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Saturday, 2 April 2016

Classic Rant: Running Historical Games

You can do pretty much anything with an historical setting that you could do with a fantasy/imaginary setting.

The one thing I would say with regards to historical games is the following: if you make it so that "the tide of history can't be changed under any circumstances", then you're basically not playing an RPG anymore, and the characters are helpless witnesses to a story being told; so that sucks ass.

On the other hand if you say "from here on, its not really history, so anything goes!", then you're missing the point and you may as well not be running an historical game.

The balance point that I subscribe to is this: History is a force. It is the weight of circumstances, which builds up and accumulates, so that generally things happen for a reason. When in a particular case those circumstances are just starting to build up, it is easier to steer or disrupt history toward a different direction; when those forces are in plain bloom, its extremely difficult without doing something that's likely to totally fuck you over too.

So history CAN be changed, it just doesn't generally want to change, because its like a river; things happened the way they did because of all kinds of factors that lent their weight to it being that way. Its not impossible to change history but its also not very easy, at least at crucial points.


(Originally posted June 3, 2010)


  1. When you're talking about a "historical" game, there are actually two subspecies with different problems and rewards.

    Some historical games are (to vastly oversimplify) "D&D with the names of famous dead people." In other words, the PCs are adventuring in a historical time and place, but their adventures are important only to themselves. A band of thieves in Elizabethan London aren't very different from thieves in Lankhmar — but there is the entertaining "chrome" that the shadowy spy works for Walsingham and their struggling playwright contact is Will Shaxper. Plus the GM can take advantage of the fact that the "sourcebook" for Elizabethan London is vast and full of neat bits that no game designer would ever have dared to put in. In these games, the PCs won't affect history because they're not in a position to affect history, but that isn't the focus of the game anyway so who cares?

    The other sort of historical game is the sort where the PCs are involved in historical events. They're not thieves in Elizabethan London, they're Walsingham's elite agents, out to stop dastardly Jesuit plots against the Queen. For that sort of game I recommend the Pangloss Rule: history will proceed as recorded, unless the PCs screw everything up. So they won't be able to stop the Armada from sailing, but if the PCs bungle the fireship operation off Gravelines, the Spanish fleet may survive and lure the English into a mass battle in the North Sea that cripples both navies. Thwarting the secret plots that might have derailed history means that history following its standard course is a victory for the PCs.

  2. I'll let em stop the armada from sailing if they do something that would affect that. Why else are we even playing instead of just reading a history book then?