Historical Hit Points 1: Uses of History in Tabletop Role-Playing Games

Mar 06, 12 Historical Hit Points 1: Uses of History in Tabletop Role-Playing Games

In my introductory post for this series on tabletop role-playing games (which dropped last December), I sketched out a brief portrait of my background with RPGs and laid down a marker for my main goal. To quote from the previous post, I want “to turn a more thorough and critical historical eye on the varied ways tabletop RPGs like D&D absorb, remix, and transmit history and cultural heritage to their gaming communities.”

Part of how I want to achieve this will involve critically examining various RPGs (both core books and supplements) to tease out more specifically the varying ways these games mediate the transmission of historical knowledge to their players. In other words, I am less interested in the historical accuracy and/or inaccuracy of any particular RPG and more interested in the structures inherent in the games that shape this transmission process (which also means my goals seem to dovetail rather nicely with Adam Chapman’s recent Play The Past piece on historical video games: “Privileging Form Over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames”).

As such, in this first part, I thought it would be good to describe in broad strokes how I see history and cultural heritage being used by the game designers of tabletop RPGs – if for no other reason than to provide you all a signpost for where I am coming from before I dive headfirst into the guts of these games over the next few months. I’ll try to keep this short and sweet, and as always I heartily welcome feedback as I refine my thinking.

Generally speaking, I see two primary means by which tabletop RPG designers use history and cultural heritage in their games: 1) as a building block for setting and game mechanics development; and 2) to stimulate and simulate immersion. Neither approach is mutually exclusive of the other, meaning an RPG can easily demonstrate characteristic aspects of both. Nonetheless, I will treat each approach individually before touching briefly on the pitfalls of all this for tabletop RPGs at the end.

History as Building Blocks

The most obvious way designers of RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons use history and cultural heritage is as building block source material to remix and deploy in their games. This means taking various details, themes, and motifs of historical and cultural experience, altering them to fit the designers’ vision, and using them as an RPG’s setting and game environment. For instance, at its core, D&D is a fantasy RPG using elements of European high medieval society as the core of the game setting (e.g., a generalized medieval social class system with knights, aristocrats, and peasants or medieval levels of physical technology). However, D&D is also a fantasy RPG, which meant the early designers (in this case E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson) filtered the historical aspects through a fantastical lens, incorporating dragons, magic, and monsters into what had started out as a medieval warfare wargaming system. The final remixed product was something well beyond a historically accurate representation of medieval Europe.

I should note that this type of appropriation is not at all limited to history and cultural heritage per se. For example, one need only to tease out and identify the Tolkien, Vance, and Leiber-esque literary influences running roughshod throughout Gygax and Arneson’s early D&D game to understand that history and cultural heritage has been but one of many source pools for RPG designers to draw upon. However, for many tabletop RPGs, the historical and/or pseudo-historical themes and motifs of the game’s setting are the crux around which the rest of the game is built (although, to be fair, some games are most certainly designed “rules first,” an issue I plan to explore more thoroughly later in this series).

In addition to the setting, using history as source building blocks also has the potential to influence the game mechanics of the RPG. A high fantasy medieval RPG usually has an extensive rules system needed to adjudicate the game’s hand-to-hand medieval combat dynamic,  but has little need for game play mechanics on the use of guns and gunpowder. An RPG set on pirate-infested high seas in a pseudo Age of Discovery would need rules for naval combat, but most likely not rules for tank warfare (although that would certainly change things up). Where matters become more interesting is how much interest an RPG designer has in developing rules that portray their chosen historical dynamic with some fidelity. History as building block remix does not intrinsically require this in any way.

History through Immersion

The second way RPG designers use history and cultural heritage actually turns on this question of source fidelity in that the historical details, themes, and motifs used in the game are there to encourage and replicate historical immersive play. That is to say, RPGs built and billed as accurate representations of history and cultural heritage offer gamers the opportunity to experience and play past historical societies and cultures. Of the two approaches to using history in RPGs discussed in this post, this is the more problematic of the two to define and develop.

For instance, in the early 1990s, TSR (the original company behind D&D) published a series of campaign sourcebooks for its AD&D 2nd dition system billed as historical reference books for integrating various historical settings into fantasy RPG play. Such settings included the Vikings, the Crusades, ancient Greece and Rome, and Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire, among others. What’s interesting about this is that, although the sourcebooks are clearly remixes of historical crunchy bits with fantasy RPG crunchy bits, TSR did not sell them like that. As designer and author Dave “Zeb” Cook notes in the introduction to the Vikings sourcebook: “This sourcebook is more than just a setting for Vikings in a fantasy campaign; it is a passport into the real world of the Vikings. With the material here, DMs and players have a unique opportunity to try a new role-playing experience – historical fantasy adventuring.” As Cook later glosses it, “With the Vikings sourcebook, players can adventure in a ‘real’ fantasy world – the world as the Vikings themselves believed it.” It is also implied that, with a little work, players could excise the fantasy bits and run a historically grounded campaign.

I should note at this point that my use of the term immersion here potentially embroils me in some mildly contentious debates in the RPG community over exactly what immersion in tabletop RPGs really entails (or whether there is an immersive fallacy at the heart of attempts to simulate the past in gaming). Much of this theoretical back –and-forth seems to center on understanding and categorizing playing style and GM decision making (for instance, see the Threefold Model FAQ or this relatively recent Legends and Lore column by Mike Mearls on “The Many Faces of D&D” to get a sense of how this plays out). My use of immersion does not particularly speak to that experiential dynamic, focused as I am on design of the games themselves. Nonetheless, designing for immersion carries with it certain assumptions about how players will engage the game. It is therefore relevant and is an issue I also plan to tackle more in the next few months of this series.


It goes almost without saying that in the design and development of tabletop RPGs history and cultural heritage pretty much goes through a creative sausage grinder. Whether it is the building block or immersion processes, the historical material goes in one end and comes out the other as sometimes vastly different material. Often, the needs of design mechanics and game play cause this. In this sense, the idea that the primary purpose in crafting an RPG is to make a good game first dominates. If that means historical crunchy bits have to change to fit what the RPG needs to succeed as a game, so be it. This should not be surprising (look at Hollywood and history), but it does speak to need to think carefully about what history and cultural heritage tabletop RPGs are transmitting and how they are doing it.

Until next time…


[Image by Flickr user Jason Coleman and used under Creative Commons license]



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