When people ask me what kinds of RPGs I enjoy most, I almost invariably say “historical games.” I love running and playing in games set in historical periods and a cursory scan of my RPG freelancing credits bear that out as well. While I enjoy most types of RPGs, there’s just something about playing recusants in Elizabethan London, colonials in Imperial India, or pirates in the Caribbean that I find fascinating. I was just musing on this the other day when a thought hit me.
I don’t play historical games.
While I’ve certainly played, GMed, and written for games set in historical periods, there is usually something different about the setting that didn’t exist during the proffered period. Sometimes this is done for playability and other times it’s simply for the coolness factor. Generally speaking, these differences tend to fall into three categories.
Reduced Prejudice: Many settings downplay the human prejudices that were prevalent in the historical period, often for playability reasons. The classic example of this is the treatment of female PCs. Even if the prejudice is still emphasized in the setting, female PCs are treated as exceptions and in some cases even gain mechanical benefits for their condition. Other games may presume more equality or suggest that the GM turn a blind eye to such things while running a game.
In Witch Hunter: The Invisible World the Black Plague wiped out far more men than women, resulting in women having many more career options in the late 17th century. All for One: Regime Diabolique offers options for female musketeers.
The Fantastic: Most historical settings have an element of the fantastic, whether it be magic, weird technology, pulp/cinematic action, multiple races/species, or horrific elements. In addition to adding a lot of unique flavor and adventure options, the fantastic often ensures a broader range of PCs.
The Victorian era seems especially ripe for this sort of thing, Castle Falkenstein, Space: 1889, and Victoriana all merge the 19th century with elements of the fantastic. The various eras of Call of Cthulhu are outwardly faithful to their periods but add a healthy dose of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know And Will Pay For With Sanity Points.
Alternate History: Many historical settings play with historical events. Sometimes this is to justify reduced prejudice and the fantastic, while other times an alternate history creates a unique setting revolving around a “what if?” Alternate histories can be liberating, as a GM does not need to worry about events in-game messing with the timeline or allowing players to use their knowledge of history to their advantage.
Aces & Eights and Deadlands both posit a fractured mid-19th century North America. GURPS has a veritable buffet of alternate historical settings with means to travel between them. 7th Sea is a special case; while not an alternate history per se — it takes place on a fictional world — the cultures strongly resemble an alternate history mash-up of late 16th to late 18th century Earth.
Two or three of these elements have been present in every “historical” setting I’ve ever run or written for Even The Imperial Age, which was developed as historically accurate with fantastic options, utilized the fantastic in the two adventures published for it. It reminds me of an old gamer joke about Old Western games:
Q: Why aren’t (American) Old Western games successful?
A: Because you are limited to two types of characters, good gunfighters and dead ones.
This leaves me with a question: are pure historical games compelling enough for long-term play?
Anecdotally the answer I get from my players is almost universally “no.” Most think the historical settings aren’t compelling enough on their own without some extra spice (at least in terms of sticking with it as opposed to choosing to play a different RPG). Others simply want a certain element present in their historical setting (e.g. the occult in Elizabethan London or steampunk in late 19th century San Francisco).
What say you? Have any of you participated in a long-term purely historical campaign? If so, what were your major challenges and how did you overcome them? Is there anything that would prevent you from playing in a purely historical campaign? What differing elements do you prefer in your historical settings? What differing elements would turn you off?