Historical Gaming

edited May 2009 in Story Games
Hi All,

Wonder if I might solicit your opinions on something . . . namely, the (apparent) lack of popularity for history-based RPGs. My interest is primarily ancient through medieval. A couple of questions:

1. What are some of the problems you see as inherent to ancient historical-based RPGs?

2. Is there some kind of residual boredom for Antiquity, perhaps left over from being *forced* to learn about it in school, that makes it less palatable as an RPG setting? Could it be seen as too research-intensive?

3. As a designer, do you percieve history as too constricting, or too thin on magic, or too lacking in character possibilities to make for good play?

4. As a player or GM, how would you approach an historical campaign?

It bothers me that there's not more interest in using the ancient or medieval world as a game setting, as I think it makes for richer gameplay than using bits and bobs of it to form an imagined world. Of course, it could be I'm in a niche of a niche, too . . .

Thanks, in advance!

Comments

  • 1. The most important "problem" is probably the need to take a definite stance on the value of historicity for the game - are you making a game that somehow cares of or utilizes the historical setting? If you are, how is the setting to be utilized in realizing value for the players? Who is responsible for historical realism, if anybody? This makes or breaks a specifically historical game for me - it is not at all uncommon for me to play in historical settings, but it makes a great difference whether the historicity is just incidental to the genre (like Dust Devils), a necessary color element (Acts of Evil) or the actual point of the game (like... well, some implementations of Call of Cthulhu).

    2. No boredom, I love it. I design games for it. I play whole campaigns. This is of course personal, but the fact that I think this way means that there is at least some sort of audience for it.

    3. No problems with these, it's all a matter of purpose. It's unnecessary to introduce history into a game that does not have a purpose to it, but it's equally stupid to avoid it when it could have a function. For example, I find that New Gods of Mankind suffers from the ahistorical fantasy setting considerably. Similar problems are actually relatively common in rpgs, often you get thinly veiled fantasy settings where the real deal would have served the purpose better - Michael Moore tells me it's because Americans are illiterate and thus unable to relate to historical romance.

    4. I've done many sorts of approachs, but I don't know if they'd be characterized recognizably as campaigns in the traditional sense most of the time. The longest, definitely campaign-based games have been the sort of "Mythic history" Ars Magica gives you - some fantasy elements, but solid baseline in history to the extent that history books could be used as setting material.
  • The biggest problem associated with historical gaming is how much. Most people have a level of "Historiocity" they are comfortable with but if they are not approximately equal there can be problems having the same kinds of fun. If I know a great deal about the era and you don't, we have an unequal capacity to interact with the play-space. I say stupid thing like " There were no motorcycles at Agincourt" and you roll your eyes at me for spoiling the fun.
  • Hi,
    I love history in my games. Mostly I incorporate it into games that have a secret history thing going on, but I'm planning on doing a straight-up historical treatment for a Sengoku game. I'm not particularly into ancient history (I don't hate it, but it doesn't fire me up), but there is some medieval history (Germanic especially) that I'm interested in. Other than that, I'm really big on American history. And also Sengoku era Japan.

    Lemme take a crack at your questions.

    1. Player buy-in. This is the biggest hurdle. If it's not something that everyone's interested in, you're sunk. A good text (i.e. one that's nothing like a history textbook) can go a long way to getting people interested, though.

    2. I don't think so. Once buy-in is in place, research isn't a problem.

    3. Not at all.

    4. I see two ways. There's probably more, but I see two right now.

    One is the "secret history" method. Take a historical event, and say upfront, "This happened. It's going to happen when we play. The question when we play is, what happened behind the scenes here? What happened that they didn't tell us about in the history books? That's where you guys come in." This is what Hex Rangers does with 19th century American history (plus some magic and stuff).

    The other requires some re-writing of history. You take a historical event or epoch that is rife with ethical questions. Start at a certain point, insert the PCs, and allow the players to make their choices with regard to those ethical questions. This is what I want to do with the Sengoku thing. Here's from a blog post I made about the idea:

    The idea is heavily historical Narrativism. That is, the real history has a huge presence in the game, as if it were a player. Players will control individuals who, while fictional, could have existed at the time. Through their actions, they can change the course of history, for good or for ill, or they can utterly fail to. The Egri-style Premise is two-pronged: Is it right to fight for peace? Should the individual be sacrificed for the greater good? I perceive the real history of the Sengoku Era as a true story that provides very complex, nuanced, painful, and sometimes contradictory answers to those questions. Some of them make me sad, some of them make me excited, some of them make me just plain angry. Could it have been better? Or, possibly, was that the best it could be, and would trying to change it only make it worse? The big ambition here is that by playing the game, you get to pass a judgment on the history, and the history gets to pass a judgment on you.
  • Hi Scott,

    1. I think that many people feel the need to get history right. They don't want to get caught narrating a Desoto Airflow, which entered production in 1934, rambling down an alley in their 1920's CoC game. I think that some gamers also think part of getting history right is including sexism, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, plagues and famines that existed in the time and this might conflict with their enjoyment of an RPG session. Others might believe that events that happened are too restrictive as a setting for their protagonists.

    2. Well I think some people hear 'history' or 'antiquity' and think back to bad high-school classes. Maybe if history classes included some AGON sessions, history would have a much sexier reputation. But look at the popularity of Wikipedia, The History Channel, Rome, The Tudors, and the plethora of historical fiction and non-fiction out there. History might not be as sexy as fantasy, but we love it.

    3. As a designer, no. Actually, funny story, but Chronica Feudalis was born at least partially out of wanting to restrict myself. In the previous system I was working on (a Saxon/Germanic tribal fantasy) I would up having lots of problems with issues of scaling and magic to cover various supernatural elements (i.e. giants and sorcerers). Focusing on a non-supernatural game allowed me to create a nice, tight little system with a predictable range of results. This felt much more satisfying design-wise than what I was doing before.

    4. I try to make 'history' a backdrop to the narrative. The focus is always on what the players are doing. The civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude in 12th century England serves to create motivations and agendas for the protagonists and antagonists, but its not there to butt heads with the players. We're not playing to reenact events, we're playing to create our own fiction. I always make sure the players know they can re-write history if we need to, but since we decide on the focus of the narrative it rarely comes up.

    I also wanted to mention that I recently picked up Montsegur 1244 and it looks like a beautiful game that really uses history as a strength. It's laser focused on directly dealing with tough, mature issues (especially religious intolerance). And while it seats itself directly in the middle of a historical event, we specifically don't know what is going to happen to our characters as we play it. Will they escape? will they renounce their faith? will they burn for their beliefs? It really reminds us that these games can be about more than just escapism.
  • Here is a nod for not enough historicy in so called historical games.

    Theirs a reason im not running a swords and sandles antiquity game and that is the two classics majors who would undoubtibly be correcting me over lots of things (not to mention that their may be no right answer because history is funny like that only complicates things)

    Secondly, there is lots and lots and lots of the nasty and brutish bits in RPG that as an anchronistic but entertaining diversion I accept but as a Historical Game I think would go something like this.

    Gm there is a jew carrying a cross to his own execution
    Player A: I'm a roman guard and i stab him with my spear, damn uppity jew
    Player B: I'm attempting to pick pockets (or more accurately cut purses) with all the commotion
    Player A: I spit on the upity jew, and ram a thorn bush on his head.
    Player B: I'm cutting the magistrates purse.
    Gm: The jew carries on to his own execution, and you are caught b. The Guards drag you off to a cruicifix.
    Player A: Lol Christ
    Player B: Lol Heaven, Sucka
    Christ: OMFG SHUT UP YOUR MOUTH
  • Posted By: ScottOdenOf course, it could be I'm in a niche of a niche, too . . .
    I think this is absolutely true, especially given what Thor said about people having different levels of historical knowledge and Marshall's comment about needing player buy-in. (I think there may also be a point at which you have TOO MUCH historical knowledge to want to game in a particular setting: I can't play a game set in one of the eras that I know exceedingly well, because the pressure to "get it right" will kick my fun right in the nuts. It's only in the middle -- where I know enough to not be totally lost but don't know so much that I will see everything we're getting wrong -- that I can play happily.)

    Lots of other valid points have been raised so far, most of which I agree with. At this point, I'm okay with using history in tiny bits in a game, but generally only what can be summarized on one side of one page in a normal-ish font. If that's not enough to do justice to the historical setting, then I just won't use a historical setting. Instead I'll settle for something that's only inspired by history.
  • Well, as we all know, virtuous hippies turn up their noses at huge thick setting books, so therefore history is off the table for them, since damn, the supplement treadmill just keeps turning!

    :D
  • edited May 2009
    Posted By: thorI say stupid thing like " There were no motorcycles at Agincourt" and you roll your eyes at me for spoiling the fun.
    Well, there goes my "Harley the Fifth"/"We Band of Bikers" game! [grin]

    -- On a serious note, I think that the lack of parity in the understanding of the era makes it less fun for some players in both ways. If I know the mindset of a Bishop in the 1300's and you don't, your portrayal of that character will have defects for me no matter how well you do it (absent some homework to close the gap). Sometimes the player who knows the basic or movie version of a historical era will act in a way that pulls you out of the fun.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyWell, as we all know, virtuous hippies turn up their noses at huge thick setting books, so therefore history is off the table for them, since damn, the supplement treadmilljust keeps turning!

    :D
    I think Jason has just kicked the point in the head here. The trend in the indie-games scene has been towards maximal democracy and minimum strain on a single individual to run the show and do all the preparation. This is fine in cliche land, but real history requires someone to read up on the subject. If only one person does this then we have a classic GM/PC division, which I have no problem with. If not then the differences in knowledge will be noticable and may be problematic.

    As for hippies and huge thick settings books, does Jason think that no hippies were involved in the making of Glorantha?
  • I've played a small number of very historical games, generally Regency or Victorian England with no supernatural elements; a tiny bit of Vietnam and Cambodia; and a few historical Nephilim games where the supernatural elements were obscured to the point that I never noticed them myself. I've always enjoyed them. It's probably important to note that the majority of these have been LARP/freeforms, though - costuming, increased immersion, and physical roleplaying were certainly a factor.
    1. What are some of the problems you see as inherent to ancient historical-based RPGs?
    There's a lot of history, so one person's favoured period might not be as interesting to the second person, even if both of them want to play a historical game.

    There's a lot of history, so you might be very familiar with a particular period (New Kingdom Egypt), and have problems with a game set in a period that seems similar but really isn't (Old Kingdom Egypt).

    Some people believe that they have a stronger grasp on some hsitorical periods than they actually possess, which can lead to the game devolving into arguments about anachronisms.
    2. Is there some kind of residual boredom for Antiquity, perhaps left over from being *forced* to learn about it in school, that makes it less palatable as an RPG setting? Could it be seen as too research-intensive?
    I loved that kind of stuff in school, so I can't give an objective answer. I guess some people might be daunted by how much detail we have about some historical periods, as though you have to learn every last detail.
    3. As a designer, do you percieve history as too constricting, or too thin on magic, or too lacking in character possibilities to make for good play?
    Personally no; but some players do like having magical powers and may even feel deprotagonised without them. It's silly, but I've seen it plenty of times. I blame AD&D 2nd Edition fighters, who were pretty boring to play. I was once promised a historical Egyptian game... only to learn that all of the characters were going to be psionic. Not quite what I thought I was getting in for!
    4. As a player or GM, how would you approach an historical campaign?
    As a player, I research my character first - what kind of life he'd live, what beliefs he's likely to have, and what he might have experienced. Then I find out more about the historical time and place based on how that character would have experienced it. A top-down view of the historical period is less useful for portraying my character than knowing about his day-to-day life.
  • I'm currently working on two Dogs in the Vineyard hacks, one set in 1997-1999 and the other set in c. 1300 BC. In both cases, I'm finding that having them set in China is way harder than having them set in the past. The past may be a foreign country, but it's significantly less foreign than, say, actual foreign countries. People pick up an amazing amount of historical knowledge by osmosis, through schooling or their environment, but other stuff is harder to acquire or fake.
  • Posted By: ScottOdenthe (apparent) lack of popularity for history-based RPGs.
    Scott, before tackling any of the questions, could I ask you how do you define this (apparent) lack of popularity?

    True, Ancients is not the default era for most RPGs the way Medieval seems to be, but as someone who publishes a magazine dedicated solely to gaming in the Ancient World, it strikes me as strange as there are a number of games out there that cover this period.
  • Thanks, all, for the wonderful insights! Much here to digest . . .

    Daniel, the only gauge I have for the popularity or lack thereof is my own experience. There are some very good Ancient historical games out there (though, being greedy, I'd prefer more -- sourcebooks* rather than systems, too), but many of the players I run across are reticent to try them. One from my regular group told me he'd rather play pure fantasy because there was less of a chance of falling into the knowledge gap. So, it's likely a matter of perception rather than pure fact.

    Which magazine do you publish, by the way?








    *Ideally, I'd love to see a series of city guides that detail the great metropolitan centers of Antiquity: Alexandria, Athens, Syracuse, Ephesus, Rome. With really good maps, too.
  • edited May 2009
    I've been thinking about this a bit more and had a few more thoughts I'd like to share.

    • Our hobby is born out of the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres. A lot of gamers have come into this hobby out of love for those genres.

    • In that context, "historical" sounds like a negative term. It immediately conjures up what you can't do. You can't sling fireballs, you can't teleport, you can't resurrect, you can't magically do away with sexism*.

    • To "sell" these games, we really need to focus on what you can do with them. You can be pirates boarding merchant vessels in the Spanish Main, you can fly Sopwith Camels, you can fight at Agincourt, you can take part in the assassination of Julius Caesar.

    • I think that historical fiction can be a great inspiration for what we can do in historical games. It shows us how we can fit our fictional narratives into the set pieces of history. And they do a lot of our research for us. Just read The Name of the Rose and you're ready to run a murder mystery in a medieval monastery.

    • Historical movies and tv shows never feel the need to get history right. Why should we? EDIT: Although, doing research is fun. Being smart is cool. Don't give in to anti-intellectual pressures.

    • Really, "historical" is a bit of a misnomer when applied to a lot of games. I can't think of any game that is really about history. Montsegur 1244 isn't about history any more than DiTV is a game about fantasy. Both have deeper themes and their genre is a context for the game, not its focus. There has to be a better term we can use. Historically set games? Really I think the only reason I use "historical" to describe Chronica Feudalis at all is to distinguish it from fantasy games. To say what it's not. But the word doesn't do a good job of communicating what my game is.

    * by the way, there's always the option to narratively or fictionally avoid sexism or other unwanted elements in non-supernatural games and it is, in my opinion, just as easy.
  • There's a new French book that looks at Historical gaming from the perspective of game design, GMs and players. It is in French but if you can read it, it's well worth it.

    It's called Jouer avec l'Histoire
  • I think sometimes a "fantasy analog" of a historical situation can be liberating, because it allows players and GM to draw as much inspiration as they like from the original, while still feeling free to fudge a lot. Also, actual history is really complex and full of stuff, and a simplified culture and history may be more workable for a game. But I think this is hard to do -- I've seen plenty of "historical games" and sourcebooks that totally neglected the aspects of that period and place that would have made it interesting for me.
  • 1. What are some of the problems you see as inherent to ancient historical-based RPGs?
    The same problems that might dog any time period. People worried about "getting it right", primarily. The game itself facilitating this worry. A lack of appreciation for what might make it cool in the intended audience.
    2. Is there some kind of residual boredom for Antiquity, perhaps left over from being *forced* to learn about it in school, that makes it less palatable as an RPG setting? Could it be seen as too research-intensive?
    I don't think so, but ignorance can lead to discomfort or lack of interest. Antiquity sounds sort of boring to me, and I a)love history and b)don't know anything about antiquity.
    3. As a designer, do you percieve history as too constricting, or too thin on magic, or too lacking in character possibilities to make for good play?
    No, definitely not. I have no respect for magic. Real people are really interesting. You could never make up the shit that actually went down in history. I was on a battleship today and learned that in WW2 the US navy stopped offering voluntary circumcisions because the foreskin makes a crackerjack eyelid for a burn victim.
    4. As a player or GM, how would you approach an historical campaign?
    I play and run historical games pretty regularly. When I'm the GM I do a ton of research and bring one or two pages of it, in interesting chunks, to the table with me. Names, places, cool stuff. I might prep people by pointing them to wikipedia prior to the start of the campaign, or post some links. I never expect those to actually be read. Once we start to play, though, any historical prep is out the window and I try to accept what happens in-game implicitly while still bringing in tasty morsels when I can. It becomes a shared fiction and all the history bits are just color at that point.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarI play and run historical games pretty regularly. When I'm the GM I do a ton of research and bring one or two pages of it, in interesting chunks, to the table with me. Names, places, cool stuff. I might prep people by pointing them to wikipedia prior to the start of the campaign, or post some links. I never expect those to actually be read. Once we start to play, though, any historical prep is out the window and I try to accept what happens in-game implicitly while still bringing in tasty morsels when I can. It becomes a shared fiction and all the history bits are just color at that point.
    Do you have a link to any of those? I'd like to see what your approach is like.
  • I love pseudo-historical settings and games. I add the "pseudo" here like I would do at a table because I don't feel the need to be approved by historiography. If I was to have an historian in my group I would present the game as an approximation of a time and a place but for all purpose he could consider the setting as uchronic. So basically I'm saying "freedom and make believe before historical accuracy". I have no problem with Gaius Julius Cesar being saved from assassination if it's what the group is interested in doing. After all even serious historians use "what if history" methods for different purpose. We shouldn't be afraid to do the same.
  • Posted By: Andrew MThe trend in the indie-games scene has been towards maximal democracy and minimum strain on a single individual to run the show and do all the preparation. This is fine in cliche land, but real history requires someone to read up on the subject. If only one person does this then we have a classic GM/PC division, which I have no problem with.
    I do have a problem with the classic GM/PC division, but I might have once agreed with you on this, had I never seen Montsegur 1244. It offers a brilliant solution to this, one that I'd love to see more games expand upon.
  • Posted By: jasonPosted By: Andrew MThe trend in the indie-games scene has been towards maximal democracy and minimum strain on a single individual to run the show and do all the preparation. This is fine in cliche land, but real history requires someone to read up on the subject. If only one person does this then we have a classic GM/PC division, which I have no problem with.
    I do have a problem with the classic GM/PC division, but I might have once agreed with you on this, had I never seenMontsegur 1244. It offers a brilliant solution to this, one that I'd love to see more games expand upon.

    Well given all the positive experiences people have been relating on this thread, I may have to retract what I was saying altogether. I have not had that much experience with indie press games, and being a crap (read lazy) GM I tend to overestimate how difficult it must be to put an evening's entertainment together. Also I had a cool idea for how this could be done myself (riffing off of the travel journals of 16th/17th century explorers), and was all for thinking I had done something really clever.

    I have not read Montsegur 1244. I imagined it as a cheese and wine style live action game brought around the dinner table, and that it would not bear up to repeat play. I'm sure there must be more to it than this.
  • edited May 2009
    Posted By: Andrew MI'm sure there must be more to it than this.
    Either that or it is the shitty one-trick pony you implied in the previous sentence, right after confessing total ignorance.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarPosted By: Andrew MI'm sure there must be more to it than this.
    Either that or it is the shitty one-trick pony you implied in the previous sentence, right after confessing total ignorance.

    Whoa, easy there, Tex.
  • Posted By: jasonIt [Montsegur 1244] offers a brilliant solution to this, one that I'd love to see more games expand upon.
    Is this the thread to ask you what sort of history-based game design space you see opened by Montsegur, or does that spill over into another thread?
  • Posted By: ccreitzIs this the thread to ask you what sort of history-based game design space you see opened byMontsegur, or does that spill over into another thread?
    Only one way to find out!

    The exposition of the historical information you need to play comes out in play, read off by the appropriate characters at the start of different scenes. Now, in Montsegur, you have a defined cast of dramatis personae, so you have different roles that read the appropriate information, like Raymond telling you about the castle's defenses. I think this provides a good start, though not necessarily the end of it. We can teach the necessary historical background through play.

    What Willem & I have started experimenting with in teaching a game through play (see Myth Weavers ep. 10 or the end of Stabbing Contest ep. 24) could apply to setting, too. I've started experimenting with Montsegur's approach to exposition in a more open-ended context in my own game, and I've found it provides some ample room for experimenting, trying to find ways to handle your exposition in play.
  • I think I really just need to play Montsegur sometime to see how that works.

    One concept I'd been puttering around with ( never actually tried it, mind you) was some kind of handout sheet, broken into boxes ( 6-8 per side), each containing some relevant bit of info or an image. Multiple sheets would be made ( enough for participants plus one or two extras).

    Unlike Montsegur's exposition, none of this would be character specific. Also, none of the sheets would be exactly the same. Also, by a snippet of info, I mean short, like 2-3 sentences, max, or one image with a brief, one sentence, bit of text.

    The concept isn't to overload any one player, but to give all players snippets of info that they can digest rapidly, and work in, and also that are specifically incomplete, so the players can use them as jumping off points ( including possibly for conflicts, as some other player may have read or seen something you personally haven't). There wouldn't be anything secret about this stuff, but no one player would be assumed to need to read every sheet.

    If it worked out the way I'd planned, the group would collectively and naturally be able to "keep the canon" by themselves.
  • One concept I'd been puttering around with ( never actually tried it, mind you) was some kind of handout sheet, broken into boxes ( 6-8 per side), each containing some relevant bit of info or an image. Multiple sheets would be made ( enough for participants plus one or two extras).

    This is something one of my players suggested, too. Kind of a "common knowledge" sheet so that everyone at the table's on the same page. Further, he suggested that what's on the sheet (or sheets) be the only knowledge we draw upon when creating our characters, in an effort to limit "precognitive metagaming". Thus, though our characters might be present in the Curia of the Theater of Pompey on the Ides of March, 44 BC, we should endeavor not to inject what we know is about to happen, but only play with the information from our sheets plus whatever our investigations and inquiries have uncovered. I rather like this idea.

    I've not played Montsegur yet, either. Hopefully someday soon . . .
  • One thing that has been lurking in many comments but I'm not sure has been clearly elucidated is that a lot of gamers (especially, I think, "story gamers") tend to be (or consider themselves to be) pro-intellectual, or at least pro-canon, and thus have a fear of "getting it wrong". It's the same fear that prevents a lot of people from really enjoying Star Wars as an RPG setting. They don't want to step on Lucas's toes, and historical gamers don't want to step on History's toes.

    It might improve people's reaction to a historical game to have certain "fixed points"; if you're doing a game about the Hundred Years War, for example, then Agincourt happens no matter what, even if time travellers manage to bring motorcycles into the picture. This way, the "big events" in history still stay put, so all the details in between are open to play. In fact, if you made the "fixed points" an element of gameplay, then you could spin a game around that (vaguely reminiscent of the card game Chrononauts, wherein each player comes from a specific timeline where certain world events played out in certain ways, and each player jumps around, juncture to juncture, to re-write the shared timeline of the game to make sure their own "present" comes to pass).

    Ergh. That came out a bit word-salady, but I am too tired to edit it. Hopefully it makes sense.
  • Posted By: deadlytoqueOne thing that has been lurking in many comments but I'm not sure has been clearly elucidated is that a lot of gamers (especially, I think, "story gamers") tend to be (or consider themselves to be) pro-intellectual, or at leastpro-canon, and thus have a fear of "getting it wrong". It's the same fear that prevents a lot of people from really enjoyingStar Warsas an RPG setting. They don't want to step on Lucas's toes, and historical gamers don't want to step on History's toes.

    It might improve people's reaction to a historical game to have certain "fixed points"; if you're doing a game about the Hundred Years War, for example, then Agincourt happens no matter what, even if time travellers manage to bring motorcycles into the picture. This way, the "big events" in history still stay put, so all the details in between are open to play. In fact, if you made the "fixed points" an element of gameplay, then you could spin a game around that (vaguely reminiscent of the card gameChrononauts, wherein each player comes from a specific timeline where certain world events played out in certain ways, and each player jumps around, juncture to juncture, to re-write the shared timeline of the game to make sure their own "present" comes to pass)..
    This Inuma just got a mention on another thread. The way it brings in a limited number of sources, I was wondering if it could be used to do what you are talking about.
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