Intro: The following is from my Flashing Blades campaign wiki. Included as part of the "player's guide" to the campaign, it's a discussion of historical roleplaying, alt.history, and the prevalence of '-isms' (racism, sexism, heterosexism and religious intolerance) in the seventeenth century setting for the game.
These subjects get tossed around some gaming forums every few months; this is how I address them in my campaign. Your feedback is welcome.
Historical roleplaying games share similar features with historical fiction. In historical fiction, the protagonists’ story takes place against the backdrop of the historical period and events; in many cases the protagnoists’ story is interwoven with the personalities and events of history. This is particularly common in le gant et l’épée (cape-and-sword) or swashbuckling fiction: d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers serve at the siege of La Rochelle while thwarting the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu and later are involved in the events of the Fronde and the English Civil War; Captain Alatriste saves the lives of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Buckingham, serves at the siege of Breda, and is rewarded by King Philip IV for protecting a galleon full of gold and silver; Percy Blakeney saves the life of the Stadtholder of Holland.
This is also true of many historical roleplaying games. The player characters’ adventures take place in a historical period, possibly in the context of specific events of the time, and may include interaction with historical figures as well. Like the genre fiction on which the game is based, adventurers in Le Ballet de l’Acier may find themselves walking the galleries of the Louvre, sipping brandy with the duc de Gramont, or on the field at Rocroi, in a charge led by the prince de Condé, or in a Versailles apartment, negotiating an investment with Colbert, the king’s minister of finance. Player characters may even begin the game with a historical figure as a Contact or as the object of Sworn Vengeance. The adventurers’ exploits are a part of the fabric of history.
Roleplaying games are fundamentally different from literature or cinema, however. In historical fiction, the story of the characters may take place in the context of history but occur in such a way that the events of history remain unchanged; the failed attempt to rescue King Charles II by d’Artagnan and Athos is an example of this, as is the attempt to assassinate King Philip IV foiled by Diego Alatriste. In roleplaying games, however, the adventurers need not be bound by the limits of a story written by an author; the actions of the adventurers provide an emergent narrative through actual play, one which, in the case of historical roleplaying games, may diverge from history in significant ways.
The natural question for players, then, is, Can my character change history?
For Le Ballet de l’Acier, the answer is an emphatic, Yes. The adventurers are not limited to re-enacting the historical narrative; their actions are constrained only by the means at their disposal, their skill and knowledge, and the roll of the dice.
One of the outstanding features of Flashing Blades is the career paths open to adventurers; through ability and good fortune, player characters may aspire to be Marshals of France, dukes and princes, royal minsters, bishops and cardinals, grandmasters of knightly orders, and wealthy financiers over the course of the campaign. As such, they may earn access to the levers of power which control France itself, to become a Richelieu or a Colbert or a Turenne in their own rights.
In terms of historical fiction, protagonists changing the historical narrative move the story into the realm of alt.fiction; the characters are no longer bound by the historical record, and the fictional world is free to change, in small or large ways. This is the underlying premise of most historical wargames: given similar initial conditions, can a player change the outcome of a battle, or a campaign, or a war?
Taken together, this means that Le Ballet de l’Acier is a historical roleplaying campaign unless or until the adventurers significantly change history, at which point the campaign becomes alt.history.
Note that, as with historical fiction, Le Ballet de l’Acier features many fictional characters and events as well. In some cases these are inspired by history or works of genre fiction: for example, the character of Milady and the affair of the diamond studs are based on the real-life exploits of the Countess of Carlisle, fictionalized for the story. In other cases they are outright creations from the gamemaster’s fevered imagination. If the fictional characters and events of the game cannot be readily distinguished from their historical counterparts, then the gamemaster achieved his goal!
Finally, a note about ‘-isms.’ Part of the appeal of historical roleplaying for many gamers is exploring the past. Recapturing the experience of living in another era may include cultural values different from our own. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and in particular religious intolerance are prevalent in the Early Modern era, and as such they may be encountered in the course of the game.
It’s important to bear in mind, however, that exceptional individuals are a feature of every era, and an attempt to recreate the experience of history cannot overlook these figures. For example, women owned businesses and property, served in the armies and navies (sometimes disguised, sometimes openly), founded religious organizations, and ruled great states in the seventeenth century – a few even fought duels; using the idea of sexual discrimination against female characters to unduly limit their options would make Le Ballet de l’Acier less historical, not more.
And though it shouldn’t need to be said, here it is anyway: while racism, sexism, and the rest may be encountered in-game, they will not be tolerated out-of-game; any player who cannot treat everyone else at the table with respect will be asked to leave the game.