I have run many tabletop games in the thirty or so years I’ve been roleplaying. I’ve run games set in the far future and millions of years after the fall of humanity, games in which the characters were emotions, mutant spiders and cartoons (though not at the same time). I’ve run ‘cavepunk’, steampunk and cyberpunk. I think I’ve tackled most genres.
There’s one setting that I just cannot convince myself to approach, and it’s a dreaded genre, a bottomless pit of facts and knowledge. I’m talking about games in which players can say “But, it didn’t happen like that…”. I’m talking about historical settings.
On Kickstarter right now (13 days to go) there’s a project called Forts & Frontiers: The Feast of the Dead Deluxe and it’s both tempting and frightening at the same time.
It is an RPG based on D&D 5e, and yet it allows players to experience the 17th and 18th century in North America as a European settler, Wendat, Haudenosaunee or other Nadouek nation. It’s a game from Campaign Games and even has miniature sets lined up for it.
Jameson Proctor and Kimber VanRy, who are running the Kickstarter for Forts & Frontiers: The Feast of the Dead Deluxe agreed to answer some questions around historical settings for Geek Native. Perhaps they can allay my fears and show me that it’s not that hard for GMs to run historical settings.
First up; is Forts & Frontiers a ‘historical setting’ game? I note that if the Kickstarter is successful, it’ll come with a bestiary of both natural and supernatural creatures.
Forts & Frontiers is a historical setting game. The region, larger timeline of events, character names, equipment, and other details of The Feast of the Dead are all historically accurate—as are the supernatural creatures.
The Nadouek truly believed in these creatures—the flying head, the horned serpent, the Wendigo—which is not much different than the Jesuits believing the Nadouek to be the lost tribe of Israel whose salvation would bring about the Revelation.
In the full Forts & Frontiers rules, faith, rituals, and supernatural creatures will all be optional. We’ve been playtesting another adventure that doesn’t use any of these elements.
I’d never heard of ‘Wendake’ before reading your Kickstarter. Do I need to read up on it before trying The Feast of the Dead or does the module tell me everything I need to know?
That’s not surprising. It’s hard to get a straight answer from Google as to what Wendake was. Just so you know, it was the homeland of the Wendat at the time of first contact with the French, located on the south shore of the Georgian Bay in modern-day Ontario.
We’ve done most of the reading for you. You’ll just need to read the Historical Context section of The Feast of the Dead to learn what you need to know to run the game. Think of it as kind of like learning enough about the Sword Coast to run The Lost Mines of Phandelver.
In your experience, do games with historical settings tend to include everything a GM needs to read or would you recommend extra reading as well?
Adventure modules with historical settings should include everything a GM needs. Otherwise, your asking someone to go down a rabbit hole.
That said, we’d recommend reading or watching something. Less for the facts—though the facts are good if that’s your thing—and more for the feel.
The Feast of the Dead was initially inspired by the film adaptation of Brian Moore’s The Black Robe. That led to the actual novel, then Joseph Boyden’s excellent The Orenda, and finally the history itself. That’s our hope. We get you started with everything you need, and, by doing so, we inspire you to go down the rabbit hole.
How would you handle a player who pipes up; “But it didn’t happen that way?”
It’s unavoidable that anachronisms and/or inaccuracies come up from time to time—especially in player roleplaying. It’s best to quickly (and gently) course correct then move on. It helps at the start of the game to direct players to focus on getting a sense of the time and place as opposed to trying to recreate the actual history.
What 3 tips would you give a DM when it comes to preparing to run an adventure module with a historic setting?
In many ways, preparing for a game in a historic setting is no different than preparing for any other game.
- Familiarize yourself with the major themes of the period. Hopefully, the adventure module your running provides this. If not, Wikipedia is your friend.
- Create backstories for your players that bring these themes into the game. In The Feast of the Dead, a couple of the characters have lost their families to smallpox. This creates dramatic tension between the Wendat and the French.
- Fill up a few bowls with period-correct snacks. For 17th century North America, we go with bowls of ottet, a kind of cornmeal stew, and dried venison ; )
What 3 tips would you give players who know they’re about to take part in an adventure module? I mean, would you encourage them to discuss history with each other at the table, or keep quiet in case that’s not what happens in the game?
Focus on character
- Leave modern notions behind and try to see the world from the perspective of your character. For example, the Wendat believed death diminished the spiritual strength of the tribe and that killing or capturing members of rival tribes replenished that strength. The Jesuits, on the other hand, believed the Wendat were “sauvages” who needed to be saved. These beliefs do not fit with those which we hold today, but they were firmly held by the people of the time.
- Focus more on the characters’ backstory and less on what you know of the history. There is a commonality between our hopes and fears and those of the people who came before us—however different they may seem to us now. This can ground historical games and help keep them from veering toward the heroic.
- Differ to the DM for any questions on the history. A player playing a Wendat might ask the DM, “What does my character know about the French?”
In your experience, are there some historical eras or settings that are easier or harder than others? Any ones to try first as tests or ones to avoid at all cost?
The Ancient period is probably easiest for DMs and players to pick up. For example, many aspects of playing Romain Legionnaires in Gaul should feel very familiar to fantasy players. The 20th century gets a bit tricky with all its mod-cons.
Is any historical setting, in the worst case, a secret Cthuhlu adventure ready to run amock into the halls of ‘alternative history’ at a moments notice?
We might frame this differently. If your players are not responding to your historical setting game, you can always convert it to a secret Cthuhlu adventure on the fly ; )
Do you think my fear of historical games is justified or am I being a wuss?
There’s an element of the mundane in historical games. Player characters can spend hours traveling, hunting, making camp, or just interacting with one another. This can be a bit nerve-wracking. Are the players having fun? If the GM can give them the sense of being there in a particular time and place, most players do actually have fun.
So yeah, you’re maybe being a bit of a wuss. Just remember—you can always summon a Great Old One if things go awry!
What tips do you have for Gamemasters thinking about running a history-based tabletop RPG?