On History and Roleplaying

by northernbeholder

One of my many gaming hobbies is that grand old tradition – the tabletop roleplaying game.  While it may not possess the slick graphics and action-packed combat of Skyrim or The Witcher (I was going to say New Vegas, but the rather silly way that game engine handles its real-time gunfights is actually remarkably like playing a tabletop game), the tabletop RPG is still possessed of drama, rich worlds and tense situations – providing you have the right GM running things, and a decent chemistry between the players.

Tabletop gaming is primarily a social experience, with personalities and playing styles bouncing off of and interacting with each other to produce remarkable results.  It’s also a very delicate balance, that can be easily upset if the wrong elements are introduced.  As one of the more common settings for an RPG is some manner of fantasy (‘fantasy’ here meaning ‘loosely based on the culture and technology of medieval Europe with the addition of magic and mythical creatures’), I have in the past attempted to introduce the element of historical versimilitude.

At first, it didn’t go well.

I was smart enough not to make this effort as a player – nothing will annoy a GM faster than attempting to point out inconsistencies in his setting, and arguing that the sociopolitical dynamic of his fictional culture demands, nay requires, the existence of a landed warrior caste along the lines of the knights of feudal Europe or samurai of feudal Japan is likely to have said warrior caste appear solely for the purposes of causing you whatever grief he can imagine and inflict.  Yet introducing historically-influenced accuracy as a GM didn’t go over well either.  It wasn’t that the players objected or complained – far from it.  They simply didn’t notice.  Long used to the specifics of a world being shaped to a GM’s whims, the fact that the nameless background peasants tended their fields in accordance with what we currently know of 13th-century farming practices passed entirely over their heads, a tidbit of background information that they filed away in case they could make use of it later, any educational significance missed entirely.

My second foray proved more fruitful.  Perhaps they would not pay overmuch attention to the setting, but what of the plot? Or the combat?  Structuring the narrative around a series of events lifted from the history of the real world was a success;  even though only a few twigged to the source material, it was an experience enjoyed by all, and the motivations of the actors were wholly believable, underpinned as they were by historical fact and the recorded behaviour of real people.  The combat was equally well-received;  arming and deploying their enemies in manners lifted from roughly the equivalent technological era in the real world made quite the impression, not only because the enemies seemed organized and competent, and comments about how the combat felt more intense and ‘real’ against ranks of ordered pikes and shouting sergeants resounded – though I must admit to neglecting to account for enemy magic-users for a few sessions before realizing that I really did need to work them in, simply because of how the game mechanics functioned.

The moral of the story? History can add to your gaming experience – but don’t sweat the small stuff.  Aim for the broad strokes; lift stories, personalities and narratives from the pages of the past, not the minutiae of society.  And give organized, authentic tactics a try for an encounter or two. You might be surprised how far they take you.