What historical games have done it right?

edited January 2006 in Story Games
Ok, I have historical games on the mind at the moment, and while there are one or two exceptions, it has really struck me that it is a vast, sucking black hole from which very little escapes.

Now, I figure some of this is inevitable. it's hard to insert magic/powers/whatever into a historical setting without that becoming the defining element of the setting ("It's musketeers, but with telepaths!") and that's a double hit. First, it removes a lot of the appeal for players who are looking for that, but it also removes potentially powerful thematic tools. After all, powers are usually one of the most direct enforcers of the theme of a game - if the Jedi didn't have the force to make their potential fall more painful, we'd have a much more grey story where one follows a philosophy because it's right or something equally crazy. :)

So maybe that "something else" is necessary for a game to really register with people. Maybe that absence alone is the death of the historical game. Still, I'd like to think that this isn't an insurmountable problem, and perhaps there's more to it than that.

So here's where I hit the frustration point - what historical games can we say have been successful by even some loose definition of the term? And how did they manage to pull it off?

-Rob D.

PS - Obviously, there are many more questions that may stack on this, but it's got to start somewhere. The question of pseudo-historical games is a whoel other kettle of fish. :)


  • And to follow up, since I kind of threw the question at Fred as we lounge about waiting for Friday evening to end.

    I also recognize that history is daunting in its volume and detail. It can be harder to handwave things when there are answers available with some research, and while that's cool for a while, it's easy to be paralyzed by the sheer volume of detail. Add to the mix the fact that if players are enthused about a period they may already be knowledgeable enough to be problematic.

    Now, this is a surmountable problem in a couple of ways - tangential events, "Secret" history, aggressive obscurity, or a general agreement on how authoritative historical accounts really are. Still, it is one more strike against.

    As I was thinking, I realized that I would probably consider "Run out the Guns" to be a decent example of a solid historical game, and it shortcuts a lot of problems with the easily grasped nature of its character generation process. However, it's kind of a very large one trick pony in my mind, and I wonder if that's a good thign or a bad thing.

    -Rob D.
  • Hmmm. Very interesting topic. Personally, Historical gaming has never held my interest. Those games that "felt" historic had other elements in it like magic (Sengoku), time-slipping, etc, so you can't quite call them historic.

    It's hard to take a traditional adventuring game, with all the hitting and the magic and cool powers, and make it as exciting in a "pure historical" setting unless everyone's really on the same game plan and the GM is incredibly resourceful.

    There's a few games with historical trappings, they're fun for me at times: Games like Sengoku, or FVLMINATA, or Deadlands or Al-Qadim (file out the elves and dwarves). But in each, we sort of emphasize:
    Cinematic situations
    The weridness of the setting (the magic and mystery: "Chinese Taoist sorcerer magic really works in this setting!" etc)

    By contrast, I dunno, Historical Gaming, when I hear those words, promotes a certain kind of FEEL I think. A feeling like, "You have to use history, you can't dwell on the weirdness/magic, no cinematics (more "realistic"), etc. Maybe my presumptions are mistaken.

    Maybe ... oh my dear god I cant fucking believe I'm saying this ... we have to "define" what Historical Gaming is, and then look at games that do it, or ways to make other games "Historical Games". I don't mean one of those endless Socratic Method "define love" debates, I just mean some clear examples of what Historical gaming is and what it isn't.

    Have you seen Josh's (sorry, I always mess up his last name) "SHOCK: Social Science Fiction"? That game, IIRC, arose from a debate on "what is science fiction". He contended that "X" was Science Fiction, and wanted to focus on what he called "Social Science Fiction". He then, in the first few pages, carefully explains what social science fiction is and isn't, and goes on to write a tight game that focuse on what it is.

    I might say that... well, we don't have to go as far as to write "WORLD: Historical Fiction", but at least coming to grips of what historical fiction/gaming is will help us do other game mods that could... well... make historical gaming more exciting than it has been before, using games that are on the market today.

    What say ye? Care to toss about a few ideas on the matter?
  • I'm with Andy. I love playing in the past, but I hate playing in history. More accurately, I think players like to play in what we have absorbed as history from cultural context, but we don't want to be reminded that it's wrong. Victorian England is fog-drenched London with deerstalkers, the American West is gunslingers and whores with a heart of gold, and feudal Japan is samurai with honor and a sharp-ass sword. My own game Midway City was intentionally set in the stylized 1920s to 1940s America, because people know more about Dick Tracy and Al Capone than solid historical fact.

    So, maybe it can break down into "soft" historical gaming (like Deadlands and Cold Steel Reign) and "hard" historical gaming (like maybe Dust Devils)?
  • Hmm. To some extent, I end up holding up the Three Musketeers and other fiction of that ilk as a measure of what I'm looking for. While cinematic, it is still "realistic" insofar as there are no Kewl Powerz. I think part of my frustration stems from the fact that I feel that 3M really _should_ be an excellent template, so why isn't it?*

    That said, i think the breakdown is an excellent idea, though in my mind we have three main categories, Strict, loose and stylized.

    Strict History is what I'm thinking of with Dumas. The actual events may be fictional, but the elements are all "historical" rather than fantastic. This is, I think, the really tough category to make fly, and I can think of only a few examples: Run Out the Guns definitely, At Rapiers Point perhaps. Boot Hill?

    Loose history is strongly informed by history, using real places, people and events, but has a twist of some sort. Time travel, magic, secret super powers or even some point of historical divergence. This is a pretty rich area: Fvlminata and Sengoku have been mentioned, and I think many Pulp and Western games fit into this category, and some of the most famous historical games (Pendragon, Ars Magica) probably do too.

    Stylized history is what Eddy is talking about with Midway City. It's a settings that is strongly informed by the impressions and ideas of the period but which does not cleave to history in any meaningful way, and may in fact be an entirely different setting than earth. Midway City (Which I hadn't realized was on sale, damn you Eddy!), Bloodshadows, Legend of the Five Rings and Seventh Sea all seem to fall into this category. Interestingly, there may be the most lessons to learn from 7th Sea - A lot of people end up very frustrated with it because the liberties it takes with the fictional history are very jarring to their understanding of real history, That might be indicative that the best source material for this sort of game is one that people have a lot of ideas about but little actual knowledge. Would probably be great for a game inspired by, say, India.

    Assuming those categories stand, I want to swing back to strict history, since that seems like the one that's hardest to pull off. What is missing in the transition from the page/screen to the table? Do games _need_ to have that twist?

    I'd throw out that history makes the Forgotten Realms look like a mini-golf course where Important Named NPCs are concerned. Some of that is the genuine weight of history, but I'd say a lot more of it is because if you're running the game, you like the history enough that it _excites_ you to use these figures that you are so interested in. This isn't bad all by itself, but if the game becomes about the history rather than the players, then Francis Bacon quickly becomes as annoying as Elminster.

    I think there's a decent amount of material out there about moving the NPCs to the background, but it's a tough row to hoe - I worry that it puts the ideas of a good game directly in contrast with the very enthusiasm that makes someone want to run a particular game. Not quite sure how to resolve this.

    -Rob D.

    * There's a fascinating corollary question that probably merits its own thread. After romance novels and Left Behind**, the biggest untapped thread in modern literature (from a gaming perspective) is the modern thriller. Tom Clancy's getting long in the tooth, but throw in conspiracy theory, and it's not too many steps to the Da Vinci code. Fantastic elements are well within the fuzziness of maybe-science, so they generally lack the "twist", so it may well be the same barrier that holds back history. Spy games are the notable exception to this, but that is its own particular formula.

    ** Which, if ever made into an RPG by someone who understands both faith, specifically christian faith, and RPGs, could be that ever elusive blockbuster.
  • Are you looking more for games which presented the history in an entertaining manner? Games with mechanics that were fun and suitable for their topic? Or games that actually become popular?

    Fantasy Games Unlimited had a slew of historical games that were pretty well presented although saddled with the usual painful sim obsessed FGU system.

    Privateers and Gentlemen was my favorite. It covered just enough of the nitty gritty background that if you had a familiarity with any of the age of sail historical fiction series you could put together quite a good game...and it had the single best sailing rules for ship to ship battles.

    I had the exact love hate relationship with 7th Sea as Rob describes. And with Deadlands too (although I could look past most of that given its pretty out there premise). I can't stand historical-esque things where elements are copied from history without knowing the why behind them. Or non historical twists are added without having a good enough grasp of the history to be able to come up with the plausible ripple effects of those twists.*

    Its jarring to me not so much because it violates any sense of historical purity but because its just damn lazy design. When a game's appeal is driven by its setting, badly designed setting is as bad as badly designed mechanics.

    *Talk to me if you want a rant on how senseless 7th Sea psuedo history was. Or if you want my alternate Deadlands time line that actually gives Texas its proper historical treatment (ain't no way Texas would have remained part of the Confederacy since they were on the verge of seceding historically anyway, nor would the Indian Territories of Oklahoma have existed without a Union victory)
  • Are you looking more for games which presented the history in an entertaining manner? Games with mechanics that were fun and suitable for their topic? Or games that actually become popular?

    All of the above. :) Really, I'm looking for a model that works, and while success is a decent yardstick of that, something that was great but never took off for some other reason is also useful.

    Privateers and Gentlemen sounds intriguing. Time to fire up the power of Google!

    -Rob D.

    PS - For me, the thing about 7th Sea was that I could ignore the historical problems when the game was drilled down to a specific area - if we were just sticking to a particular city and nation, it was weak, but forgivable. However, the second we crossed border, or got into the broader sweep of things, the cards came tumbling down. Was sad, because for all that, it had the style down, at least for the mainland.
  • The best game I've seen in this genre is a game I've only had the pleasure of playing once. It is Miles Christi, and it is in French, and it is out of print. A local gamer in our area was, several years ago, in the process of translating to English, and doing a damn good job of it I might add. He brought it out for a playtest, and it still sticks in my mind to this day.

    You play honest to gosh darn historical crusaders, and at least to my unsophisticated taste, did a marvelous job of evoking the medieval mindset, the feel of being isolated in a foreign land, and the challenges of faith and adherence to multiple, possibly contradictory codes of behavior.

    The only concession to *kewl powers* was the possibility of a crusader receiving a miracle in a moment of extremis, but it was handled in such a way that it only reinforced the medieval mindset, where the occasional miracle is an accepted part of the natural world.

    Sadly, I've since lost touch with the fellow and his translation, but if you read French (which sadly I do not) I'd highly recommend seeking this out.
  • Strict History is what I'm thinking of with Dumas. The actual events may be fictional, but the elements are all "historical" rather than fantastic. This is, I think, the really tough category to make fly, and I can think of only a few example.

    Now, to follow in Josh's shoes just a teeny bit, I'm wondering:
    * Do you read any historical fiction?
    * If so (if not, we can find elsewhere), are there some "certain conventions" that are used throughout all of historic fiction? (Focus on X, Use Y for Z, etc)

    If we can find the elements of what makes exciting Historical Fiction, we might be able to apply those to games to make "Strict History" games more interesting. It probably wouldn't take too much effort, maybe just an extra blank or two on a game's character sheet, or a set plan that the GM uses to build scenarios, etc.

    Otherwise, I'd probably be using PTA for historical gaming, ala the HBO series ROME. :-)

  • How much tweaking would PTA really need to turn out BBC documentry series on how surprisingly dramatic and character-driven history was? ;)
  • edited January 2006
    Hi guys,

    I'm not sure if this qualifies as a convention or whether it is really a group of conventions, but...

    (Also, this is all just speculative, but it might be helpful...)

    In many examples of historical fiction, the main characters (the fictional ones) play out their story against a backdrop of larger historical events. Now, it seems to me that there's a dial that can be set regarding relationship of the fictional characters to the actual historical stuff.

    1-fictional characters have no real influence on the historical events. ("Gone with the Wind", "Ragtime")

    2-fictional characters have some effect on the historical events. (Owen Parry's civil war novels, Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey & Maturin books)

    3-fictional characters (or "novelized" versions of "real people") are the major players in the historical events.

    There's another dial that seems to set how the protagonists are used:

    A-the protagonists' story comments in some way on historical events ("Ragtime")

    B-the protagonists' story "merely" illustrates a specific personal level effect of the historical events ("Gone with the Wind", the Aubrey & Maturin books)

    C-the historical events are really a backdrop for action/adventure/romance/morality play/etc. ("Ivanhoe", "Kidnapped", the movie "Gladiator")

    (These actually might be three dials, each set independently of one another...)

    Now, to get back to gaming: It seems to me that the heart of the issue of "Historical Story Games" would be: we don't need any special system or scenario prep to do "C" type stuff from above. Just grab some history books, and find a "universal" system that works well for you: PTA "War of the Roses" for instance. Heck, you can add a historical setting to many non-universal games pretty easily, too: Breaking the Ice during the Spanish Civil War.

    So, for me, at least, the interesting stuff about "historical gaming" would come when the historical events are more than just a backdrop to the PCs' story. I'd want to have the power to comment on the events in some way, or illustrate a human-level effect of the events in a way that was personally compelling to me. This might not be so much a matter of "system" as it is of scenario design.

    Out-of-the-box "Dust Devils", IMO, doesn't really do it, as far as this standard goes. What the Dealer would have to do to make Dust Devils work as historical fiction is to set up a scenario that somehow ties the central Devil mechanic into real historical events/issues. (Some of the recent discussion about Native Americans in Dust Devils is relevant here).

    Hopefully, this is helpful in some way.


    [edited for layout issues]
  • So, to make sure I'm getting the thread of this right, any system that would make strict historical gaming interesting would have to be able to take into account how PCs can impact (and possibly change) historical events in a meaningful way, instead of using history as a background to unrelated stories?
  • Hi,

    So, to make sure I'm getting the thread of this right, any system that would make strict historical gaming interesting would have to be able to take into account how PCs can impact (and possibly change) historical events in a meaningful way, instead of using history as a background to unrelated stories?

    That would be one option, although I am certainly not trying to be prescriptive. Another option might be a game that allowed players to comment on or explore an actual historical event - whether or not the characters could actually change it is a separate issue (and we start to move towards Alternate History Fiction).

    For instance, a hypothetical Historical Fiction Story Game might be a Dust Devils scenario that dealt with the slave-or-free issue in Pre-Civil War Kansas. The characters wouldn't be able to change the overall historical outcome, but the players could comment on this issue.

    But, this isn't the only option: another might be a game like Pendragon, but without the mythlogy and fantasy elements, i.e. a system that allowed players to tell "slice-of-life" stories set in historical periods. Maybe Miles Christi was like this? The old TSR game Gangbusters is kind of like this, too.

    Another Historical Gaming option would be something like "From Here to Eternity" using PTA. Set up a series where all the players know that during the final episode some big historical event is going to happen: i.e., the first four episodes are all about the lives and loves of soldiers, building up a complex soap opera web that will be torn apart in the final episode centering on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In a game like this, the characters wouldn't be able to change history in any way, but the players would be able to use their knowledge of what was coming to help shape their characters' stories.


  • So do you think it would make more sense to offer a strict historical game with all of those options, or focus the design tightly on just one? I suppose it's probably completely up to the designer, but considering the small amount of historical game penetration, I'm wondering if giving it more of a "toolbox" approach might not be best: "My game gives you everything you need to play four different kinds of strict historical gaming in the English Civil War."
  • I think Jon's Dials are an excellent model, and they speak very strongly to the tropes in fiction as well. In my mind, the area I;m most looking at is B, where characters at least touch upon the history.

    Weirdly, the best example I have of this comes from Star Wars - One thing that tends to come up in a lot of campaigns is that the PCs eventually steal an imperial Shuttle, which ends up being the shuttle that gets used in Return of the Jedi. Not a historical example, but at the same time it's a perfect example of how players can touch upon and have a role in important events without having a disruptive influence.

    Hmm. Given that context, I'm going to make a generalization about historical fiction - whatever the events may involve, the impact is usualy limited to one thing. For example, an entire novel may revolve around the fights and intrigues surrounding delivering a message but the historically signifigant point is thatthe message is delivered.

    Now, assuming that model holds up, this may be the key, at least in terms of scenario design, because it's a dungeon. Not in the classic sense of course, but in the abstract sense of a closed space which things occour within. This sort of "dungeon" has worked wonderfully in Dogs in the Vineyard, for example, to make scenarios really pop. Perhaps the same sort of thinking can be applied?

    Now, I'm not sure how many problems a solid model for scenario design would resolve (if it even works) but in my gut, it feels like it would be a big step.

    Shifting gears, the "From here to Eternity" model may be the best solution to high amounts of player knowledge. It definately helps to have a player-empowering game like PTA or something with a strong drama/fate/story point model, but witht he right tools, the rest can fall into place pretty well.

    I'm now struck by the image of a game like Polaris, but with the formal language of the game replaced with the tone of reminisence at the bar (With such phrases as "That's not how it happened", "You weren't even there" and "Are you high?") s as to frame such games in flashback.

    -Rob D.
  • I think there are two threads developing here:

    1. Can we come up with mods or scenario prep advice that allow us to get the Historical Fiction Experience from existing games? The hypothetical Dust Devils "Bloody Kansas" scenario and the hypothetical PTA "From Here to Eternity" series are a start: what extra work would go into doing something like this?

    As an Actual Play aside, I tried to produce a PTA game that was set in a real world, historical situation, and questions of realism and accuracy and details kept coming up, because we all had different levels of knowledge about the actual events AND different levels of desire to be faithful to the actual historical situation. It might have helped if we had a "series Bible" or a couple pages of facts , and everything NOT explicitly written down was up for grabs.

    2. Designing a new Historical Fiction game. Rob, I'd definitely be interested in a game that built a "one simple thing"-type event into a Dogs-style town. Also, I think the "swapping stories at a bar" idea definitely has potential.

    And Eddy, my personal preference is for focused game design, but it might be neat to have an "English Civil War Game" that consisted of: some historical background setting material and guidelines for how to turn this material into one of four different kinds of scenarios, ranging from scenarios where the characters are at the periphery of events to "alternate history" scenarios where characters can change the big events. The danger here, I think, is that you might end up with something that looks like one of the GURPS books. Now, the best of these books are chock-full of cool stuff, but their biggest drawback (IMO) is that the cool stuff becomes color for bog standard rpg-adventures. They don't come with any guidelines for how to turn the cool stuff into engaging Historical Story Gaming situations. Just brainstorming, I'd be interested in a historical game that provided a lot less stuff than these GURPS books (because, after all, I can go to the library or the internet if I want more details), but a lot more support for using that stuff in a game. Does that make sense?
  • Hnh. Just figure I'll mention that in my mind this was also the thread where I check to see if this really was going to be a good space (for me) between the forge and rpg.net, and I gotta say, I'm pleased as hell. I've got a game bubbling in my mind (surprise) and this has been incredibly useful for framing it. So thanks all, and double thanks to Andy. I'm feeling very optimistic here.

    -Rob D.
  • Funky Fatness. I can't wait to see what you come up with.

    Also, I love that hat. I loved the old EH site where it was all black, and that hat would subtly grow and shrink, but in such a way where you couldn't catch it at first, but you could just sense that Something Was Wrong (until you stared directly at the hat for like 20 seconds). It was a Flash artpiece. (^.^)
  • The hat is talking to me @_@

    BTW, after I convince my gaming group to go Indie (My will be done!) I'm certain the game will either be PTA or FATE. I'd tell you on your mailing list Rob but that's like preaching to the choir. Another good function of this board are these meaningless posts that we get away with.
  • Heh. I passed word on to Fred, for the man is a scary Flash wizard. I still go watch his Second Stringers trailer from time to time, and it still knocks my socks off.

    -Ron D.
  • Just brainstorming, I'd be interested in a historical game that provided a lot less stuff than these GURPS books (because, after all, I can go to the library or the internet if I want more details), but a lot more support for using that stuff in a game. Does that make sense?

    I think what you're saying is that the object would be less to pile tons of trivia on the player/GM, and more find the underlining core of the historical period. A Victorian game of that design, for example, would focus less on which date so-and-so wrote such-and-such, and more on core conflicts of the period (like growing secularism, repressed sexuality, and so on). Am I close?
  • As I think about it, I just realized I have seen one book that fits that criterea of themes and just what you need and no more - and amusingly it's GURPS. Specifically, GURPS: Screampunk. Fantastic little book.

    -Rob D.
  • Eddy,

    Yes, although again this is a personal preference, but I'd like to see a historical game that gave me tools to take those "core conflicts" and turn them into scenarios and/or captured those "core conflicts" in some other mechanical way.

    Looking at the hypothetical Victorian England Game: maybe be a system like Rob's idea of marrying the "one little thing" idea with the town creation rules from Dogs. So, for this Victorian game, there might be a list of the main social conflicts/contradictions of the period: the GM would have to start from one of these conflicts, and build the scenario out from that.

  • People keep mentioning Victorian England, and it's making me twitch.

    Here's the thing: if you want to set the game in history, there's a reason why you want to set the game in history, just like every other decision you make about an artistic endeavor. You want to examine honor and trust, you make a game about samurai (Mountain Witch); you want to examine morality and the needs of the community, you make a game about small, moral-minded communities (Dogs in the Vineyard). I want a game where the players are dwarfed by their surroundings but are still required to act, I make a game about imperialism (FLFS).

    Whether the players can "change history" or not is really relatively irrelevant unless your desire is a pure and unalloyed desire to "live the experience of the Late Roman Empire." Even then, I doubt that the desire is really to live the experience, but to live some specific elements of that experience -- the family, the honor, the empire, whatever. What matters is that you're able to identify what it is of that historical period that really interests you and then make the game deal with that.

    You want to comment on slavery? You want to "see what happens" if you shoot Hitler when he was a struggling painter? You want to build an iron-age civilization and vie with Rome? Make the game about that.
  • Right on, Joshua.

    If you want to talk about Slavery, set your game in Georgia in 1859.
    I recently ran a game of PTA called 1775 about what it takes to get people to revolt against an oppressor.
    If you want to talk about Imperialism, set the game in Manchuria in 1935, or India in 1900, or Guam in 1940.

    When people say "Victorian England", I think what they're really talking about is a socially stifling era where pornography first became an industry. It's the tension between the animal selves and social control that makes it interesting. So if that's what you want your game to be about, rock rock on. If you want top hats, you have other options.
  • Personally I don't think anyone has done a straight-up historical game "right". The closest is Sengoku, hands down.
  • Define "right".
  • genre mechanics that enforce period appropriate behavior.
  • No playing Aphra Behn, Margaret Sayer, or Ben Franklin, then?
  • I definitely think you should choose a setting for your game that supports what you want your game to be about. However, I think there's a difference between playing a game about imperialism set in a steampunk world and playing a game about imperialism set in Historical 19th Century India. It's *this* difference, and the specific difficulties of playing games and/or designing games with historical settings that we've been talking about here.

    Again, referring to some actual play: playing in a PTA game about revolution that was set in a "real world", historical setting posed a bunch of specific problems that did not come up while playing in a PTA game about revolution that was set in a sci-fi future setting.
  • Depends on whether the mechanics support "air baths" or illegitimate children. At least for Ben Franklin, that guy was a loon.
  • There certainly is, Jon. FLFS went the route it did because steampunk, with its gigantic technology, emphasized the small guy / big world thing.

    But -- the axiom still holds. If you want 19th Century India, why do you want 19th Century India, and more importantly, whose 19th Century India do you want? Do you want the White Man's Burden, with rational Europeans coming in and teaching/forcing the natives to do things rationally, or do you want Gunga Din, with the wild and erotic native beliefs wreaking havoc on the Europeans' supposedly-better rationalism? That is, does only science work, or do native beliefs have some effect on developing events? See where I'm going, here?

    Why you choose that setting has a direct impact on how you implement it, which will provide the answers to those specific problems that you mentioned.
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