Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Playing With History

Rayvn at Exchange of Realities posted about the problems and promises of real-world settings.

Ravyn writes first about the advantages a real-world setting brings to the table.

The first advantage to a real-world setting is that it comes pre-created. Instead of having to take the time to figure out all the geography, all the cultural details, and all the—well, everything—one can just take what exists and choose how to treat it and what to embellish.
Not only is the real-world as a setting "pre-created," it's an embarassment of riches, the most exhaustively detailed game-world ever conceived. Even better, many of the sourcebooks are freely accessible to anyone with an Intreweb connection and a library card - perfect for the budget-minded gamer.

The second is that a lot less requires explanation. People may not perfectly understand the concepts you’re playing with, but they’ve probably run into the basics in their everyday lives, and have a whole lot more to extrapolate from. This way, you don’t need to spend near as much time expositing; if your audience is already familiar with it, you won’t need to talk them through it. And hey, you’re pretty familiar with it as well; you won’t have to spend near as much time hitting the books to get the basics either.
This innate familiarity is a huge advantage, in my experience. Introducing a player to my Flashing Blades campaign can be as easy as, "Y'know The Three Musketeers? It's like that." If that conjures up an image of swordfights and wide-brimmed hats with big plumes and a scheming cardinal, then I have a functional foundation on which to build.

This familiarity extends to many areas of the game-world we may take for granted. Most gamers can probably come up with a French-sounding name for their characters without reading a list from a game book, for instance, and they know there's a New World and an Old without first consulting a gazetter. With respect to sandbox campaigns, this familiarity may give the players confidence in deciding on what they want their characters to do, without constantly consulting the referee on what is or isn't possible.

But Ravyn considers this familiarity a potential disadvantage as well.

On the other hand, since you’re not making up the details, and they are well-known, it’s a lot easier to get something wrong. (This, I admit, is why I’m a little leery around real-world settings.) Just because we live here doesn’t mean we know everything, nor even that our impressions of the world gibe with those of our audience—and that’s before we even get into politics.

Similarly, there’s a chance of people getting a bit pickier about suspension of disbelief once the real world is involved. We may not know how various species of fantasy creature work, but people? And physics? Those we know from.
For about as long as I've been a gamer, I've heard and read tales of woe about pedantic players 'correcting' the referee's interpretation of a place and period - in fact, I've encountered it first-hand on at least one occasion, an Iraq vet compelled to embellish everything the referee said in a modern military one-shot.

This is no less true for games in fictional game-worlds as well. There are no shortage of 'experts' on Traveller's Charted Space or D&D's Forgotten Realms, two published settings with decades of development spanning multiple editions of their respective games; in addition to numerous setting books, the Realms also boasts a library of novels featuring one of the iconic characters of contemporary fantasy. Personally, I've encountered Third Imperium canon-eers far more often than I have professors of History (Channel) in my own gaming over the years.

That said, I do think this concern gets blown out of proportion at times. In the first comment to a post by -C at Hack & Slash, Melan has this to say about fear of errors as a design philosophy.

I am really frustrated by a lot of game discussion on the net - particularly on RPGNet's d20/D&D forum - where posters assume that typical gamers will be acting in bad faith in situations that depend on human choice. There is, I don't know, a complete lack of generosity towards roleplayers, and some sort of almost paralysing fear about bad experiences.

As a conclusion to these assumptions, the discussion then shifts to how a game's rules should limit or outright prevent the potential for human error by limiting human choice; moreover, the experiences of posters who come from a different point of view are written off as atypical or downright wrong. I see these assumptions as damaging - used to argue against them for a few years, but I have mostly given up because I just ended up attacked over it.

So, yeah, sportmanship. A mutual commitment to group enjoyment. That's the point. That's the entire point, and I don't want to play in a game that doesn't give me that.
Melan's point is just as relevant to the question of using the real-world as a campaign setting: do we allow the possibility of pedantic players to spoil our gaming, or do we, right from the mother-lovin' giddyup, set an expectation of good sportsmanship from everyone around the table?

For my part, when running a historical campaign, I make very clear that I am not a historian and that my campaign may be influenced as much by historical fiction as it is by history itself. I'm always happy to discuss differences of opinion over interpretations at the table, whether they are of rules or history, and I may seek feedback on rulings from the table as well, but as the referee I am the final arbiter and my call is definitive, and in the spirit of sportsmanship I expect the players to accept it. If a player's uncomfortable with another human being in that role, then I wish him well in his future gaming in someone else's campaign.

Beyond setting expectations, referees running campaigns set in the real-world can make their lives easier a few ways. First, consider that most game-worlds sit not at one side or the other of a real-world-fictional-world divide, but rather fall somewhere on a gradient between the two. A Ruritania - a fictional country set in the real world - shades toward the fictional end of the spectrum, but may still incorporate many real-world elements and relationships. My 2e Boot Hill setting is 'The Territory,' located 'somewhere in the Southwest.' There are references to real-world places and events 'back in the States,' but that's as far as I go in attempting to fix The Territory in time and space. This gives me a great deal of freedom to create a fictional setting but still allows me to draw on the players' familiarity with both the historic West and the mythical West.

My Top Secret campaign, set against the backdrop of Cold War Africa, hews more closely toward the real-world end of the spectrum, but with significant fictional elements. The agents belong to real-world agencies, for example, but they are assigned to a fictional task force under the auspices of NATO. There are many references to real-world people, places, and events, such as the Bush War involving the SADF, UNITA, SWAPO, and the Angolan government and its Cuban advisors, but the agents' mission is related to the activities of a fictitious group inspired by a real-life organization. Actual play takes place in a real-world setting, but along its margins, offering more license to make up elements whole-cloth.

In keeping with one of the recurring tropes of cape-and-sword literature, in which swashbuckling characters participate in the history of the period, my Flashing Blades campaign is tightly woven into the real-world events and personalities of 17th century France. The game-world is populated with many of the historical figures of 1620s France, and the historical timeline forms the basis for activities with which the adventurers may become involved - for example, the player characters spent the past several months fighting in the First Genoese-Savoyard War.

My FB campaign cleaves closest to the historical real-world, but I still weave in fictional elements as well. There are Ruritanias - including Ruritania itself! - which are part of the game-world and many of the fictional characters from cape-and-sword literature appear alongside the many historical figures who appear in the campaign.

The second way a referee can make running a real-world campaign easier is put in the research. Now, the idea that preparation for a roleplaying game should involve studying!? is an anathema for many gamers, but some of those same gamers will have no problem using a small library of game-derived setting sourcebooks and adventures for their campaigns. This is understandable to some degree - published settings and adventures for roleplaying games tend to be 'ready to serve,' while researching either a historical period or the contemporary world means putting in the legwork myself.

That said, we live in a time of unprecedented access to recorded knowledge, from ordering obscure books online or via interlibrary loan to the vast amount of information that is a keyword search away on the Intrewebs, and this is where published settings and sourcebooks specifically for roleplaying games pale in comparison. The depth and breadth of the setting and sourcebooks released by gaming publishers can never begin to approach what's available through good ol' books and articles.

The more time I invest in researching the specifics of the game-world, the more I find that my campaigns tend to write themselves. Ideas for non-player characters and events in the game-world leap off the pages, and my ability to convincingly ad-lib on the fly improves, which is critical to a sandbox referee - I've joked that this could be subtitled, A Game Master's Guide to Swashbuckling Aventures.

Of course, one of the best resources available to referees running games set in the real-world may be the players at the table. Rather than waiting for someone to pipe up with, "But that's not right! What really happened was . . . ," utilize the areas of expertise the players bring to the campaign. Again, this is a collaborative effort, and most players would much rather help their referee reach higher than knock her feet out from under her.

So what do you research? The easiest guideline is, focus on what the adventurers are likely to encounter in the course of the campaign. For example, reading about diplomacy between Paris and Vienna in the years leading up to the Peace of Westphalia adds little to the campaign if the player characters are gamblers and bravos in the alleys of Venice or highwaymen and smugglers on the coast roads of Cornwall. A small investment in learning about the culture of a place and period may yield far more useful material for actual play than a survey of foreign policy.

Third and last, books and movies set in the real-world may play fast-and-loose with physics, and there's no reason why a roleplaying game cannot take the same license. Choose a game with an eye to suspension of disbelief. If you want a campaign that feels more like The Musketeer rather than The Duellists, then a game with rules for gritty fencing simulation will likely produce frustration over fun. I picked Flashing Blades for my cape-and-sword campaign because combat feels very much like Bill Hobbs' fight choreography for the Richard Lester Musketeers movies. This is the physics I want the rules to model for the game-world. If I wanted something more gonzo, then there are other options I could pursue.

I don't expect real-world settings to be to everyone's tastes or to fit every genre of roleplaying game, of course. I do think that some of the concerns gamers frequently express running or playing in a game set in the real-world, and it's an option worth exploring.


  1. I'm a huge fan of real-world settings and the majority of the games I play take part in them or are at least based on the real world, like Shadowrun.

    I find that when the GM is reasonably well prepared and manages to give the game an overall feeling of realism, it's very easy for me to accept anachronisms and outright changes to the world. I just have a problem with that when I notice that the GM didn't pay any attention to the period we're playing in and doesn't really care, that brings out my inner nitpicker.

    Oh, and thank you for mentioning the library card as a tool of research. Too many people forget about it and as a librarian, I appreciate the support.

  2. This is a great article. My own path, the one which led me to become a medievalist, began with attempting to find more and more historically accurate ways to represent the past until I was completely immersed in the medieval.

    There's no shame in doing research about our past. In fact, I think a referee should at least half as much time to understand their setting as an author does when they do research to write a new novel. They are, after all, attempting to create a believable place within their own minds and then share that place. The least they can do is make sure it all jibes well.

    As for the benefits of historical setting, I find there is a single double-edged sword for me (or perhaps triple edged...) and that is familiarity. For one, references are easy and pull on a set of pre-made semantics that everyone playing will understand. Playing in a historical setting, if someone were to mention Abraham and Isaac, the whole reference is already right there. IT conveys reams of meaning quickly and simply, because it makes use of a semantic network still active in our culture. The edge is, of course, false-familiarity. That semantic network (of the period), while it shares some ins and outs with the one we use, is still deeply alien and by appearing to be so familiar, it can dupe players into forgetting that they should be trying to engage it on its own terms rather than on the terms that they are used to in every day life.

  3. I find history endlessly useful as inspiration for games and settings. Having a group that is on the same page for any setting is always wonderful. Nothing I have GMed ran more smoothly than my Champions of the 60s campaign where most of the players were genre fiends.

  4. Another excellent article. I find players generally only care if the setting FEELS real. A couple of period details is all it takes sometimes for a good historically-set RPG to work.0