What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from timeanddate.com – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.

 

I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!

Review: Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Game

After writing about the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, I thought I’d look at some other starter sets to compare how useful they are for the one-shot GM. Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is a ‘classic’ system of Samurai action, where warring clans battle against taint and shadow (and each other) while labouring under the demands of Bushido. It’s a complex setting, and one that treads a careful line between authenticity and excitement; in previous editions, combat was lethal and fast, with a very ‘trad’ take on the realism of action. FFG’s new edition takes all that and adds, naturally, funky dice, and a variant of the Roll & Keep system. Hard core fantasy samurai intrigue may not be your thing, but the L5R Beginner Game is really good at one thing – in that it presents a tutorial level for the game.

 

The box itself contains a Rule Book, an Adventure Book, four very pretty pregen booklets (another three are available online for free at FFG’s website, under Player Resources), a nice map of Rokugan (the land of L5R) and a card set of counters with 59 counters for PCs and NPCs from the game. There are also, of course, a set of the dice – black d6s and white d12s for Rings and Skills respectively.

The Fluff

It’s like Feudal Japan, but every clan has easily-interpreted animal names, have a history of war and rebellion where they all maintain their stereotyped positions as their fortunes wax and wane. There are shugenja, tattooed monks, and ninja. Magic is dealing with Kami and learning spells if you’re a goody, consorting with demons and Tainted Shadow if you’re a baddy.

The clans have a long and storied history of who used to be in charge and who is now in charge – I remember starting to read the previous edition’s history chapter before remembering that this all comes from a CCG – clan loyalties, powers and even abilities were re-imagined for every new release. I’d ignore it if I were you and concentrate on skewering dishonor with a well-hewn katana.

The Beginner Game tackles head on one of L5R’s setting conundrums – the game is clearly designed to have a mixture of Clans in each party, but also begs the question of why they would work together? Some Clans are allied, some are rivals – there’s a challenge inherent in the setting as to why, say, your Dragon Clan Agasha Mystic is throwing in their lot with a brutal Crab Clan Hida Defender. It does this by taking a staple of the fiction and using it in a very efficient way – the PCs are to compete in the Topaz Championship, a chance for young Samurai to test themselves against one another and the best of all the Clans. Of course, intrigue ensues, and there are additional supplements that detail how the PCs can end up as Emerald Magistrates – roving Mouse Guard-like problem solvers – but the starter adventure throws them together and gives them a reason to stick together.

The Crunch

Where the Beginner Box really shines is in using the Topaz Championship to teach the rules. There’s a minor roleplay encounter first, without any dice rolling, before a short encounter that can be resolved with a simple skill test. There are contests (the Championship itself) and then a low-stakes ‘brawl’ before the PCs “level up” to the strength of full starter PCs (replacing their training swords with katana) and have to deal with the real problems.

This is structured in such a clever way that it could be the blueprint for a crunch-heavy one-shot. In teaching the system step by step, it manages to introduce a fairly complex and unforgiving rules set in a manageable way. Along the way, it manages to teach parts of the setting, which – as you may have gathered – is a little complicated as well.

Without turning this into a full review of the system, there’s an awful lot I like about the new L5R rules. Strife, for example – it accumulates as a result of complications on tests, and when you hit your Composure total you suffer an ‘Unmasking’ and you break what’s expected of you. This might mean you lash out angrily with a hard word – each PC has a suggested Unmasking action. It’s a clever way of reinforcing the expectations of Bushido, and gives a mechanical way to let players rub against it in a dramatic way.

The gradual introduction of rules is necessary, I think – there are some parts of the system that take some mastery. Dice pools are assembled from an Approach- the Attributes of the game, or Rings – and a Skill (of which I am pleased to say there are a relatively small number). There is usually more than one way to skin a cat when you make a skill roll – literally, I’d say, in that case – it’s probably Fire + Survival as you wouldn’t normally skin such an animal, but a case could be made for Earth, Water, or even Void if you’re skinning it to placate a Kami nearby. I think the best way to play this is to be flexible to the players, letting them negotiate which to use if they can make a case for it while being wary of players rolling their best Approach all the time.

The One Shot

If you’re looking to teach the rules of L5R in order to put a campaign together, this is brilliant. If you’re looking for a convention game to offer where some players may already be familiar with the system (even from earlier editions) – this may not be usable as-is. Buy it and read it, though – this is an excellent example of how to structure a complex system in a one-shot (I did talk a bit about this in this post, as well).

It’s also great for showing how to structure a ‘contest’ one-shot – from medieval jousts to Quidditch championships, it shows how to structure a game around this that lets players both compete in the events and investigate what is happening around them. And it’s great to pick up the rules for L5R yourself, too – I sometimes wish more adventures were around that spelled out the rules as they are introduced – but that might just be because I’m looking at lots of Starter Sets at the moment.

Myself, for a L5R one-shot I’d use a similar structure, maybe starting with a low-stakes social conflict, and use full starting PCs – they have a deal more flexibility than the 0-level pregens provided. I’d probably limit my pregens to two or three clans, and try and highlight the differences between them – zoom in on the conflict and different approaches of the two Clans’ traditional approaches to the problem. When I’ve prepped it, I’ll post it on here. I’ve never managed to get into an L5R one-shot at conventions – if you’ve run one, feel free to comment below about it – for this or an earlier edition.