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.