Lou's Noodle #2: Historical Analogues in RPG Design

So this is just a little noodle on historical analogues in RPG design. For anyone reading their first one, these noodles are just a little stream of consciousness musing on a topic. This time around its the way specific RPGs (and most other fiction) ground themselves in specific historical time periods or cleave to historical elements to achieve verisimilitude. My wonderings include things like how necessary is it? When to draw the line between historicity and fantasy?

Here's an example to illustrate what I'm writing about: I was once commissioned to write an adventure piece for a well-known publisher that included a ship (no, its not one of the pieces whose covers are cycling about to the left). Reasonably well versed in the history of military naval architecture, I started with an historical ship. Then I researched the evolution of ships of that type, and lastly, based on that evolution through the centuries I extrapolated an over the top, three decker, fantasy version of the vessel.

Did an over the top, dragon prowed, multi-masted, tricked out, fighting towered, three-decker ship of that sort ever exist? No. Would it have been sea-worthy if it had? Maybe. Some wacky things have been put on the water throughout history. The imperial Romans, for example, created barges large enough to sport gardens and entire temples -- not that such ever crossed the Mediterranean, let alone the Atlantic. This is part of my point, though; namely that historical analogues can be a trap for the unwary. Why do I care if a fantasy ship can cross the real Atlantic or not? What if I just need a coast hugger, and a fantasy coast at that? Is it a calm coast? Has anyone decided yet? If I'm the author of the coast, and my fantasy ship is fun enough or central enough to the play experience of gamers, then guess what? It's a calm coast.

The other part of my point is that the publisher hated what I had created. They even told me I should research some boats, that ships of this type were a certain way and not my way, and get back to them with something more realistic. Now that is a publisher's prerogative. In this case, particularly, I was a guest in their world. If my editor asks for something realistic, realistic they shall have. I'd prefer to know that before I write, to save time if for no other reason, but fair enough. Not my call. Historicity delivered.

But this is a game, so I have to ask myself: you may have more realism, but do you have more fun? History can be a trap that makes us lose sight of the fun as we try to be real. This is a game; so, anything that reduces the fun for the audience is a mistake.

There are, of course, other design considerations: length, audience demographics, aesthetic and content continuity with other pieces in the series, price of the final product, word count, space for maps, etc, but I can't find it in me to insist on historicity for its own sake. To be fair, I'm sure the publisher had aesthetic continuity issues that required the more historical ship, but as a general rule where to draw the line between fantasy and history?

I think the answer lies in verisimilitude and context. Straying too far from an historical base may result in the unbelievable. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but its an acquired taste; so if the audience is expecting a certain level of verisimilitude and our piece smashes that expectation? That could be useful for fun (and sales) or not depending on the context. By context I mean, what is the audience buying this game trying to accomplish? Are they buying because they expect to experience a certain kind of fun? Or are they buying because they're hoping to have their expectations trumped and to fly on the wings of the author's imagination, no matter to what fever-dreamy land this may lead?

So I conclude that the level of historicity needed in RPGs can't be generalized, but is always a function of the publisher's goals for a specific piece. Too little and the piece may approach an abstract level out of sync with the publisher's general work and their particular audience's desires. As authors we have to be careful not to place obstacles in the way of the audience's suspension of disblief.

On the other hand, too much historicity and you have an historical game/fiction, not a fantasy. Integrating and balancing these constraints against the creative impulse of the author -- the fantastical visions whirling through the brain and heart -- sits firmly in the realm of art. In our games, however, art must serve a higher mistress, a mistress more defined by the audience than by anything else. Art must serve fun.

Personally, I find over the top, dragon prowed, multi-masted, tricked out, fighting towered, three-decker ships that never existed (but could have) to be more fun. But that's just me.


Louis Porter Jr. said...

My publishing theory is cool shit trumps all. In gaming reality should take a back seat to what is cool and exciting for the PC.

Lou said...

Agreed! And of course, built in to that is the notion that if it stops a player from suspending their disbelief, its not cool and exciting.

But absolutely agree!