I have been doing a lot of designing lately, and thinking about design, but very little writing about design – but I’m secretly hopeful that this blog post represents my return to writing more regularly.
This blog post is about writing and playing historical, historically inspired, or alt-historical roleplaying games. The topic of my blog post today is a controversial one and I welcome opinions that contrast with my own. It is a subject to which I have given a large amount of thought over the last few years.
How do we handle the past in historical roleplaying games?
This is the question this blog post will explore.
For me, this question can be broken down into three sub-questions.
- People in the past were racist/sexist/homophobic/otherwise dicks, how do I deal with that in my game?
- Does it matter whether I include the struggles of marginalised groups in my game?
- My game is about or involves a historical culture that I am not from, how do I deal with that?
I’m actually not going to give my opinion on the last of these right now (except to say TREAD CAREFULLY MY FRIEND and sometimes just don’t do it) – as that is another blog post. But I will talk about my viewpoint on the first two.
Before I do I’d like to talk about why these questions are important to think about.
Why should we care about how we handle the past in historical roleplaying games?
I mentioned in my blog post on designing in another morality that roleplaying is a moral experience. Roleplaying games are conversations, and conversations hold discursive power. How we construct and behave in the universes we create has a direct effect on how we view things, and what we value. And what we value has a direct effect on how we create and behave.
As a result of this, it’s quite clear that historical roleplaying games are about the present, not the past. They are about telling stories in the present, that have significance in the present, using material that is based on real events which occurred in the past.
Failure to understand this means that by creating a roleplaying game we risk creating a vehicle for repeating the mistakes of the past over and over again. Our stories have consequences in the present – even more so because we are asking people not just to read our narratives but to repeat them, to own them, to co-author them with us.
This responsibility is just the general responsibility we have as roleplaying game designers or game masters put through an enlarging magnifying lens of “this stuff happened to real people and its effects are still being felt today” and “people literally died for this shit.”
I hope that covers why thinking about these issues is important, and I do not think it’s controversial that we should think about them. Onwards.
People in the past were racist/sexist/homophobic/generally dicks, how do I deal with that in my game?
Ok, let me answer this question with another question.
What is your game about?
Is it about sexism?
Is it about cool spear throwing techniques?
The answer to this question is going to be very different depending on which of these options applies.
If your game is about sexism, racism, or another form of prejudice or persecution
Then your entire game design or GM prep is about this, so I trust you.
However, if this struggle belongs to a marginalised group that you don’t belong to, you’ll need to think very hard about the third sub-question I mentioned earlier.
If your game is about some other thing
Then you have a few options at your disposal. There is not one right option for every game, but here are the general approaches.
Option 1: Pretend people were not racist/sexist/homophobic/generally dicks
This is genuinely a very good option although it does not work in every context. To do justice to those persecuted the historical reality needs to be explained, along with the reasoning behind your decision not to include it in your game.
This is the option we decided on in relation to race for Good Society. The context of Good Society is upper-class regency England. Historically most members of this group were both white and racist. However ethnicity and racism aren’t part of the story the game is trying to tell – in fact, race is almost never mentioned in Austen’s novels. If ethnicity isn’t important to the game, then why be racist? For that reason, we explicitly state in the game that there will be no racism, and that characters can and should be from any ethnicity.
Why does this option often work for me?
I like it for a few reasons.
Firstly, I feel confident I am not repeating the mistakes of the past at the table, or calling on anyone else to repeat those mistakes.
Secondly, it’s awesome to have people of all ethnicities represented in game right now.
Thirdly it serves as a way of demonstrating that the story being told at the table is not the story of history, but merely based on historical material, which can allow for play that is both more free, but also more conscious and suspicious of the narrative it is telling.
When might this option not work?
This option does not work when you need to erase minority experiences to make it happen.
If Good Society was played historically as per Austen, there would be no minorities represented in the game, just a lot of racist white people. By removing the racism we are allowing diversity without erasing any minority struggles. One could say “there were people of diverse ethnicities struggling at that time, you’ve just removed the potential for that to be explored in your game.” Yes I have, because that is not what my game is about – this actually goes to the second sub question, not the first one so I’ll come back to it later.
However, let’s consider a different context, a game about Australian bushrangers. I’ve always wanted to write a game about bushrangers, but if you want to talk about racist contexts, this was perhaps one of the most racist. Bushrangers were kind of local heroes but they also did many awful things to Indigenous people on the regular.
Can I write my bushranger game and just tell players to pretend that bushrangers weren’t super racist to indigenous Australians?
I’d say no. That would be making a game which heroes a group that should really be held accountable for their actions. It also would erase all the stories of indigenous people who were horribly tortured by bushrangers, that can’t be extricated from the rest of their bushrangering. You can’t really say “oh this game is not about the way they horribly treated indigenous people” because it was such a big part of their stories.
When the prejudice is too intertwined to the subject matter of the game to be extricated from it then you have to pick another option.
Option 2: Let the players decide
This option is very good when the marginalised group that faced prejudice is the one forming the majority or an equal number of the players of your game. It is perhaps the best and my most favourite option in this case.
I’ve played many many historical games with lovely queer people and when we start the game we’ve all gone “do we want homophobia in our game?” And 4 out of 5 times we don’t, we want it to just be as gay as can be. But on the 5th time we all decide actually we’d like to tell the story of homophobia and for that to be a part of our game which is otherwise about cool spear techniques.
I love the level of autonomy and control this provides, what could be better than the marginalised group deciding for themselves? But again it only works when most of the players are from the marginalised group. For this reason it’s often hard to embed in a game’s design. I felt pretty comfortable mechanising the choice around gender in Good Society because I’ve never played a game of it that didn’t involve at least half of the players being female identifying (usually it’s more like nearly all the players). But I’d never do it with racism because I’m aware that my game is highly likely to be played by a group that entirely consists of people of anglo-saxon heritage.
If you’re a GM with a regular group, you’re well placed to use this option, as you know your players.
Option 3: Include the prejudice with significant disclaimers and guidelines and suggestions that it should not actually be voiced at the table.
I’ve never tried this myself in a game that wasn’t actually about prejudice, I’m not convinced it works in most situations, but it might be useful in some contexts.
Specifically where the game as a whole isn’t about prejudice but there are dedicated tools within the game to deal with certain narratives that are.
Option 4: Don’t do it.
As I’ve mentioned mere historical accuracy is super not an excuse to repeat the mistakes of the past. So if you cannot find a way to address the prejudice inherent in the historical setting of your game, perhaps pick a different subject matter.
Side note: Lots of prejudices
There are lots of prejudices and you don’t have to include all of them individually in your game unless you want them treated separately. You can just instruct players to discuss which prejudices they want to include in the game, with the default rule that all prejudices are not in the game unless added back in again.
Side note: Historical Fantasy
I hear this sometimes – “prejudice against a group real or imagined is a vital part of my historical fantasy worldbuilding can’t I just leave it in there?”
Firstly, all historical rpgs are historical fantasy. We cannot recreate history anyway, so calling it historical fantasy does not get you off the hook.
Secondly if that prejudice is so important to you then your game is about prejudice. Treat it as such and give it the proper respect. Otherwise remove it or make it optional as appropriate.
Does it matter whether I include the struggles of marginalised groups in my game?
This is a more difficult question to answer.
The first question here is would I have to remove anything if I don’t include these groups or perspectives?
If the answer is yes then the answer is yes, you do need to include those struggles in your game. For example, in my bushranger example from earlier, the indigenous experience is a huge part of the story you have already decided to tell. In my opinion it shouldn’t be left out.
What about when the answer is no?
This is a matter of personal perspective.
Not all stories are about everything nor can they be nor should they be.
Picking which stories to tell in the first place is an important exercise, as one could tell a story about a bicycle or a moon flea or a human in the future or a human in the past or many other subjects of interest.
My point is, you have made a choice to tell a particular story for a particular reason. And there’s a wide range of acceptable and excellent reasons as to why you might have picked the story. Maybe because it’s interesting, maybe because it’s novel, maybe because it’s emotionally satisfying, maybe because it’s an important part of the fandom.
Telling stories about the struggles of marginalized groups is awesome and should really happen more, especially by creators from those groups. But there are other stories to tell as well.
Sometimes I decide to tell stories about prejudice other times I do not. I do not think that historical co-location of the source material for my game with a time of prejudice, compels me to have to tell the story of that prejudice in my game – as long as I’m not erasing the narratives of marginalised groups from the stories I do choose to tell. I’m sure there are people who disagree with me about this and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The past was full of awful people who did awful things to each other. There’s not much we can do about that now. But we can control the present, and think carefully about the what and the how of the stories we choose to tell, and enable others to tell, through the rpg format.
This has been my viewpoint on some of the issues surrounding this. There’s many more issues and many more viewpoints.
Like of course sub-question three, which is so meaty and complex I feel I need to address it in a blog post all of its own. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.