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History, alt.history, and -isms in my Flashing Blades campaign

The Shaman

First Post
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.
 

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El Mahdi

Muad'Dib of the Anauroch
Excellent Post and Thread! You've got some good ideas there. I've been planning a historical campaign myself based around the English Anarchy, and your post gave me some good ideas. I especially like your ideas concerning sexism and how to deal with it. I'm going to pretty much steal that whole-cloth for my Campaign Guide.

However, I don't want my campaign to veer into alt history. To help prevent that, I'm going to have an NPC mentor with the group (not to railroad, but to gently guide). The NPC is basically going to be a "Merlin" type character that lives backwards through time. As the PC's learn of this aspect of their mentor, they'll also learn that he has an almost limitless knowledge of the future. He'll inform them that he he'll never tell them what to do or what not to do, as he knows that anything they do or don't do will not alter the future - it's already set in stone. In essence, their actions have already happened. But, what is known of history in the future may not always be correct. Whatever the PC's do may simply be misremembered far in the future, misconstrued, or happen exactly as the history books say through the use of some deus ex machina, regardless of the PC's actions. It will require some extra creativity on my part to keep it interesting, clever, and not feel like a deus ex machina - but I think it will be worth it.

Your campaign sounds very fun though, and I hope you post more of it as it happens. It would be interesting to hear how it turns out and where it leads.

:)
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
Good advice there. I've also just started a historical campaign (pulp era, starting in 1930 in Paris.)

I like your notes about 'isms. Good stuff. :)
 

grodog

Adventurer
Good stuff, Mike!: perhaps you'll run some FB at next year's SoCal MiniCon? (And, btw, my two sons are very interested in shooting up the town in Boot Hill now, too :D ).
 

Jacob Marley

First Post
Great post! I have been toying with the idea of running a historical-based game set during the Norman conquest of England (1066-1071). As always, an excellent post with lots to think about.
 

mmadsen

First Post
This reminds me of the whole reason why Robert E. Howard created his world of Hyboria -- and what we'd call sword & sorcery fiction -- which was to avoid the constraints of true historical fiction.

It's really, really hard to fit a good story into history -- or into an established fictional world, like Tolkien's Middle Earth -- without changing anything, even by accident.
 

slwoyach

First Post
I love historic roleplaying, in fact I'm currently working on 2 1/2 (I've always had trouble concentrating on one campaign until play actually starts,) One is called simply Mythic Europe and takes place in England in 996. It revolves around the intrigues of the Royal house (and there were plenty.) I added non-human races into the mix, and the queen mother Aelfgifu is actually a half-elven enchantress. I'm also putting together Unfettered Blades, which is a classic swashbuckling campaign that will take place in the 17th century and range all the way from the Mediteranean (sic) to the New World. I'm also wavering between placing my Viking campaign (Runeblade) in the real world or a close copy.

And yes, players can influence history.

Edit: I just changed the concept of Unfettered Blades. Instead of finding the New World as we know it, they found a lost world. Dinosaur infested jungles in the south, pleistocene animals in the north, savage elven cities, and enormous giant-scaled abandoned cities overgrown with vines where even the elves will not tread.
 
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The Shaman

First Post
This reminds me of the whole reason why Robert E. Howard created his world of Hyboria -- and what we'd call sword & sorcery fiction -- which was to avoid the constraints of true historical fiction.
Are you sure about that?

Here's what REH had to say about historical fiction.
Robert E Howard said:
There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history as fiction. I wish I was able to devote the rest of my life to this kind of work. I could write a hundred years and still there would be stories clamoring to be written, by the scores. Every page of history teems with dramas that should be put on paper. A single paragraphy may be packed with action and drama enough to fill a whole volume of fiction.
A more likely explanation was that he could sell his fantasy work while his main market for historical fiction - Oriental Tales - shut down and he'd been rejected too many times by Adventure.

I just got back yesterday from a three-day backpacking trip with REH's collected 'Oriental' tales - if there's a better place to read REH than a windswept granite plateau named Siberian Outpost more than two miles above sea level, I've yet to find it.

It's a damned shame that REH wasn't able to spend that century writing historical fiction, 'cause what he wrote is damned entertaining. In fact, it was his tales "The Shadow of the Vulture" and "The Blood of Belshazzar" that directly inspired me to run Flashing Blades again, which ultimately led to this very thread.
 

The Shaman

First Post
As I noted in the previous post, I just got back from a short backpacking trip - thank you all for the replies and especially the encouragement. I'm glad this may prove useful for others as well.
Good stuff, Mike! perhaps you'll run some FB at next year's SoCal MiniCon?
It would be a chance to break out the LEGO minis.
(And, btw, my two sons are very interested in shooting up the town in Boot Hill now, too :D ).
Just make sure there's a wagon full of dynamite in there somewhere.
 

mmadsen

First Post
Are you sure about that?
I didn't mean to imply that REH disliked historical fiction, merely that historical fiction had its constraints. With Conan, he was able to write any "historical fiction" story he wanted, with the same easy-to-sell main character, without researching to the point of diminishing returns, without coming up with something monumental yet inconsequential for the characters to do, etc.
I just got back yesterday from a three-day backpacking trip with REH's collected 'Oriental' tales - if there's a better place to read REH than a windswept granite plateau named Siberian Outpost more than two miles above sea level, I've yet to find it.
I may have to find some good steppe-lands and get reading.
 
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