Friday, September 21, 2012

"In the Age of the Three Musketeers and Captain Alatriste!"

This month's RPG Blog Carnival topic is Running Games in Established Settings.
Why do we play in settings others have created? What are your favorite? (sic) Why is it that we are continually drawn to them? Are they a crutch? Do you modify your established setting to match your game? I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on the matter.
My current campaign, like many others I've run before it, is set in the most accessible and heavily supported roleplaying game-world ever: our own. Entire libraries of books, movies, music and other media present this game-world in lavish, unequaled detail, unlocking its secrets, hinting at its mysteries.

One of the main advantages of using any established setting is that many of the players around the table may begin the campaign with some of familiarity with the game-world. This can be particularly relevant to sandbox settings as it reduces the effort asked of the players to get up to speed at the beginning of the campaign. Games set in the our own world may have the lowest barrier to entry of any established setting, despite the richness and complexity.

But real-world settings also offer another advantage, the interplay of fact and fiction. Campaigns set in the real-world, past or present, may also draw from popular fictional tropes, providing more avenues of familiarity for the players.

The tagline for my Obsidian Portal campaign wiki, frex, reads, "Swashbuckling Adventure in the Age of the Three Musketeers and Captain Alatriste!" Though I've gone to some lengths to get the history right, my game-world isn't strictly historical; it's a blending of the 17th century with the fictional universes of Alexandre Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Robert E. Howard, Rafael Sabatini. the baroness Orczy, and others. In the campaign so far, the adventurers fought a duel alongside Gil de Berault, from Stanley J. Weyman's Under the Red Robe, and were enlisted to seize a castle from an alleged Spanish spy by his half-brother, Marius de Condillac, from Rafael Sabatini's Saint Martin's Summer. Along similar lines, I've also pulled in many of the 'canon' characters from the Flashing Blades adventures, such as Beinvenu, the ambassador from The Ambassador's Tales, and the vicomte de Praz-de-Lys, from, "The Great Marksmanship Tourney."

One of the challenges of blending fact and fiction is reconciling the historical record with the romances. Frex, M. Dumas based many of the characters of The Three Musketeers on historical figures, but he wasn't faithful to the historical timeline in doing so. The real-life Treville, for instance, didn't become captain-lieutenant of the King's Musketeers until more than a decade after the events of the first novel, but in order to take advantage of the players' familiarity with the tales, the fictional characters took precedence over their historical counterparts in my campaign.

Another challenge is deciding whether or not the actions of the players' characters can change the established setting. This is a particularly pertinent question when dealing with a campaign set in our own past; historical fiction, in particular cape-and-sword romances, may have the characters participating in historical events and interacting with historical figures, but is less likely to have them changing events in ways which significantly deviate from the record of the past. In many cases, the characters of the stories occupy the interstices of history.

Roleplaying games are different from stories, however. In sandbox settings in particular, the players are not constrained to follow a particular narrative by the referee, so the inevitable question is, 'Can my character change history?' In the case of Flashing Blades, where the rewards system is such that characters may, though their careers, reach positions of influence - bishop or cardinal, general and marshal, royal minister, master of a knightly order - which potentially allow them to alter the course of France, this is an especially pertinent question. With this in mind, I make clear on my campaign wiki that the answer is yes, they can change history by their decisions and actions. As such, part of my preparation for the campaign is considering what happens should such world-altering events come to pass. Frex, one of the most obvious and sweeping is, what happens if Cardinal Richelieu dies prematurely? Who is his likely successor, and what effect could the change have upon the future of France? There are few better ways to let the players know their characters are movers-and-shakers than allowing the 'metaplot' of the setting to change as a direct response of their choices.


  1. the most accessible and heavily supported roleplaying game-world ever: our own. Entire libraries of books, movies, music and other media present this game-world in lavish, unequaled detail, unlocking its secrets, hinting at its mysteries.

    Word. :D

    Mike, your blog and wiki have been a great inspiration. I appreciate your unflinching devotion to "straight" historical, non-fantasy role-playing. This is an unplowed field that needs more cultivators. I have especially enjoyed your series on domain level play and the "social megadungeon" (which really should be an appendix to the next edition of Flashing Blades, if there ever is one).

    In fact, your gaming notes have inspired me to start work on my own historical swashbuckling campaign. It is set in the early seventeenth century, simultaneous to your own Ballet de l'acier campaign -- but on the other side of the world, in the last days of the declining Ming Dynasty of China. I've always wanted to do an historical Chinese campaign (Chinese history is a long-term obsession), but I was discouraged by the common arguments against straight historical RPGs commonly encountered in gaming circles (e.g. non-fantasy is boring, real history is too limiting, having to "get the facts right" stifles creativity, politically incorrect "bad stuff" from the past will alienate certain players, an actual history setting would get bogged down in minutiae, knowledgeable players would get worked up about inaccuracies/turn into "history lawyers," etc, etc).

    Come to think of up, I'd love to see someone post a manifesto on the "Myths of Historical Role-playing." (hint, hint)

    Keep up the great work, Mike!