Saturday, July 25, 2009

Historical Gaming

You know, I have all these historical setting books for GURPS: Middle Ages, Aztecs, Ice Age, Celtic Myth... and as much as I really enjoy history, I can't for the life of me think of what to do with these settings. Perhaps part of the problem is that what interests me about history is the way that people used to live.

There's a museum near my home that has a gallery that is a series of exhibits showing how people cleaned in years prior. There's a section dedicated to laundry, another for vacuuming, sweeping, and mopping, and a section on toilets. This gallery is the most interesting part of the museum to me; seeing how people lived in the past is amazing. The day-to-day basics of things-you-take-for-granted activities, like food and accomodations, are what fascinate me. I've been working over this past month with another museum in town doing demonstrations of how the Romans cooked, and the sorts of food they would have eaten, from the poorest to the richest. There's also a replica Viking village not too far from here that allows people to rent the site for overnight excursions; twice now, I've been able to go out and be a Norseman for a night, and sleep in a Viking house.

These are what interest me about history. I'm not so concerned with the kings, or the battles, or the laws and proclomations. It's the little things that we don't even really think about as being significant, but are a vast part of how the world changes over the years. We don't even think about how lucky we are to have washing machines...

But how does that apply to gaming? People don't game to indulge in the daily drudgery of menial labour. They want to escape from life, not live deeper in it!

One option is to make a more fantastic game from it, where the gods are real and have just as much influence on the world as the people, who can use magic and find enchanted items. But that spoils the appeal for me. The other option would be to play in a more realistic setting, but what would I do? What sort of stories would I tell? I fear that most players who'd be willing to join a historical game would be most interested in playing soldiers on a military campaign, or something along those lines.

I don't know. That's what I tend to think about whenever I read any of my gaming books.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


It all started with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote this epic saga, which captured the imagination of millions. Eventually, this lead to Dungeons and Dragons. Which, of course, spawned a great number of copycat games. Even today, when you use the word "fantasy," it conjures up images of a psuedo-medieval fantasy world populated not only by humans, but elves, dwarves, goblins, halflings, dragons, and a variety of other monsters.

But let's look at the definition of "fantasy." The creative imagination; unrestrained fancy. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the concept of high fantasy, in a Tolkien-esque setting. I'm just saying that it's not true fantasy. There's no longer anything creative about the typical elves-and-dwarves setting. It was created almost a century ago. Very little has been added to it.

This is one of the reasons I'm so fond of The Dark Crystal. It was new; the world had never before seen Gelflings, Skeksis, or Podlings. This is what I call "True Fantasy," the result of creative imagination, and unrestrained fancy. Rather than reuse what already existed, the creators developed something new.

I once tried to do this myself. I worked with some friends to try to create a setting that was "casually miraculous." There were six species in this world, all of which I tried to create from scratch. They were such bizarre people as a race of slug-like entities who vomited their offspring into a jai-alai style mitt and flung them as a weapon, or a living clay entity with no native shape. They lived in a world where the lowest moon orbited the planet in such a manner that every hundred years, it scraped across the peak of the tallest mountain, at which point it was possible to step from one to the other.

I was discouraged from this by a passage in Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering: "North American audiences... will give up their beloved archetypes when you pry them from their cold, dead fingers." Which made me wonder, what's the point of creating a unique world that doesn't fit into any existing preconceptions if nobody's going to buy it?

But I still maintain that fantasy, true fantasy, is not the typical elves-dwarves-trolls-&c. that we think of today.

I once looked into making a new but still accessible fantasy genre. I examined the way that Tolkien had created Middle Earth. He took a lot of elements from Norse Mythology (the elves from Alfheim and the dwarves from Nidavellir, as well as the archetype of the dragon guarding a hoard of gold), sprinkled in a dash of Celtic Mythology (the goblins), and created his own addition (the hobbits). Which started me to wondering if I could do something similar with other mythos.

My first attempt (prompted by a friend's suggestion) was Middle Eastern mythology. But after looking briefly into it, I realised that I didn't know enough about the culture or the mythology to do it any justice. Celtic mythology doesn't work well, since there aren't really any non-human races, unless you go for more recent folklore involving the fae, but that's been done (GURPS: Faerie, Dark Ages: Fae and, to a lesser extent, Changeling). Perhaps I could create something from Greek Mythology (using, for example, satyrs and centaurs), but even that would be perilously close to things like Hercules and Xena. Maybe I could work with Aztec mythology...

Also, why does it always have to be a psuedo-medieval theme? Never mind the occasionaly ham-fisted introduction of totally incompatable elements such as ninjas and samurai. Why not a fantasy world based on a Roman setting? This was touched on with the 7th Sea game, which was set in a high-seas piracy setting. But even that wasn't truly fantastical.

Anyway, I just thought this was food for thought.