By this point, dear reader, you’ve surely noticed a certain propensity for the articles in this series to veer into historical territory: this is intentional. I’m a firm believer that some of the best game inspiration available can be drawn from our collective records of the past, particularly since those records are often fabulously inconsistent and — even when consistent — filled with really weird stuff.
Nevertheless, it was probably as a result of this propensity that my good friend Kirin Robinson (who I have written about before, and who has contributed at least one fantastic essay to this very blog) asked me if I could write a little bit about how to make historical gaming fun and interesting. It’s a tough question, and one that I suspect has a lot of different answers for a lot of different people. I think it’s also pretty likely that — for a subset of gamers out there — there’s no right answer at all. Not everybody gets excited about trying to play a rollicking spy thriller in the margins of the negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent, but I’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound pretty awesome. But hey — different strokes for different blokes (and, of course, blokettes).
But the question remains: if you’re going to play a “historical” game, how do you make it fun and interesting?
What I’m Talking About
It’s probably a good idea at this point to define what I mean by “historical gaming.” I think the term is large enough to handle everything from historical wargames and any number of Steampunk-themed games to the fantastic All for One: Regime Diabolique, a funky little Ubiquity system RPG about musketeers fighting monsters in pre-Revolutionary France from Triple Ace Games. So there’s a lot of space to cover here, conceptually.
I’ve explored this a little bit before, but for me historical gaming is about grounding your adventures in stuff that — at least supposedly — really happened. As evidenced by previous articles in this series, I’m personally quite enamored of the “secret history” sub-genre, though there’s also alternate history and and I think a lot of people come at this from an RPG perspective looking to bring the supernatural (or more generally, the paranormal) to a historical event or era that they want their game to emulate, at least on the surface. I don’t think you need to bring magic, or aliens, or superpowers, or any of the other stuff you commonly see in RPGs to the table to make historical adventures interesting. But I don’t think it’s going to hurt anything, either, if that’s the way you want to go.
When to Make It Up
If you’re trying to bring some “real” history into your gaming repertoire, one must assume that you’re at least somewhat interested in the topic in general, and probably very interested in some specific era or topic. Maybe you’ve always wanted to set a game during World War II, or the Golden Age of Piracy, or the Crusades, or the initial European settlement of North America. Whatever. One imagines that — if you are interested, you’re probably also reasonably knowledgeable about the topic. This is an asset, but also a curse.
Yes, you need to understand the era you’re game is set in in order to make it believable and interesting, but you also need to be ready for things to diverge from real history, maybe drastically. The old saying is that “no plan survives contact with enemy.” The concept with historical gaming is much the same: no historical event survives contact with the PCs. You’re never going to be able to perfectly recreate the Battle of Roncesvalles, so don’t even bother trying. Assuming your PCs are original characters, their very existence has already led the scenario outside the bounds of “real” history; even if they’re playing ostensibly real historical characters, there’s no way to guarantee that the choices your PCs make will fit the known path of history.
And that’s OK. The point of using historical settings is not necessarily to recreate history: you’re just giving your scenario weight and verisimilitude, a semblance of fact that you might call “truthiness,” even though you know that your adventure must diverge at some level from what you know to be true.
Credibility is Key
So at it’s core, maybe term “historical gaming” is a misnomer. Maybe it’s better to talk about “historical-ish” gaming, but even I have to admit that it doesn’t have much of a ring to it. Still, there’s a kernel of useful information there. Historical gaming is as much about “feeling” real (or maybe more accurately, potentially real) as it is about reflecting historical facts. So how do you do that? The amount of divergence from known history that will be acceptable to your gaming group(s) is going to vary widely depending on the personalities, interests, and knowledge levels of the people involved. Some folks are going to be perfectly happy if you have Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison rampaging through the streets of early 20th Century New York in giant death-ray equipped robots to decide which man’s electrical power standard would drive the United States (in real life, they called it the War of Currents). Other people are going to be upset if you diverge at any point from what they know (or believe) about how a given historical figure would react to whatever craziness you throw at them in your adventure. You’d hate to see a game derail because one of the players just can’t believe that Teddy Roosevelt would ever say anything like whatever it was you just had him say.
They might not be articulating it, but the problem you’re encountering is one of credibility, and it’s one that’s not at all unique to historical adventures. Just think about the more-or-less universal standard of RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons. You’re rarely going to find someone who can’t accept (within the bounds of a game, anyway) that there are people who can shoot fire out of their hands a couple of times a day as long as they get a good night’s sleep. But try to tell them (within the same game) that an otherwise normal human can jump 20 feet straight up with no other assistance? They’ll start arguing instantly! The difference is that people don’t know what a wizard could do in a given situation, because there’s (probably) no such thing as wizards in real life. But they do know that people can’t leap 20 feet straight up without assistance. So weirdness — indeed, most adventure — has to happen in the grey space between what your players know, and what they could reasonably extrapolate from the new “facts” you establish as the core ideas of your scenario, campaign, or world.
The More Things Change…
So how do you stay on the right side of the credibility line? Make the different familiar, and the familiar different. Or maybe more simply, the more things change, the more they (should) stay the same.
Most alternate history writers follow a simple rule when creating a divergent timeline: you only get to change on thing. For the most part, they try to limit themselves to changing one historical event, one single action or flashpoint, one fork in the cosmic road, and then extrapolate from there. What happens if an apocalyptic meteor shower hits earth during Benjamin Disraeli’s reign as Prime Minister of Britain? Or if aliens invade and attempt to colonize the planet during WWII? In the first case, you get a colonial quasi-Victorian society rebuilding itself in British India, and in the latter (if you fast forward about 20 years) you get a cosmic cold war that closely parallels the real 1960s. The more elaborate the disruption to established history, the more familiar the resulting world should be. If you make little changes to the timeline, well — then you have license for things to get really weird.
It all comes down to credibility and verisimilitude. Your history has to feel real — or at least plausible — even when all parties know it isn’t. But don’t worry too much about it: at some level, all you’re doing is playing pretend, anyway.
Now go make history. I’ll be doing the same.