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History, Verisimilitude, and Messy Settings

Recently, I’ve been reading the five Otori novels [1], and have really enjoyed the complex world that they’ve created. I don’t know a lot about Japanese history, so I have no idea how closely the concepts correlate to real world events, but it’s a great, complex world that I’d love to game in. But it’d only work well under unusual circumstances. Cover for Across the Nightingale Floor, Tales of the Otori Book 1 [2]

Playing in her world is similar to playing with real world history–it’s attractive, but difficult. Phil’s article about Drinking the Kool Aid [3] from last week illustrates some of the depth that GMs put into building a world or scenario. The GMs I know often go to great lengths to get the feel of a setting right, particularly since their NPCs’ reactions reinforce the setting expectations and reflect the views by which a character’s actions are measured.

For generic sword and sorcery worlds, expectations have been built by the games we’ve played all our lives. It’s when we step into specifics–explaining bus transfers in Cincinnati, figuring out where the parks in Chicago, what French peasants actually ate and what their work schedule looked like, or how honor affected Japanese warriors–that research and conveying detail become critical.


Phil’s article has a great list of research resources. I lean more toward reading–particularly novels, history books, and a sprinkling of wikipedia–but each type of media contributes to the final vision in my mind.

The few times my game groups have watched a movie before creating characters, we came up with interesting and different slants on the setting. A movie or episode can be a great way to make ensure that a certain level of common knowledge exists among the whole group–players and the GM. It can also be a painless way to convey a common trope or theme. Without a commonly viewed movie or TV property, it can be difficult to convey broad expectations.

Too often, all research beyond a commonly watched movie or two is on the GM’s shoulders alone. Playing in established game worlds can bend this a bit; setting a common level of general knowledge may be as easy as telling everyone to read the history chapter. Even if they don’t do it before the first session, when they come to realize that the world’s history matters, they have the chapter on hand.

Conveying Detail

Things often go awry at this point. The GM has done some research, the group has created characters, and the story starts. But play feels very samey for a wildly different world; the PCs continue to wander the wilderness, just fighting fox spirits instead of goblins and pixies. Interaction with NPCs takes on the same bemused distance; honor is rarely mentioned, and never seriously constrains the player’s choices for their PC.

It’s essential to boil down your big picture down into concrete details, into things that engage the senses and make the world “pop”. As Redcrow [4] mentioned in Phil’s comments, that can be a tough line to walk; the first few details probably won’t convey enough of the setting to guide expectations clearly–or the one that they seize on might be the exception that you were using to illustrate the general rule!

Conveying Culture

One of the hardest things to convey quickly is culture. You need to convey social expectations before the players have to react to social situations–which can be very front loaded, often requiring a lot of information to be conveyed before characters are even created!

For example, someone creating a Samurai in Japan–whether the historical or the Otori version–needs to understand how obligations flow up and down through society. If roaming is strongly discouraged–by bonds of loyalty for the warrior class, legal restrictions for the remainder–then players need to adjust their character concepts. Indiana Jones style globetrotting doesn’t work… unless the player and GM have mastery enough to invent plausible reasons for this character to step aside from the cultural norms.

The greatest drawback to realistic cultures and settings is that they can feel constraining, particularly if you don’t understand them well. It can feel like your characters’ options are all bound by mysterious and arbitrary rules. You don’t want your character to bow until his head is flat on the floor–it sounds craven to you? It’s critical to convey that this is routine respect for a great lord–that the natural response for the player (hell no!) does not match the character’s understanding. If every character’s action has to be vetted or corrected before it makes it through the cultural filter, just interacting feels like work to both the player who is constantly being corrected, and to the GM who has to figure out how to convey what options truly are available, teach transparently, and convey his own realistic characters and responses all at once. It’s a big task!

Using System

There are a lot of exciting cultures and great supplements that I’d love to explore. Feudal Japan (and Asia more generally), are fascinating, though my depth of knowledge is only puddle deep. I’m intimidated, but would be willing to try it if our group signed on as a whole.

King Arthur Pendragon cover [5] Conversely, a game that does a great job of aligning player expectations with vivid characters in a historically constrained setting is Pendragon [6]. In some ways, it’s an “easier” setting, since it’s Western European Knighthood, including some dark age beliefs mixed with inspirations from later history (like courtly love). But a big part of its success stems from tackling beliefs and motivations, explaining the idealized and common practices for various cultures, and quantifying them, so you know when you’re fighting local expectations and when your boasting will get mugs beating against the table in rhythm.

In a way, part of his success comes from building character attitudes into the system itself. Expecting system mastery from players is common; if playing your character appropriately is influenced by system, then it moves some of the expected burden for “knightly behavior” from the GM’s responsibility to the savvy player’s.

How About You?

While I’d love to explore history with likeminded groups, I haven’t had much opportunity. Have you? Are you lucky enough to play with the campus Africa Studies group, or play an old west game with a group of experts on the era? Is there a period you love so much that you’ve educated your group about it over time–serial campaigns, or just bringing up Bushido whenever you take a dinner break? Have you pushed into playing into more detailed worlds or drifted toward less detailed ones?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "History, Verisimilitude, and Messy Settings"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 8, 2011 @ 7:16 am

Your post reminds me of a story another GM told me about his feudal Japan game. The issue is on “roaming” adventure style.

He had dangled a side-trek hook in front of his players while they were on some greater task for their lord. He had expected them to grab the hook — it was pretty enticing.

But he was pleasantly surprised. The PCs discussed it, and came to the conclusion that they should not follow the hook, because that would mean disobeying their lord’s wishes by deviating from his command to finish the task assigned to them.

In a standard DnD style fantasy game, the PCs would have swallowed that sidetrek whole.

#2 Comment By BryanB On December 8, 2011 @ 11:01 am

I haven’t been able to get a group on the same page for the “buy in” that is required for a historically based campaign.

I happen to be very keen on historical Japan. I’ve read multiple books on the subject. My interest was kindled by the novel Shogun some twenty five years ago. The author of Shogun was great at weaving real historical events into his novel using different names. The sharp contrast between Western Europe cultures and Japanese culture was central to the book.

This would explain my interest in Legends of the Five Rings. While not historical Japan, it is certainly a game about Samurai and their obligations. But my groups have never been very interested in doing that. Not enough of my group to give it a go at any rate. L5R languished on my shelves for over a decade before I finally gave up and purged my collection of Samurai goodness.

I’ve found that different players have different preferences for historically based gaming. My interests are broad. I’m open to many different cultures and historical periods. Over the years my players have tended to favor one historical period or another, if not just continually falling back towards non-historical bog standard fantasy and sci-fi based affairs.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On December 8, 2011 @ 11:23 am

[7] – That is a pleasant surprise! When players buy in, the characters that come about can be very different in cool ways. In some systems it’d break the game (like not looting bodies in D&D), but when it’s accounted for, it can be awesome.
[8] – Getting a whole group on board at a minimum understanding is tough, because whoever is least interested controls the depth of detail. Which makes sense–games should be fun, not homework. The only homework should be bringing tasty snacks… 😉

#4 Comment By BryanB On December 8, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

[9] – I expect to see some tasty snacks at our potluck gaming session later this month. 🙂 You are correct about the level of detail being controlled by the least interested people at the table. If it is too overwhelming for those with little interest, they are likely to tune out completely on the role playing and story arc and just wait for some combat scenes to alleviate their boredom and/or frustration.

#5 Comment By danroth On December 8, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

I’m actually currently working on a system based on the Celts of iron-age Europe that I’ve had to do a lot of research on. It’s not ready to be taken to my gaming group yet (I still need to write more spells, which is turning out to be the hardest part), but I actually wrote a bit about the culture in the introduction. It’s been interesting because it’s fairly similar to the medieval settings that we’re all used to, but it’s still very different.

With something like a system this should work well, assuming everybody reads the intro. If I was just running a campaign in a specific setting, I think I would take 10 minutes or so at the beginning of the first session to talk about it. Follow that up with questions, and freely interject during the first session, and I think it would work.

Then again, we’re all in college, so we’re used to presentations/lectures; maybe more adult-ish people wouldn’t respond to this so well?

#6 Comment By hanliam On December 8, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

Great article! I too engage in a tremendous amount of research, but like you say, conveying that to the players and promoting enthusiasm is the hard part.

I like to start by communicating some basic points or themes, nothing complicated. Thus, a samurai game might focus on loyalty, honor, and obligation. These will serve for the first few sessions, with the stories focusing on what the players know. Finer cultural details are introduced through roleplaying, either through NPC actions or by other players more experienced with the culture or history. I might even drop a handout every now and then to get vital information out, but the focus is to keep the culture natural and encourage in game learning and participation one step at a time. As the game progresses, the players buy in more and more and quickly become familiar with culture and history.

In short, I find that you can tell the players enough to let them start without overwhelming them and show them the rest through exciting scenes and stories.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 8, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

“whoever is least interested controls the depth of detail”

Absolutely. This should be the opening line of every culturally-dense RPG.

BTW, if you’re interested in medieval Japan, you could read “The Tale of Genji”. That would make three Gnomes who’ve had to suffer the agonizing torture that is the world’s first novel.

#8 Comment By Knight of Roses On December 9, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

I try and tag just enough detail to get to important/ interesting points across. If players want more, they will usually ask.

As has been mentioned above, it can be difficult to get a deep buy in unless all of the players want to commit. So, most of my games go light on such things.

#9 Comment By black campbell On December 9, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

Well…I’m just shy of my PhD in History, so I don’t have too much trouble with the historical aspect of games. In fact, I love finding periods I know nothing about — it spurs me to study the hell out of the subject until I’m an expert on it, but it makes for a really strange set of specialties in my professional life. I know a ton about 1930s Shanghai now, but the knowledge starts to fall off for China within a few decades in either direction; I specialized in Victorian Europe/American West due to my original fondness for Space: 1889.

Big thing to remember is that it’s still your game. You want to have enough knowledge to have verisimilitude, but ultimately, if you’re doing, say, spy-fi in post-war Europe, you’re going to be able to play a bit with the realities of the politics, etc. (ala any spy book of the Cold War period with some level of realism.) Knowing the details does help — like there are no toilets in Shanghai outside of hotels and very expensive houses — to set the scene, but if it doesn’t matter…don’t bring it up. If you don’t know the facts and it comes up…make it up.

For plots involving important events, have the characters play an important, but unsung part of the event — in a Babylon 5 game, you’re an important player in the Shadow war, but on a front that isn’t really dealt with in the show…your success plays into the set up for Coriana 6; you might be investigating JFK’s assassination and get pulled off the case because a clue leads you into a completely different, dangerous conspiracy; your guys are scouts that make major successes int he Peninsular War possible (ala Sharpe’s Rifles.)

#10 Comment By Gamerprinter On December 15, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

I too have read the Otori books, though I’ve read much more in regards to Japanese legend, folklore and history, as I myself am half Japanese. While I’ve brought this up in the past, I’ve been developing a setting with 8 products released so far – 3 adventure mini-arc, 3 race books, 1 faction book, and 1 free one-shot module for Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story. In my experience the Japanese view all supernatural events as horror – so I took that circumstance and developed a deeply setting rich in Asian horror and Japanese cultural detail. Elements of Buddhist and Shinto concepts, yokai shapechangers and the great variety of yurei ghosts are intrinsic along with the social caste system and a unique cosmology.