by Bill White
[Ed. This is the introduction to Bill White”s RPG The New World. Join the playtest here.]
A Roleplaying Game of Historical Fantasy
The Voyage Out
A ship is sailing across the ocean, far from home. When it makes landfall, those aboard will leave the ship to seek their fortunes and make their fates in a strange country. For those already there, the arrival of these newcomers marks the end of the world they have known. It marks the beginning of a time of struggle, as different visions of what will be and how to bring it about come into conflict with each other and those who hold them. It marks the beginning of a time of change, as peoples and ideas and ways of living face up to the confrontations and tribulations of the age. It marks the beginning, in other words, of a New World.
The New World is a game of historical fantasy. As a genre, historical fantasy exists at the intersection of historical fiction and secondary‐world fantasy (e.g., in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien), “combining actual history with dreamlike depths,” in the words of one observer of the form. It has a long albeit somewhat rhizomatic history—that is, it pops up here and there rather than moving in a rigorous line of practice or occupying a specific section of the bookstore’s shelves—encompassing Gothic fantasies such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death as well as Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as the feminist ruminations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. “The themes of historical fantasy continue to be very traditional,” says English professor James Whitlark: “(1) the preternaturally old, (2) time slips (i.e., time travel by magic), (3) reincarnation, (4) old magical objects, and (5) secret histories.”
In this game, the motifs of historical fantasy are a license to set free the historical imagination—that capability of the mind to envision intriguing combinations and consequences of historical fact, as my friend Ben Lehman does in this excerpt from an on‐line discussion:
There were problems in the early days of the gold rush with gold ships being attacked by pirates as they travelled the long route around South America to bring California gold back to Boston and New York. As all the white sailors were struck with gold fever and became propectors, the ships would hire foreign sailors to fill out their crews and work as anti‐boarding marines.
At the same time, the Tokugawa Shogunate was in heavy decline, and many lower‐class Samurai (little better than thugs, really) were exiled from the country. . . . Many of them caught rumors of the wealth available in California and got passage on Chinese boats across the Pacific. Where, given their extensive hand‐to‐hand combat experience, they were promptly hired on the crews of gold ships.
That’s right: 150 years ago, ronin samurai fought with Mexican pirates over gold bullion off the coast of California.
In this game, three to five players (including a Game Master, or GM) collaboratively create a mashed‐up historical or quasi‐historical setting and then people it with individual characters whom they role‐play in facing the perils and possibilities of a New World. Their actions have consequences for the ultimate fate of the New World as well as for their own individual destinies. As the game plays out, it works to create an imagined history of a New World that never was.
If you are trying to enlist players for a game, the fact that it does provide opportunities to exercise the historical imagination (to get one’s history geek on, as it were) can be an excellent selling point. Connect the game to the genres of what‐if alternative history like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Len Deighton’s SS‐GB, and the entire oeuvre of Harry Turtledove as well as straight‐up historical fantasy like J. Gregory Keyes’ Empire of Unreason, Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, and John Ford’s The Dragon Waiting.