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How To Run A Historical Campaign

July 16, 2012

Some gamers are not comfortable playing in or running a historical campaign. This is something that frequently comes to light during forum discussions. Yet, it really is no more difficult to do than one set in the present or a fantasy world.

The first thing to remember is that there is no law saying that you must be totally historically correct. A basic levels of research os all that is needed for most games and, if you are happy with it, Hollywood History will do. The only problem that can occur is when you have a player in the group who knows something about the period and insists on nitpicking details. What you need to do, of course, is agree the level of accuracy before starting play, so that no-one will moan about things agreed to be irrelevant. The other thing that you can do is invite them to assist in detailing the setting (either with the Games Master or their fellow players) – rather than a troublemaker, they are helping make a better game (just remember those agreed limits on accuracy!).

That said, it can be well worth doing research as the reality of the past is often far more interesting than what we think is true. Also, a general disregard for the details does beg the question of why history rather than fantasy – something about the era clearly attracts you, so why not read-up on what you are interested in? Unless running with the barest of cliches, you will be reading-up on a fictional setting, anyway, so you may as well put as much effort into researching a historical setting!

There’s no need to worry that research must be dull. A history book is no more guaranteed to be dry and tedious than a fantasy novel is guaranteed to be rip-roaring fun. The books that seem dull or complex are those that are more specialist in nature and, this, unlikely to be of use to you, especially at first. Don’t feel obliged to read-up on every tedious detail, go with the broad sweeps first and follow-up with the things that interest you and remember that, when you do need some specialist information for an adventure detail, you can freely cherry-pick. Wikipedia can easily be your primary source – you’re playing a game, not writing a dissertation!

The predetermination of events seems to be a bugbear for many when it comes to historical games. I find this odd. The same people seem generally to be happy playing games set in the present without complaining about the risk of being derailed by current affairs or the fact that major events in a campaign won’t have happened in real life. Nor do most gamers complain about the ‘restrictions’ of a published campaign. The closest equivalent is metaplot, although that usually relates more to its inescapability within products than its mere existence per se (which could otherwise be ignored). Sure, history happened in real life – but it doesn’t have to happen in your game! Once the campaign begins, just as in any other setting, the characters should have free rein to act and react as desired. If you place the player characters on the fringes of events, they will not impact the course of things too much and history will go, largely, on its bloody way; however, if you put the characters at the heart of politics or battle, then allow them to change the outcome, don’t attempt to railroad events onto the historical course.

Indeed, there is no reason why the setting must match the ‘true’ version of history exactly, anyway – after all, there is seldom a single, agreed narrative of events, even if you exclude the craziest and least-likely of claims :  some interpretations offer great gaming potential. In particular, if you are going with fantastic elements, such as magic, in a historical setting, you are already taking a step away from what is regarded as the true version of events, anyway. Why restrict yourself? Take a few more steps and see what happens! (Just make sure everyone is onboard with any changes before you start playing.)

As with any roleplaying game, it is your game and no history (or gaming) police are going to show up to stop play when you veer from the ‘truth’. Just as you can modify reality in a modern day setting, even inventing a fictional country, if desired, or rewrite a fictional setting to your own ends, a historical setting can be changed as desired. Add things, take them away. The ‘What If” is a respectable route to take and, if done properly, requires as much, if not more, research as straight history.

One area that is akward for many people is that of moral issues,as changing societal mores in one area can have wide-ranging consequences for a setting, and are often an integral part of what makes an era what it is. The problem comes in two form – people who only want to play certain types of character or personality type regardless of setting, and people who are uncomfortable when facing certain issues.

Obviously, some issues can be tweaked with little trouble and many can be played down if irrelevant to the characters and plot. For example, although racism was endemic in 1930s America, WASP characters will not be affected and the issue could be ignored unless going somewhere where it is unavoidable. Remember, it’s a game and about enjoyment, and ignoring such issues for purposes of escapism is a practicality and not a form of denigration for a period’s problems, just as playing a modern adventure game and getting on with the fun rather than exploring contemporary social issues does not mean you support injustice in the present.

It is entirely possible to allow characters to oppose the prevailing prejudice, although you will have to consider how this will change the dynamic of the game and likely bring such issues to the fore. Likewise, characters can be exceptions to the rule – there were always those, whether openly or in disguise, who achieved success despite society saying they shouldn’t or couldn’t. It is also possible to set adventures outside the main scope of a moral issue (it’s probably no coincidence that Nazis, who make such perfect villains, are generally fought in exotic locales rather than in Germany or occupied France or Russia, where genocide and oppression would be the primary themes).

When it comes to a moral element, such as racism or sexism, you need to consider its importance in the era, its nature and the strength of your feeling about it. Transforming a historical period into essentially the modern day in funny outfits rather defeats the point of playing in a historical setting, as well as ignoring the fact that the modern world is hardly perfect. It also has to be said that a happy, fluffy world of love, whilst nice to live in, hardly makes a great place to adventure in! Whilst there might be certain sources of tension and conflict that you prefer to avoid, tension and conflict are necessary for adventure. Obviously, if the element is unimportant in the era, then gloss over it or ignore it without further worry. The nature of the element can also affect things – playing a racial minority where you might face minor hassle or taunts is different to playing one in a setting where it greatly reduces your life expectancy. Then, there is the question of just how strongly you feel about the issue. Playing a character in an era known for its prejudice is not an endorsement of that prejudice.

There is, of course, no reason that an issue that is present has to be taken to its extremes, nor be explicitly described. Just because there is oppression, cruelty or abuse in a setting, and its existence acknowledged, even depicted, it doesn’t need to be shown in all its gory details nor its most brutal forms, any more than explicit sex scenes or detailed descriptions of horrendous wounds are necessary in a campaign that acknolwedges sex and violence as things that occur in the setting. Stick with the levels of depiction that everyone in the group is comfortable with.

I would also add that when I read of people wanting to divorce sexism or racism from a historical setting, whether in gaming or entertainment, I always feel very uncomfortable. It’s as if they are saying that everything people went through to achieve equality and justice didn’t really matter. I’d rather celebrate the successes.

Historical campaigns do not have to be a great challenge. They can be great fun and offer many exciting and unusual options that you might not find elsewhere. Approach them with an open mind, choose one with which you are comfortable, jump in, and enjoy yourself!

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