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Fun Historical Games, Fact or Fiction?

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?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Fun Historical Games, Fact or Fiction?"

#1 Comment By unwinder On October 15, 2010 @ 1:08 am

Gosh, I love games with some sort of a historical basis. I may be anomalous among RPG players, but I can’t really get very excited about purely fantastic settings. If there’s something to connect it to the real world, though, I’m invested.

The games I typically play come out on the silly end of the spectrum. I guess I generally play the “Doctor Who” version of any given history. Victorian London with mutants, The American Civil War with mutants. Etc. I’ve been meaning to try some other periods and twists on periods, but I have a big campaign going right now, and I don’t think I’d get much player buy-in.

A personal pet-peeve of mine, though, is obvious, pointless anachronism. In my civil war campaign, I had one player who specified in no uncertain terms that her character dressed in something like capri pants and a tank-top, and challenged me to find ways for NPCs to react to the costume. I had no idea what to do with that without severely derailing the campaign.

I’m never really sure what to do with the reduced prejudice element. I mean, obviously you don’t want to restrict people to male characters, or penalize them for being female, but if you have, say, a band of rugged frontiersmen blazing a trail for civilization, or a legion of Roman soldiers on a war campaign, putting a couple of girls on the team is going to change the situation to the point of unrecognizability.

I mean, I guess it’s sometimes fair to restrict players by gender/ethnicity. If you want to run a Conquistadors VS. Inca campaign, nobody’s going to blame you for disallowing a Samurai character concept. And likewise, if you’re doing a campaign in feudal Japan, nobody is going to be crazy enough to show up with a European character.

But somehow, “no girls allowed” seems a lot more wrong.

#2 Comment By evil On October 15, 2010 @ 7:45 am

I think it’s possible to play a long term historical game, but all of the ones I’ve played (and am about to start up) deal with historical places and concepts but with a dash of the fantastic added in for fun. Obviously we can’t play a game too close to real life, because real life just doesn’t offer up enough adventuring opportunities (hence why we game instead of being actual adverturers). On the other hand, most of my games could be termed historical, even though they take place in fantasy settings because I’ve wholesale pulled some stuff straight from the old textbook (the War of the Roses, the fueding families of Renaissance Italy, etc.).

#3 Comment By Knight of Roses On October 15, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

I am firmly in the historical gaming can be as exciting as any other genre camp. I have played in purely historically based Viking and English Civil War era Ireland for example, both games were fun. But I have played a lot more alternate or fantastic history games.

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 15, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

@Knight of Roses – Were the purely historical games long term campaigns?

#5 Comment By Gamerprinter On October 15, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

While not truly historical, I am currently developing a dark fantasy setting based on old Japan from the period following the Genpei War 1185, up to 1350. This is not Japan, but it follows the culture, mythology, religion, technology of early feudal Japan.

Being half Japanese and a Japanophile, I’ve never been satisfied with the various D&D editions of the orient, but have always preferred the fantastic over more realistic Japan settings like Bushido or Sengoku.

The events at the end of the Genpei War lead to a curse uttered, the suicide of the Imperial House, and an actuation of the curse by a dark power to create – Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story setting.

It is currently a patronage project: [1] and will be an imprint under Rite Publishing. Jonathan McAnulty of Open Design Project is lead design.

This should be out by Christmas…

This will be my first semi-historical 3pp setting.


#6 Comment By Carey On October 15, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

For women in historical war campaigns, there’s always the Polly Oliver approach. It could even be a bonus for the complications and hooks it brings to the role playing.

Also, Heroes contrived to have a European character in feudal Japan, so it’s not impossible to do.

#7 Comment By Gamerprinter On October 15, 2010 @ 9:33 pm


My introductory 3 part mini campaign arc, called ‘The Gift’ features a merchant needing to delivery a gift to a noble lord in Kaidan, and requires a party of guards to escort him and the gift to its destination. So the intro adventure set features ‘European’ adventurers visiting an exotic foreign land.

So, like your heroes mention above, it follows the same idea.

Though the main setting is being designed for local adventurers on a larger Adventure Path, after the initial one is published.


#8 Comment By Foolster41 On October 15, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

I’d like to hear more about the thing about westerns. I’ve been working on a western-themed RPG myself, and now you have me concerned there may be problems i’m not seeing. (I’ve done some play testing, against myself and it seems to play fine) Though this is more of tall-tale/fantasy wild west.

Isn’t the model of damage in wildwest just as fatal as would be in a midevil setting ( one strike of an sword, arrow or axe generaly kills) but with fantasy games this is obviously not the case, and so couldn’t it be so with a wild west theme? In that case, isn’t the problem true with any “realistic” system be it midevil history or wild west? Or maybe I’m totaly missing the point you’re making.

#9 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 16, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

@Foolster41 – Absent any fantastic elements, being a good gunfighter is what draws people to westerns and the black hats are usually good gunfighters as well. All PCs end up being optimized for gunfighting.

The joke is a dig that pure Western RPGs revolve around shootouts and absent other powers the only viable PCs are gunfighters.

That is a myopic view, but even if true it’s still possible to have differentiated PCs even if you accept that they are all good at one thing (aren’t all core D&D classes optimized for dungeon-crawling?).

After all, no one would say that Hannibal, B.A., Murdoch, and Face are alike, but they are all poor shots (I kid, I kid — none of them are built around being capable gunmen, but they all obviously are).

#10 Comment By Foolster41 On October 18, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

@Walt So basicly, as long it’s not too real, no problem?

How i summerize the problem of “realistic” games:
*rolls d10*
rolls 1
I died of Dynastary. 🙁

#11 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 19, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

@Foolster41 – Realism isn’t the issue; varied challenges/conflicts are. Unless you want all of your PCs to be carbon copies, you need to make sure that your adventures can accommodate varied types of PCs.

For example, you might create an Old Western campaign about U.S. Marshals debunking “occult” plots (which always turn out to be false/trickery). One PC is good at finding and examining clues (the investigator), one is good at socializing (the gambler), one is good at tracking and negotiating with Native American tribes (the scout), and one is good at science/medicine (the Doc). All of them can handle themselves in the inevitable gunfights.

#12 Comment By Foolster41 On October 19, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

Oh, I see. Yeah, I’ve been designing pregeneratehed charcters for this campaign and trying to make them with different skills, and fit in the capaign to work with them accordingly.

There’s the big guy who’s a great brawler and is intimidating (who also carries a shotgun), the collected intelligent guy who’s good at seeing through lies, the overconfident army officer. I realized actually that their basicly the characters from starwars. (Chewbacca, Obi Won, and Han Solo respectivly) 😛 Well, the apir a little different. For example, the “Han” character is a bit of the “by the book” type (not really a scoundrel) and tends to accidently make misses hit things that fall on enemies (it’s a 1/day abihllity). 😀

Anway, thanks for the clearification. It seems that should be true of fantasy games too (theif sneaking/trap springng, bard yakking it up, fighter lobbing heads off, cleric healing etc.)

#13 Comment By Harald On October 31, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

I love historical games, but I’ve found that too much accuracy is a bad thing. First of, while I’ve spent four years studying history, most of the people I play with haven’t. Hence, they won’t notice anachronisms, and most often they will introduce their own. Constantly being told, “you cant do that, because the [insert gizmo here] wasn’t invented until next year/decade/century,” will make most players lose interest.

Secondly, the nature of RPGs means that at some point in the game, the players will change the course laid before them, be it by GM or history. This means that even a meticulously planned setting will enter the realm of What-if’s before long. Why fight it?

That said, one of the most memorable games I’ve played (PC) in, was a Roman Republic game back when I was at the university. All of us were students of either history or philosophy, while the GM was extremely knowledgeable. Very few liberties were taken, but even that led to us changing history (although subtly).

Now I just steal heavily from our own history to fill out my homebrew, and damn the torpedoes 😉

#14 Comment By black campbell On January 11, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

I’ve run straight historical campaigns, as well — mostly 1930s and 1940s espionage settings. There’s plenty of room to “Flashman” it: stick your character in the midst of something big and have them play a sidereal, or important-but-unremarked part of the event.

For Victorian-period and the 1930s, I tend to like scientific romance (ala Space: 1889 or Hollow Earth Expeditions, respectively.) I still tend to stick tightly to much of the history, but when you’ve got aether flyers or rocket packs, you’re going to be tweaking history a bit.

One of the reasons I enjoyed writing for the Imperial Age line was the more hard historical flavor.