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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

Cut N' Paste - D20 Romans

by Mithras
December 27, 2001
edited by Drew Meger  
Welcome to my sixth installment of articles discussing the use of history in role-playing games. Although for the last two months I've gotten a little side-tracked, I'd like to return to the original thrust of my column. In July's article I talked about selecting a groovy historical setting for a role-playing game, and in August I looked at using existing RPG systems for my chosen setting. What next?

Well actually deciding to use the Adventure! RPG as the basis for a historical French Resistance game is the easy part. Deciding to use the Dungeons & Dragons rules for your game of Celtic heroes fighting a guerrilla war against invading Romans is also the easy part. Way back in August I decided to use an old copy of RuneQuest (2nd edition) as my system of choice to run a Biblical-style epic game of bronze age empires. There would be chariots and galleys, pyramids and slaves, fiendishly trapped tombs and hierarchies of priesthoods. Like I said - that was the easy part.

The hard part is adapting that published RPG to your chosen historical setting. OK, sometimes it's blissfully easy (using Feng Shui to run a 1930s Shanghai campaign, or TSR's old Gangbusters system to run a 1970s Mafia game set in New York...). But more often than not, you've got some work to do.

Now, I'm fully aware that the second edition of RuneQuest went out of print many, many years ago, and as far as I know, the third (and last) edition of the game is also out of print. So using RuneQuest as my example of how to adapt an RPG to a historical setting seems a little short-sighted. Instead I want to use a game that most of us are familiar with in one way or another: Dungeons & Dragons (3rd edition). By using this widely available game you can see how much I adhere to, or diverge from, the original rules-set.

Unfortunately (see my article 'Find Me A System!') I considered D&D a bad match for my bronze-age setting. No problem! I'll show you how I adapted D&D3E earlier this year to run a 'fast and loose' historical game set in the late Roman Empire. I've used this setting before, of course, in my rules-lite game ZENOBIA, but I was scoping around for a solid rules-set that might carry the setting and let me experiment with the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. For one thing, I'd already done the research!

This Late Roman Empire setting of mine uses history as a firm base, but is adapted to provide cool plot hooks and opportunities for magic and monsters. It is period of imperial excess as well as spectacular decline, civil war, plague, inflation, barbarian incursions into the heart of the Empire, decay and corruption. It is 'Cyberpunk 260 AD'. Obviously the greatest benefit of using a Roman setting is that daily life, government and all the trappings of Rome are fairly well known to players even before play begins.

We're going to create a 'magically rich' Classical game world, full of Romans and Greeks, Olympian gods and legionnaires. To stamp some individuality onto the setting I've turned to the eastern Roman Empire, adding a bit of exoticism and a touch of the unfamiliar that might make the transition from straight history to 'fast and loose' a little smoother.

My philosophy of historical adaptation is to settle on a suitable set of rules that come close to emulating the feel of my chosen era. From there I begin to 'cut and paste', tailoring the rules by making cuts where necessary, as well as additions and alterations. My over-riding concern is to change as little as possible, which makes it easier on the players, and easier for myself (let's face it, my time is best used in creating scenarios, plot complications and dynamic NPCs). For D&D, the alterations can be broadly divided into two groups: character generation, and then combat and other mechanics.

Before we start, please note that I'm not pro- or anti- D&D3E, to me it's just another game system waiting to be picked up and used. D&D3E has its strengths (just like most systems on the market), and common sense tells me to exploit those strengths. There is no sense in choosing D&D and gutting it of the essential elements that make up that RPG's strong points. Always play to a game's strengths.


What do we need to change, add and subtract from the D&D rules before my players can create Roman characters? Let's look at the bare bones of the character creation system: a set of undemanding characteristics, a number of non-human races and a spread of interesting character classes. First off, the characteristics don't pose a problem; Strength, Wisdom, and Intelligence work just as well in 260 AD as in the Forgotten Realms.

The races, however, have got to go. I'm after a 'fast & loose' Roman game, not an alternate history setting. Humans only. What about the character classes? Is there any room in a Roman game for such Medieval occupations as Bard, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer and Wizard? And surely we can forget that Oriental misfit - the Monk?! I'm determined to throw out as little as possible, but still retain a strong and colourful historical connection, so its time to do some lateral thinking.

First I decide to associate each character class with a brotherhood, organization, cult or college. This will prevent players from taking an unsuitable class and turning it something totally 'way out'. When players take a class they take up the trappings and roles of the Roman organization that goes with it. Of course plugging the player characters into the Roman world from day one is a nice side-effect!

Next comes the hard task of finding suitable versions of the Medieval classes. I put out of my head all previous assumptions about each class and look at the powers and bonuses that a class comes with. I looked at the basic building blocks of each class, what they could do. Were Rangers restricted to operating in forests? Were Monks tied inextricably to the Orient? Did Paladins have to act like and look like Sir Galahad? I look for the restrictions on each class; as I run a Roman concept through what a class can do and what it can't, I get an idea of its suitability.

For several days I bash my head against several large research books to come up with the following character class correspondencies:

Barbarian - We're all familiar with the Germanic barbarian archetype, blonde and bearded charging out of the northern forests. But in the deserts of the East? Surely a member of one of the tough Arab tribes, camel riding raiders on the fringe of society. Players select from the Thamud, Azad, Tanukh, Judham and outcast Jackals.

Bard - Magical musicians... didn't the Greek god Orpheus have a mystery cult associated with him? Bards could be members of this cult, seeking mystical enlightenment through the practice of music (lyre playing, essentially).

Cleric - A priest is a priest. I see no good reason to change the role of the cleric, except to make every Cleric affiliated with a Temple (to Venus, to Jupiter, to Marduk, etc.).

Druid - Now Druids have got to be genre specific, we're talking Celtic oak-priests here aren't we? Well, I checked the PHB and to be honest there's nothing there that says Druids are tied to forests. They use a lot of vegetation-based magic, but that is the only real restriction I have to contend with. In the desert the main source of vegetation is around the oases. I might make Druids priests of the oasis god Dushara, worshipped in the Arabian wilderness. Away from society these priests will be very different from their city-dwelling brothers, and have much in common with the Arab camel-riders. In fact my 'Druids' will probably be members of these Arab tribes.

Fighter - Probably the easiest correlation of them all! Fighters get to choose their patron organization; either an Eastern legion of the Roman Empire, a Mercenary Company or a Gladiatorial School. Character level might roughly equate to rank and responsibility within the force.

Monk - Ahh. The ascetic martial arts expert. I'm determined to use every character class if I can. Let me see ... unarmed combat, personal prowess and achievement ... how about those Olympic athletes? The Olympic Games continued throughout the Roman era and we can postulate a dedicated band of professional athletes competing there every four years and also in the plethora of other games around the Classical world. Their aim is to achieve physical perfection and glory. These Olympians train hard and seek out physical challenges. They are boxers, wrestlers, runners and discus throwers. They are a sacred brotherhood initiated into the Olympic cult, superb athletes and winners of laurel crowns.

Paladin - Ouch! It's hard to dispel the image of a chivalric knight dressed in flamboyant Late Middle Ages armour riding a war-horse and seeking out evil monsters, dragons and other abominations for the sake of the Church. But we have to. Looking at the rules the paladin fights for law and morality, and can wield holy magics. Are there paladins in the Roman Empire? Well there might be in my Roman Empire! How about members of that splendid mystery cult that bears my name: Mithras? A tough god of light, truth, goodness and brotherhood, a god of legionnaires, contracts and hope. The Paladin might easily represent a member of this cult, either a legionnaire or a senator, a merchant or a lawyer, trained by his god to fight, to seek out evil and deception. Mithras was a light-bringer, a crusader who fought for life and truth. It also used a strict hierarchy which we can model using the class levels of the Paladin.

Ranger - Modelled on Aragorn, I'm sure. But not out here in the deserts of Syria and Arabia. Transported to this inhospitable wilderness it's not hard to come up with a Roman equivalent: the Ranger can be a desert scout, an intrepid sand-walker leading caravans and army units from waterhole to waterhole. I'm not sure about a suitable organization for these. They may be attached to Merchant Houses or Legions, or they might instead be members of ancient desert families, living close to the desert.

Rogue - The Rogues are easy, too! Every Rogue is a member of a city-based underworld brotherhood. Every big city has one, Antioch, Thebes, Seleucia ... Rome has several (nicknamed 'sicari' or 'knife-men'). They are knife-wielding mafiosi involved in all aspects of crime. Again, the class structure of the Rogue can mirror progression up into the higher levels of such an organization.

Sorcerer - I was sure that I had no room for this class. Surely the Wizard can fulfill all of the duties of the Sorcerer. I still wanted to include all of the classes, though. Blood-line is mentioned in the class description which suggests to me a blood-link to the gods. These characters could have divine powers through their link to the Immortals. More than that I think that the Sorcerers could stand in as Classical witches like the Sibyl, Medea, the witches of Thessaly and of Endor. They aren't scholars, they inherited their magical skills from their mothers (or fathers..).

Wizard - Magic existed in 3rd century Rome, there is a vast amount of evidence for spells, curses, magical scrolls and ceremonies. However, I need to make a distinction between Sorcerers and Wizards and the way I am going to do that is by portraying Sorcerers as uneducated self-taught witches, and Wizards as highly educated proto-scientists. The Wizards of 260 AD will be the philosophers, men who tried to understand the nature of the universe, its elements and fabric, who carried out experiments, invented wondrous machines and formulae. In our Rome, the philosophers achieved the impossible - they were able to understand and manipulate the forces of the universe. I assign a school of philosophy (Neo-Platonic, Stoic, Cynic, etc.) to each magical college.

I think I've done a fair job of aligning the D&D rules with the Late Roman setting so far. Rather than stripping the game down to fit my setting perfectly, I've wrapped my setting around the game, and tweaked the setting to fit, rather than tweaking the rules. I'm trying to make life easy for myself ...

Next month I'm going to dig through magic, combat and other rules to see what needs adapting to my historical setting. Join me!

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What do you think?

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras