Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Forgive me if I ramble today. Working on a few different things and my mind is a bit cloudy this afternoon. 

I was listening to a great podcast interview of James Raggi (the publisher of Lamentations of the Flame Princess) and what he said about settings reminded me of something that I've noticed with Chinese dramas and movies: sometimes it makes sense to cut out the middle man and just set things in real world history rather than an analog. In Chinese series and films they make liberal use of elements we would label fantasy, but they are almost always set in a particular historical period. These periods provide rich backdrops to the adventures of the protagonists. The wall between fantasy and history is more malleable in such genres.

In the Raggi interview he made an interesting observation that most fantasy worlds as we tend to run them in RPGs present themselves as medieval but are really closer to the early modern period. This matches my experiences as well. The technologies and political institutions one tends to encounter in a standard fantasy campaign really are closer to the early modern than the medieval period. The early modern is roughly late 15th century to about mid-18th century, and follows the middle ages. It is also incidentally a period explored in great detail in one of my favorite historical series: Civilization and Capitalism by Fernand Braudel. It is a three volume social and economic history of the early modern period with each book dedicated to a particular subject. It is dense and filled with lots of tidbits that GMs would find useful. I think Raggi makes a good point that it might be more sensible to just make a setting that is early modern rather than try to cram early modern concepts into the middle ages. 

I think this is relevant to Chinese wuxia and drama series because they do something similar to what Raggi is talking about in the interview. Rather than make settings whole cloth, they draw on specific periods and have an understanding of what each period can offer. There is a difference between a wuxia series set in the Tang Dynasty versus the Ming or the Qing. What they don't tend to do is create settings whole cloth, they just dip into the most relevant historical period and use that. There are definitely exceptions. Smiling Proud Wanderer (The Swordsman) is somewhat deliberately made to be timeless (though my understanding is folks have "triangulated" it to the Ming. But it is still real world China. I think what this may allow for is greater mixing of history and fantasy without thinking of it as alternate history. In short they have fun with their own history. 

I definitely experienced this myself when we made Servants of Gaius. That was alternate history, but it could have just as easily been historical fantasy. Over time, that is how I started to view it and run it. The fantastic and mythic elements started to overshadow my initial premise (which was kind of a strict alt. history concept). Had we released more Servants of Gaius material it would probably be a much different game at this pint. I think in some ways we have an easier time doing that with something like Rome and Greece, because we are so accustomed to the mythic aspects of the period. 

While I am not intending to release another historical setting for a while, it is an idea that interests me. With Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate we originally thought of using real-world China but we decided the game Qin had already done an excellent job with that setting material and we wanted to connect our setting to Sertorius so went with an analog. I think one of the strengths of analogs is they free you up to just use your imagination. You don't have to look up each little fact before putting something cool down on paper. But I think you can also free yourself up with real world history as well. There is a sliding scale of accuracy of course. You see this in a lot of wuxia dramas where accuracy often appears to be a concern but you can also deviate from the history and offer an alternate explanation of events. 

That said, I would like to encourage people who buy Wandering Heroes to consider running it as historical fantasy in real world China during a period to their taste. I like our setting but I see no reason for people to feel chained to it. As said before, Qin already has some great information here but really the best way to run a historically based wuxia campaign in my view is to read history books about the period in question. For China I would find a couple of good general survey histories covering the early history to roughly the Qing Dynasty,then picking a period that appeals to you and getting more specific books. I tend to prefer periods from the Tang to the Ming (and that is reflected in Wandering Heroes). Also there are countless sources on the exams, religion, bestiaries, every day life, etc. Right now, for example, I am reading a lot about historical architecture in China, which is helping me make maps. 

At some point I would really like to sit down and work on something historical once again, as I read more history books than novels and feel more comfortable with historical material. I think people being more comfortable with using history as a backdrop for fantasy is a good thing.  

1 comment:

  1. Interesting points. I've enjoyed using real history in my Honor+Intrigue campaign. It takes a bit more work than doing a pastiche, but as a GM I enjoy finding some linkage that really existed and that works with or enriches the setting.