Friday, January 23, 2009

Historical RPGs

I always have a fair number of rpg campaign ideas percolating in my head. Some of them have become more fully fleshed over the years as I've thought about them and others have fallen by the wayside. I expect the vast majority of them I'll never actually get around to running, but it is fun to consider them. Right now I need to be thinking about the campaign setting for my niece (who has been patient)but I'm having trouble getting to what I really want to focus on in that-- I have a couple of things I sketched out before, and more nebulous ideas that might be worth brainstorming over. She likes the "school" game concept, but I want to narrow that a bit from the large scale I'm using in Libri Vidicos and the wide background level I'm using it for in the Changeling campaign. I don't mind repeating myself, but I like to do that sequentially and not in parallel.

Some of the campaign ideas I really like I'm pretty sure I'll never get a chance to run. Primarily that's because they have root in a historical setting or period. I've run many games across many genres, but historical stuff seems to be the most difficult to interest people in and, from my end, seemingly the most difficult to build a campaign for. I've only run a couple of historical games and they were mostly very short run. I played/ran in an Ars Magica campaign, but while the historical backdrop was there, the setting was isolated enough that it felt like a more conventional campaign. The same applies to any Call of Cthulhu games that have been set in the 1920's. There are the limitations of the technology and a little bit of the cultural attitudes in play, but for the most part the game focused on the immediate story of horror. Any other historical games I've done have been only a couple of sessions, like a Swashbuckler three parter I ran, and have had more of the fantastic than any solid grounding in history.

So I'm trying to think about what makes those kinds of games more difficult to run and perhaps a little more unfriendly to players. The only other genre I can think of that's seems to have as many barriers would be something like a hard sci-fi campaign (though not a military sci-fi game ala Warhammer 40K or Starship Troopers).

So, some thoughts:
-Legend of the Five Rings gets around the question of historical setting by detaching itself. Is has all the trappings of a samurai/"oriental" (I use that term cautiously here) setting without having to know more than the basic conventions. OOH it does require players to eventually learn the behaviors and the manner codes. That's been a problem for a couple of players when I've run it who have been stuck in a more western heroic mode. The setting itself is full of anachronisms. Plus it manages to IMHO screw up the question of religion in the setting by creating a hybrid Shinto/Taoist/Buddhist system called Shintao. One thing it does have is a set of clearly defined roles in the form of the various clans. Each clan has a pretty easy to grasp concept behind it and it serves as a great shorthand for when players deal with NPCs. That's a concept it lifted pretty much from the White Wolf games, and it is worth considering how just that might be adapted elsewhere.

So, two things I can get from that: historical flavor but not history & easily understood archetypes for players and NPCs.

-Related to that would be the various historical White Wolf World of Darkness settings. Like L5R it presented some clear sets of archetypes for the players. But generally, with the exception perhaps of the Medieval version of Vampire, those games didn't do so well. I used some of the Victorian-Era Vampire for a modern game I ran, but as a sidestory quasi-time travel/actually potent memory bit. Again, there the players weren't engaged with the historical part of it as much. In reality it could have been any time period.

-So maybe I need to think about my reasoning for wanting to do a historical campaign-- what am I getting out of it. Can it be bastardized (ala L5R) to get the elements I want?

I'm going to come back to this tomorrow or the next day as I'm tight on time right now. Tonight's Libri Vidicos and I have a number of important plot balls I'm juggling there. I usually think about the games for a few hours during the week and then try to give myself two or three hours to work on the actual session beforehand. That's the math for a game I've been running for some time. For newer games I usually spend more time in prep and general brainstorming. Even with a game that's moving forward under its own momentum, I'll usually take stock of where I'm at every several sessions and spend some extra time working on the game between those sessions.