Tempus Fugit: History for Games
Time Bandits!by Mithras, edited by Drew Meger
June 27, 2001
Tempus Fugit: History for Games
Time Bandits!by Mithras, edited by Drew Meger
June 27, 2001
"You know, you and me have a lot in common, Kevin ... we like a risk ... we like adventure ... well this is it, Kevin. This is the Ultimate Adventure. None of your namby-pamby Time Holes to mess around with here ... This is the Big One!" Randall, Time Bandits
Welcome to the new column! I hope you stay on and enjoy this constructive analysis of historical roleplaying. First off, I'd better state a goal. I want to pass on tips and tricks from my own gaming experience, to offer ways of using historical sources for your gaming, and even present methods for reconstructing entire historical periods.
Second, I'd better state right now that I am NOT an expert in all facets of world history (who is?). I am a qualified archaeologist and ancient historian, but of course my interests and my biases necessarily fairly tightly focused. All historical periods fascinate me - but my expertise lies in only a few of them. If I make an historical error - forgive me. And if you notice then it means you're more of an expert than me. That's cool!
History can bring a huge amount to a roleplaying game or a setting. In this article I want to specifically talk about raiding history to enliven and enrich your current games and campaigns. I'll be talking about recreating historical settings, choosing or writing historical rules, and even fabricating alternate histories later on. For now I want to just illustrate some of the benefits a razzia into the history section of your local library might bring to your weekly gaming.
On the most fundamental level, GMs can lift out whole historical cultures and use them within a game (a process known as 'filing off the serial numbers'), but there are plenty more uses for history than that. I doubt there are few roleplaying games and settings out there today that haven't stolen ideas and concepts from some historical period or other. History is an obvious source of great inspiration. Why?
Because there is so much of it. Because it is full of staggering stories, incredible characters, amazing settings, beauty, intrigue and horror. And because it is real. When you steal an idea from feudal Japan, from pre-Columbian Mexico, or from Georgian England, you are stealing something that actually existed - and transplanting that into your own game or setting not only adds an interesting twist, but also an element of authenticity.
One of the easiest and most common methods of raiding the history books is to browse through them looking for Props. A prop might be a special kind of building (perhaps a villa with under-floor heating), it might be a weapon (perhaps an Indian katar or 'punching-knife'), it could be an artifact (such as the semi-mythical Celtic sacrificial bonfires called 'wicker-men'), or even a custom (perhaps the Roman festival of Saturnalia, where masters waited on slaves). These things are easily transported from their home era to your fantasy setting with a minimal amount of hassle, all you need is some rationale to explain their existence and Bingo!
Besides Props, the gold mines of history, may also be plundered for other shining nuggets, namely Plots, Characters, and Atmosphere. History is chock full with plots - not just the complex accounts of political machinations, but also social and personal accounts. These can make fantastically gameable adventure seeds. To illustrate the uses that a well-chosen historical plot can be put to, I'm going to use examples from science fiction.
Both the James Cameron movie 'Aliens' and the TV series 'Space: Above and Beyond' use historical military references within their narrative - each to a different extent. 'Aliens' very loosely runs with a plot that highlights a Vietnam-like reliance on high technology and overwhelming firepower against an unsophisticated but cunning and viscous enemy. This reliance and overconfidence proves fatal.
Cameron's analogy is intentional, his previous script-work on the third Rambo movie meant that he did a lot of research into Vietnam - and he uses a lot of what he knows in 'Aliens'. In addition to the over-arching plot, Cameron also pulls out a number of atmospheric elements from the Vietnam War to push the analogy further. The military gear is well-used and graffitied, and the lingo is littered with US Marine-style phraseology.
'Space: Above and Beyond', meanwhile, steals story ideas from the United States' struggle against Japan during WW2. Rather than attempt to construct a plausible but wholly imaginary conflict set in interstellar space, the script-writers turned to the Pacific War for inspiration. To kick off the series there is a surprise attack on a human colony bringing humanity into a war, just as a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into WW2. Technologically, the enemy forces are roughly equal to our own. Individual pilots are based on huge space carriers that carry brave fighter crews into battle. And the conduct of the war, from episode to episode, is an epic push against the alien forces, hopping from planet to planet until the alien homeworld is in sight. One episode in particular virtually recreates the disastrous events on Guadalcanal during the Pacific campaign.
When I hold these stolen plots up as examples I'm not deriding them or accusing the script-writers of copping out. I think they are clever analogies given a unique twist by the writers concerned. Sometimes analogies can be nothing but blatant and very tedious rip-offs. A GM can take inspiration from history like this, but should try not to fall into the trap of copying plots too closely. Players aren't stupid, and may even begin to second guess the GM.
Usually less often targeted by history-thieves are Characters. To a GM historical personages can make great NPCs. Why? Well, they really existed giving a lot of credibility to a strong and colorful personality. 'Would someone really act like that? Yup!' The historical annals provide diligent GMs with a ready stable of interesting and exuberant NPCs ripe for transportation into almost any setting.
In 'Conan the Barbarian', the bad-guy of the movie is evil cult leader Thulsa Doom and his sinister cult of Set. The character of Doom is lifted unpretensciously from the pages of Medieval history. He is the Old Man of the Mountains, Rashid al-Din Sinan, the real-life chief of the fanatical political and religious terrorist cult, known as the Assassins! Even the scene where Doom commands a cultist to leap from the cliff top is taken from an actual historical event when Count Henri of Champagne visited the Assassin grand-master at his citadel. "No Christian is as loyal to his master as my men are to me" said the charismatic Assassin leader. To prove his point he signaled to two of his men high on a battlement and they obediently threw themselves to their deaths!
As we've already seen with James Cameron's use of Vietnam-style weaponry and lingo in 'Aliens,' certain historical images or themes can easily be transported to other worlds and used to add atmosphere and emotional depth to a game's setting. The Commie-bashing of Paranoia is lifted with excellent effect from the McCarthyist Witch-hunts of the 1950s. The nodding horse-hair crests of Gloranthan warriors effortlessly evokes the spirit of Classical Greece. Aspects of the alien culture of the leonine-like Aslan in Traveller encourage comparisons with the samurai-society of ancient Japan.
Simply naming the NPCs and locations of Warhammer's 'the Empire' using German instantly provides a grim and Gothic feel. In the same way, the use of Latin throughout the Ars Magica rulebook automatically lends the setting quite a nice Medieval feel, even without pages and pages of setting material.
To return to the example of science fiction, the costume designer for 'Star Wars,' John Mollo, purposely emulated the military fashions of WW2. Stormtroopers take their name from the German troopers (and carry cylindrical ammo cases too!!). The officers wear near perfect Nazi uniforms, complete with jack-boots and riding trousers. The Alliance, on the other hand, are depicted as US pilots, with baggy loose fitting clothing, much less regimentation - the feel was 'buddy-buddy' and informal, sort of getting on with the job and less adherence to uniform regs. And so historical style reinforced the role of these characters and groups, becoming a kind of visual short-hand.
Most of these techniques are best used when it comes to creating your own world, your own campaigns, or your own scenarios. Established game designers do this, why shouldn't you?
Next time in When? Where? Why? I want to leave this chronological criminality behind and leave off from our own worlds and campaigns. I want to get under the skin of the historical roleplaying setting. How do you choose a great era? What does it need? How do you turn a chunk of history into a viable roleplaying setting?
Hope you'll check it out,