I am back! That “restful hiatus” I talked about three months ago took a little longer than I expected. Sorry about that. But I have still be reading and thinking about World War Two, Cthulhu, vast dark conspiracies, and other fun bedtime topics. This post, though, is about research.
Setting a game in a real-world historical period, even one you intend to blow up, provides the gamer with both opportunities and challenges. You have the opportunity to collect and use a wealth of material that’s been compiled and produced by historians, both professional and otherwise, who have made the study of history their vocation. There’s lots of resources available. On the other hand, you have a wealth of material that’s been compiled and produced to sort through; there’s LOTS of resources available. This is especially true for something like the Second World War. Because of it’s importance for our modern life, its immense scope, and a host of other reasons, there are mountains of books and other materials on WW2. My local used bookstore, not a huge one by any means, has four whole bookcases on the war if you include the “Nazism” and “Holocaust” sections! There are about two shelves devoted to the First World War, by comparison. That’s a lot of stuff to (potentially) draw upon for a game.
What’s a (historical) RPG’er to do? First, realize you can’t read everything. I feel a certain pressure every time I look at those four cases of books. My own desire to read is stoked by them, but my time is limited. Getting over any sort of notions about completeness or expertise is important, I think. I am not a historian. I am just a guy who likes history and wants to play some games.
Second is to focus. I am certainly interested in WW2 as a whole, but there are a couple of areas that really intrigue me more than others. I am really interested in the North African front, for example. Lots of good gaming potential there as well, with the desert background and Britain’s hold on the Middle East and Egypt. Another thing I find fascinating is the Nazi attitude toward art and their acquisition of the collected artistic treasures of Europe. So I try to focus my reading on those areas when I can, knowing that there’s lots more out there if I get tired of that focus.
Third is know when to put a book down. I am HORRIBLE at this, persisting with fairly ponderous texts long past the time I need to put them back on the shelf. It’s some odd compulsion to finish what I’ve started. But I have to realize my time is important and there’s plenty of material out there that (likely) talks about the same stuff in a more interesting way. Just move on!
Fourth, know why you are reading. More accurately, know how what you are reading relates to your gaming. I think there are two reasons to do research for historical RPGing: accuracy and idea-mining. You may be researching to make sure you get things right — names, dates, places, proper caliber for German machine guns made by DWM after 1943. But, as my last example may illustrate, its easy to go overboard here. Knowing what sort of game you’re aiming for and the level of detail your players expect is important to guide your reading in terms of accuracy. Most people won’t know or care about proper Japanese navy insignia, so you might be able to put that book back on the shelf. Yet some basic accuracy is expected. Details can also add realism and verisimilitude to your game, so incorporate those when you can. Of course, you’re also reading for ideas — game plots, NPC’s, strange technology to use as weapons or treasure. This is the real fuel for the game. To be honest, it’s also sometimes mutually exclusive with accuracy. Japan’s Secret Invisible Submarine may not the best source of accurate information about the Imperial Navy, but it likely has some cool game ideas.
Putting together a historical RPG can be a lot of fun. It gives the GM plenty of opportunity to find and incorporate “real” material into her game. If one isn’t careful, though, the historical material can be overwhelming. Knowing how to filter that material can make the game better. At least I think so.