The study of history is one of the biggest inspirations for the entire existence of RPGs. People who pay attention to the origin of Dungeons and Dragons know that the roots of the game lie in historical wargames. At the same time, RPGs are one of the biggest offenders in pop culture regarding making broad sweeping statements of “that’s how it was”, probably even worse than History Channel shows. Because we hate sweeping statements. You probably want to take a look at Andri Erlingsson’s essay on how to not trust elfgames to give you an accurate picture of anything.
There’s a whole lot of nice games out there that look into historical societies and actual world history, such as 7th Sea, Burning Wheel and even the Eberron setting from D&D, but there are also games that could be described as getting history wrong, such as Hârn. And of course, there was Gary Gygax who often presented himself as a sort of authority on medieval history, even if he was nothing of the sort.
Where does inspiration go wrong, then? One major deal is presenting things in the game as a hard solid fact. History, surprisingly enough, doesn’t have many of them. You can’t say things like “English serfs were poor and downtrod” and think you’re right. Quite a few serfs were well off, quite a few had significant socio-economic mobility and status. Despite being English serfs. And your game probably doesn’t just have English serfs either, and then you end up with what was going on in the rest of Europe. For instance, Sweden actually never had serfs.
Another thing that games frequently get wrong is getting bogged down in minute details. I really like Vincent Darlage’s Conan work, but his books tend to often get bogged down in the smaller details of medieval life. Festivals, taxes, markets, sumptuary laws, you name it, you can probably find it in Aquilonia – Flower of the West.
History is an area where anyone who’s ever read a book is always an expert. Nothing wrong with that, I’m not really a historian myself either. However, before you start making statements, there’s a few things worth knowing about history as a science. Lets start off with a few very basic things: structuralism in history and the history of mentalities.
Structuralism as a discipline in history is all about a reaction to the previous Great Men theories. Essentially, large-scale driving forces and trends as what moves our history. You could probably call Paul Kennedy a structuralist since he wrote The Rise And Fall Of Great Powers, which essentially reduces the last 500 years of world history to simple economics. Nothing that you’d find strange.
The history of mentalities is a newer one, which focuses on how people actually acted. There’s a bunch of interesting works related to this, such as The Cheese And The Worms, which is a study of how an 16th Italian miller thought about cosmology and existence in the age of Counter-Reformation. The unlucky guy was uneducated but literate and read a bunch of books that were beyond his capacity to understand and got branded a heretic and burned at the stake. The book’s based on the notes made by the inquisitors.
One important thing in history of mentalities is that it’s a study of outliers. Every society has outliers, every historical period has those. What most people probably don’t think of is that there is such a thing as a common exception. That is, things where people constantly buck existing norms or roles. Example: in the late 19th century it was extremely uncommon for women to tend to horses in Finland because it was seen as a man’s job, and men didn’t tend to cows because that was women’s work. However, circumstances often mandated that someone would have to take care of them, regardless of gender roles present. So, a common exception. Likewise, a literate 16th century Italian miller is an outlier and an exception, but not a very uncommon one.
So back to the elfgame mines. You now have both structuralism and the history of mentalities in your pocket which makes you about 100% more prepared to write a game about or inspired by a historical subject. The next rule is that you should never trust the controversial opinion or the “traditional” view.
Why? Quite a lot of pop history works get written by people who want to sell books. We’ve had Victorian historians first write a whole lot of stuff about the virtue of the Romans, but now it’s the 21st century and people want to sell books, so they write about how all the virtues were a sham and no one actually paid attention to them except that old douchebag Cato the Younger. Get a more nuanced view instead. The virtues existed, they had an effect but frequently, people were in conflict with them because people are people.
If I’d have to make a guess, pretty much every bigoted author of RPGs who claims there weren’t fighting women or people of color in Medieval Europe uses the excuse of “that’s how it just was back then.” Guess what: that never was true. Common exceptions, remember? So don’t write a rule that says that women can’t fight or own businesses.
Third rule: never read just one book about a subject. Unless it’s Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, then I’ll give you a pass on that. Read at least two. One book will give you one author’s view, two books will give you a far broader view and you’ll probably grasp what’s the consensus, where consensus does not exist and so on.
Fourth rule: history in game design should never be a straitjacket. Don’t do like Hârn, which overloads the setting books with too much detail which probably is somewhat accurate for a medieval society, but is actually not very useful for the gaming experience. Go back to the structures and see what are the big trends in society, what creates conflict, what’s the big thing that’s going on, what are the defining experiences of the people in your game setting. And if you feel up to it, figure out what makes people tick. You might come up with cool ideas by yourself and there’s nothing wrong with that ever, it’s actually very good, but use your historical knowhow to bind those cool things to something larger, because you’ll find that whatever you create will end up more than the sum of its parts.
To round this off, when I started developing Swords of the Eastsea I only had the vaguest idea of what I even wanted to do. That’s why some of the older blog posts call it medieval instead of early modern. I hit the books, I realized that the Thirty Years War, fictionalized, would be a great setting and no one has ever written an elfgame about the Swedish Imperial period so I set out to do that. And now I am pretty pleased with how the setting has turned out.