Tim Chant is a gamer and author (and baker) based in Edinburgh. His latest project, The Frost Fair, asks ‘what if?’. What if history worked out slightly differently. Would the world be very different?
Geek Native invited Tim to suggest some ideas for running RPGs in a historical context and he stepped up to the task. Thanks Tim.
Picture the scene.
A young, earnest history student and – more importantly for our tale – Story Teller is prepping a game in a historical setting. Oddly, he looks like a younger, slimmer version of your present interlocutor.
It’s a freestyle, system-less game and the Story Teller happens to be a history student. The players are taken aside one by one to be given their character’s background and role. The conversations begin with the same breathless, excited question:
“So, how much do you know about the Reformation?”
The responses were, shall we say, disappointing.
“That’s when Pirates of the Caribbean is set, wasn’t it?”
“That’s the thing that happened in Scotland, isn’t it?”
Ok, I’ll give credit to the last one, there was a Reformation in Scotland. She was a Minister’s daughter.
This, of course, didn’t matter. We went on to have a fun game following the adventures of a mostly unwilling group of powered people into hunting people just like them. Ninja nuns and sinister cardinals with mystic powers abounded.
And this recollection brings me to the idea of running games in a historical context.
I may be wrong, but I’ve always had the impression that historical games aren’t quite as popular as other settings. But then, I always think history doesn’t get enough attention. There are, though, some fine games out there, and several ways to homebrew in your favourite historical period. These are my thoughts on the subject.
First off, there’re your straight historical games – this is the ultimate metaplot. If you remain determined that things won’t diverge (too much) from the what actually happened, then your players won’t be involved as movers and shakers in the things that moved and shook unless they’re going to stick to the railroad.
This sort of game, then, is perfect for the smaller scale adventure or campaign that focuses on intercharacter relationships and very specific, low impact incidents that can be resolved to player satisfaction. A few cracking games are good examples of this – as a lifelong fan of Patrick O’Brian I’m very fond of Beat to Quarters, an Age of Sail game following the lives of Royal Navy sailors. It has a counterpart for the Peninsular War (Honour and Glory) that I’ve not played yet as my own group are less keen on historical games. I gather there’s a Pride and Prejudice game coming up which looks entertaining. The two former games are explicit that the main roleplay development expected is between the player characters, and I imagine the P&P game will be even more specific about that.
I also find historical settings great for homebrewed games, usually fast one-off sessions. FATE or FATE Accelerated are particularly good for these, and while I’ve not tried it with a historical setting I suspect Savage Worlds would also be good.
So, what do you need for a straight up historical setting? As noted above, a self-contained plot that won’t shake the ‘meta’. Knowledge of the period you’re setting the game in is also a must. This does mean either being a massive history nerd (guilty) and doing your research (guilty of not doing as much as I should…). Here I’m not just talking about the big events, the historical narrative, though those are important. It’s the period detail, in terms of the look and sound of the time and place. It’s getting the technology right, what a city street would have looked like; it’s the oppressive grime and smogginess of a city before we realised clean air was a good thing or the reek of night soil in an Elizabethan London.
Social habits and rules are the other piece of this puzzle. I think it’s important not to shy away from the fact that history is full of periods where people were really, really unpleasant to each other. I mean, really. There’s a good argument to be made that most of humanity is better off now than it ever has been, and that’s saying something. There can be a temptation to romanticise the past, but I’d recommend against that when running a historical game. That doesn’t mean all of the characters have to be dreadful, but it does mean acknowledging the ugly with the good.
Getting these factors right is about immersion. I find I always enjoy games more when I am fully immersed in the experience, the world, not just the adventure. Every game should have this, of course, but I think special care needs to be taken with historical games as it’s easy to fall into the ‘just like us but with funny clothes’ trap.
OK, enough sermonising. Let’s talk plot ideas. This will depend entirely on what sort of game you like and how high-level you want to take it. I like a good, fast paced action and intrigue game. If you’re going for a small level game that just uses history as a setting, pretty much anything works. What makes for a better detective mystery than the hardboiled noir of the ‘20s to the ‘30s? I find espionage-based games are particularly good for historical roleplay. Intelligence services of one kind of the other go back a long way. In the fine tradition of the work of Patrick O’Brian, the Age of Fighting Sail is a great for that sort of thing – small ships slipping in and out of the enemy coast line, dealing with agents and working out who to trust, or chasing privateers and trying to work out how they’re getting their intelligence. I ran a great game of Beat to Quarters along that latter scenario (at one point involving the ship’s carpenter killing a group of French agents with a door).
Espionage is also a great way to run a game if you want your PCs involved in the big picture and perhaps running into your favourite historical figures, without them altering the timeline. Anything could be going on in the secret wars that went on all the time. Stealing or protecting important assets, carrying out preparatory work for an invasion, running double agents and the many other nefarious things spies get up to all make for fun games. Your party could be protecting Einstein and Oppenheimer as they work on the Manhattan Project, perhaps without them ever knowing; maybe they’re working to ensure a little-known Bolshevik revolutionary evades capture in Russian in 1915.
At the highest level this could also get into diplomacy, which if you’re looking for a more social game would be an excellent option, with your PCs involved at the negotiating table and in the salons through dirty tricks, blackmail and the occasional bit of backstabbing.
The idea of a secret war brings us onto the rich ground of historically-set ‘urban fantasy’ and similar genres. Most famously well-known of these would probably be the historical versions of the various White Wolf games. Historical Vampire in particular allows you to turn the impact and drama all the way up, with broad sweeping adventures and intrigue with potentially massive impacts on society while still having to maintain the masquerade (unless you’re into Sabbat, and the less said about that the better). I’ve not really played any of those, but as with straight historical games I do find FATE is excellent for running this sort of historical adventure. Periods that border on the mythological, or which are at least heavily mythologised, are fertile lands for this. A particular favourite of mine was running a series of games set in post-Roman Britain but where, surprise surprise, magic is real (after a fashion) and various dark creatures walk the land. I had a druid, a smith, a hunter and a shepherd wandering the dark forests and windswept moors of Dark Ages Britain chasing down a mad druid before he could unleash a plague of undeath on the world; all of it part of a wider Arthurian saga.
The Classical world or ancient China and Japan are also fantastic settings for this sort of thing. I’d caution here against going full fantasy, though (and if you want to do that, I’d recommend Legend of the Five Rings). Particularly if you have other history geeks in your group. I think you’ll get better buy-in from your players if the details of the world you’re building around them feel right and nothing that feels too like the modern-day slips in. In a way this is just like making sure the details of your ‘secret’ world remain consistent and can mean a little extra work. It’s worth it, I find.
Lastly, you can go full ‘alternate’. Arguably we’re out of the realms of historical gaming here, but I think the best kinds of alternate history have some basis on what actually happened. My favourite in this respect is Deadlands – the Weird West is one of the first games I played when I got back into it at university and I’ve never looked back. While some questionable plotting decisions were made, overall I think it’s a good example of taking a historical setting and messing it around in fun ways. The weird west, by the way, also works for the secret magic type game I was talking about above. I don’t know if I’ve just not noticed in until recently (aside from Deadlands) but the weird west type setting seems to have become the new Steampunk. That’s not a bad thing, if you’re into Westerns and fantasy…
On the subject of steampunk – this, of course, is one of the classic alternate timelines. It can, of course, be complete fantasy (Mars 1898 etc) but like other things I’ve mentioned I think it works best with a grounding in some kind of reality. You can get a bit more wild and whacky here. I’m just about to run a game set in an alternate Baroque period, using the Savage World rules. My starting point for this timeline is the idea that Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain had a child together, so instead of having Elizabeth I you have much of the British Isles becoming part of the Habsburg Empire.
From there, by the mid-18th Century I’ve got clockwork and steam-powered airships, the Spanish Inquisition running rampant through England and assassin monks (it’s a bit of a theme with me). This may seem a little random, but I’ve got it all worked out from that one divergence point. That may be a little too much work for a roleplay game (I’ve seen GMs do more, though) – in this case it’s actually a world in which I’ve set some writing (currently crowdfunding on a platform called Unbound). Having an idea of why the timeline is different, what’s stayed the same and what’s changed will all add to the immersive experience. So, what makes for a good alternate timeline? The most straightforward approach would be to find some pivotal moment and decide how else it might have gone. Perhaps JFK’s game of brinkmanship with the Soviets wasn’t quite ‘on point’ and your PCs are dealing with the (literal) fallout from that. Perhaps the Roundheads were defeated in the British Civil War, leading to the return of totalitarian, deified monarchical rule instead of a period of theocracy followed eventually by constitutional monarchy. Going down the Deadlands route (but without the mystical stuff), what would have to change for the American Civil War to have come to a different conclusion? Personally, I like to look for little tweaks that have major ramifications decades or centuries later and then extrapolate a world from that.
A particularly fun way to do it would be to start with a historically accurate baseline but give your players free reign. It can be hard to identify where the actions of a few individuals could have a big, short term impact – particularly if you subscribe to a Marxist approach to historiography. You could play with a group of PCs who are significant figures, their decisions deciding the fate of cities and the lives and deaths of countless subjects. This is probably easier to do with earlier periods of history (I’m now thinking something based around the Italian city states in the 15th Century). Assassinating a key figure (a certain Austrian, for instance) is something of an old chestnut but could certainly work. But if you’re playing around in the sandbox of history, why not take the long view? I have on occasion run games spread across centuries, with the players taking on roles in the world their ancestors have created through their actions.
Any of these options can, again, take some serious planning and probably not something you can do mid-session if your players take things seriously off course (as players have been known to do). It can be good, though, to demonstrate to players the ramifications of their actions on the world their characters inhabit. For me, as both a player and a game runner, one of the most interesting things about RPGs is exploring the consequences of actions and decisions. That’s why, when I’m running a game, I follow D’Hoffryn’s advice and always go for the pain, not the kill. If your players naff something up entirely, nothing will bring that home better than plunging them into a world that’s gone to hell because of them. Conversely, if they do really well, exploring the better world they’ve helped create can be a good reward.
I should probably also touch on time travel. This doesn’t have to be travel into historical periods, but there’s a strong crossover. You can fit a time-travel plot into any of the above. To be honest, I’ve not run a time travel game and only seen it done well once or twice. The only thing I have to say, if you are thinking of this, is ‘good luck’…
Anyway, that’s probably enough disjointed rambling from me. I’m off to hunt down a Savage Worlds companion that has good airship combat rules…