Friday, April 13, 2012

The Pillars of History Part One

Prepping and running historical RPGs presents unique challenges to the Gamemaster. Even veteran GMs can be thrown off their game because history can either impede or aid imagination. Historical games require research, massive quanities of research to yield just a fraction of an adventure. So it takes time and patience, as well as a sense of how to use history to your advantage, to run such games effectively.

My first foray in historical RPGs was the old Mighty Fortress green book, basically Elizabethan AD&D (2nd edition). The less said about that the better. I probably ran a single adventure and did so with virtually no knowledge of the period other than what was contained in the book. Aftter that I believe my next attempt was The Glory of Rome, followed by Masque of the Red Death (Victorian AD&D) and a Cthulu game set in the twenties. Progressively, my attempts started to resemble functional games. Over the years that followed I ran other games like Colonial Gothic or just ported standard D&D into historical settings.

That whole time, even though I got better, I always found historical games more work than regular campaigns. This despite a degree in history and years of interest in the periods I ran games for. I think the reason is quite simple: in a regular game you are only limited by your imagination and even if you are using an estabished setting, things are rarely as detailed and concrete as in history. In a historical RPG there is a desire to adhere to the historical record and there are also lots of details that are very hard to track down. So in a fantasy setting you can fill a given town with a big bag of generic fantasy tropes (an inn, a constable, a nightwatch, even a magic shop). In a historical setting, you almost need (or perhaps just want) to check the specifics of the community or region you are dealing with (what was the administrative structure of Alexandria in 40 AD? What force kept order intp the city? Did they have anything like an Inn? Where were the shops located and what were the demographics?). So it is easy to freeze up against these challenges.

How does a GM, who probably doesn't really have all that much, time manage a historical game then? Here are a few possibilities. Everyone is different so take what works for you and ignore the rest.

INDULGE YOUR INNER HISTORIAN: I admit to being something of a wannabe historian. I enjoy using my adventure set in Roman Egypt as an excuse to look up information of archaological sites, read accounts of the local Roman prefect by Philo, and track down accurate maps of ancient Alexandria. Its fun, but usually slow and sometimes draining. Still I enjoy it. In a way it is a wonderful challenge because the needs of the GM are so specific. As a gamemaster you want to know who the prefect gave his orders to, what the administrative hierarchy looked like, where the PCs can get a good meal, what they would have eaten, etc. So you almost have to reconstruct ancient Alexandria in your own mind. Luckily there are countless tools available to you.

First you want to build yourself something of a reading list. Any time and place will usually have a standard biblioigraphy, respected and reputable books or articles that cover its different aspect. You should be able to go to your local library ask what these are (and there are actuallly large indexes at most libraries specificlally for history that provide all the major works as well). Once you have this, start reading and take notes (if you don't take notes you will regret it later). This should supply you with a good general knowledge of your period. After you have that and feel like planning the adventure, you will need to get into the specifics mentioned above. Just take them each as they come. Consult your books and essays, and if you can't find answers there try to find more in depth articles or even consider shooting an email to the history department of your local university. Some of this stuff can be a real challenge to find.

You can also use the internet. There are all kinds of online databases now (some free). Colleges sometimes have internet research pages dedicated to your subject. Youtube is a great way to view documentaries or lectures.

So far this is all secondary source material for the most part. You are looking at other peoples' research but not really doing any first hand yourself. Consider adding in some primary sources once you are comfortable. This is just a game so you don't have to read Greek or Arabic to understand the original sources. Just find some solid translations.

This is actually my favorite part of prepping a historical RPG. It is where I get a lot of my NPCs and conflicts from. For exampe, I wanted to use Alexandria in my Servants of Gaius campaign, which was set 37-38 AD. I discovered that Philo of Alexandria (who was alive at the time and part of a Jewish delegation to Caligula) wrote something called Againt Flaccus, which is an indictment of the Roman Prefect Aulus Avilius Flaccus. It describes his character and places some blame on him for violence against the Alexandrian Jews. So I used this to flesh out Flaccus and build an interesting backdrop. To make things interesting I tied the local tensions to a supernatural plot by the Prefect.

(Continued in Part Two).


  1. I just posted a brief notice on my blog about "Servants of Gaius". It hit my gamestore this week. I was talking in the store with another gamer who had picked it up this week, and was also really pleased with the game. You can find my blog entry here:

  2. Thanks for spreading the news John. I am glad you like the game.