|Art by Michael Prescott (from Servants of Gaius)|
The central conceit of Servants of Gaius is that what we know about Caligula and Early Imperial Rome is wrong. Not only was the young emperor not insane or wicked, he was in fact righteous hero defamed by later writers like Suetonius and Cassius Dio. The reason for this perversion of his legacy is a vast conspiracy by a secret organization known as The Minions of Neptune. Whether this mystery cult is truly devoted to the sea god is left for the GM to decide (other possibilities are suggested) but their war with Rome is at the heart of the game.
Clearly this is alternate history and my inspiration for the idea came directly from the television series I, Claudius. I, Claudius elaborated on a passage in Suetonius where Caligula instructs his soldiers to plunder the sea and declares victory. Later in Suetonius there is mention of Caligula being haunted by 'the spirit of the ocean'. In I, Claudius these two points are connected as a full conflict between Caligula and Neptune.
There is a moving and humorous exchange in I, Claudius where Caligula asks his uncle Claudius if he thinks he is mad. It is a strange moment of clarity where he appears to understand that this is all a crazy fantasy created by his fevered mind and is willing to accept it if a reliable third party can confirm his suspicions. But Claudius errs on the side of caution and states that as Emperor and as a god, he sets the standard for sanity, so cannot be insane (this alleviates any concerns Caligula has on the matter). I remember thinking it would be interesting if that were the case, if he were not insane.
At the same time I was trying to come up with an alternative history RPG concept that would take some of what worked in Terror Network and shift it into the past. Between these two things, I the seed of the game began to emerge. One final piece that helped crystalize the concept was a new biography of Caligula by Aloys Winterling. This was a more sympathetic treatment of the emperor and it approached sources like Suetonius and Dio with a great deal of caution and skepticism. I found Aloy's argument interesting, and to a degree persuasive, but I should state I still agreed with the consensus that he was not sound.
Something that comes up a lot when people mention Servants of Gaius or ask me about it, is our decision to make Caligula a hero. I suppose for me the answer is it doesn't reflect any beliefs I have about the emperor, or a desire to invert his reputation for its own sake. It is just an interesting twist and a humorous one at that. Certainly enough time has passed that we can joke about Caligula and have fun with Rome during his reign. At least that is my attitude. The joke is obviously Caligula wasn't a hero, that he was one of the worst emperor's of all time. "But what if he was right all along" is the grim punchline that makes the joke work.
This is often the case with our games. Some folks interpret Terror Network as an endorsement of Bush era policies for example (both Bill and I opposed those policies, but liked 24 and were interested in current affairs). These days it seems like it is harder to for people to separate writers from their work, and this applies to game designers as well. So I just want to be clear that something appearing in one of our games isn't an endorsement of anything. It just means we thought it was an interesting concept to add. I am interested in Roman government as well and read a lot about it. In Sertorius for example we have a region that is inspired by the Roman Empire, that doesn't mean I endorse Empire or support many of Rome's violent and oppressive cultural practices.
I bring this up because I've heard from folks who are uncomfortable with the concept or don't like the idea of playing in a history campaign where a historical villain is made light of or made into a good guy. I can understand that position. But I personally don't have this issue myself and Servants of Gaius is absolutely not apologetic in its approach. Those who feel this way, probably should avoid it. But if you don't mind a bit of gallows humor and laughed once or twice during John Hurt's performance as Caligula, this might just be the game for you.