Friday 15 April 2016

How do you like your 'historical' settings?

It seems to me that there are a variety of way in which to use 'history' in fantasy RPG settings. While the degree to which an RPG setting uses 'historical elements' is related to the level of magic in the setting, that's not all that there is, I'd suggest there are five levels of 'historical-ness' in fantasy RPG settings:

1) Little to No Historical Elements: I haven't played any of this kind, but a setting such as Eberron or Planescape probably counts as belonging to this category. In those settings, the level of magic renders the world quite alien from any particular historical analogues, but I'm sure one could imagine a low-magic fantasy RPG setting that is similarly devoid of historical elements.

2) Loosely Inspired By History: Here, I'm thinking of setting such as the Forgotten Realms or Mystara. The historical analogues are fairly clear, which enables the players and GM to collectively imagine the game world. However, the level of magic (and the bricolage of historical-like elements) means that while the setting might superficially appears to be (say) 'medieval', the way in which the world works is actually quite different.

3) Strong Analogies To Historical Elements: In this category I would put settings such as the WFRP1e Old World and Dragon Warriors' 'Legend'. In both these cases the game world isn't Europe, but it isn't too far off. It is probably not a coincidence that both settings are pretty low-magic, which means that the close cleaving to the social and political structures of the historical inspirations are not implausible. These settings allow the players and GM to use their rough knowledge of a historical era while placing few demands to 'get things right'. Of course, it needn't always be not-quite-Europe - Kevin Crawford's Spears of the Dawn is not-quite-Africa, for example.

4) 'Real World' With Overt Fantasy Elements: Here we get things like RPGPundit's Dark Albion of Cakebread and Walton's Clockwork and Chivalry. In these settings, the fantastical and magical is certainly part of the world, but many of the historical elements are drawn straight from history.

5) 'Real World' With Subtle Fantasy Elements: While the level to which the fantastical intrudes depends on the GM and the play-style of the table, settings such as Mythic Iceland and Mythic Britain, or TSR's Historical Reference series for AD&D2e are built almost entirely (as closely as is gameable) from 'historical elements'.

What sort of levels of historical-ness do you enjoy playing? And running?      


  1. I like 3. I want to explore (or create) a new world, but I don't want too many fantastical elements as it takes away from the impact of fantastical elements and also there is planty of adventure to be had with ordinary stuff. If you want a level 2 encounter for example, why does it have to be some strange monster? Why not have a human bandit and save the strange monster for a more special encounter? I was just reading the Medieval Machine about medieval industry and it covers all kinds of adventure material - strikes, unscrupulous builders, peasant uprisings, deforestation, pollution and many other crzy goings on.

    1. "If you want a level 2 encounter for example, why does it have to be some strange monster? Why not have a human bandit and save the strange monster for a more special encounter?"

      I know what you mean. I think this is James Raggi's advice in the LotFP Referee's Book. However, I think the ability to play this way depends on the skill of the GM and the engagement of the players. For some groups, a stream of human opponents might all seem a bit bland. Using exactly the same stats, but having weird description attached produces a different experience. Think of the FF gamebooks. With a few exceptions, the crazy monsters were mechanically the same as a human NPC - just a SKILL and STAMINA score. It would take a great deal more skill as a gamebook writing to create an equally effective atmosphere using only human 'monsters'.

      Monsters are a shortcut to atmosphere - for a particular kind of game, at least. I am kinda playing Devil's Advocate here, as I'm increasingly drawn to running a low monster, low magic, but still fantasy game.

    2. When I first switched from D&D to WFRP one of the things I struggled with as a GM was the relative lack of monsters and thinking of encounters with humans as a bit samey. But once I got over that I found they gave plenty of scope.

      However the FF or D&D approach also has its charms, and as you say certainly in book form you'd want to keep the wierd monsters.

    3. I remembered an episode of Spellburn recently (the Dungeon Crawl Calssics podcast) It is possible to have the best of both worlds - quite low fantasy and wierd monsters - by having a limited number of monsters, but they all have wierd quirks making them aesthetically and possibly mechanically different. In the podcast, the party came across some giant fungus covered creatures and ran away but they actually were statistically the same as trolls with a fungus covereing from the cave they were in. If you give the description before the stats, then it might create an interesting choice as the player(s) decide whether they think they can handle it.

  2. i like using brp for gritty historic fantasy. i have magic and monsters. I have dreamand overlapping mythic stuff with shifting mana levels.

    I feel i am learning about real world and could be useful outside gaming or fantasy. Ive done archaeology and classics and philosophy. BRP and GURPS and even iron crown and late TSR did some good history gaming. I read mostly technical non fiction and classics and comics. I have read less and less fantasy books as ive gotten greyer. I use historic minis.

    Using historical ideas in fantasy world design interesting too. What if alt history fic has a fandom of its own. Howard and lovecraft used history. The new wave attacked history and subverted it, especially colonialism and capitalism.and the ideas of narrative, continuity and time. Still you need to know history well to react against it well..

    In my Cthulhu Deco Punk Metropolis 2020 setting has babylonian dreamlands just like the film does. Its history as seen of through lens of 1920s silent fim making expressionists.

    Forgettable realms dont have any of these benefits i get from history. It is still a great world of gaming.

    I love mythology and fictional myths. I think gods of Forgotten Realms, Krynn, Greyhawk, tukemal are the best thing about them. Glorantha has best mythology in gaming.

    1. "In my Cthulhu Deco Punk Metropolis 2020 setting has babylonian dreamlands just like the film does." Okay, you have to tell me what is the film with Babylonian Dreamlands...

  3. I tend to go for 3 or 4. I love games which make me want to find out more about history, and conversely using history as a wierd and alien place.

    1 or 2 can be interesting as well, but even 2 isn't really anything to do with history and personally if I end up looking at the setting through that lens I end up going down rabbit holes. Best to just take it as face value, but not history.

    And 5 goes too far the other way - I don't want to play / live in actual history!

    1. I know that 2 has almost nothing to do with history, but I was thinking of the way in which commonly known [often not all that true] 'facts' about historical cultures allows a GM to quickly communicate details of the setting to players.

      The problem I have with 'harder' historical fantasy is the restrictions of PC freedom, which I like to build into my games, even if the players occasionally reject this and (for example) tie themselves to the interests of a patron. There haven't been that many times in real history in which a rag tag band of armed men and women could traipse from place to place. It is easier in a 3 or 4 setting to say, 'this is a world much like [insert historical time and place] but in which adventurers exist'.

      Now, I know that this is a failure of imagination on my part. Put the PCs in a almost real Europe in 900AD and give them a longship and some anachronistic horned helmets. Or have them carving out a petty kingdom in Sub-Roman Britain. Or plonk a morion on their heads and send them off conquistadoring. Etc. etc. But I would say there is something a lot less troubling about making yourself a 'king by your own hand' when the people are imaginary, rather than when you are recreating the conquest and subjugation of a real people, even if one of the PCs can cast Cure Light Wounds.

      Curiously, I find that the fewer the historical elements the more freedom the players have to 'wreck' the game - with no real reference on which to understand acceptable behaviour, I think it is easier to slip into playing a murderous sociopath.

    2. There's all sorts of topics in there, blimey!

      Re. 2, I knew what you meant, and you're right about the strength of shorthand for culture. What I was trying to get at though are the arguments that, for example, despite being pseudo historical on the surface, the D&D setting is more like the Wild West than medieval. Or the (often brilliant) discussions you'll see about what Cure Light Wounds (never mind Raise Dead) would really do to a culture in practice and how that's never actually addressed by the setting (with the corresponding wish to explore all those rabbit holes!).

      The "can you actually have adventurers" topic is a tricky one, and related to that the just plain different social mores that are quite key to say an early medieval setting, but you don't want the players to have to do buckets of research before they can reasonably play the game (equally a challenge for say Tékumel).

      Sort of on which subject, adventurers might not be a thing, but get enough henchmen together and find a longship and the world is your oyster!

      The subjugating / enslaving / etc. thing is a tricky one to address in game as well.

  4. It really depends. Fighting Fantasy is 1 or 2, but Maelstrom Domesday is a 5.

    Options such as 5 work better, i think, if the party has a defined role. So raiding Vikings can work well, and the supernatural investigators in MD also works very well. The characters have freedom, but are also constrained by their master to get the job done.