Friday, July 1, 2011

The Challenge and the Lure of Historical RPG Settings

Two games I am gearing up to run and will be starting this holiday weekend are Hidden Kingdom Arthurian fantasy game and...maybe...a fantasy & historical setting using Dave Arneson's Adventure in Fantasy Rules.

I have very mixed feelings about the latter. Not because of the rules, which I love, but the challenge in running a historical setting.

 The Germanic and Celtic concepts of the Faery realm and it's races are so beautifully written in AIF that I decided to take the setting back to the places where those myths were born---Britain, Ireland and the Teutonic tribal areas of Upper Germany. The difference would be that in the game setting, the mythology is real and there are monsters, magicians, and the fey.

 I wanted a feudal setting, and I didn't want to deal with Romans as the ruling power in the West, so I settled upon the Dark Ages.  That way I could have monasteries and a fledgling Celtic church but not have a domineering Roman church power.

It came down to choosing an exact year.

I've been off work a few weeks now and I've been devouring as much Medieval history books and films as I can take--not for game purposes but because I love to study history. Mind you I'm not showing off and I claim no expertise in this area. I took some college history and history is my preferred reading and viewing material but I forget as much as I learn....still, I thought, a true medieval setting! Why not? There is certainly no lack of source material!

As I began to analyze what I was reading closely, though, and some previous romantic misconceptions started to fall away, I realized I had a dilemma.

 An Arthurian Britain, if one relied upon the earliest sources outside of Romantic literature, was a Britain not yet controlled by the Anglo Saxons...not England in any true sense, as I see it.

In the Middle Ages the tales of Arthur were made contemporary to the times and thoroughly Anglicized the ancient warlord, making his kingdom Christian and adorning his court with feudal trappings.

But if I wanted an Arthur who lived in the Dark Ages and was based on the earliest historical model, I would forced to begin my campaign around 500 AD.

Chivalric orders and the feudal knight and his accompanying hierarchy  would still be very far off in the future.

Out goes plate mail armor and the English longbow, away go the stone castles (aside form the old roman forts which were already in ruins), and, unless I am mistaken, the two handed sword.

Cities are run down affairs largely centered around Roman ruins, most people preferred country life, and education doesn't count for much in most areas. Feudalism existed but in a much less stratified form.

But if I instead chose to place my game in the Middle Ages, though, I feel that in such an atmosphere Celtic and German fairy tales become just that, fairy tales, instead of the real life supernatural forces the Dark Ages people believed them to be.

In the end I have decided to stick it out and go with Britain, 500 A.D. And so I have been forced to bone up on the cultures and languages of the Isles, some of the more famous British, Irish and Frankish kings. And while I originally wanted to go with the Dark Ages so I cold have a believable Camelot, it's looking like our game is going to have a decidedly Anglo-Saxon basis. It's going to wind up playing out more like Beowulf!

There is a lot of work in trying to flesh out a historical campaign--but then the whole thing becomes a learning process as well as a game and that can't be bad, at least for the DM.

As for the players, I'm going to focus on the mythological and fairy tale aspects of the setting for our game--the history will be incidental and actually irrelevant to the players since most people were illiterate and clannish then and more concerned with their own local ruler than anyone else.

I'm just going to tell them who their folk's enemies are, mention some of the more powerful warlords, and let them explore the wilderness areas just like I would in a D&D game but obviously my DM maps will be based upon the medieval atlas.

Still, any campaign requires work--as much time as I've spent pouring over fantasy maps and rules, if I put even half of that into historical study it can only be positive.

I have already decided though that if it does not work after four or five sessions, I am going back to a quasi-medieval fantasy milieu.

I hope it works, though!


  1. Good luck with it JB, I've always wanted to run a Dark Ages Britain campaign but have never got around to it. Here's some more inspirational background reading for you:

    It's an online peer-reviewed academic journal of early Medieval northwestern Europe. Right from issue #1 are articles that are perfect for what you are doing, sorting out the later Medieval frilly trash from the true archaeological facts.

  2. Austrodavicus--I've just spent an hour or so reading the heroic age journal. Very impressive and interesting articles. And exactly what I was looking for. Thanks. In visiting's free rpg forum, I discovered a dark Ages rpg called, appropriately, Dark Age, available for free. It presents the demographics of the perios in a game format and it was most useful.

  3. I'm glad you found that site useful JB, I must admit I've only recently discovered it myself and look forward with relish to all that reading. As for the Dark Ages rpg, I've had it on my computer for ages but have not done more than glance through it a couple of times. One day I'll get around to having a better look. I also have a version 2 of the game, which has the same page count but a different format.