I have often said that I am skeptical of the educational value of RPGs. I do believe this, but I think it sometimes is misunderstood, especially by those who haven't read my books or followed this blog regularly. I hope to clarify my position on the topic. I am going to be thinking out loud here, so consider this a work in progress in terms of how I feel about the subject.
When I say I am skeptical of the educational value of RPGs, it is because I think as a medium, it is more social than educational. And its goal is to entertain, rather than educate. Obviously there is a book involved in most RPGs, and that book can contain information that is accurate and informative. But because its primary aim is to provide an entertaining and gameable system and/or setting, I just think people are usually better off reading history books, archeology books or science books if they are looking to learn about the world in a meaningful way. Even when RPGs are aiming to educate, they will feel the gravity of that primary aim. And there is always the danger of a book becoming pablum 'edutainment' when you prioritize education in an RPG book. Or worse, it can become the equivalent of the 'very special episode' format.
|I like my books precariously stacked |
(it creates a sense of danger and foreboding)
In my own books you can see different degrees of this. I would never hold up Sertorius, Servants of Gaius, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate or Strange Tales as scholarly books, but all were heavily researched in their own way. I was a history student and my interest in history has never waned. So it always shapes our games.
Sertorius was built around a lot of my interest in ancient mediterranean culture, Thai history and languages like Arabic for example. It is still fantasy of course. But it is informed by real world history. There is a shelf of history books on Rome, Carthage, The Library of Alexandria, Late Antiquity, Byzantium and more that fed into the process of writing Sertorius. Posting pictures here of some of the shelves I regularly turn to when working on RPGs (my organizational method is extremely questionable).
|Landlord's Daughter, Beneath |
The Banshee Tree and
Servants of Gaius
With Strange Tales of Songling, my main interest was providing a simple system and adventure book that shows GMs how to run adventures based on Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. One of my goals was making that process easy and welcoming. But I did provide an overview of books and movies important to the genre, as well as historical resources for running the game in historical China (the default setting is "World of Songling" to make running the game easier, but it can also be run historically as you will see below). With the adventures I took a lot of time doing research and consulting a historian to get the architecture and the maps as good as possible. I also made a point of visiting the Yin Yu Tang house at the Peabody Essex Museum, which is a fully reconstructed Qing Dynasty era house that was purchased from China, shipped here and rebuilt. I decided to draw on this for one of the major maps in the Strange Tales of Songling Book.
|Where I keep a lot of my books on Rome |
(and Walking Dead)
Servants of Gaius is probably my most historically accurate game (even if it takes major liberties with a key detail). It was set in Ancient Rome and I did my best to provide content so GMs could run an Ancient Roman setting. But note that my goal wasn't to educate, it was to give the GM the tools to run a historical game. Those are two very different things. A historian writing about ancient Rome isn't answering the same questions that a game designer writing about ancient Rome would. Often the things GMs and gamers need to know to run and play a setting, while important historical details, are not the main issues historians examine.
And while history was hugely influential and important to Servants of Gaius, so was the book and TV series I, Claudius (and the book, Claudius the God). And it was alternate history on top of that. The whole basis of the game revolves around that moment from the I, Claudius series where John Hurt's Caligula asks his Uncle Claudius if he thinks he is mad. It is one of the most poignant exchanges, and their relationship, at least for me, forms the heart of the drama series. It is also a redeeming line of dialogue and performance, where Hurt humanizes Caligula. In Servants of Gaius I used that as a foundation for a thought experiment: what would happen if Caligula was really a god? I wanted to treat the character more like the Caligula from that scene (where the conceit is forming a foundational struggle to explain his behavior and to make him a more redemptive figure in the setting). Obviously this takes great liberties with real world history, and it wouldn't be advisable to read that conceit as accurate. But that conceit is what makes Servants of Gaius interesting. For me this is an example where, education and the needs of a game (and frankly the needs of something like artistic expression) were totally at odds. And I think if I had given into an educational rather than creative impulse, the game would have been insipid. The end result was far more flavorful and a lot more enjoyable to write than if it had been straight history.
Going back to the beginning of Bedrock, this sort of approach has always been present. When Bill and I wrote The Landlord's Daughter for Colonial Gothic I did a great deal of local research and general research. Being from the area was quite helpful as it also gave me an understanding of the local geography. It is a horror game as well of course, so there are plenty of creatures, undead maidens and werewolves thrown in for good measure, but just as much time went into researching the adventure as writing it (probably more). And there were lots of things in there that were more emulative of Hammer films than history. And the idea is you trust the reader and audience to understand that (and not take everything in the book as being 100% faithful to history).
|Research with terrible handwriting|
for my Strange Tales of Songling campaign
Even when I run adventures for my own game groups, I do an awful lot of research. It doesn't mean I always stay true to history or the facts. Sometimes I don't want to, sometimes I want to know the facts, so I can believably break away from them. Sometimes I learn the facts and they don't fit what is needed for an adventure to work, so I make changes.
None of this is to say the books or games are perfectly accurate. I am sure there are areas where limits on my knowledge and understanding of a subject are visible. And am comfortable knowing and expressing the limits of my own knowledge. The point is simply to illustrate that I have a healthy respect for research, history and getting things as correct as I can. But I also like the freedom to invent, and the freedom to have fantasy elements that don't always cleave tightly to history. And I am uncomfortable with the idea that my games or my game sessions are tools for educating players.
Presently I am running two 10 session campaigns for Strange Tales of Songling. These are each going to be inspired by a separate Yuan Mei story (I wanted to explore more adventures based on Yuan Mei this time around). However, even though the focus is on this genre of literature, I am also doing a good deal of history research for every adventure. We just finished our first session, set at a Teahouse (which I will post information on in another blog entry). I am very interested in trade and mercantilism, so I spent a lot of my time researching the sugar cane trade and that made its way into the adventure. One of the players was a Scholar-Official, and was promoted to county magistrate as a result of the events of the first adventure, so now I am doing more research into counties during the Song Dynasty (I arbitrarily chose to set the game in 1077). When I am working on an adventure (even one like this for a home game) I still take lots of notes (see picture above). Still at the end of the day, this is just an adventure. I have no misconceptions about that. I don't expect my players to walk away with working knowledge of song dynasty China, and I don't believe my role in the group is as an educator (I think that would be extremely presumptuous of me). Maybe it will spark an interest. Maybe later one of them will remember me mentioning that oxen were used to pulverize the sugarcane, and that might be something they look into to see if it is true. But I would hope none of them take everything I say literally, because in a game, even when you are mixing in facts, you are mixing in fiction and fantasy too. And I think generally this is how we should approach all media: we should never assume what we encountered was accurate or true, even if the writer assures you of their research and expertise. We should always check anything we think might be true later with reliable resources.
There is also the question of a game's goals and the aims of the genre or history you are emulating. I think a lot of people assume if something is set in a given historical period, then historical accuracy should or ought to be the goal. They equate historical or cultural accuracy with good. But if you are more interested in emulating a genre of literature or film that paints with a broad brush against the backdrop of history, that may not be the case. I think authenticity can be very good, but it isn't automatically the aim of a given project and in many instances you don't necessarily want authenticity. And even when you do, what you are trying to be authentic about it very contextual: i.e. am I making an authentic Roman History RPG, or rather am I trying to make an authentic sword and sandals RPG? The two are not the same. A good example of this is Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. That was heavily based on the Song Dynasty in China but it was also a fantasy RPG, set in a historical analog, and its bigger aim was to emulate wuxia and kung fu films. So it owes more fidelity to Chang Cheh's and Gu Long's sense of history than real world history. It much more interested in accurately representing Shaw Brother's sets than historical locations and architecture.
|A Bunch of Bedrock Books|
And I should say every designer and gamer is different. I know some designers who are exceptional at producing historically accurate and gameable settings (those two things together are not as easy as they sound). And I don't want to dismiss what they do, because they do it very well. There are RPG books out there that are educational, or if not educational, at least provide really clear guidance on real world topics and history. But the vast majority are not. They are informed by real information, but in my opinion relying on RPG books to get real world info is usually like learning science from science fiction: it is definitely a decent starting point for developing an interest and it provides you with some crucial guideposts for retaining information, but it can easily lead to ignorance as well.