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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

Find Me A System!

by Mithras
August 29, 2001
edited by Drew Meger  
"The goal of these rules is to make you understand the purpose of the game and the ethos of its world." Eric Goldberg on Paranoia

Before I get into the meat of this month's installment, it's clear from some of your posts that I need to define a few terms. 'Historical role-playing' is a very broad term that I've been bandying about quite a bit recently. Exactly what do I mean? And what constitutes a historical setting? In fact, does historical role-playing require a great deal of verisimilitude, or do impossible swashbuckling sword-fights in a fantasy Paris still constitute historical role-playing?

This column, Tempus Fugit, is primarily aimed at giving advice for gamers who want to use aspects of history in their games, to play in historical settings, or even create the 'perfect' historical role-playing game. Let me first define this term 'historical role-playing.' I would describe it as the use of a period and place that acts as the background for a role-playing game, a background that pulls many (and sometimes all) of its elements from a documented historical period.

To create some kind of historical role-playing game, two essential ingredients are required: a setting and a rules-system. Now there are a number of different types of historical settings with different degrees of relative historical accuracy. Likewise there are a number of different types of rules that the GM might find suitable. Yes, there are alternatives to an accurate set of role-playing rules... Let's review the options available for setting and then rules.

Not all historical settings are of the same 'purity.' We can easily identify three common types of historical setting: dead accurate, fast & loose, and alternate history. Using the well-known example of the Roman era, a dead accurate setting would try to create an accurate representation of a particular Roman date based on scholarly historical research. It would aim for lavish detail, hopefully missing out nothing. A fast & loose setting might introduce elements of magic, it might let Nero reign ten more years, it might not care too much about changing legionary equipment to suit later periods.

Finally, an alternate history setting actively re-writes Roman history, perhaps having Alexander the Great conquer Rome in 300 BC or aliens from Alpha Centauri arrive in 180 AD and battle the legions with energy weapons and genetically-enhanced parasites (!). I believe Harry Turtledove has written an entire cycle of novels based on an alternate Roman history.

To put these approaches into context, GURPS Imperial Rome definitely promotes a realistic setting, while my own attempt at a Roman role-playing game, ZENOBIA, has most definitely got a fast & loose setting. The new historical game FVLMINATA that should be out shortly, will try to create an alternate history of Rome based on the discovery of gunpowder. Three different levels of realism, three different ways of using historical sources to create a believable and entertaining historical setting.

All we need now, surely, is a good realistic set of rules that allow us to give an accurate simulation of the way the world worked back in the days of our chosen historical era. Well, not quite. As I write this I'm on a plane somewhere above the Aegean Sea. Different planes are designed to do different jobs, that's obvious. Sure, they all fly - get you from A to B - but each type has its own capabilities - the supersonic transport, the heavy-lift helicopter, the wide-bodied jet. So it is with role-playing games.

It is often pointed out by role-players that a good GM can utilize any RPG rules set to run almost any type of game. This is probably correct, but each rules-set has its own capabilities - the full-on action rules of Hong Kong Action Theatre!, the epic generational rules of Pendragon, the heroic monster-bashing magics of D&D, and so on. And with these strengths come the inevitable weaknesses. D&D struggles to emulate a 'realistic' fight, the Pendragon rules struggle equally valiantly to support a game in the magic-rich world of Glorantha or the Young Kingdoms. And it would be a clever and adventurous GM that could use HKAT! to run a game of conversation-intensive court-room drama. Later on I'll be running through the strengths and weaknesses of a few prospective games for my chosen historical setting.

Broadly speaking, we can identify three common types of rules used to game in historical periods, and these rules types can actually be matched up with any of the setting types already reviewed, as desired. I see the common rules types as: realistic, heroic and narrative.

Realistic rules give real-world results and often mimic the way things would actually have worked in a particular historical period. GURPS is perhaps the most famous realistic rules set on the market. Heroic rules, on the other hand, look on the player-characters' actions and role in the game with favor. They can be capable of some pretty unrealistic actions, but this all adds to the excitement. D&D is perhaps the most famous exponent of this type of rules system. Finally we have narrative rules. These abandon game mechanics that try to mirror 'real world' processes and instead focus on the dramatic roles of the characters, and also on the mechanics of drama. I would say that Theatrix is one of the most well known of the narrative systems.

Now if we look at a few historical-based games, we can see how rules-set and historical setting seem to be unrelated:
GURPS Aztecs realistic setting, realistic rules
Space: 1889 alternate history setting, realistic rules
Pendragon fast & loose setting, heroic rules
Call of Cthulhu fast & loose setting, realistic rules
Castle Falkenstein alternate history setting, narrative rules
Bushido realistic setting, realistic rules
Privateers & Gentlemen realistic setting, realistic rules

I'm hard-pressed to think of any realistic RPG that has been marketed with a narrative rules-set. In fact it seems to be de rigueur to publish realistic settings with realistic rules.

So what am I talking about when I refer to 'historical' role-playing? Well, I do intend to look at alternate history settings separately at some point, so my main concerns in Tempus Fugit are both realistic and fast & loose settings. Rules-wise, since any rules type works with any historical setting, I won't be making any blanket assumptions about the type of rules being employed.

Let's look at how these rule and setting considerations affect the choice of role-playing system you will have to make. As an example I'll continue to develop the idea of my bronze-age 'cast-of-thousands' setting mentioned in the previous installment. I want my players to feel the heat, to fear the pleasured aristocracy in their chariots and villas. Death will come easily, from disease, from war, and from the lash of the overseer. In short, I want to take my players there and immerse them in a functioning environment. This establishes the type of game system I'm searching for as most definitely 'realistic'.

Although I've not explicitly stated so before, I want to make it historically accurate too. I'll incorporate a host of research ideas found in my books on Egyptology, I'll go to town on contemporary maps, non-player characters, royal families, culture, and technology. I want to tie the setting directly into my chosen period of 1180 - 1150 BC. This makes the setting a realistic one also. I could have pulled elements together from throughout Egyptian and Babylonian history to create a timeless setting - and this would have made it 'fast & loose.'

So you have a good idea of the era in which you want to game. You think you have a handle on the type of setting and on the type of rules you'll need. Now what? Plainly, you now need to look at the games you've got to hand or can get a hold of and see what will do the required job.

This epic bronze-age setting is going to require realistic rules. It needs a combat system that is pretty realistic in the way it works and in the damage it inflicts. It needs a player character generation system that will produce protagonists of low, moderate and upper moderate power who also have a realistic spread of skills/traits. I don't need rules for heroes or super-heroes. Other settings with realistic rules might benefit from the strengths of very specific rules-systems. A World War Two commando game, for example, would benefit greatly from the inclusion of vehicle to vehicle combat rules in whichever system was chosen. Likewise, a 17th Century Age of Sail game would obviously benefit from a good set of sailing and man o' war rules. These things color your choices along with things like realism, appropriate character creation, suitable technology level, and that all-important, but very intangible, 'feel' of a prospective system.

I reach for my shelves and pull off a number of games I think might just cut the mustard as far as a bronze-age 'dawn of history' game goes. The games short-listed are: Hero Wars, RuneQuest, D&D, Everway, Warhammer, and GURPS. I own all of these games which means I can comment on them with a modicum of authority, and they are all fantasy games - hopefully making my job easier. I'll go through the games one-by-one, illustrating the various criteria I need to weigh to reach a decision.

Hero Wars - Wanting to emulate a world of religious cults I thought this game would be ideal. It's even set in its own version of our bronze age. But the title says it all, the focus is tightly (and quite rightly) centred on heroes and their rise to super-herodom and the rules are clearly aiming for a narrative, story-led approach. Potential: 2 out of 5.

RuneQuest - I have a choice here between gritty second edition and slightly sleeker third edition. This looks good. A deadly and realistic combat system, everyday characters and skill ranges, a system of cults and religions, a bias towards pre-medieval technology and mindset and a game that actually boasts in the introduction about how well the system can be adapted to other worlds (yes, even RuneQuest second edition has this boast!). Potential as a bronze age rules-set: 5 out of 5.

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition - The world-beating fantasy system has got to be considered, but straight away the problems of conversion to a realistic bronze-age setting seem insurmountable. The tightly-ordered character creation system would need to be virtually gutted of races and classes. Beyond 3rd or 4th level characters exceed the bounds of realism - herodom comes quickly. And with it tons of supra-normal and magic-like abilities, magical spells, and items. Throw it all out, all of it. Frankly there won't be much left after this butchery except the basic attributes and the D20 mechanic. It could be done I don't deny, but the knifework (and the stitching to close the wound) might take forever. Potential for my historical setting: 1 out of 5.

Everway - This dream-like diceless roleplaying game has a distinctly ancient feel to it. Character creation is pretty free-form and personality based, but that's OK. Combat is angled toward story-telling just like task resolution as a whole, and the game employs a very distinctive tarot-card resolution method. Since there's minimal setting there's minimal conversion required. Can I live with such a free-form approach? How will I get over the setting and its wealth of strong character concepts to my players without a more structured character generation system? Potential: 2 out of 5.

Warhammer - For realism and gritty combat you can't beat Warhammer. Fights are ugly and bloody. Right away, however, I run into a problem. The rich setting melds seamlessly into the character creation rules, making it difficult to disentangle the two. It is based around a fascinating list of detailed 16th Century-style occupations, a list that would need to be extensively re-written before epic bronze age characters could spring forth. A quick glance down the list emphasizes this: Squire, Artillerist, Gunner, Smuggler, Rat Catcher, Hypnotist, Grave Robber, and so on. Conversion to my historical period could be done, and Warhammer has the required level of gritty realism, but how much work would that involve? Potential: 3 out of 5.

GURPS - Steve Jackson Games' famous Generic Universal Role-Playing System is well known for its gritty and realistic rules, for the ease with which these generic rules can be implemented with almost any setting, for the way in which highly original and well-defined characters can be created and for the mass of historical worldbooks that accompany it. It seems like a great contender. There's even a GURPS Egypt worldbook available! Are there any points against using GURPS? Personally, I don't like the combat rules too much since they seem to involve lots of variables and modifiers (such as having knife damage vary depending on whether you cut or impale, on your strength and on the defender's armour). Nothing seems simple enough to fit with my lazy, corner-cutting method of gameplay. I find the fact that some weapons take one or even two rounds to 'ready,' that armour is rated according to two separate values, and that rounds are only a second long very frustrating. To me this is ultra-realism. More detail than I care to deal with. Some GMs have a ball with GURPS and run it quickly and seamlessly - I always get bogged down in modifiers. Ha well. Potential for my setting: 4 out of 5.

So it looks like RuneQuest has just pulled ahead of GURPS and would be a great rules system with which to run my bronze age 'dawn of civilization' setting. Of course changes will be needed, modifications made and new rules written - but that's a different story ...

Join me next month.


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What do you think?

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras