Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Historical settings: What elements?

When in the market for a historical setting -- for any rpg, really, though since I'm writing for Classic D&D on this blog one can take that as a starting-point -- what do you look for?

More to the point, what sort of information and details do you expect to find, and want to find, in a historical setting? New critters, magic, class tweaks or descriptions of how classes fit in? An overview of the history and culture in question? Location descriptions? New fiddly systems ...?

How much historical accuracy is too much, or too little? Should the "fantastic" elements fit the culture, the general theme, or does it matter?

I'd love to hear your opinions ~!


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

As would I. :)

Chris said...

Information on physical artifacts of the culture or period. You can pick up a lot about a culture, and think up some pretty wacky adventure ideas, purely from what stuff they have on hand (or lack).

Heck, Out Of Place Stuff (Heron or Leonardo develop industrial steam power, the Chinese discover America, Baggage doesn't get his funding pulled, etc.) is the basis of a whole subgenre of Alt History...

Too much detail about history and culture just leads to canon creep (*cough* Tekumel *cough*). Avoid that.

Natalie said...

For a *historical* setting, what I really want is stuff that I can use to inform settings of my own set in roughly the same time period. What do people eat? What do they wear? What rituals do they practice? What do various kinds of buildings look like? How are their homes laid out? I've read books on cultural history -- "Daily Life in the Roman Empire," that kind of thing -- but it'd be handy to have something like that organized for gaming. At the very least, a good bibliography for information like that would be awesome, even if the book itself was mostly new monsters and spells and stuff. (Which would also be cool, just not as hard to find as good cultural information.)

But I'm, well, weird. And I game weird. Blame Trollsmyth.

Carter Soles said...

While the contents of my blog may constitute my best answer to your inquiry, I am not sure if the Lands of Ara (my homegrown setting) can really be said to be "historical." We account for the development of certain metals and certain historical 'facts" in Ara's past, but I don't know if Ara comes off as particularly detailed in the specific sense you mean, or is just more of a standard "fantasy setting" with many of the usual trappings. But as a cultural studies scholar, I love to include lots of info about regional and local life and culture whenever I describe a region or period in Ara's history.

Are you seeking a setting that is 'historical' in the sense that it refers to / emulates some real Earth civilization or period, or just 'historical' in the sense that each of us fleshes out fictional contextual / cultural details in our settings?

Zak Sabbath said...

I just read novels and then pick through whatever elements seem to work well together.

If an author can make a combination convincing, I get convinced.

Anonymous said...

I want descriptions of groups and how they interact with each other and with society. This includes rulership and basic outline of government, and organized religion.

Overview of technologies available.

Description of the average house and workplace of a person from each social rank.

Description of the average community of various sizes.

Map with terrain, trade routes, towns, and political borders.

Finally, a description of why a foreigner would care to spend time here, or why a native would care to leave.

Anonymous said...

History and detail of magic items, not just 'another sword +x'.

This way, the pc feels connected to the game world in a unique way and special way as he smashes, grabs, loots and pillages his way across the face of the DM's precious creation.


Alex Schroeder said...

I wrote up a list of things I like to see on my blog after reading Trollsmyth's reply.

Natalie said...

Oh, Alex Shroeder reminded me -- names. Names are a really good way to create a unified theme for a setting. Lists of names, or name generation tricks, are good.

taichara said...


Hehe ~


I can't say I follow your comment about "canon creep", but the note on physical artefacts is a good one ~


Nice summary, and I'd hardly call that weird. But then one has to consider my field of study ;3

@Carter Soles:

I mean historical as in to game in a specific era of history. I've never heard of using "historical" simply in reference to a well-detailed fictional setting.

@Zak S:

Fair enough ;3


I like these muchly -- especially that last one ~


A good notion ;3

@Alex Schroeder:

I shall take a look --

Jack Badelaire said...

I had a much longer post in mind, but I'll keep it brief.

- I don't need an RPG book to tell me about the Roman Empire / Vikings / Medieval Europe / Renaissance / whatever. That's what the "history" section of the bookstore is for (as well as "the internet" if you're a little more lazy). If half of your RPG product is just reproducing what I can find in any half decent reference work on the time period, or off of a wiki entry, you just failed.

- What I do want is; gaming appropriate character concepts, setting appropriate campaign concepts, setting-specific rules that might not always crop up in more "traditional" campaigns (i.e., gunpowder weapons in D&D), and other ways to look at a specific time/place through "gaming goggles". Essentially, how to cherry-pick from a particular time period those bits and pieces that are especially appropriate for gaming, and what to do with those cherries once I've got them in hand.

GURPS historical sourcebooks do a pretty good job of this. Yes, they do include a lot of historical data that you can find elsewhere, but it's always written as viewed through those gaming goggles, and beyond that, it's always laid out in terms of characters, campaign concepts, etc..

Going through the process of organizing the development of Grapteshot & Grognards has really put all this in the forefront of my mind as of late...

taichara said...


If anything I wrote/write looked like it came off of the net in general or wiki in specific, I think I'd hang myself ;P But fair point, yes.

Gaming appropriate material is also a fair point, and the kind of input I'm looking for. (we have to agree to disagree about GURPS, though, and yes I have my reasons --)

Jack Badelaire said...

Fair enough regarding GURPS: my comment mostly had to do with the fact that they say, "Here's a setting; lets take a look at it from different angles with regards to a gaming perspective".

My point was mostly that a RPG product regarding a historical campaign setting shouldn't be largely a re-hash of what you'll find in any half-decent reference work, because a GM running a game in said time period should have already done a fair amount of homework in that regard. In other words, save the history lessons for the history books - give a GM a succinct digest of the tools they need to run the campaign.

taichara said...


Yes, well, that was what I was asking -- what manner of game information as well as setting information. Which can hardly be skipped entirely, thus to ask what people would consider need-to-know material.

I would hardly expect someone, hypothetically speaking, to be pleased if they picked up a supplement for historical play and were handed bare game material with a "here, go read these" note. Something would have to be there for a starting-point.

Jack Badelaire said...

I think the most important things you'll need to include are what I call the Iconic Elements of the setting. The "bullet points" that would define your campaign. Some of these elements will be different from one person's view of the game to another's.

Let's take, for example, the Wild West. One person's historical campaign could look very much like a Roy Rogers movie, or a Lone Ranger flick. Very black and white morals, encouraging happy endings and fisticuffs or trick shooting over a "no-holds barred" fighting viewpoint. Evil or amoral PCs would be disallowed, and the game would have a largely PG rating.

On the other hand, another person's version of the same time period might look more like Eastwood's High Plains Drifter or the HBO show Deadwood, which is about as rude and morbid a depiction of the wild west as you're going to find - rape, murder,'s as ugly as it's going to get.

So if I were writing a historical RPG set in the Wild West, I'd either A) pick a "style" of Wild West campaigning that I wanted to emulate and write the game (mechanics and all) from that perspective, or B) create a campaign setting reference work that details a handful of different views and the ways and means of differentiating between these types of settings.

taichara said...


See, now, that's a much more practical bit of observation, thank ye ;3 And yes, a specific "vision" I think would be most practical --

Phil said...

What I'd like to find in a setting book:
Economic information about the setting: agriculture, industries, trade. This is what makes a setting feel "historic" to me; it makes it possible to understand why a country or province or town has the relationships it has with its neighbours, and I can use that as fuel for the actions of NPCs.
Cultural and religious practices: both the unusual (important festivals, customs and taboos that the players may run afoul of) and the mundane (how culture and belief affect the everyday actions of the people the players meet). A few details here can really help the setting come alive in play. What practices are sanctioned by the authorities, and what is suppressed? The "style" of the campaign (as Badelaire mentions) becomes important here... my personal preference is for a light touch on the historical accuracy.
New magic and classes: these should affect the history and culture of the setting, and add to its distinctiveness... so yes, the fantastic elements should fit the culture and theme.
Scale: I think this needs to be quite small. What's useful to me as a DM is detailed material I can use in play--town maps, NPCs of note, local conflicts.
I'd reiterate Alex Schroeder's comments on names, maps, clans and rulers, artifacts, and typical NPC backgrounds.

HappyFunNorm said...

I assume, since you're looking at some historical version of something else, that there is a more modern version. So, what has changed, what has survived. What are the key timeline-points that would drastically change the future? And why?

I was kind of thinking about doeing something 'historical' with my players. Each session would change between them playing characters in the same world separated by a period of time (perhaps the same characters, perhaps not) where the worldwould change around the 'modern' characters as their historic counterparts altered the world around them.