Historic Vs. Modern

edited March 2014 in Story Games
I've been keeping my eyes up recently and I've noticed that there seem to be more games with historical settings than there are games set in the here-and-now. Don't know if this is a trend you've noticed or whether I'm jumping the gun, but I'd like to get out a few questions and see if we can't get a discussion a-goin'!

Do you think designers avoid modern settings? I feel like I steer clear of them when I dabble. Maybe I'm worried I'll be perceived as a poorly informed journalist on contemporary issues? Or conducting a soap opera, or even worse - having literary aspirations! Could be I was put off by playing the Vampire games - where the "real" world was this boring place filled with authority figures and disempowerment (woah! Who needs psychiatrics, right? Deep look into teen-Mike there).

Yet some games with contemporary settings have been really cool and worthwhile! Perhaps they're the ones that make you really live the life of a character, rather than some historical personage or tactical chit. Which is probably why they're a bit intimidating?

What do you think?
Mike

Comments

  • edited March 2014
    You're absolutely right that contemporary settings can be cool and worthwhile (the majority of suspense movies are set in the modern day for instance), but I don't think depth of role is intimidating for avid storygamers, regardless of the setting. I think modern milieus must struggle against a confluence of different tendencies in different types of players. A few off the top of my head:

    - Escapism (people who play to escape reality, not to be reminded of it)
    - Ontology (people who like to assume a whole different worldview, far from modern scientific materialism)
    - Projectability (its easier to project really wild shit on an unknown world than the known one)
    - Novelty (the new is always more exciting than the old, right?)

    [Insert here that cartoon about D&D characters playing a game of "Papers and Paychecks"]

    For game designers in search of something interesting to build that no one has done yet, I think the distant past, the far future, or totally remote worlds simply offer a lot more opportunity for creative muscle-flexing.
  • Could it be as simple as roleplaying culture being very closely associated with "geek" and escapist culture?
  • edited March 2014
    Yeah, but note, the OP really applies better to OSR games than Narrativist games (if I use the wrong words, Paul, correct me) :-)

    Because... Penny for My Thoughts. Fiasco. Dread. Monsterhearts. Don't Rest Your Head. Skew. Little Fears.
  • That is wrong on both counts. OSR games are primarily ahistorical and narrativist games doubly so.
  • (Yeah, that's a good point about "historical" not quite being the right word for this...)
  • Sorry, JD, to whom are you responding? Which are the two counts that are wrong?
  • edited March 2014
    (Yeah, that's a good point about "historical" not quite being the right word for this...)
    I'd like to make a case for "fantasy" gaming being an interpretation or communication of a real historical past. I think many true things are said about our relationship with medieval history whether we play Montsegur 1244, Warhammer or Dungeons & Dragons. Embellishments are telling. Maybe I read too much Umberto Eco.
  • edited March 2014
    D&D was an escapist fantasy game. It all pretty much grew from there, I think. This hobby and the whole geek culture is rooted in escapism, and modern day isn't escapist. Also, it's usually easier to run a game when you're not even pretending you're running it in a real world. It shelters a GM from a lot of criticism.
  • It's interesting to me that the most popular "first playset" for Fiasco is The Ice, which combines the contemporary with the exotic.
  • edited March 2014
    I think that the "different" is a straightforward way to look back at the familiar, especially for those who are prone to being thinky about stuff. Viewed in that light, weird and exotic locales for games make sense. When you take one step away from reality, you give yourself a perspective on reality that you wouldn't have when you're right in the middle of it. I think that's one of the reasons that a game like Dogs in the Vineyard or Monsterhearts can be so compelling: they handle something very real, but with distance from reality.

    So, I don't actually think it's escapism--I think it's something much more substantial and profound.
  • I'll say one, possibly idiosyncratic, element that caused most of the GMs in my group (which leans heavily to modern and near future RPGs) to shade a little farther from realism was that it becomes much easier to maintain an internally consistent fictional world if you're not also worried about making sure that world is also consistent with obective reality.
  • Ok, I think we've all accepted that, yes, gaming is about escapism and fantasy conveys that principal intuitively.

    But I'm not talking about what some hypothetical "public" want to buy though, I'm talking about us as a community of game-makers and why we return to the "historical" genre. Even if we dismiss all "fantasy" games, there are still very few games that willingly embrace everyday life as a setting. I'm not keen to explore why D&D is an easy concept to swallow, let's take that as read, but I'm much more interested in exploring how and why we choose specific moments in history to make into games (Greyranks, The Few, Night Witches, Last Train, Montsegur 1244, Fiasco-settings, Road to Lindisfarne - just to name a few that have been present in my travels about SG today) and whether or not we invest in the past the problems and conflicts we see in the present?

  • I love the idea of a modern game. I've had plans to build a modern action/thriller engine for a while (I even have a proto-design doc completed), but I just don't know if the demand or interest is there, at least in my travels.
    Ok, this is good. Let's try and build on what's positive. What do you want out of a "modern" setting - what do you think that says about the gameplay and the role of the players? I want to get into the motivations behind you loving the idea of a modern game.
  • From a design perspective one of the reasons I prefer historical is because of what cellphones and the Internet can do to discovery and timing in games.
  • Oh, I'm not a game maker, sorry to butt in like that.
  • edited March 2014
    - Escapism (people who play to escape reality, not to be reminded of it)
    - Ontology (people who like to assume a whole different worldview, far from modern scientific materialism)
    - Projectability (its easier to project really wild shit on an unknown world than the known one)
    - Novelty (the new is always more exciting than the old, right?)
    This is what I was about to write. Also, if I play in a modern world, I would prefer playing in the US rather than Sweden, and another reason for that is because it's a more common background in films. (Try to improvise Russian names or Indian.)

  • This is what I was about to write. Also, if I play in a modern world, I would prefer playing in the US rather than Sweden, mostly because it's a more common background in films.
    Modern-world-as-American-fantasy?
    I feel like this is really problematic, but I sympathise with the feeling - nothing plot-worthy happens in rural England, either.
  • edited March 2014
    Yeah, so the setting is mirrored through my (and the whole group's) perception of what The States really is.
  • Which is, of course, this Hollywood hyperreality that only really has two locations: Downtown New York and A Small Town Out West. This represents nothing about contemporary life and its vast patchwork in the US. I had the pleasure of living in Oakland, CA for a while and, culturally, it's as radically different from San Francisco across the water as Paris is from Berlin.
  • edited March 2014
    Ok, I think we've all accepted that, yes, gaming is about escapism and fantasy conveys that principal intuitively.

    But I'm not talking about what some hypothetical "public" want to buy though, I'm talking about us as a community of game-makers and why we return to the "historical" genre.
    Game makers aren't that different from gamers generally. If I hadn't been interested in fantasy and pulp scifi, I probably wouldn't have been interested in gaming, either, because the first RPGs I encountered were very escapist. And people want to make games that get played.

  • edited March 2014
    I'd like to think this community is about discussing the reasons and motivations behind our creative choices. If you don't have this kind of insight into your creativity, it's about time you begun - It's really rewarding.

    I'm not trying to be contrary for the sake of it, but I want to direct this discussion towards more options rather than a "I make the games I want to play" response, which is fine and natural but not very open to exploration. There are always conflicting motivations behind our activity, especially in as nuanced a process as writing a game.
  • edited March 2014
    Which is, of course, this Hollywood hyperreality that only really has two locations: Downtown New York and A Small Town Out West. This represents nothing about contemporary life and its vast patchwork in the US.
    Sure, but the same can be said about Europe anno 1390. What I play represents nothing of the life then due to my lack of knowledge. My knowledge about Norrköping 2014, Sweden, is so big that it would be very easy to break the verisimilitude or make things seem too unlikely. In other cases, it would even become humorous (which I actually draw advantage of when playing InSpectres).
  • edited March 2014
    Ok, another bifurcation arises. Some of us are emulating slices of historical time. Some of us are emulating movie genres.
    Big differences between those things.
  • I see that, would you care to talk us through the important differences and what conceiving of historical time as based in genre does (i.e. stories set in 19th Texas are Westerns)?
  • edited March 2014
    Um, not really? :-) I'm sure numerous people have written theses on that stuff, especially in film schools. But of course this is a question movie directors deal with as well. Some of them want to do seriously authentic period pieces drenched in detail, while others want to recreate the feeling of fast-paced comic books, or brain-twisting postmodern novels, etc, while some maverick directors just want to push the medium in directions nobody else has thought of. And then a new wave of young directors comes along, they get all those options, plus the added options of evolving or perpetuating the style of any earlier director.

    It does seem that Hollywood has more interest in creating campy pseudo-historical romps and riffs (in which any historical reference is really just a symbolic nod) than serious period pieces. I think that's ultimately because the former generate more profit than the latter, and of course they are also cheaper to produce. (Which for us means, I guess, less research.)
  • edited March 2014
    I'd like to think this community is about discussing the reasons and motivations behind our creative choices. If you don't have this kind of insight into your creativity, it's about time you begun - It's really rewarding.

    I'm not trying to be contrary for the sake of it, but I want to direct this discussion towards more options rather than a "I make the games I want to play" response, which is fine and natural but not very open to exploration. There are always conflicting motivations behind our activity, especially in as nuanced a process as writing a game.
    I was just trying to give a brief answer, not shut down the discussion. My point was that the motivations of gamers and designers aren't necessarily that different.

    I'm actually interested in realism in games and I have played, run and designed games with fairly modern subjects that lack supernatural elements. Fantasy has been just a sideshow in my own design lately, because real world subjects seem easier to tackle now that I'm getting older. But fantasy is still what unites most of us, and it's cool to show your friends or customers something that you know is in their comfort zone.

    Why did Gygax and Arneson choose the fantasy genre and why has it stayed so popular? Fantasy was relatively visible in early 70s, which was the time of Tolkien and Howard booms. It's conservative, kitchen-sink, easy for the GM and the player. You don't have to worry about science or social implications (even if some do): you can just throw in about anything, and people won't get too upset, because they know this ain't supposed to model reality. It's the difference between making stuff up and knowing how it really works.
  • edited March 2014
    Well, G&A chose the fantasy genre because they were tabletop wargamers who wanted to get Tolkien in there. But point taken. I often like to think of game systems design like "19th century science" - in which you don't have to have a subatomic understanding of things to form a theory about them, and clever mechanical systems can cover any conceivable circumstance.

  • -- War
    -- Business
    -- Crime
    -- Politics
    -- Espionage

    Thoughts?

    Steering is welcome.

    What about more litrary concerns, games like Ribbon Drive are an example of like a road-trip slice-of-life thing that's contemporary but not a globe-spanning genre. A modern setting could be an specific as a stretch of highway.

  • edited March 2014
    TV genres set in the modern world:
    - Soap Operas
    - Game Shows (one-shot or short campaign)
    - Sports/Talent Competitions
    - Romance Stories (campaign with 2 possible endings)
    - Cop Stories (career campaign of tactical modules with lots of action)
    - Detective Stories (career campaign with lots of mystery-solving)
    - Lawyer Stories (career campaign with lots of human drama and verbal conflict)
    - Emergency/Hospital Stories (career campaign with lots of human drama and blood)
    - Reality TV Contests (isolate a bunch of people somewhere and mess with them until someone wins)
    - Reality TV Follow-arounds (um... you are an outrageous person acting like a snot while others fall all over you?)
    - Would you consider cartoons? "Archer" is a modern-day setting that can do ridiculous things because it's animated.
  • Man, Archer is a retrofuturistic nightmare world generated purely out of spy-movie clichés. I love it, but it's not strictly modern - I mean, even the characters don't know what year it is.

    "Life" and "Apocalypse" stories make me happy.

    The idea of a game show being "set" in the modern world makes my brain hurt.
  • edited March 2014
    The idea of a game show being "set" in the modern world makes my brain hurt.
    Picture a one-shot parlour game. A game within a game. Everyone rolls up a smarmishly-satisfying American middle-class normie with a wacky career and a comically-exaggerated family of dependent NPCs. The GM has created puzzles, tasks and prizes. You really want that Winnebago.
  • edited March 2014
    There's some of those genres that are more similar than others, though.

    Lawyer, detective, and medical shows can often fall under "procedurals": there's a problem of the week, and everyone works together to try and solve it, with their careers and reputations at stake. It doesn't matter that one show solves it by making a legal case, while another show solves it by investigating weird diseases. (Heck, there's a lot of area for blending the "flavors" of procedurals.) What matters is that basic dramatic thrust.

    Of course, they can also swing to relationship drama. (We've been discussing this on RPG.net) The color is less important than the main action of the game. (For instance, I'd use GUMSHOE to run a procedural but Cortex Plus Drama to run a relationship drama. It wouldn't matter whether that particular show was about lawyers, detectives, or medical staff.)

    Might not be a bad idea to focus on "procedural" and "drama" as the two pillars of TV show gaming.
  • edited March 2014
    Yeah, that just might be a thing. And when we blend them, usually it's tactical/procedural episodes inside the long arc of a relationship-based dramatic "campaign". So it might be considered "zooming in" (like Microscope) when we go procedural.
  • Oooh, now that I like.
  • If one were to design a modern based game or setting, what would it look like? Let's assume that all supernatural elements are removed (so no superheroes or magic), and let's start off with 21st century Earth as a base line (we can add crazy science and aliens later if we want.)
    Uh...probably like GURPS?

    The idea that it's "hard" to do a modern day game seems disproven by...basically the whole history of RPGs.
  • edited March 2014
    Yeah, something like GURPS or BRP. That was the whole idea of those systems, after all. But I think using a generic system as a base for non-modern settings tends to unconsciously perpetuate a myth; that people from other cultures or times are just like modern people from industrialized nations, only with different dressing and accoutrements. It's a kind of modernist functional ethnocentricism, which might be unfitting for a game that truly wanted to immerse its players in the mindset of an historical era. For such a game, core elements of the system should probably be specially designed to reflect the mentality and worldview of the gameworld's peoples.
  • edited March 2014
    For sure. But - just to play devil's advocate a little here - it's possible to picture a modern-day Dogs in the Vineyard featuring some sort of weird militant heretical Catholic sect. (Boondock Saints, anybody?) In such a game, we might expect stats like Sin-Virtue and actions like Atonement to be quite necessary, though they're far from necessary in most other modern-world games. I'm just sayin'.

    To return to my original taxonomy of modern-game adoption challenges:
    - Escapism (people who play to escape reality, not to be reminded of it)
    - Ontology (people who like to assume a whole different worldview, far from modern scientific materialism)
    - Projectability (its easier to project really wild shit on an unknown world than the known one)
    - Novelty (the new is always more exciting than the old, right?)

    I think it's very possible to solve for all of the above within a modern setting, given an interesting milieu and a creative approach. I think it's just as possible as fantasy, and in fact we've named several and come up with a dozen or more ideas for same, right here in this thread.

    The main difference (I think) is that these modern settings often will not be as broad as an entire world, because many of them will draw their subjective meaning and emotional resonance from the relative separation of the storyscape from the rest of the (real, mundane) world.
  • Haha, now I want to write Dogs in the Boondocks. :-)
Sign In or Register to comment.