Wednesday, October 14, 2020

How to Run Historical Games

Last week I talked about criteria for the best type of RPG for historical gaming. For the "best of the best" I identified GURPS, followed to lesser degrees by Mythras, BRP and Call of Cthulhu. The latter of these four works best when you are going to "historical, but with mythos" of course, but the key takeaway was that for good historical gaming you want a system which sticks to a "realistic" baseline, emphasizes interesting ordinary traits in characters, does not require redacting significant content that impacts the game experience (e.g. removing a magic system core to the game's themes) and has support material. GURPS is hands-down the winner here, but Mythras comes in a close second along with BRP and CoC.

Remember it's a Group Venture

This time around I thought I'd talk about some of my experiences running actual historical games. A key problem with historical gaming is that it can mean different things to different people, so the first and foremost bit of advice I can offer up is: talk to your players about your ideas, and make sure that they are both on board with the concept and excited about it. There is nothing that kills a game faster than a GM who's grand vision for an esoteric deep-dive into historical tales around Roman General Riothamus are thwarted by a group of players who were expecting T.H. White's King Arthur. Likewise, a group of players who feel like they are being forced to experience a historical re-enactment of either actual events or the GM's personal fan fiction on a historical moment will lead to inevitable disappointment and campaign collapse. 

Put another way: the motto of any GM, regardless of intent, should always be to remember that it's a group venture and the group should as a whole be having fun. This doesn't mean that if your regular group is not in to what you plan to do that you should ditch it, but it does mean if you are married to an idea for a campaign you should seek out the time, place and players who will find it worth their time to explore the idea in question.

Establishing Familiarity and the Economy of Information

Taking to the players about their expectations for an historical campaign is a good idea. Looking in to your own heart about what speaks to you about the particular historical setting is also a good idea. I once played in a campaign set in an era of feudal Japan, but the GM, despite having a great internal vision of the campaign, wasn't that good at conveying details or explaining the "why" of things to the players. As a result, we had a really shallow experience with the game, unclear as to why some things were happening or what we were expected to do. We persevered because we enjoyed gaming together, but it was a short lived game as the vision was neither conveyed nor understood.

If you decide to go for a historical period in which you are very familiar, figure out how familiar your players are with that time and work out some plans around their familiarity or lack thereof. Take one of these strategies based on your players, which is already assuming that regardless of their understanding of the historical period they have already expressed interest in your pitch:

Players Not Familiar: this means you will need to think about your setting's relevant details and focus on the things which will be interesting or important (preferably both). If you know your players are keen on learning about the historical period as part of the experience great, but otherwise try to avoid narrating it like you're a National Geographic Special or in an academic reading; the same rules with actual fictional worlds apply: details that don't matter really do not matter, and details which the characters would never know the players also would not need to know. If you have some great bit you want to talk about on the historical backdrop that isn't relevant, save it for the after-game talk, but keep it out of the actual play experience.

Players Familiar: everything above counts, twice as much, but with two caveats: the reason you don't wax philosophical on the historical details that don't matter to the plot is because they could derail the game if you get into a discussion of irrelevant minutiae with another scholar of the period. The second caveat is: that player at the table who is familiar is now a valuable resource, so use him or her. If they have some information that might help clarify the moment, take advantage of that so long as it doesn't violate the need for an economy of information (use only that which is relevant). 

On rare occasion you might run something set in a time period for which a player is far more familiar with and vocal than you might want them to be. In these cases try to establish proactively that extraneous details are best kept for the after-game chat. That said, still take advantage of their familiarity with details that lend to the moment, but (to take a totally random example that happened to me in college) ask them to refrain from elaborate lessons on how Vikings saddled their horses (unless your group is like really in to that).

Narrating Detail as a Story Aspect for Entertainment First, Enlightenment Optional

Part of good historical gaming is setting the theme and mood for something exotic and also established in the real world, or it's recollection of such. Much of what I previously mentioned is aimed at the idea of extraneous, irrelevant or unnecessary information; it is not helpful to the story of the moment, or it is packaged in a manner which brings the narrative or gameplay to a standstill. That said, lots of such content when relevant or important to the moment should be presented. Just make sure you do it in a manner consistent with the goals of "presenting useful information" and "establishing the flavor of the scene."

For example: if I set a game that takes place in an early dynastic Egyptian court,  I will want to include information and descriptions which establish for the players useful images and data on the situation. If they are playing Egyptian characters then they will need some basic groundwork on what the court etiquette is, if it's relevant. Establishing customs and practices in this context might be useful, but it works best if you incorporate it into the description of events as part of the story rather than a break out lecture. You might be tempted to send this information to the players beforehand, but I don't advise it unless they request such; too much info sent from a GM without request is not fun, it's homework. I strongly believe in the axiom of "show, don't tell" though since RPGs require a narration you are in fact narrating the "show" part. 

You can use skills to gatekeep info, of course. Players who have no etiquette training or courtly graces experience can be told information from the perspective of those who find what they see as unfamiliar and intimidating; nobility engaging in practices which they find awe inspiring or terrifying to simple commoners. But if the group consists of nobility then the information should be imparted in a manner which helps them set the scene and also understand that what is happening is familiar to their characters, if not them.

In my experience, asking players to tell you what they do in situations like this is often counter-productive. The players who did their homework or have the interest will likely volunteer such data. Others may welcome a GM who doesn't force them to explain in precise detail how to saddle a horse. I experienced that as a player was an ironic moment, as I grew up on a ranch in real life and could saddle and ride a horse, but could not satisfactorily explain it to the GM, so my character (who should have such knowledge regardless of the player) failed at the task. Giant Lose on that scenario.

Using Actual Historical Events as Underpinnings vs. Springboards

There are two thoughts on how to handle documented history: it's written in stone, or it's not. Your players can either find a way to kill Hitler, or Hitler and Eva are destined to be found dead in a bunker. How you choose to do this is important to your initial story pitch. I, for example, lose a metric ton of interest in a historical game that is about to dump the actual historical underpinnings; if I wanted to play an alternative history game then I'd look to something like GURPS Infinite Worlds; if I want historical, I want it with all the gorgeous depth and details of actual history. For this purpose, we will assume that for actual historical gaming we stick to actual historical events.

This poses a problem though: what if your players try to kill Hitler? Well, there are a few ways to handle this: first and simplest is, if they can figure out how to do it, let them. The game stops being historical after that point, but it's still a fun experience. The one thing I feel you don't want to do is impede them. If you've created a scenario where they have the will and the way to accomplish something, it is ultimately better to recognize that you made a scenario which allowed it and proceed accordingly; literally anything else you do that stops the action will feel like GM intervention or rail-roading.

The better solution is to think carefully about scenarios that would prove interesting that don't deal directly with historical lynchpins and allow the players as much agency as possible within that context. For example, rather than design a scenario where the players feel they have the will, means and need to find and murder Hitler in 1938 instead look at other scenarios that deviate from such trains of thought. There are no shortage of lesser historical characters and plenty of "closely similar" personalities you can populate a setting with that will allow for an interesting story while letting the established historical backdrop play out in the background.

Another approach is to look for hotspots in history it is not as clear exactly who did what and how it all specifically went down. I actually think World War II is a terrible genre for actual gaming because you have to slice it very thin to find moments in which PCs can do things not already well established. You can still find moments, though: a campaign centered around D-Day and Operation Overlord can lead to some great fun, all while using the historical record as a backdrop. 

Other historical periods can explode with wide open opportunities for an historical experience that explores the gaps in our understanding. The case of the real King Arthur is a fine example: you could set an entire campaign around the sparse but insightful details of Riomanthus and run a campaign which strive for historical authenticity while also diving into a "what if" of that time period with little effort; the GM who finds creative ways to reference later legends of Arthur by weaving the campaign around the origins of such references gets bonus points. If Riomanthus was the inspiration for Arthur, then who was the inspiration for Merlin, Nimue, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay and the rest? Historical analogs for all of these characters could exist in such a telling, and would manage to walk a fine line between historical setting and creative extrapolation without going over any particular line. 

The key thing to remember is that the further back you go the more your historical context will rely on interpretations of the material available, extrapolations from the pieces of the picture, and the less it will be structured around well established facts. The campaign I am working on now, for example, will be focused on a narrow time period during the reign of King Akhenaten, chiefly because it is both a really interesting period in Egyptian history, but also because thanks to the discovery of the Amarna Letters, which were missives to and from neighboring polities over a few decades, we have a remarkable (but rough) picture of the political goings-ons during a hotbed of activity during the rise and fall of an extremely contentious Pharaoh who attempted to replace an entire belief system with a new, highly abstract form of monotheism. 

This gets to the last key point:

History as Backdrop

Alluded to above, this distinction is important: when you design an historical adventure or campaign, think carefully about whether the subject of the campaign will interweave with historical elements, or whether the historical context will be a backdrop for adventures driven entirely by the players and "local, possibly unrelated" events. 

A friend of mine ran a fantastic historical campaign set roughly around 1,000 AD during the Crusades. It's driver was a macguffin: a piece of wood allegedly believed to be a piece of Christ's cross, a holy relic of incredible worth if it is truly what it is claimed to be. The characters we played were mostly survivors in one form or another, the sorts of characters that would find cause to take interest in the relic, either out of belief or profit. It was a great game, and it provided an elaborate setting backdrop grounded in historical verisimilitude without either overwhelming us with detail or derailing with any actual historical details from the time. It felt like a thing that could have happened but no one wrote it down so it was lost to time, in essence.

When you design games like this, you do so with an eye often toward the more common people of a given period. Not all ideas for historical scenarios will work like this, but if you want your players to have the greatest agency this is the best way to do it.

Guidance to Players: Pregens and Player Guides

One thing you can do, particularly if this is a short campaign or single session event, is provide pregenerated characters. This has a few benefits: it saves time for the players, gives them a range of choices that the GM has pre-vetted as relevant to the intended campaign, and ideally you as GM should have twice as many pregens rolled up as there are players so they still have some agency in picking and choosing from the various backgrounds and personality types to suit to taste. 

If your campaign is geared to be longer (more than 5 sessions) and your players are of sufficient creative mindsets then you will probably want to provide a campaign precis instead. This is not quite the same as sending them a bunch of character homework; more like a quick summary of advised guidelines on character generation, including some basic guidance on character types you allow/recommend and where to look up more information if they want it. GURPS is great in this regard, because you can usually point them to the relevant sourcebook and tell them to follow the guidelines there. Failing that, something which provides some design focus is helpful, and be ready to elaborate on request. For example, in my planned "Fall of Aten" campaign sett around 1338-1333 BC, I might offer up that they can collectively choose to be with one of these factions, but that the players as a whole must belong to the same faction once decided on: 

Syrians (belonging to the powerful northern cluster of Syrian states which stand in opposition to Egypt)

Habiru (rebels and raiders in the southern client states, sponsored by the Syrians to undermine Egyptian rule)

Men of Amurru (servants of king Aziru, who find themselves embroiled in betrayal as AZiru journeys to meet with Pharaoh Akhenaten in the new capitol of Akhetaten, only to be held as a political prisoner; later released and betrayed by his own kin)

Egyptians (either aligned with or against the divisive Pharaoh Akhenaten, either working with him to secure long unattained power in a new administration and form of governance, or quietly aligned against him and seeking ways to bring back the old forms of power)

...and if I'm feeling like something different, they could be optionally part of the Shardana, one of the sea people groups who were early coastal raiders in the region, plaguing Syrian and Egyptian ports alike. That's not a good fit for the direction I want to go so I'd exclude it, but any of the first four options above make an excellent basis for campaigns.

They key here is to find out what the players find most interesting....and go with that. But if you as GM only find certain ways to be interesting or work for your vision, make sure you restrict it to what you know and can do; if I for example felt I did not have enough context to run a campaign that might not make it out of Syria then I shouldn't put that option on the table; or alternatively, if my vision really involved exploring the delicate balance of Egyptian court in a social and religious upheaval, then my player guide should narrow down to more specific details, focusing on social station and factions within that kingdom alone.

Secondarily, some guidance on what systems are in place for the game you are using is also relevant. If I use GURPS but allow a low level of magic and will let players choose from Ritual and Path magic only, they need to know that. The more divergent your ruleset is from the baseline discussed in the prior article, the more work you have cut out for you. For example, if you were to use D&D for historical gaming you'd need to provide a long list of exclusions and maybe design some new thematic archetypes and backgrounds appropriate to the setting. Doable, sure....but in this day and age, there's a game for every flavor and that's easier for me to work with.

Ultimately, running an historical campaign or scenario is going to take more work than using fictional settings, as you can't just start inventing stuff without context. A good historical setting requires some effort and research, but it's payoff when executed well is amazingly fun. The last thing can advise is: do not get too caught up in the details if it is not relevant to the fun of the moment! The ultimate objective is still to have a good time, and you can do so without necessarily getting every little fact straight. If something does end up being anachronistic or historically out of context, but your players don't notice it, that's a perfect "after the game" topic for conversation. Keeping track of every tiny historical detail can be hell at times, and it's inevitable you might screw up....but roll with it, and figure out a way to retcon later if needed.

If you're going to do some historical gaming, I also recommend that you secure a copy of GURPS Low-Tech, and use it (regardless of what system you use), it's a great game-focused resource.

Okay, that's all for now! Maybe a Part II if I think of more things to write about.

(edit: fixed a date issue, apparently had a 2 where I needed a 1 and did not notice!) 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Looking at Amazing Adventures 5E

Not too long ago Troll Lord Games produced Amazing Adventures, a SIEGE Engine powered take on pulp adventure. It was basically Castles & Crusades, but the castles were haunted nazi-filled places in the 30's and the crusades involved Indiana Jones and Sam Spade wannabes. It was a neat concept, and well executed, hampered only by the fact that it relied too much on the OGL, meaning many spells and foes in the game felt a bit "been there, done that" and not so much genere appropriate as system appropriate. Despite this, it was a good take on the genre, albeit short on support material until a later Kickstarter expanded the game's scope of material greatly.

After that, apparently there was a push to do a 5E powered edition of Amazing Adventures. One thing that this new edition did, aside from reboot the game into 5E mechanics, was to present it more as a multigenre "modern day" ruleset with goals of providing a baseline set in the 30's and 40's, but with plenty of content for pulpy scifi, historical or other possible takes. The first SF sourcebook for the new AA5E in fact is Solar Burn, which for those who remember how great it was is actually the StarSiege universe repackaged for the new era. So if you grab AA5E plus Solar Burn you have all the rules you need to run some SF games in 5E.

Anyway, this is less of a review and more of a discussion on what I've snagged so far and what I think of it, noting that I have not yet played the system though the temptation is strong; a key limiting factor is that since all my groups are now online with Roll20 or Astral Tabletop, I am pretty much limited to systems that have some level of support in those VTT environments, and Roll20 as of yet does not have AA 5E support in the form of a character sheet. I alas do not have time to figure out how to make one, so if I do run the game it may be using Astral, which is a tiny bit more forgiving in its process for games with limited online resources.

The mechanical elements of Amazing Adventures 5E is pretty straight forward: it's 5E mechanics, but with the thematic elements of pulp-styled adventures. This means you have base classes like gadgeteer (The Rocketeer), gumshoe (Sam Spade), raider (Indiana Jones), mentalist (Svengali or The Shadow), hallowed (covering types from Lankester Marin to Shadow Man), pugilist (Rocky Balboa) on get the idea. A lot of cinematic and pulp themes abound in the class options available. It's a good range.

You might wonder how Solar Burn handles these classically themed classes. The short version is: each class is designed thematically to work for a range of environments, and you simply identify the class by a more appropriate name (gadgeteer becomes technician, gumshoe becomes investigator, raider becomes scholar/explorer, etc.) Solar Burn also omits magical classes entirely, aiming for a pure SF setting.

The rest of the AA5E rulebook is about as you'd expect: it gives you the 5E rules customized for its specific take on modern pulp adventure, with plenty of extra detail mixed in. For example you can find enough content in the core book to run games in the present day or future without getting Solar Burn; the core rules even cover things like computers and hacking, decidedly not typical of the 30's and 40's era pulp adventuring. The Solar Burn expansion provides lots of rules and topical content specifically for SF as a genre and its default setting, but is not entirely necessary to use AA5E for your own's just really handy to have.

The AA5E book does include a medley of monsters, which seem to be the whole, more or less, of the older monster book for original AA. These include obvious pulp entries, reskinned OGL transplants and a range of genre-appropriate types including some Lovecraftian takes. It perhaps would benefit from more strangeness specifically from it's genre hits some obvious ones like mummies, deep ones and zombies but could really benefit from some strangeness like a generic version of Pennywise, the Thing from Another World, The Fly, or the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Heck, any of these would be better included than Planetar and Solar Devas which feel extremely D&D and not at all modern/future pulp adventure.

The book includes a ton of genre specific and optional rules, from sanity to detailed firearms information. Adding in fantasy elements from standard D&D is included, and a fairly detailed section on how to run adventures is included. The book tops off with a sample adventure.

Solar Burn is an add-on book, and covers additional SF genre details in about 50 additional pages, which talk about starships and methods of FTL travel as well as providing alien species for players to choose from and more genre specific rules and equipment. It's a nice complimentary tome to the core rulebook, though I feel like I would have liked anther 50-100 pages of extra material for good measure. This is more just because I like what Solar Burn has to offer, and while it plus the core book really do give you everything you need to play, I'd love a more elaborate look at the universe and its denizens. 

I also picked up Wild Stars, a setting sourcebook designed to work with AA5E and Solar Burn, introducing the "multimedia" universe by Michael Tierney (that I admit I had never heard of until grabbing this). Off-hand it's a problematic supplement: it contains a detailed system neutral setting over48 pages, but offers no rules or stat blocks for anything within. This is described as a deliberate design choice, but it was a mistake; the book is essentially useless to anyone who was hoping for a fully fleshed out setting and lacks time to figure it out themselves. If you want a generic setting sans toolkit you might find this useful, but for me it's a missed opportunity on a really interesting setting that lacks a game to play it with.

Anyway, if you like 5E (and it's hard not to enjoy 5E), like pulpy action, and want a flexible ruleset that handles a range of time periods within the pulp genre then you will get a lot out of this latest editiion of Amazing Adventures 5E. I'm really quite interested in doing something with it, although my keen reinvigoration of interest in GURPS is dividing my time in that direction.....but maybe not too far down the road if I can find a way to set it up in a VTT environment I might well throw this down as an option for my group, which I think would quite enjoy it. Besides which, if I were to run AA5E in a classic pulp environment I think GURPS Cliffhangers would make an excellent supplemental resource for it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Historical Gaming - Best Traits in a Game System

In this 46th year of role-playing games as a formal hobby we've got all sorts of fine tuned, precision level gaming engines out there for all sorts of things. Recently though I've been really getting back in to a deep dive on historical readings and the thought of running historical games has become all consuming. I've got campaign ideas ranging from revisiting my Mesopotamian campaign set around 2330 BC to a deep dive into England around 650 AD on up to my particularly strong obsession: the rise and fall of the rule of Akhenaten in Egypt from 1351 to 1334 BC. This is an especially interesting time period since a vast trove of diplomatic missives called the Amarna Letters exist, and these include a great deal of interesting insight into what was going on in this particular period of time. Never mind the revolutionary...some might say heretical....upheaval in religious tradition that Akhenaten implemented; there are all kinds of interesting stuff going on in this period in history.

Anyway, when I want to play something that involves exploring dark holes in the ground while fighting monsters both D&D 5E and Pathfinder 2nd Edition work really well for that. When I want even more cinematic excitement in that same vein 13th Age is a good choice. When I want science fiction Traveller is a basic default. So what is the best default for historical gaming?

A key element of a good ruleset for a specific genre must be that it supports what you want out of it. If the rulesystem provides only nominal coverage toward the genre then you may find yourself missing elements you crave. For my purposes, I define the historical genre like this:

Verisimilitude is Critical

Historical settings and themes work best out of necessity when the game system's underlying mechanics support the ideas of the real world. There are many systems which support cinematic or literary storytelling, but a suitable historical experience must at least feel like it is grounded in reality. Some systems let you take historical themes but are not really providing an historical experience in this manner (Cypher System and Savage Worlds are both examples of this). The obvious game systems for this sort of experience are: Mythras, BRP, Call of Cthulhu and GURPS. Each provide a mechanical framework for an experience steeped in "realistic" interpretations of things such as injuries, pragmatic human limits and physics.

Emphasis on the Mundane over the Fantastical

The "realism" must be supported well and in larger proportion to fantastical elements. If the system or setting of necessity feels like you're missing out if you exclude magic from the setting then it may not be an ideal system for historical gaming. The ability to define characters in terms of the mundane and make them feel relevant is critical; it does mean, for example, that the ability of a character to be interesting because the system provides rules for more in-depth skills is preferable to one where skills are less relevant. Combat abilities may focus in greater depth on what actually happens in real combat, and eschews fantastical or cinematic maneuvers; being good at blocking and parrying (and those being part of the process) will help with the historical realism; whirlwind attacks and fantasy parkour not so much.

Magic is of necessity either optional or irrelevant in these systems. The ability to provide for a form of magic that feels more like the way magic was perceived to work in the real world is helpful; the ability of the system to feel robust with no magic at all is even better. Whether you include magic or not, though, it's got to be with a system that does not overshadow the historical underpinnings such that it negates the intended value of the experience as you want it. 

Of systems previously mentioned it  is safe to say the Mythras, BRP/CoC and GURPS all cater to this. However, of these GURPS provides the most robust means by which you can provide for elaborate characters and avoid magic entirely if desired. Alternatively when armed with GURPS Thaumaturgy you can pick and choose from a range of magical traditions designed to feel like the sorts of magic which our ancestors believed in (as well as others of more literary tradition). Mythras provides four types of magic, which often dovetail well with our modern interpretation of how magic might have been perceived to work, but also tends toward a more mythic and literary reimagining of such. Likewise, BRP is simply the original system from which Mythras evolved, and Call of Cthulhu is very much steeped in providing a historical experience tinged with the mythos, a literary construct. 


Researching a game on your own dime and time can and is fun for those who want to do it, and historical gamers tend to fit that bill just fine. That said, the more ready-made content a system can offer you to help the process the better. It is almost redundant to point out that GURPS is the be-all and end-all for this sort of thing, thanks to a spate of almost two hundred historically themed books in the 80's and 90's. They moved away from such resources in print with GURPS 4th Edition, but still occasionally offer some useful content (Crusades, Silk Road) while keeping all the classic 3rd edition books in print....and the conversion work required is essentially non-existent, thankfully. Heck, many people use GURPS resources for other game systems as well.

Mythras also provides some historical resources, and you can find other systems out there that make varying efforts to do so, including some that engage in elaborate, fantastical depictions of historical periods such as Aquellare, a tome which must be truly experienced to be appreciated (or reviled, you pick).

Historical Gaming =/= Wargaming

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that a good RPG for this is not the same as a wargame by any stretch, nor should it be construed as such. For many, the most interesting elements of historical gaming are in the details of ordinary everyday living, experiencing a slice of time in an interesting historical period, and figuring out the many strange mysteries left for us in our own historical and archaeological records. Combat and military actions are just one piece of the pie, and a system which handles all desired elements may well suit those with such tastes the most.

For me, GURPS stands out as the system I can count on to provide the kind of historical gaming experience I want, especially if I want to keep it as far away from too much of the fantastical or literary/cinematic as possible. BRP is a close second along with Mythras, and Call of Cthulhu of course is excellent so long as you want to look at history through a sickly green Cthulhu lens (nothing at all wrong with that of course). Meanwhile certain very specific games out there provide some compelling historical experiences on their own...Aquellare is my most recent discovery, but there are others. What games might I have missed that fit this bill?