Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Burden of History

In my ‘Golden Age’ (early 1980s), a rumour circulated through the pre-pubescent gaming community: somewhere in the city, a professor ran a [insert preferred variation of rumoured game here] RPG campaign.  In the particular version I heard, it was Runequest.  This game, we supposed, must be truly magical but even more importantly, accurate. 

In retrospect, part of the imagined supremacy of the game resulted from our belief that surely such an esteemed academic could create an authoritative world.  Who better, in fact, could make the imagined real, mastering ‘subject’ as well as style and substance?

In a few days, I’m back in the office, back to lectures, grading and looking for a parking spot.  I will have to split time again, between my one love, teaching, and my other, research and writing.  I’m a historian.  I’m also a professor but I’m not THAT professor.    

Given my day job, I’m regularly asked by players whose interest and knowledge of RPGs extends beyond the ‘golden chains’ of D&D, if I will create a historical RPG campaign.  As I did in 1981, they must imagine that as a historian, my world will be authentic, imaginative, perhaps even inspired.  Indeed to some degree, I do enjoy historical settings.  At OSRcon 2012, I volunteered to offer ‘Boot Hill’ in a session that proved more ‘historical’ than ‘cinemagraphic’.  I also prefer keeping Cthulhu in the 1920s and appreciate the role of class and ethnicity in any good Gangbusters game.  But, here’s the terrible secret: Real history is boring at best and downright nightmarish at worst.  In most cases and places, one’s existence, Hobbes quipped, proved decidedly “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”    

In my (gaming) experience, this is often countered by focusing solely on exciting people doing exciting things.  Not a bad idea in theory but in practice, this tended to boil down to killing things.  Here is where I appreciate a proxy, be it orc, alien or Red Skull.  Perhaps it’s what I teach that scares me away from ‘historical’ gaming.  At some level, I fear trivializing suffering.  Frankly, history is real, not a game.

In the end, the enduring unpopularity of historical RPGs free on some kind of genre mash-up (weird wars, history-horror et al) remains a gaming norm.  While I do appreciate some effort at historicism, I prefer to leave my job at the office and not at the game table.  And If I’m looking for “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, there’s always Tomb of Horrors isn’t there?

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting, and I quite agree. I think that when folks hear that Professor So-and-So is running a campaign, they expect that their world will be of intricate complexity on par with those of Professor M.A.R. Barker or Professor Tolkien. This is a standard that I doubt many of us could live up to.

    I once created a detailed fantasy version of Earth in the Late Cretaceous that drew upon my own profession expertise. The geography, climate, fauna, and flora were all authentic. And every detail of life in such a world, including the cuisine that would be developed by a culture living in such a world, the building materials that would be available and, in collaboration with my botanist wife, what sorts of plants could be fermented and what the resulting alcohol would taste like.

    As an academic exercise it was interesting, but I never ended up playing it, because I realized that I was the only person who cared about, or would ever understand or appreciate this level of accuracy and detail.

    Players don't often care about this sort of thing; they want to have exciting adventures, kill stuff, and loot treasure. They don't want be bored by my pedantic obsession with esoterica, or scientific accuracy.

    Furthermore, if we put that kind of effort into our worlds I fear that we may be tempted to put the cart before the horse and elevate the setting above the players in terms of importance and get peevish if they don't 'play right.'