Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Place That Never Was

Compared to fantasy and sci fi, historical roleplaying games are the poor relations of the tabletop hobby. A variety of reasons are trotted out to explain this disparity. The usual suspects include the indisputable fact that fantasy came first - regrettably, perhaps - and established a dominant niche among gamers. That the overwhelming majority of gamers want magic - and it's kissin' cousin, sufficiently advanced tech - seems inarguable; for example, the most commercially successful cape-and-sword roleplaying game published to date, 7th Sea, is billed as 'swashbuckling and sorcery.'

The idea of historical roleplaying itself tends to get knocked around in these discussions as well. Some simply find the idea of playing in our own past too dull, while others express concern about getting the history 'right,' often citing the prospect of a 'history expert' at the table sucking every last vestige of fun from the room by repeatedly telling everyone They're Doing It Wrong. A fictional game-world sidesteps this potential pitfall.

The possibility of using a fictional country set in the real world rarely seems to come up, which is a bit surprising considering how often this is used in the stories from which so many roleplaying games draw inspiration. A fictional region or country provides both the flexibility and originality of an imaginary game-world with the familiarity of the real one.

Anthony Hope set his famous swashbuckling saga - The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau, and The Heart of Princess Osra - in the fictional kingdom of Ruritania, a German-speaking, Roman Catholic monarchy vaguely located in the vicinity of Saxony and Bohemia. The stories of Ruritania were so successful that Hope's tales would spawn a genre - Ruritanian romances - all its own. A number of later authors would set stories in Mr Hope's Ruritania or use it as the origin for characters in their own works.

Ruritania has worked its way into the fields of law and political science, as a stand-in for real countries in discussing hypothetical cases.

I chose to set my Flashing Blades campaign in 17th century France, but I blended in fictional characters and places from cape-and-sword stories and other tales. In my campaign, Ruritania is part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the adventurers are about to find themselves challenged to a duel initiated by the graf von Hentzau, an Imperial cavalry commander. I've also incorporated James Branch Cabell's Poictesme as well as the modern French creation Groland.

One of my future projects on this blog will be developing a Ruritania of my own, in conjunction with the OSR swashbuckling game Backswords and Bucklers.


  1. Of course, Poictesme is place of fantasy in addition to being unreal. :)

    But your point is well taken: the fantastic dominates the rpg market. Though I often think the "history expert" fear is probably unfounded--and possibly exaggerated to begin with. You hear fewer people complain about running games in fictional worlds with a good deal of complicated backstory (though admittedly, you do hear it on occasion).

    Maybe it's a function of availability of source material, though? Graustarkian/Ruritanian romances have fallen largely out of fashion, so they're less readily available inspirations for for people. Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age are ever-present, but not so with Ruritania or Lutha.

    1. First, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      In addition to Poictesme, I also drew from CAS' Averoigne stories for the real-life province of Auvergne and the Massif Central, making it a sort of 'scary Appalachia,' more medieval than modern. There are no actual magical elements, but they are definitely full of strange and unwholesome characters.

      I agree that the campaign-spoiling 'history expert' is likely exaggerated, a sort of bogeyman used to justify a preference for fictional settings. I've run into the guy-who-corrects-everyone far more often with fictional settings, like Krynn or Toril.

      Graustarkian/Ruritanian romances aren't mainstream, but then again, neither are cape-and-sword tales generally, which is one of the reasons I decided to blog about them.

      Thanks again for the comment.

  2. I've been playing 7th Sea for a fairly long time now and I feel that it works best if magic is kept at a minimum. Personally, I wouldn't have any problems with kicking out the magic altogether. The advanced tech I like. We did a steampunk 7th Sea set in 1880 that was tons of fun.

    As for history nitpicking: if you can get the general feel of the time just right, it's been my experience that people will tolerate a lot of things that are technically wrong. Of course, there may always be the obsessive history buff, but there's no helping him.

  3. Personally I prefer games like Flashing Blades and Boot Hill, no magic or magictech. Privateers & Gentlemen as well, or Daredevils... although for the latter I'm not opposed to lost valleys where dinosaurs still reign.


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