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!) 

1 comment:

  1. Hey,

    It's been super busy for me, so I have not had a chance (or energy) to write a longer comment, but I just wanted to thank you for writing this out. It's a great read and very thought provoking.