By Conrad Kinch
I was a seven year old Kinch when I got my first gaming book. It was “Redcoats & Minutemen: The American War of Independence” by Jon Sutherland, a choose-your-own adventure book from a little-known series called Real Life Gamebooks. My parents thought fantasy was a bit frivolous, but the 18th century was alright, and while I eventually managed to snag a copy of Dungeons & Dragons for my birthday, I spent a good six months rushing about North America in my imagination (and a tricorne hat). Despite my best efforts, the Americans always seemed to win – but God knows I tried. But my love for “real world” roleplaying was born. Since then I’ve run games in the Old West, the Napoleonic Wars, Prohibition Era America, 1970s London, the Second World War, 11th century England and 17th century France, amongst others.
The years have not withered, nor the years condemned our worlds infinite variety.
There’s a lot to be said for playing in the “real world”. There is an internet full of free source material available, the players will already be familiar with the basics and while not everyone knows what an ork sounds like, most folk know a French person when they hear one.
My top tips for Game Masters wishing to dip a toe into historical roleplaying are as follows:
Talk the talk
Roleplaying games are mostly aural experiences. Some groups use figures and props, but mostly we hear RPGs. We experience them through words and play them by speaking and listening. It’s no accident that many successful roleplaying games have a specialist lexicon of their own. By using different words, we are transported into a different world. Some RPGs manage this really well, Vampire: The Masquerade for example, while others like Shadowrun are less successful. I never knew anyone who could say “Chummer” with a straight face – but this will vary from group to group. Bookhounds of London hits a nice balance by using mostly standard English, but having specialist slang for particular aspects of bookselling. Delta Green has a plethora of secret agent idioms, but you don’t need to master them all in one go.
Names and forms of address are a good way to start, particularly if you’re playing a game set in a more formal milieu.
For example, up until relatively late in the 20th century, most middle class people did not use first names at work, but referred to each other by surnames. Using a first name was a way of indicating friendship or intimacy and would only be used by family and close friends. Using this as a clue in an investigative game would be a great way to cement the convention in players minds and make them aware of it.
Start small, introduce a couple of words or phrases in each session and let the players get familiar with them before adding any more. The trick is to think of period words (and historical content more generally) as a seasoning, a little goes a long way. Listening to Shakespearean actor Ben Crystal’s rendition of Hamlet in Shakespearean English with original pronunciation is an extraordinary experience, but you couldn’t play a game like that. You should aim to introduce just enough period diction to give the flavour of the time without the game bogging down.
Decide exactly how much history you want
The Three Musketeers (1973) is a historical film, but so is Master and Commander (2003) and Braveheart (1995). But they are very different kinds of films and while each is satisfying in their own way, they make different use their historical settings. Braveheart, for example, plays fast and loose with the history to craft an enjoyable revenge story, while Master and Commander tells a much more grounded narrative.
No more than when you choose to run a fantasy or science fiction game, you should have a clear idea of tone and type of game you want to run. More importantly, so should your players, and they should be on board with the idea. This gives everyone an understanding of how much the setting is going to be a factor in play. I think I’d quite like to play a Pendragon game in the style of Monty Python (or the joyful nonsense of A Knight’s Tale), but I would make sure that the players knew what they were getting into.
Pointing out the flaws in someone else’s work is easy, and sometimes fun, too. There are whole YouTube channels devoted to filleting historical films on the basis of historical accuracy, but it’s a lousy basis for a roleplaying game. The GM should make an effort to do the reading and know the setting well, but there’s little to be gained from nitpicking people who are playing a game to be entertained. All it does is break the immersion in the game and make people feel foolish. There is a time and a place for “Well, actually…” type comments, but they should relate to the core activities of the game.
For example, I ran a game set in a British army regiment in Portugal during Sir John Moore’s expedition of 1809. Climbing the greasy pole of promotion, which was mostly (but not exclusively) by purchase at the time, was a key part of the game. The players were given the regulations and were expected to know about them in detail because jockeying for position was a core part of the game. Picking a player up on a point of promotion would be perfectly legitimate, but having a go at one for talking about his father smoking cigars (which were relatively unknown in Ireland at the time) would not be.
If it’s a small point and not germane to the main business of the game, there’s little reason to make a fuss. Far better to keep the game rolling. Also, if you don’t have an immediate answer for a question and there isn’t a compelling reason to say no, you should go with whatever answer best serves your game. For example, I have no idea if Elizabethan gentlemen had “stag do’s” (bachelor parties for our American cousins), but the question came up during a game set in London in 1599. I had no idea and I couldn’t find a quick answer, so I said yes. The evening of roleplaying that followed was delightful.
A roleplaying session is an effervescent thing that exists collectively between the GM and the players. It can lose momentum and die very easily, so be careful about shutting down players ideas unnecessarily. The alternative is also true, if a player comes across a particular nugget of historical information that’s interesting, you should do your best to incorporate it into the game. Anything that drags players deeper into the game and makes them more invested in the setting is a good thing.
The aim should be to create an enjoyable collaborative experience, rather than deliver a history lesson. Resist the temptation to make your friends feel small by showing off your knowledge of Georgian table manners and focus on delivering something that has period feel, even if some of the details are off.
Little & Often
One of the most effective ways I’ve found to immerse players in a historical setting is to use multiple avenues of approach. Have some film and TV recommendations ready for your players. Photographs, period drawings and paintings can quickly create a sense of place and time without too much work on the GM’s part. Music from the period is generally only a YouTube search away. If you can keep creating and reinforcing that sense of time and place in small ways, eventually you won’t have to work so hard to do it. A few words will put your group in the mood.
Over time, I’ve found that it’s worth focusing on a few small details and using those to suggest the rest of the setting. Three is a good number.
For example, in a game set in the USSR during the Second World War, we made much of the fact that Red Army soldiers weren’t issued socks, but were given foot wraps (long strips of cloth wrapped around the foot). It’s best if the details you focus on can be used by players to some advantage. In our game, foot wraps were used to make a makeshift ropes to bind and gag an unfortunate prisoner. The fact that captured German army socks were much prized became a running joke in the game. I think it also gave the players some idea of the relative material deprivation their characters were living in.
Running a good historical roleplaying game is just like running a good roleplaying game of any sort. So long as you concentrate on the players and keep the story moving, you’ll do just fine. May you always toast the correct Monarch, remember to call your best friend Watson rather than John when others are present and know your Jacobites from your Jacobins.
Happy historical roleplaying.
Conrad Kinch (@aquestingvole) is a poor hand with a sabre and an only passable pistol shot. He is fondly remembered by all those who have never lent him money. He lives in Dublin. His novel “The Fox Wife’s Tail” is available now.