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Tempus Fugit: History for Games

Adapting That Favourite Book

by Paul Elliott
Jul 29,2002

 

Adapting That Favourite Book

Installment Eleven

by Paul Elliott

"[Vesuvio] now clearly saw that the Grove of Daphne was a love spot, a nest created from the most lucious trees, plants, and flowers of nature which composed a bordello roofed by the twinkling stars, a meeting place for sexual practices where the only price was willingness and a mutual agreement."
- Simon Finch, Pagan Voyager

I discovered the books of Simon Finch when I used to bunk off school (age 14). Avoiding maths lessons like the plague I would roam the town library and bookshops looking to satisfy my desire to read erotic literature. At 14, I figured, reading about sex was the closest I was going to get! Having a passing interest in Rome from movies like The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Robe, and Ben Hur, I spotted a book set in the reign of emperor Hadrian called Golden Voyager. And lo! It contained explicit sex scenes! The stories themselves, as well as the recreation of Rome in its decadence, was done rather well, and the explicit nature of the (prolific) sex scenes simply added to the debauchery and debasement. From that moment on I was hooked on the ancient world and Rome has forever (in my eyes) been synonymous with cruelty, sexual humiliation and pornography.

What's this got to do with adapting books to roleplaying settings? Golden Voyager was essentially my first historical novel. I've never been a prodigious reader of fiction, and so my diet of historical novels has been rather low, but I still appreciate their existence and I'm glad that there is a healthy market for characters like Cadfael and Falco.

Let's say you want to run a historical game set during the aftermath of D-Day, do you pick up The History of World War II, edited by AJP Taylor, backed up by a few books on weapons and warfare, or do you opt for Stephen E. Ambrose's bestseller, Band of Brothers? The first gives you masses of general information, maps, overviews, critical essays, lots of stats for weapons and vehicles and so on. The second gives you a close-up view of your chosen subject, as experienced by someone who was there, and focuses on personal feelings, experiences and day-to-day problems. It is (obviously) Stephen E. Ambrose's book which has the most to offer the historical GM.

When a major historical movie or TV series is commissioned, rarely does the production company hire screenwriters to come up with a good script. And rare is the screenwriter who sits down to write the true account of a certain historical event. Instead, screenwriters often turn to an already published book which they can easily adapt. Rather than flounder around trying to write the script for the Raid of Entebbe from a dozen different perspectives, the screenwriter will invariably pick up the published book of an eyewitness to the drama, and adapt it into a movie which will follow the story from that person's viewpoint. 'Based on a true story' invariably means that someone's book will be featured in the credits.

When it comes to historical roleplaying games it really does pay to utilise historical novels (which are nothing more than fictional eyewitness accounts of historical events). Yes, more generalised books give you information on religion, architecture, costume, economy and warfare, but an historical novel draws you in, it paints a 3D picture of life. You can step out of dry academic text and move into an approximation of 'real' life as it must have seemed, with emotions, politics, grudges, wonder, and beauty. My advice is to use one historical novel as a primary source for your campaign, and then a number of general non-fiction history books as reference to back it up.

My subject is the ancient world, and I've used this technique in the past (to a greater or lesser degree) with the following historical novels:

  • Bernard Cornwell, Stonehenge
  • Paul Doherty, The Mask of Ra
  • Robert Graves, I, Claudius
  • Christian Jacq, Ramses
  • Robert Silverberg, Gilgamesh the King
  • George Shipway, Warrior in Bronze

Obviously there are hundreds and hundreds of historical novels out there, and I'm sure everyone one of you has their own favourites. What I'm encouraging is not the historian's mindset of assessing all of your evidence and producing a campaign based on your final assessment. It is the novelist's mindset of following one viewpoint to the exclusion of all others, never mind the odd historical inconsistency.

Pick up the book, use the date it is set in, the locations, and even the over-arching plot. Any other resources you have at hand should be modified to fit the novel, not the other way around. If your novel is a good one (meaning it sticks to accepted historical thinking) then matching your non-fiction resources to the book shouldn't prove to be too much of a problem.

My latest adaptation involves Bernard Cornwell's Stonehenge, a book which is set circa 2000 BC and charts the building of the sarsen phase of this famous English monument. Since this is prehistory any attempt to base a campaign in this era on non-fiction archaeology books will leave massive holes in all the wrong places. We have no knowledge of language, of personal or tribal names, of names for rivers or islands, we have no certain knowledge of politics or economic practices, of religion or superstitious customs and beliefs. A well researched book like Stonehenge gives us all of that, laid out onto a sound archaeological foundation.

As I built up my 2000BC campaign, I mined the following things from Bernard Cornwell's book:

  • Character names
  • Names of places (including alternatives, local names, nicknames etc.)
  • Descriptions of landscapes and locations
  • Descriptions of different groups, cultures and organizations
  • Character descriptions sketched out as NPCs
  • Relationships between groups, factions, cultures and organizations
  • Lore - often religious, including reconstructed details of customs and rituals; but also legends, magic and the occult, with gaps imaginatively filled in to create a seamless whole (something that non-fiction almost never strives to do).

I used my non-fiction sources to back all of this up with more detail, more NPCs, and new places and locations, all following Cornwell's naming system. I designed maps that charted out Cornwell's world, and I filled in the blanks based on hints in the book and what I'd read outside of the novel. At the end of the process I had a living breathing world with a nomenclature and language all of its own, as well as a very distinct (non-academic) mindset. It had become the perfect roleplaying environment. Including elements of Stonehenge's plot (albeit set sometime in the novel's future) gave the campaign a direction, movement and energy which it otherwise would've lacked. In comparison, I see no exuberance, no dramatic imperative, and no over-arching threat to the world of 2000BC in David Souden's dry Stonehenge, Mysteries of the Stones and Landscape.

There's one more great benefit to using a single historical novel (or series) as the basis for a roleplaying campaign: player familiarity. I've always found that feeding players worthwhile information on a new historical period is a very difficult task. You have to tread a fine line between raw exposition (typed up introductory sheets, etc.) and giving setting information away 'in-game' so as not to slow down the game. A good movie set in the same era can certainly get everyone interested in the period, but is rarely enough to supply all of that detail. What does Gladiator tell you about the relationship of Roman people to their government? What does the inside of a Roman villa look like?

An historical novel, handed to a player prior to the game makes for an easy introduction to the era in question. It also combines period detail with sample character types, contemporary issues and politics and often aspects of geography. A novel isn't as accessible as either a movie or a couple of pages of the GM's notes, but it does deliver a lot of information in an enjoyable and easily digestible package. Just make sure the novel isn't an intimidating blockbuster that will never get finished. Something quick to read that may take a week or even just a weekend is perfect. If the books come in a series you could hand a different one to each player so that they are all reading at the same time and don't have to share the book.

Of course I realise that some players won't want to get this involved - but the idea is there for those groups who want to take that step.

Join me next month!

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What do you think?

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Tempus Fugit by Mithras