music killed things for a while, but luckily the game picked up and both were forgotten.

Providing a soundtrack for an historical game is actually a lot easier than providing the food. One of the easiest ways is to get hold of a movie soundtrack that matches your chosen era. The Mission, Elizabeth, Braveheart, Ben Hur, Gladiator, and Prince of Egypt are all groovy. Being soundtracks, of course, they have few lyrics and I find that lyrics intrude into the game a little too much. My tastes run to fairly instrumental works; but this isn't a hard and fast rule. When I ran my first GURPS Atomic Horror playtests I often played a Fifties rock n'roll compilation album to give the sessions both that 'not here, not now' feel as well as a sense of irreverence and teen-movie schlockiness. I tried the same technique with Sixties pop music for a Vietnam War game, this time the songs were so damn good that they intruded too much! Instead I opted for a 'sounds of the jungle' CD which replaced Nancy Sinatra's Boots with parrot squawks, Mick Jagger's Black Paint with insect song and Jim Morrison's Riders with the monsoon thunder.

I know that I'm not alone in my use of soundtracks during RPG sessions as the very useful Aural Sects column (dedicated to this subject) illustrated. I rarely use music in non-historical games, however. My intention is to provide an aural wallpaper on which I can paint my historical game. I don't use music to evoke mood or theme or a sense of action or mystery. This I try to obtain through my GMing skills. I use music to evoke a sense of time and place.

Exactly how do you tell whether your chosen historical soundtrack is on the mark or a mind-numbing aggravation? From my experience there are a number of essential don'ts:

  1. Don't repeat the same track over and over during a game, no matter how cool you think it is. After three hours even you won't be able to stomach the song any more.
  2. Don't play a soundtrack that is 'discordant,' that suddenly changes from quiet serene music to loud ear-catching music. It grabs everyone's attention - and you should have that.
  3. Don't play music (especially lyrical - pop/rock/etc.) that everyone knows and likes. Do you really want your Roman gladiators giving an impromptu sing-along of The Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields?' Don't ask me why a GM would use The Beatles as a backing track for a Roman setting, though! Maybe for theme?
  4. Keep the volume low. This is without doubt the Golden Rule. Sometimes it only has to be barely audible with much of it being picked up subconsciously. Isn't that what we really want?
  5. Don't fiddle with the music system except to maybe turn-over the tape and press play, and remember to keep talking while you do this. Again, everyone's attention becomes focussed on a change of tape or CD. Of course, CDs take care of themselves don't they?

You could take this out-of-game ambience one step further and adopt historical costumes. This isn't something I've experienced, however - but I know it's been done before. In fact the rise of 1930s murder mystery events in Britain is proof of this! LARPers will be much more at ease with this aspect of historical gaming and much better clued up on what to wear and how to create that look. Many of my games only last a few weeks and it only takes a day or two to rustle up a meal and a suitable soundtrack. Historical costumes require more thought and more time to organize.

Of course the ultimate historical prop is to roleplay in- (or out-of) costume in an authentic or even reproduction historical setting. However, the chances to roleplay Privateers & Gentleman on board the HMS Victory, or FVLMINATA inside the ruins of the Colosseum must be pretty slim. Ingenuity might instead be exploited to achieve the same end. Perhaps a game session in the woods might stand in for Sherwood Forest. A game of Call of Cthulhu might gain in atmosphere if a room at the local library is for hire. Any Medieval game would benefit from being played out in a church hall (and in the UK I don't think this is much of a problem). It all boils down to 'where can we play?' and make a decision based on that. It would be easy for me to get a game of Ars Magica organized and run the session as an afternoon picnic in the grounds of a Medieval monastery or on the Medieval walls of York, or in the shadow of Scarborough Castle's smashed keep, the crash of waves against the cliffs rumbling in the background. But this approach requires daylight, good weather, and the lack of essentials (fridge, CD player, chairs, table, endless drinks and snacks and a handy toilet). I still think that it's something to consider.

I'd be interested to hear of any examples, though ... The craziest session setting I've so far heard of is the marathon Mountains of Madness campaign that Steve Ellis (who posts as SJE on the forums) ran a few months ago. Steve is currently writing up his experiences for us to share, but I can tell you that they involved hiring out an abandoned lighthouse for an entire week, and roleplaying Cthulhu almost non-stop. The phrases 'nightmarish,' 'sanity-blasting,' 'filled with dread,' and 'gibbering' come suddenly to mind. I can't wait to hear the full story!

Until 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