The Conundrum of Writing a Historically Inspired Roleplaying Game

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.

  1. People in the past were racist/sexist/homophobic/otherwise dicks, how do I deal with that in my game?
  2. Does it matter whether I include the struggles of marginalised groups in my game?
  3. 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?”

Ok, so.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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5 replies on “The Conundrum of Writing a Historically Inspired Roleplaying Game

  • Mark Diaz Truman

    Hey Haley!

    Interesting post. I think that it’s clear you’ve thought a lot about this, so please take the below in the spirit with which you’ve opened the conversation (looking for discourse, etc). Since I also work in these kinds of areas as a game designer as well, I’ve been thinking a lot about these same things. On that note, I obviously find a lot of what you’ve said here really sharp and on point, so I’m going to focus instead on the places where our views diverge.

    First, I’m not convinced that roleplaying games have discursive power. I think it’s true that for some people at some times, rpgs appear to complete an experience that makes dominant modes of thinking real in the world. But I think it might also be the case that those rpgs are the symptom of the dominant culture and not the cause of it. Or they might be both a symptom and a cause for some people and not a symptom or a cause for others.

    I’ve read your other article on the topic, and I still don’t think I fully understand why you think that all rpgs have this power. You talk in the other post about players having moral expectations, but I don’t know why I am to believe that all players have these expectations. For example:

    1) I make a roleplaying game in which you play a KKK member looking for a black person in their community who is passing as White. We play the game, just the two of us, knowing that it will be problematic/difficult/etc. We decide the game isn’t very much fun (regardless of how problematic it is), burn it, and tell no one. Did the game have discursive power?

    2) A group of minority people from my community (Latinos) all decide to play Shadowrun. They decide to throw out the half of the setting that they don’t life, and mostly freeform scenes about them being badass Aztec street samurai. Did the original game have discursive power? Does the game they played have discursive power?

    3) A player comes to D&D from board games. They are completely disassociated with their character, refusing to talk in character or make personal statements from their character’s perspective. They act as they think will be tactically advantageous, participating in the fiction as little as possible. Does the game have discursive power over that player?

    I ask these questions because I think your ideas about how to write these games operates from a particular perspective on what games are and what they should do for players. I’m not sure that I agree that a game can marginalize people, at least not in the same sense that real power in the real world (segregation, gendered violence, etc) marginalizes people. Your claim that rpgs have discursive power appears (to me) that you think games can marginalize people, and I’d like to hear more about why you think that’s the case!

    On that note, I think it’s interesting that you think Good Society isn’t about race. While it’s true that race isn’t the subject of the novels, the novels themselves absolutely have a function in the broader culture, a function that you might describe as discursive:

    https://www.academia.org/jane-austen-at-200-she-gave-comfort-to-whiteness/

    Austen, in many critical race circles, is often seen as an avatar of a particular view of whiteness, one that is promoted in order to grant white culture an air of refinement and respectability differentiated from the culture of “lesser” people/minorities. It’s not a surprised (in this view) that her writing is embraced heavily by communities and cultures who seek such an identity, even if many of the people who do that embracing are probably pretty good liberal folk.

    While I’m glad to hear that I can play someone who looks like me or comes from a family like my own in your game, it doesn’t sound like Good Society has made room for Latino people in any meaningful sense; we’re allowed to attend the party, but only if we act white, care about white things, and engage white narratives. In other words… your game might be colorful, but that doesn’t make it diverse. My inclusion is dependent on my conformity.

    And yet… I’m not the one that thinks games have discursive power. If you want to tell stories about white people (some of whom look a lot like people of color), I am at worst merely disappointed. But as a person of color, I’m used to such disappointments. They are commonplace, and I usually focus instead on all the great things your game is doing that don’t address me or my people or our struggles. I’m totally excited for your game!

    But if you do believe games have discursive power… why do you think that including minorities in such a way would resolve the issues you’ve raised? Do you actually believe that Austen can be separated from the whiteness of the culture she promoted and represents? The white people you’re portraying are only different from your bushrangers by their proximity to the troubling acts. In fact, you might argue that the subjects of Austen novels are the real and direct beneficiaries of colonialism and white racism. How are you sure that you can separate out the prejudice in the way you’ve described?

    I look forward to your answers! Thanks for the great starting point to the conversation!

    Reply
    • Hayley Gordon

      Hi James, for me discursive power means the power that language has to enact and enforce power structures. It’s power acting through words that may be uttered even by those that do not share that power. That’s my personal take.

      Reply
  • Hayley Gordon

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your insightful comments! Here’s my viewpoint on what you’ve raised.

    Firstly, in terms of roleplaying games having discursive power. I think I need to clarify a bit what I mean by this.

    I don’t think that the fictional actions one might take during a roleplaying game necessarily set precedents for behaviour – for example, I don’t believe violence in RPGs makes you more likely to commit a violent act in real life. So I think we’re both agreed there. In this case the harm (the violence) being perpetrated is fictional.

    What I’m talking about are harms that are presently taking place at the table during play – for example, a racist remark, said in the context of a game has the potential to be a harm in the present regardless of the fact it occurs in a fictional context.

    I think those extremes are both fairly clear where it gets a bit blury is perhaps when the act of playing the game is also the act of telling a racist/sexist/otherwise prejudice story. I believe stories have power, and in the context of an rpg, everyone is complicit in that story (with perhaps a possible exception if you completely ignore the story as you listed in your examples.) Those with power, who control discourse, have been using stories for thousands of years to justify their actions, glorify themselves, and through the spread of these stories, spread the norms that allow their power to perpetuate. An RPG is just a kind of collaborative story.

    For me, an example of the power that rpgs have in this respect has been made clear to me through running many games of Good Society. One of the options in the game is to play with gender norms off. I have had in many games a woman ask if we could play with gender norms off because “they have to deal with the patriarchy enough in daily life” and would prefer not to tell a story which continues, or even romanticises that power structure.

    Another example seeing positive discursive power is the ability of queer storytelling and representation in rpgs to break down barriers and normalise diverse sexual and gender identities.

    That said, I’m actually much more concerned about harms in the present than I am about the actual question of whether roleplaying games have discursive power. I believe that racist, sexist, and otherwise prejudice comments said even in the context of a game, if not properly thought about or dealt with, have the ability to perpetuate racist, sexist, and otherwise prejudice viewpoints and power structures. This is true in my view even if the prejudice is implicit rather than explicit. That’s what makes it hard to roleplay in historical settings. I also believe that reckless cultural appropriation is a harm in the present.

    On your other points. There’s really two questions here.

    The first is whether encouraging characters of any ethnicity in Good Society is a valid way of addressing the fact that all the characters were historically white, or if that is just a call for those of other ethnicities to “act white”. I asked Vee for her viewpoint as a POC. She felt that people playing characters of diverse ethnicities are welcome to bring any cultural content they would like into the game in order to feel comfortable. We should probably make this point more explicit in the game – so I appreciate you raising it! But by the same token we wanted to free people from the requirement of historical realism in bringing in a diverse range of cultures – so it really falls to the group to decide.

    I think your second point, that the subjects of Austen’s novels are the real and direct beneficiaries of colonialism and white racism is a much more difficult one. I suppose from that viewpoint its actually rather impossible to separate any story of a dominant culture from the acts it has had to perpetrate in order to be that dominant culture. From a holistic perspective there probably is no completely satisfying answer to this question. Perhaps the only thing I could suggest is that the example of Austen’s society does not really parallels the bushranger example. In the bushranger example, the violence was consciously and brutally perpetrated by the very individuals that a game might call on you to celebrate. Austen society generally benefited from colonialism and there were those that committed awful acts to make that occur, but there were also mixed viewpoints within it as to its morality and the way it should be handled. Austen wasn’t blind to the problems of the acts of her society – she herself read and praised a lot of abolitionist works. So I think it’s more than just proximity that is the difference in the examples.

    Reply
  • Mark Diaz Truman

    Hey Haley!

    Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate you taking some time to think through my questions, and I’m glad to have such an interesting conversation! Thank you.

    I’ll admit that I’m a little stymied on how to respond next. As a PoC, I’ve often found that discussing these issues sometimes involves some pushing and pulling… and white folks don’t always respond positively. I’m often left with the choice of just dropping it (and letting white people think that I totally agree with them) or pushing forward (and risking some blowback). I’m going to push back a bit on what you’ve said above, but it’s totally cool with me if that’s the end of the conversation. I’d love to keep things friendly. 😀

    First, I’m glad you clarified what you mean by discursive power. Obviously, I agree that racial slurs can cause some harm and make folks feel unsafe, and we can easily avoid that kind of stuff. There are some tables that are going to explore that content, but that’s up to those individual groups (like my example #1 above). Most groups are better off avoiding it. (Also glad to see that we agree that fictional harms are fictional and don’t lead to “Satanic Panic” style behavior.)

    You’ve zeroed in on the issue when you call out “narratives that the dominant culture tell” as a form of discursive power that might be problematic. I think it’s absolutely possible for some stories to have some effect on the world; I wouldn’t be writing Cartel if I didn’t think that a story about the Mexican drug war wouldn’t have some pro-social effect on the world. The Wire, for example, may have done more to undermine the drug war than any published study on the ineffectiveness of legal intervention in drug economies. What effect will Cartel have? Is it “discursive”? Hard to say!

    So in the sense that discursive power may exist in the intersection between the stories a culture tells itself and the RPGs that act as storytelling vehicles for that culture (which something like D&D may not, since folks play it as a miniatures game or totally distant character-as-avatar exercise)… where does that leave us? What responsibilities do we have to write games that encourage players to engage that discursive power positively?

    I honestly don’t know. But it sounds like you have a much higher bar than I do! I think I’m probably satisfied if RPGs are interesting art, but you seem to be saying that you think there is some other responsibility that’s implied by your analysis. I’m curious to hear more about what you think creating art in this medium (or other mediums) requires of us. I think there’s some real disagreement there that could be productively explored.

    On that note, you seem to be making two claims re: Good Society specifically:

    1) It is good for players to be able to play any ethnicity because everyone is welcome at the table. The game doesn’t EXCLUDE the narratives of people of color, so the discursive value of whiteness (as portrayed by Austen) is minor. Whiteness can be undermined at any time by anyone who wants to include a perspective from a PoC.

    2) While the protagonists of Good Society are undeniably the beneficiaries of colonialism and white racism, the game doesn’t call upon the player to celebrate those characters for their participation in those systems. Instead, Good Society is about the culture of those people broadly, which included a mix of perspectives on the those oppressions.

    Overall, I think those are both good points! I think whatever discursive value your game has pales in contrast to the discursive power of whiteness itself, the way that white supremacy in our global culture works to erase people of color and their narratives from the entire world. It seems like too high a burden to demand that every game incorporate the conflicts of PoC specifically, and it does seem to me that a game that lauds the bushrangers for “conquering” the frontier is doing something different than Good Society is doing, despite the way that Austen’s narratives engage whiteness.

    But… I’m not ready to let you off the hook yet! I think that there are more options available to you than “non-exclusion” when your game traffics in a set of narratives that informed the modern view of whiteness. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to ask what you are doing to undermine those narratives. RPGs are about mechanically constructed experience, and if the systems in your game don’t address whiteness, don’t undermine it, don’t act as a revelatory mechanism about it, than I think a claim could be made that you’re replicating the narratives of white supremacy in the same ways that Goldman Sachs has implemented diversity: nothing has changed about the power relationships but everything is more colorful.

    To some respect, this is my issue with point #2 as well. I appreciate that the people enacting white supremacy (the slave foreman, the East Indian Trading Company captain, the bushranger) are perhaps more obviously villainous, but I’m not entirely clear why I (as a PoC) should be okay with playing the folks who directly benefited from those systems. Is it really possible for the game to make room for me when I know that the very foundation of the cultural norms we’re engaging are designed to exclude me? Is it possible for me to engage the cultural norms when I know they (at some level) were constructed to serve whiteness?

    I don’t have good answers to these questions. But I think that if we agree that games that repeat and reinforce dominant narratives might have discursive power, I’m not sure why Good Society doesn’t. It’s possible that none of them do (and that only stuff that’s directly harmful at the table matters), but I admit that I’m swayed a bit by your notion that the intersection of real power and collaborative narratives might actually end up doing some harm. It’s clear why something like Monsterhearts (teen monster fiction as a metaphor for queerness) or Epyllion (dragons have no cultural analogue) would avoid that trap, but what are the relevant factors for the rest of us?

    Whew! Thanks for your time and energy here. Like I said, feel free to let it die here if you’re not interested in these questions. Thanks!

    Reply

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