Member Spotlight: Fraser Ronald on Historical Games: Authentically Inauthentic

IGDN’s Member Spotlight series is a chance for our members to share their interests. Each Member Spotlight post reflects the unique viewpoint of the author, and does not represent the views of the rest of the IGDN or its membership.

Games set in historical settings generally face constraints and expectations that those set in secondary worlds do not. While these can be both benefit and hazard, historical games have an undeniable appeal to a subset of gamers and designers.

When approaching the design of a role-playing game set in a historical period, the first question you needs to ask yourself is, how rigidly will your game adhere to history. I would argue this is not a binary, but a continuum, and there is no best level of historicity. Whichever approach you take will condemned by some and lauded by others, so figure out what you want to do and go with that.

I’ve published three historical games, and I’d like to use those as examples. The first of these was Kiss My Axe, which is an RPG of Viking mayhem. While the dial on this one is well into the authentic region of the continuum, a major inspirational factor was the Viking sagas, and so magic, monsters, and superhuman feats were baked into the rules. Further along the continuum of historicity was Centurion, a game of Roman legionaries. Centurion was heavily researched and its setting was the Roman Empire as we know it, with no magic or other alterations. Finally, Nefertiti Overdrive was grounded in the historical Egypt of the 25th Dynasty, but envisioned the Assyrian invasion that ended that dynasty as a martial arts action movie, in a manner completely contrary to the existing history. This, more so than the other two, declined to accept the social norms of the time and overlaid twenty-first century ideas atop of the society of the time.

I had expected Kiss My Axe to sit in a sweet spot for gamers. If one wants to play a Viking game, one likely knows at least something about Vikings, and so a game that adheres to history will likely provide most of what one is seeking. But along with history, it offered fantasy, with giants and witches with whom to fight or ally. It offered magic not as a superstition but as a tool that could be used just as one’s sword could.

That said, it was my least successful game. I don’t want to read too much into that.

The work that is required for any specific level of historicity — or let’s call it authenticity, perceived authenticity for certain, but that is kind of how it is measured — is varied, but that is not a reason to choose a lower level. Research is required no matter your purpose, and a lack of research when working on a historical setting will almost certainly be seen as laziness. I would say my level of research was greater for Centurion than for the other two, but not by very much, and that in no way slowed the game’s creation or design.

Research is an undeniable part of the historical game. If you are not interested in doing the research, I would strongly suggest a second world setting. This allows a designer to take inspiration from history without being held to it.

Even with the statement that a game is not rigidly historical, if it exists within our world, it will create expectations. Right from the outset, I made clear that Nefertiti Overdrive was not a “historical” game although it was a game set in Egyptian history. This is did not allow me to ignore the history of the 25th Dynasty and the Assyrian invasion, it only gave the players and GMs who run the game license to create their own version of history.

And to include kung fu. Because that’s what history was missing. I just fixed it.

I would strongly argue that the choice of authenticity should not be about a fear of research or of getting history “wrong.” It needs to be fed directly by the motivation that is driving you to create your game or setting. If you want a game to be set in the English Civil Wars, then you should be striving for a higher level of authenticity. If you want to have a game of witches hunting warlocks in the English Civil Wars, you must still understand and research that period, but now there’s magic as well! Maybe you want supernatural artillery and vampire generals in the same. Not a problem. On the continuum you’re pretty much at the far end away from authenticity, but there’s obviously something about the English Civil Wars period that inspires and fascinates you. Don’t do that a disservice by relying on Wikipedia for your research. The more you know about the period, the more confident you will be writing about and explaining how those vampire generals and their supernatural artillery got there.

As a sidenote, I don’t want to belittle Wikipedia. It is a great place to start, but should not be the start, middle, and end of your research journey.

Writing about a historical period does not mean you cannot have fun with it and make it your own. You can have spell-slinging martial artists during the Ancient Regime of France, but do the Ancien Regime justice.

Member Spotlight: Dustin DePenning on Market Differences: Hobby and Mass-market Games

IGDN’s Member Spotlight series is a chance for our members to share their interests. Each Member Spotlight post reflects the unique viewpoint of the author, and does not represent the views of the rest of the IGDN or its membership.

I grew up playing Magic, D&D, Warhammer, and other games you find at hobby stores. Nowadays, I design games for families and children that are purchased by mainstream consumers at retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. Involvement in both worlds has taught me about a few differences between these markets.

1. Mass-market companies expect a large volume of sales.
It is important to understand the difference in scale between the hobby and mainstream games. Mass-market games I have designed which sold from 20,000 to 100,000 units were considered failures, even though these numbers sound large in the hobby market. Only games that sold 200,000 or more units in a year were seen as successes. Results like this often require immense efforts from skilled designers and large marketing teams.

2. Casual and hobby gamers want different things from games.
In contrast to hobby gamers, mass-market gamers (“casuals”) prefer simple games. Some people attribute this to a casual gamer’s intelligence. This is an insulting assumption. The true difference is hobby gamers are interested in gaming as a primary source of entertainment. Casuals see games as a fun distraction, but their primary interests are elsewhere.

3. Interest is the key driver behind what you choose to play.
Hobby gamers will sit down to play a complex game they know nothing about to broaden their experience. However, casual gamers worry about losing time and mental energy that could be spent on something they might enjoy more. As such, it’s difficult to get casuals to risk playing – and especially purchase – an unfamiliar game. You have to find powerful communication to capture their attention, time, and money.

4. Investment shapes communication.
Highly invested gamers have acquired a subconscious cluster of visual cues, game mechanics, story themes, jargon, etc., to interpret new experiences. Uninitiated casuals have no such advantage. This makes simple and culturally familiar experiences easier to communicate. They perceive such games as lower-risk investments.

This phenomenon makes classic games such as Sorry and Monopoly everlasting, despite some opinions they aren’t very fun. When the occasional mood to play a board game strikes, Sorry offers an experience both simple and familiar. Monopoly isn’t simple compared to Sorry, but is so widely known that it’s a cultural icon.

5. Designing new experiences for casual consumers is difficult.
It is difficult to make something that feels familiar and is easy to learn, yet still fresh and fun. The palette of mechanics you can employ is limited, and themes must be inherently appealing or trendy. This balancing act can apply to hobby gamers as well, but they have a wider language of mechanics and theme trends. Finding the perfect intersection of fresh and familiar is extremely difficult. It can take collective knowledge of an entire team to get it right.

6. The American game audience is changing.
For designers of hobby games, the good news is that the market is growing every day. Video games and apps have made complex game mechanics accessible, and digital gaming’s high entertainment value makes classic board games less appealing. Consumers are starting to desire more novel experiences found in hobby games, and each year it becomes easier to turn an uninterested gamer into an engaged one.

Dustin DePenning has worked in the gaming industry since 2008, first at Hasbro and now at Spin Master Games. In his off-time, he is developing an RPG called Synthicide.