Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Recently this article attracted a bit of attention in the gaming community and it raised some discussion about the role of individuals in history. The article talks about the Great Man Theory of History, which is the notion that historical events are shaped by important individuals. Now historians tend to recognize that individuals, even great ones, are constrained by many other forces like economic trends, social movements, political forces, pandemics and even geography. The article identifies Great Man Theory as one of 5 harmful myths found in tabletop gaming. I'm not really interested in debating the philosophy of history here, but think it valuable to discuss how history moves in game settings. 

First I just want to mention that I don't necessarily agree with the article's position that great man theory is something we really need to worry about at the gaming table. Partly this is because I believe most gamers don't resort to Great Man Theory. If you look at any RPG forum or blog, half of what people talk about are these other history shaping forces: food supply, weather patterns, politics, etc. I think very few GMs run their campaign worlds on the assumption that Great Men determine the course of its history. That said, I do think many GMs make something of an exception for PCs because in some systems player characters have powers not available to normal people. 

Another reason I disagree is I don't think how we game affects how we see the world (which seems to be the articles' concern---that by promoting Great Man Theory, the GM is shaping the player's view of the world in a way that is harmful). To me this is similar to the kinds of arguments made in the 80s that connected playing D&D with the occult and losing the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. If players want to be mighty heroes who shape the history of the game world, I don't really think there is a problem there. 

That said, reading the article did prompt me to reflect on my own campaign. 

One of the first things that occurred to me (and I saw others point this out online for other games) is that because characters in my Sertorius campaign are powerful spell-casters, their impact on history is not insignificant. Yes there are other forces constraining them, but because they wield magic, they can direct and access those very forces themselves. For example they can cause natural disasters and epidemics. A character in Sertorius can create a mood of fear in an entire city or even be the center of a religious movement. I think this is true of many RPGs, particularly fantasy games. In essence, by virtue of being a PC, players frequently have access to force multipliers that expand their influence over events in the setting. So it isn't entirely unrealistic to expect them to have an effect on the flow of history. 

Despite this, in Sertorius they are still constrained. While a Sertori may have a vast movement of followers, control over that movement is not precise. Followers can divide into sects or even form heresies that go against the teachings of the Sertori. In my own campaign one of the ongoing issues for the party is managing all these other forces as they try to consolidate a movement that can be turned against the current king of Palus. What is becoming clear is just how much local tribal culture, trade, and religion affect their ability to exert their will on events. With every alliance they make, it seems a compromise emerges that affects their ability to grow. 

Still there have been moments when my players directly shaped history. I think a better way to look at things is to acknowledge all the forces that constrain historical actors, but to also acknowledge that people in the right place at the right moment, can make pivotal decisions. 

As an example the party established a new political organization of Sertori that has become the focus of a resistance against the local ruler. True, they had to tap into existing unrest and dissatisfaction with the king, but this would never had been tapped into had they not formed the Ser-Vel. And they wouldn't have formed the Ser-Vel if they hadn't chosen to go into Goff-Tan tower, then chosen to free its Sertori prisoners, and finally decided to kill Goff-Tan himself. 

So their choices mattered. They had an effect on the game world. But they were limited by the political situation they found themselves in and by other neighboring concerns. 

I know I said I wasn't going to get into the philosophy of history, and I promise I'll keep this brief. But I think one of the issues I have with the article, or at least with some of the reactions I've seen to it, is the false choice between Great Man Theory and a deterministic model of history. We can reject Great Man Theory but still believe that individuals and their choices can matter. I don't want to sound like I am attacking the writer here, because I think it is perfectly reasonable to speculate on these sorts of things in a blog entry. I just found myself in disagreement with some of its points. 

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