Guest Column: Playing With History

I’ve run an awful lot of history-themed RPGs and written a few. It’s an area I love gaming in, both taken straight, and mixed with a dose of fantastic elements. Yet I would be doing the topic an injustice if I did not admit there are difficulties, both in subject matter and attitudes. So what are they, and how can you overcome them?

The focus here is Medieval Europe and the Ancient World, as that’s where I have the most experience. But much of what I say you can apply to other times and places.


Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1185)

Big periods of history in many different places are undeniably patriarchal and grotesquely sexist. In Medieval Europe women were socially subordinate to their fathers and husbands. In much of Classical Greece they weren’t even regarded as citizens, even if well-off; even the words of the marriage ceremony were objectifying, and amounted to a father giving his daughter to her new husband in order to bear his children.

So does this restrict or exclude women from such a game as characters, or even players? Being forced to play a socially subordinate role seems far too restrictive. Yet even in the most restrictive periods of history there were remarkable and powerful women. Medieval England alone had Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Empress Matilda, and Julian of Norwich. In the Anarchy of Norman England, women on both sides led armies. 

Ancient Greece included poets and philosophers who were women, and even war heroes, such as Hydna of Scione, a noted swimmer who swam beneath Persian ships to cut their moorings, and Queens Artemisia I and II of Caria, who both commanded Caria’s navy. Artemisia II was a noted strategist. According to Pliny the Elder, admittedly not the most reliable source, Artemisia II was also a noted botanist and medical scholar.

Even in the most restrictive times and places, women could be prominent, noted in their chosen field, and not restricted to “feminine” occupations. This applies in both social and action-adventure oriented games  And not all periods restricted women nearly as much as Ancient Greece and Norman England.

In more chaotic periods of history where less is known, for example post-Roman western north Africa and Europe, and the period following the late bronze age collapse of societies in the eastern Mediterranean, it’s easy then to make sure women with agency are part of the game, as both player characters and supporting characters, and a deliberate decision not to do so. In times when the social order collapses, or when there is rebellion against an unfair social order, women play as prominent a role as men do, as suggested by people ranging from Boudicca to Rosa Parks.

If there are fantastic elements, things are also easier. Such things as magical gifts are just as likely to favour women as men, for example. Why would a woman with great magical power submit to being a second class citizen? Women’s education is a key ingredient in women’s emancipation – educated people are more aware of their oppression, and education and suffrage movements went hand in hand.

So everything’s rosy, right? There’s room for player characters with agency, and sexism isn’t a big deal for player characters. Certainly the player characters don’t have to exhibit sexism. But part of the fun might be confronting the sexism of society, for example in Good Society, a game inspired by Regency romance, or in Sagas of the Icelanders, which explores social roles in Iceland’s early history. This is something all players should actively agree they want before play.

The best way of course is to talk to players. Don’t confront those playing women with in-game sexist content unless they say they want to confront it. Without explicit consent, assume that it doesn’t come up. Use safety tools. And don’t assume women only want to play women, and men only want to play men. I’ve seen that done at conventions, although not recently, and it’s at best awkward, at worst grossly offensive.

One final point here, which should be obvious, but evidently isn’t: pregnancy and childbirth shouldn’t usually be a concern. Rape should absolutely not feature in any way, and it’s hard to say this strongly enough. For some reason both elements seem to come up all the time in RPGs with a prehistoric setting such as Würm and even more so in Land of Ice and Stone.

Ethnicity, Culture and Prejudice

Ain’t no procession like a Dionysian procession

Ethnic nationalism and modern notions of race are relatively late historical developments, which went hand in hand with colonialism and the 19th century European notion of the nation-state. For big periods of history they simply didn’t exist. Let us consider the Romans for example. They’re in many ways uncharming, forming an empire by conquest, and essentially industrialising the institution of slavery which was already endemic in the ancient world.

But the Roman Empire was multicultural, and in later history all constituent parts were equally Roman. Soldiers from across the Empire served far from home. Hence we have dynasties of Roman Emperors coming from parts of the Empire far from Rome itself – the Severan and Gordian dynasties from North Africa, and others from the Middle East. Being Roman wasn’t by then a race or ethnicity.

Soldiers were also stationed far from home. In the late Empire other groups moved and invaded from all directions. The Alani from Iran settled in Gaul and served later as Roman heavy cavalry. There are records of Syrian merchants and soldiers in Britain. Saint Maurice was a soldier from Egypt, and was a patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire and shown in Medieval iconography as dark skinned.

In post-Roman and by extension Arthurian Britain, not everyone would have been white. Assuming lack of diversity is itself at best ignorant and at worst racist.

Similarly, in Medieval Europe there were other cultures and people of colour; the blog People of Colour in Medieval Art History examines representations. There were trade connections, wars, and migrations of people looking for new opportunities. People travelled because of curiosity and intellectual interest; not every explorer in history came out of Europe; consider for example Ibn Battuta and Hasekura Tsunenaga.

In fiction, it’s popular to include a Saracen as one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. And there have always been vast multicultural melting pots, such as Alexandria and Byzantium. In such places, diversity is even more universal.

Now I’m not saying different ethnicities let alone cultures were common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Nor am I saying there was no prejudice, some of which was ethnic in nature – consider for example at the absolutely diabolic attitudes towards and treatment of Jewish people in Medieval Europe, including massacres in London and York in the 12th century, and eventual expulsion from England, the 14th century Erfurt massacre, and an attitude of prejudice and blame in the time of the Black Death. There’s a tragically sizeable list.

But I am saying people of colour existed. There’s no reason to exclude people of colour as characters from historical games, or by extension fantasy games based on Medieval Europe.

On the same note as for sexism, of course you shouldn’t assume that a player character who does not look like those of the dominant culture wants to play a victim of prejudice. In many cases ethnic bigotry would itself by unhistorical. Prejudices will be towards cultures rather than ethnicities in the pre-Modern era.

By the time we’re in the age of European colonisation, this changes, but that’s a whole different topic.

Details, Details

I mean, how can we be sure?

There’s a story from UK convention circles involving someone facilitating Montsegur 1244. The opening line was essentially, “Do you know anything about that part of history? Great, now keep it to yourself.”

Nerdy pedants can be problem players and facilitators at historical games at conventions and other open spaces. They’re often nerdy over specific details I don’t personally care about – guns are typical.

Dealing with pedantry is one reason I sometimes like fantasy and mildly alternate history approaches. A historical RPG doesn’t have to be exact in all details. And yes, player characters can influence and alter “established” historical events. Personally though, I still want some feeling of authenticity. This means getting a few points across on the big picture, and a few specific details relevant to what’s going on.

For instance, I’m the coauthor of the upcoming Mythic Babylon, which is set in Babylon in the time of Hammurabi. There’s culturally appropriate magic and monsters. The big picture elements are a Bronze Age level of technology, city-states near the rivers raised on mounds with a few “great kingdoms” ruling a whole bunch of city-states each and vying for control, relatively barren land that’s difficult to traverse between the rivers, and a hierarchy with the king and temple at the top.

Details can be introduced in play as and when they are relevant to the game’s themes. These include irrigation canals watering the fields by the river, with floods and river course changes being problems or disasters, literacy being the preserve of specialist scholars and needed in law, clothes being a typical gift for guests before a royal feast, a new king cancelling all debts, and each city-state having a patron god with an exalted temple, with power matching or exceeding that of the palace.

There’s no need to introduce historic details all at once. Bring them in when they present interesting ideas or flavour, and don’t overdo it. And there’s no need to worry about getting everything right.

Matters are slightly different when it comes to more familiar settings, such as a game set in the Second World War. Then there might be questions from the player on fine points of detail. My method there is to turn the question back on the player. If they’re asking about what’s in their rations or what precise gun they carry, they can answer that themselves, so let them.

Then there are less technical questions that appear tougher. For example, I have had players ask about playing gay characters in 1920s and Victorian settings. I’ll happily say yes. The question then is whether they want their character’s sexuaility to be accepted by those they interact with, whatever “society” says in the historical era, or whether they want to face in-game prejudice. The only way to find this out is to ask! Prejudice shouldn’t feature in the fiction of the game without explicit consent in this or other matters. Again, safety tools are useful here.

So Why Bother?

With all these potential hurdles, the important question is: why run historically-themed games? The glib answer is because I find history interesting. For me there’s an added resonance and connection to something set in real world history that doesn’t exist in most purely fantastic settings. There’s an immediate level of involvement for me when a game is set in ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy, or 19th century London that I don’t automatically feel in most invented fantasy worlds. I can picture it, and there’s a depth there.

There’s also an incredible amount of cultural detail, events, and personalities to use as GM or facilitator. I find the research fun, and the play fulfilling. I get something more as a player in a well-researched and thoughtfully-presented historical game. It feels more real.

Also it’s part of our background and culture. History belongs to all of us, and is too important to leave to pedants and those who want a playground for their prejudices.

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