Monday, October 19, 2020


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)
That doesn't mean I think RPGs ought to be anti-educational, or disregard things like historical accuracy. Every game is different, so there is no one rule here. I like RPGs that get into real world history and are well researched. But I also like genre RPGs that adhere more to genre conventions and veer into historical romance. If there is room for both these extremes at my own table, I think there is room for them within the hobby.

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
Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is wuxia, so it is mainly interested in conveying genre tropes rather than history, but the setting is inspired by Song Dynasty China and a good deal of research went into making it. It is still a game though, and it is still a fantasy analog of China. For instance, I did heavy research on the imperial exams and on scholar-official system, but Song Dynasty ranks and titles were rather nuanced and complicated, so I simplified to make things manageable for a game. And this illustrates perfectly what I am talking about: it is based on very real information but the demands of an RPG steered it in a direction that makes it less helpful than just reading a book like Civil Service in Early Sung

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

With our early Bedrock RPGs this was also the case. Terror Network was intensely researched (to the point that I went to the local FBI field office and got to interview an agent who served as a media liaison). With Crime Network, even though it was a subject I was a lot more familiar with already, I did research for that too. But these were still games. We tried to make Terror Network match the reality as much as possible, but you also had to have room for something compelling at a gaming table. When I spoke with the FBI media liaison, he asked me what the plot of my Patriot Incident Adventure was about. He told me where it was believable and where it wasn't. Both of us understood I was taking things in a  much more dramatized direction, but he did help me with ground level details like how Evidence Response Teams would handle a scene like the murder that the adventure opens up with (which turned out to be vital when I wrote the Agency Resource Guide). One interesting thing I learned researching the FBI and going to the field office, is you literally will not have access to some information that would seem rudimentary to making a game about. They simply aren't free to share classified information and a lot of information around structure of departments and procedures is classified. So you have to invent certain elements for the game to work (granted it has been about a decade since this was made so I am sure a lot has changed as well there). 

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
Where I think RPG books can be most helpful in terms of education is sparking interest. This is one of the reasons why I usually provide a reading list with explanations and descriptions. This is particularly the case with Strange Tales, where I fully committed to this idea. A lot of thought and research went into writing Strange Tales, and that doesn't even get into the multiple translations of Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio I read and re-read as I was making it. The whole thing that sparked my interest in doing the game was a series of blog posts here where I read each story in the penguin edition and wrote game content for it (doing every story in the that edition of the book). I then became obsessed with Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and picked up every translation I could find (my favorite is the four volume Chinese Classics edition, but the penguin still holds a special place for me because of its smooth prose). My hope was to illustrate through the adventure and monster content, what the genre was all about (or at least, what it was to me). I was also concerned about presenting an overly reductive overview of the genre (because that is very easy to do and can be quite misleading), so I opted to provide guidance on navigating the source material and other resources. I think you can tell people what a genre is all about all day, but they won't really understand or be able to replicate it, until they consume a large volume of it over time. There is really no shortcut around that. So you are much better off doing something that sparks an interest and gives people the tools to learn about it in my view. At least, that was my thinking and that is why the GM chapter is structured the way it is. 

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. 


  1. Wow, I think we found something that we disagree on Brendan...or perhaps just have a different interpretation of the educational value of RPGs. From my read of your comments, you are taking a hard stance on the educational value of hard social studies, particularly history. Even if an RPG is historically accurate, lets face it, the players are still going to disrupt this timeline. Personalities are not going to get the due they deserve from the GM. However there is some value in a well researched book within a particular timeline and well presented facts. That being said, I agree that if this is what you are looking to be educated on, a good book, would do you better. However taking a softer approach, playing in that world and historical timeline, can help you empathize and understand in a more personal way that particular timeline I believe. In the end, for me the educational value for RPGing comes in three flavors.
    1. Empathy - Understanding people/psychology of others and yourself as you are faced with moral dilemma's and encounter various people that you have to deal with in the game. So upping your E.Q.
    2. Knowledge: Straight up education. Promotes reading, teaches you about weapons, armor or whatever real-world elements for the genre you are playing, as well as opens you up to (albeit it maybe shallow at times, as you indicated), an awareness of what was going on in a culture/historical timeline or culture.
    3. Lastly - it helps you learn math. In my case, I can count to three and provide these three points. My daughter has learned math due to game rules, and using dice or other mechanics, as well as from logic puzzles, magic squares and other elements i use in game.

    As always, gaming or a position is not one thing, and I know we both agree on that....but its hard to take a side, when I know you get assailed by all differing POV. Either way, keep up the great games and articles...always a good and thoughtful read

  2. Always good to hear your point of view on any subject (and like getting your perspective when it differs from my own. I don't disagree with most of your points. I think what I am saying is you have to read RPG books more carefully if you are using them to get information. They are great for introducing concepts. I mentioned being interested in trade goods, and I am quite sure a lot of that interest was sparked by resources described in an RPG somewhere along the line. And as you point out, they are wonderful for math skills and good for getting you to think about history in a very ground level way. I do think RPGs have a value when it comes to mental development. My point was more about the danger of relying on them for information, or the danger of holding genre and historical romance RPGs to standards that shouldn't apply to them. And about remembering the goal of an RPG is to entertain as a game. But my larger point, which I don't think I did a good job of explaining in the blog post, was that while I have these reservations about the ability of an RPG to serve as a tool for education, I am not anti-educational.

    1. Ha! No, I certainly know you are not anti-education. You also sparked another thought too. Economics interest and awareness first came into my sphere by playing Traveler. The idea about what I bought on one planet to sell on another. So it was not so much as a learning tool, but it did get me to understand supply and demand better...and this is what led me to being an unscrupulous trader in gaming. ;)