Thoughts on Historical Gaming

I love history. Living in Massachusetts I enjoy taking opportunity of many of the historical sites available to visit - U.S.S. Constitution, Plimouth Plantation and Mayflower II, Boston's Freedom Trail, Old Sturbridge Village, etc. My family has paid multiple visits to Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg. My Kindle and physical library are full of history books and works of historical fiction.

With that in mind I'm surprised to see how little "historical gaming" I've done. It's not that I've done none - one of my more successful recent campaigns, and one I might go back to, was a 1920s Call of Cthulhu game. But aside from that most of my historical gaming has been more of dabbling than full-fledged campaigns.

I think for me at least a lot of this comes from the desire to "get everything right". On the surface that's a good desire but taken too far it can be crippling. I'm unlikely to run into players shouting at me "Omigod I can't believe you had the King using a fork, everyone knows the fork wasn't in use in Europe at that time. This entire adventure is now pointless!"

Beyond getting past that mental hangup there have been two real challenges for me. The first is one on the smaller level. How does one present the setting? For example, the tavern is a classic location for Dungeons & Dragons adventures. What about in Ancient Rome or Greece? Did they even exist? Were they remotely like how we picture a tavern? And is that even important?

At a certain level, getting some of these details is important. If you're using a historical setting you want to at least get the feeling that the adventure takes place in another time. The balance seems to be between getting the feel of the setting vs. making those you game with suffer for your historical research. Unsurprisingly I've found this easiest to do with those periods closer to modern time. In such cases one can inject little details here and there to make the period feel a little bit foreign but a lot of the concepts we are familiar with today are still present throughout most of the 20th century. For example, an adventure in the 1920s or 30s can safely have automobiles, albeit different ones. Simply giving the name of an automobile no longer even being made but familiar-sounding helps set the tone. Depending on the feelings of the group, showcasing the casual racism, sexism, and homophobia present throughout much of history is another mechanism. Throwing out a few names in conversation that players are sure to know can help. So can the omnipresent flask of whiskey.

I have to confess to being curious how this will go for the next generation of gamers. When I talk with my ten-year old daughter it is difficult to communicate what a non-digital world I grew up in throughout the 70s and 80s - and for much of the 90s as well. There was no internet to get an instant answer. No cell phones. Yes, she knows that was the case. But it is very difficult for her to picture how people got things done. How did we know what movies were playing theaters? What was on television? What did we do if we missed a tv show? How did we know when something was coming out? How did we do any research for papers at school?

Thinking about these questions brings me personally to mind of earlier periods than the 20th century. At this point those types of questions become more difficult for me to answer. What happened when you entered a medieval city? Where would you spend the night? Could you carry weapons? What sort of entertainment was there? In cases like this I think the key is again to get the feel. You're never going to get every detail right. Rather your challenge is to set the stage so that it feels like a different period. A few sprinkles of detail can go a long way to making it not feel like the 21st century. I've found George R..R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series a good inspiration for how to do this. Though the setting is a fictional one, it borrows much from medieval Europe and a few details about the way people ate, how they traveled, etc. really drives home the feeling of a medieval setting.

The preceding paragraphs cover the smaller details. There are also larger details to consider. If, for example, you are playing a World War II superhero game, can the players kill Hitler, if so, what happens? If you are playing a game where the players are portraying the movers and shakers of the setting as a whole then I think the answer has to be that yes, they can have an impact on the history of the setting. On the other hand, if the game is a smaller scale - for eample, using the WWII model, if the players are running mildly super-powered grunts like you might find in the Godlike RPG, then no, it is not likely the players will ever be in a situation to kill Hitler.

This is the same sort of challenge you might find if you set a game in a well-known fictional universe. For example, in Star Wars the heroes are Luke, Han, Leia, and the like. If you set a game in the Star Wars universe, an the players change events? If not, how do you make adventures so that the players do not feel like they are unimportant to the setting as a whole?


  1. I've had a few problems in games using what would be considered normal ways to look at race in a conversation during the middle ages, when the other players thought they were my own opinions. Ho hum.

    Other than that I'm very much with you. I do think the details are important, as anytime something anachronistic turns up, it takes me out of the character, and back into the history graduate player. that being said - and I know a lot of gamers are also history nerds - I think if the game has a fantasy base, inspired by the real history of a past culture/civilisation, most people will be happy to give you the benefit of the doubt.

    More often though, I tend to find people really like playing something with an air of authenticity.

  2. That's always a challenge - you don't want to offend the people you hang out with. I think it's a matter of knowing people's comfort levels. I myself prefer to avoid using various racial and ethnic slurs in my gaming - I personally don't like hearing that sort of stuff coming out of my mouth (I guess I'd make for a lousy actor in that regard).


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