Roleplaying the past

Over in the Boardgames category, there’s an ongoing thread about “Racism and other troublesome elements in games.” I haven’t a lot to contribute to that, as I don’t play many board or card games and don’t keep up with what’s coming out there. But I do play roleplaying games, including some set in the past (I’ve run campaigns set in the late Roman Empire, the colored district of 1930s New Orleans, the Near East during the First Crusade, France under the Regency, an alternate Earth dominated by the fleets of the Ming Dynasty, and Edwardian London, among others), and similar issues arise there. It’s possible that they may be more direct, as RPGs involve characters who must be imagined as people and who have experiences of the historical realities that surround them. So what do you do when your character must confront troublesome elements in a society?

I should note that for me personally, this arise also with elements in present-day societies; I don’t assume that the laws and customs of the present have ultimate moral validity. For example, for me, compulsory taxation is a troublesome element; I think that government by consent requires funding by donations and user fees, not by excises, and that compulsory taxes ought to be seen as an abuse in the same way that slavery is seen as an abuse. But I run games for people who don’t share my views and haven’t signed up for campaigns about heroic libertarian struggles for a better world; and it’s not my job as a GM to preach to them. So I build settings that do have taxation, and leave it in the background, and focus on whatever the actual theme of the campaign is.

In some campaigns I leave the problematic material out, unless it becomes directly relevant. In my Roman Empire campaign, for example, there were certainly slaves present—one of the characters belonged to an aristocratic household in Burdigala (now called Bordeaux), and it certainly had slaves. But we mostly left them in the background, just as we mostly leave wages in the background in near past and present-day settings. On the other hand, there was one session where the player characters were investigating a murder, and needed testimony from slaves of the household where the murder took place—and under Roman law, such testimony had to be given under torture. So one of the players had his character give a slave a good hard slap and then ask his questions, which met the requirement pro forma without making the character seem monstrous (rather like the way Horatio Hornblower dealt with flogging in Forester’s novels).

On the other hand, when the troublesome elements were more central, we tended to play them out and have the player characters confront them. In my New Orleans campaign, for example, the players came to say that the scariest things they confronted weren’t supernatural monsters but (white) cops.

There’s also the question of confronting customs of the past, or even realities of the present, that are viewed as troublesome by present-day culture. For example, in most of the United States, at least, sexual activity by adolescents is seen as problematic, and even described as “pedophilia.” But in historical societies, it was often commonplace for adolescents to marry—especially girls, whose fertility could not be spared in societies with high infant death rates; and adolescent sexual activity is commonplace in our society, despite its strictures. So how should this topic be portrayed? I don’t just want to leave it out; my players, perhaps especially the women, find such subplots interesting (when I ran a Tolkienian campaign, I said at the outset that we would fade to black between the first kiss and the birth of the first child, and it turned out to be a good thing I did!). I don’t like historical (or present-day cultural) falsification. I could avoid bringing adolescents on stage, but I’ve run more than one campaign with adolescent player characters; my players often like them and they give an interestingly different perspective on a society. But I’m sure there are people who would find the portrayal of adolescent sexuality, even in relationships between characters of the same age, to be troublesome.

I suppose that one alternative would be never to set campaigns in the past, but to place them in the present, the future, or alternative world with different pasts than ours. But the past has a lot of rich material and dramatic conflicts. And for me, at least, the present is troublesome as well—but I don’t want to avoid the present and the recent past as settings; that’s too limiting.

So for those of you who run or play RPGs, how do you deal with such issues?

I know that this is far too trite but it does remind me of the famous first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel, "The Go-Between - “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I think you’ve laid out most of the options for dealing with a troublesome element:

  • Wallow in it (a bit adolescent-transgressive)
  • Ignore it (which can feel a bit as though one’s showing one’s admiration for a troublesome culture by only dealing with the bits one likes)
  • Modernise it (can break suspension of disbelief)
  • Engage with it (make large parts of the game about it)

There’s a similar problem in some classes of historical fiction; historical romance, in particular, often falls into the trap of giving the good guys implausibly modern attitudes for maximum relatability to a modern audience, while the bad guys are more accurately historical.

Social problems are an interesting source of conflict, and conflict is good for games.

My most recent historical game was set in London in 1930, and dealt with the return of magic to the world – and one constraint was that all PCs (and, as it turned out, all operating magicians) were female. (I pinched this a bit from Barbara Hambly’s Raven Sisters books.) The history of magic wasn’t fully clear, but it became apparent that men’s magic had been fading for some time, but that the self-satisfied organisations of magicians (“ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny” etc.) had been dealing with this mostly by denial and tricks.

But this was in part an answer to the perennial investigative-game problem of “why don’t we just go to the police” – the police were unlikely to believe women (the highest-status of them was a middle-class bluestocking). (Also many of the monsters were only visible to magical sight, so the police wouldn’t have been very effective at fighting them.) The party made friends of specific men, but they weren’t going to effect an overall change in societal attitude.

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Well, there is also “affirm it as superior to the present.” This is somewhat foreign to our culture, but it’s very likely that a medieval or Renaissance RPG would have held up the Greeks and Romans as examples of a higher civilization than their own. I don’t think this is quite the same as “wallow in it.”

Well, I’m working on the basis that “the troublesome element” is something that the player-group’s home culture doesn’t approve of. To say “I really admire lots of things about classical Rome, except for the slavery, so in this game we’ll be classical Romans but slavery won’t be visible” feels like “ignore it” – and can edge a bit close to “maybe all those other things were worth the slavery”.

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On the other hand, there are people like me who feel that American culture and institutions took a turn for the worse sometime in the past (for me, it would be with Woodrow Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). And to get closer to things that most people might think of as roleplaying material, Space 1889 tagged itself as “roleplaying in a more civilized time.” The British Raj certainly could be called “troublesome” but there are people who admire it, or find it dramatic and exciting.

If the players don’t find the material objectionable, then I think you don’t really have a troublesome element in the same way. (You might want to be careful where you talked about the campaign, but you don’t have a conflict between the players’ attitudes and the historical realities of the setting.)

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I’ve always found historical settings troubling for this and many other reasons. I’m not a historian; I cannot accurately render a historical setting. Any attempt I make is likely to be wrought with inconsistent historicity and fantasy- further making me liable, I feel, for any elements that are insensitive to modern cultural, ethical and moral standards.

That said, I’m very interested in how people have dealt with these issues and will be following along with this thread to better inform any future games I run.

Well, two things to say about that:

  1. Research! For example, when I ran Salle d’Armes, a 6-month mini campaign, I had the following reading list:

Behrens, C. B. A., Society, Government and the Enlightenment: The Experiences of Eighteenth-Century France and Prussia (Thames and Hudson, 1985)
Braudel, Fernand, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century , translated by Siân Reynolds (Harper & Row, 1982).
Craveri, Benedetta, The Age of Conversation (New York Review of Books, 2005)
Ekelund, Robert B., Jr., and Tollison, Robert D., Politicized Economies: Monarchy, Monopoly, and Mercantilism (Texas A&M University Press, 1997)
Hardy, James D., Judicial Politics in the Old Regime: The Parlement of Paris during the Regency (Louisiana State University Press, 1967)
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, with the collaboration of Jean-François Fitou, Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV , translated by Arthur Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
Lewis, Gwynne, France 1715–1804: Power and the People (Pearson Education Limited, 2004)
Lewis, W. H., The Scandalous Regent (Andre Deutsch, 1961) [the single most useful book on the list!]
Lynn, John A., Giant of the Grand Siècle : The French Army, 1610–1715 (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Vidal, Mary, Watteau’s Painted Conversations (Yale University Press, 1992)

I also read Wikipedia on the organizational structure of the French government (where legislative powers vested in the king or the regent, executive powers in the ministries, and judicial powers in the parlements).

[Let me add that this is why, when C and I started shopping for a new place to live, one of my requirements was access to a university library.]

  1. I’m not wholly an adherent of modern standards. There are some that I do hold; there are others where I prefer the values of one or another past era; there are others where I favor values that are not yet being lived by anywhere on Earth, though I may hope that someday they will be. I don’t consider a campaign an excuse to preach my own beliefs, but if my players sign up for a campaign in a setting that goes against contemporary beliefs, I expect them to cope.

(When I was in my early teens, I read a Heinlein novel whose epigraph was a quotation from Bernard Shaw: “Pardon him, Theodotus. He is a barbarian, and thinks the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” That helped give me a taste for cultural estrangement, which is one of the things I seek out in books I read, and is also one of the things I try to offer my players.)

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Roleplaying oppression and power dynamics of any given nature (whether that’s roleplaying a slave owner from 1802 or a police officer right now) must be done with sensitivity, care, and the consent of everybody involved. I have been a victim of bigotry during role playing games because the correct care wasn’t taken by other people involved. I am going to assume it isn’t controversial to say “D&D races are a racist portrayal of races”, but to continue that; the way gender is assigned to them came up during our game. A friend of mine chimed in “How do you know it’s a male ork?” which was immediately met with a comment that was transphobic (in reply to a trans person, mind you).

If everybody consents to a world where certain bigotries are socially accepted in that world, or where certain types of people -be they people who are queer, black, mentally disabled- then for those players, that is fine. Those settings are inherently bigoted, but I enjoy the game Puerto Rico. It is racist. It glorifies colonialism. I can choose ignore that because I am not a victim of that form of oppression. It makes me uncomfortable, but to be completely real; mechanically it is real good. Heck, I consented to be a part of a world where there are certain races and classes that are oppressed and that’s just “The way things are”.

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As a white male in the US, I am unqualified to discuss racism, sexism or any other prejudice at any length; however, given the chance, I would certainly embrace the opportunity to play a game set in a realistic depiction of a historical setting that included an accurate representation of the societal injustices of the past as a way to explore the topic and further understand it.

That said, it absolutely requires consent of all parties and that would be a difficult discussion and question, for me, to pose at the outset of a game. I’m curious what thoughts people have about how to go about that, especially where one of the players may feel pressured to agreeing with something they are uncomfortable with.

When I ran my horror campaign about black people in 1930s New Orleans, it was one on a list of maybe a dozen possible campaigns that I circulated among my players. That list described the crucial points of the campaign, including the ethnicity of the player characters, the place and period, and the use of black folklore as a major source of supernatural horror content; no one was uninformed. Those who didn’t indicate that they were prepared to play didn’t become players in that campaign; in fact, all the players bid at least 2 points toward it (for N campaigns, I give prospective players 2N points, which means that 2 points is an average response, 1 is “just barely,” and 0 is “no way, no how”)—in fact I’m pretty sure that they all gave it at least 3 points. Players were free to fill out their prospectuses in complete privacy, so there was very little way for them to be pressured directly; and players who gave that campaign a low rating, or another campaign a higher one, ended up in the other campaign—in this case, either a campaign based on DC comics or one set in the world of Space 1889—so they weren’t indirectly pressured by “play this or nothing.”

I’m very hard core about individual consent, in the real world as well as in gaming, and that’s one reason I follow the (apparently somewhat unusual) approach of not having a fixed player group where everyone plays the same campaign, or sits out.

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Fixed player groups are mostly unusual because they’re a luxury, rather than because they’re not desirable for that and other reasons. Many people who don’t have a fixed player group would rather like to have one. :wink:

What I have is only an impression; its main source is that I’ve described my approach, which precludes fixed groups, elsewhere, and had a lot of people react to it as unusual, and conversely, I’ve seen people talk about being prevented from running something they’d like to run because they have only a set group of players, and can’t run anything that doesn’t have the approval of that group. That’s given me the impression that fixed groups are the usual thing. So I’m surprised to see you seeming to say that they’re not common. Why do you think they’re not, and what do you think most people have instead? Or am I misunderstanding you?

In thinking about how I’d answer this, I realised that I can only recall two “pure historical” RPG sessions I’ve ever played in the past 38 years of gaming. I can’t think of any “pure modern” games. All the others were “historical/modern plus X”, where X can be Cthulhoid entities, vampires, orcs, wizards, superpowers, ghosts, alien invaders, Skynet, non-extinct dinosaurs, kaiju, dragons or whatever.

So all if those Historical plus X settings contain problematic material, and try to ignore it or justify it they immediately run into… Because. Dragons.

If your setting has dragons (or Cthulhu/vampires/orcs/etc) then it ain’t our world. So if the RPG writers or the GM have child brides or racism or misogyny or homophobia “because it was really like that in the Middle Ages”, then they are making a conscious choice to include that problematic topic.

If the aim of the game is to explore the problematic topic (like Roger’s all-female party in the 1930s game), then I’m okay with that.

If the problematic stuff is reduced to “flavour text” I’m not happy. For instance, a good friend of mine wanted to playtest a con game with a steampunks on Mars type setting. One of the pre-gens he offered me had a backstory which said she was an escaped concubine from Lord So-and-so’s harem. I told him I didn’t want to RP an ex-sex slave, especially in a light and pulpy setting. It was clear that the GM had never equated ‘escaped concubine’ with ‘rape victim’.

It also irks me when full scope of the real world downsides of the problematic issue is not addressed in the setting. For instance the child marriages. There’s a horrific/tearjerking bit in trauma surgeon David Nott’s War Doctor book, describing what happens when you impregnate young girls who do not have a pelvis big enough for a baby’s head to pass through it. He called it the most horrific experience a surgeon or mother-to-be will ever go through. Even with modern medical intervention, many of these girls die. So much for the necessary Heir to the Kingdom!

Or for older girls (early teens) there was a Channel 4 documentary about all the ones who were old enough to physically give birth, but didn’t have fully adult bodies. So the process damaged their uterus and/or bladder. They became incontinent for life and were shunned by their families and husbands. These girls get written out of the “but they did it in the Middle Ages” version of gaming and fantasy novels.

However, total erasure of the problematic stuff, can be even more problematic. I have vague memories of an RPG in which the Americas had no indigenous Native Americans. IIRC instead there were dragons and fantasy races. (I never saw a physical copy of the game, only an online ad for it). Pretending an entire raft of peoples and cultures just doesn’t exist is racism dialled up to 11!


There’s a series of novels like that - Pat Wrede’s Frontier Magic series. (No sapient races in North America, but lots of magical monsters.) I’m quite sure it was not her intention to be racist (indeed, she may have wanted to tell a story about American pioneers while removing the conflict with the locals that would be very hard to write well now), but however good the intentions that’s what you get at the end.

I’d say there’s definitely a case for removing problematic content from historical settings if it negatively impacts a player’s enjoyment. Not in the sense of removing an entire race of people so they don’t have to feel guilty when they’re running about as a cowboy. Or white people uncomfortable with the fact that slavery was a thing that their ancestors participated in.

But if a player doesn’t want racism, sexism, homophobia, child abuse, etc in a game because it’s something they have to deal with in real life? I think to do otherwise and say “this game isn’t for you” is just as bad. To say to someone “it’s more important to have historically accurate bigotry in my game than to have you playing in it”. (Especially if that game has other ahistorical elements in it like magic, monsters, etc.)

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For a long time, many writers of Tolkienesque fantasy games said “there are no nonwhite people in the game art because there weren’t any in mediaeval Europe”. Now that we have all pointed out repeatedly that this was not the case (also not a lot of dragons in mediaeval Europe), they’ve started to shut up a bit.

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I actually found out about Romance of the Perilous Land because of the uproar from racist dickheads (particularly a former black metal musician) that it depicted non-white people in ancient Britain.

This isn’t erasure, though. Removing it from the society entirely is creating a fantasy setting, a world where we don’t have these issues.

Pretending it’s a historically accurate piece is the problem.