Monday, April 23, 2012

Historical Gaming

Within the first couple of years of my entering the hobby, my friends and I firmly established a trinity of roleplaying games as our go-to games: D&D (for fantasy), Traveller (for science fiction), and Call of Cthulhu (for horror). These were the three games we probably played the most and they were, in my case anyway, the three games whose approaches and focuses most strongly influenced my conceptions of gaming in their respective genres. Beyond that trinity, we played a lot of other games, but comparatively few of them were ever played with sufficient frequency or passion to vie with the Big Three. One of those that came the closest, though, was Gangbusters, about which I've spoken before. We played that RPG a lot and had a heck of a time with it.

I recently had occasion to think about Gangbusters and other games based on real-world history and, as I did so, I wondered why none of them had ever achieved wider popularity. I love history of all kinds; games like Gangbusters and Boot Hill sent me scurrying off to the library to read books about the time periods in which they were set. To this day, I am a fan of both gangster movies and westerns in part because of having immersed myself in these things in order to understand these games better. I suspect I am not the only kid who did this.

What's funny is that, in 2012, I can't think of too many "straight" historical RPGs that are in print and actively supported. As I said, I love westerns and have got a partially completed old school western RPG sitting on my hard drive, but it doesn't include rules for aliens or zombies and it's not set in an alternate history where the Confederacy won its independence. Yet, if you look around, those things are pretty much par for the course. Even the terrific, if rules-heavy, Aces & Eights, takes place in an alt-history rather than the real world and that saddens me.

It also makes me wonder if it's because gamers today simply don't have an appetite for historical RPGs that aren't anachronistic or genre-bend. And so Saloons & Shootists stays on my hard drive ...

51 comments:

  1. This is an area that GURPS handles well.  Their historical setting books are great fun and full of good information.  A friend of mine who is a professor of central and south American native cultures looked at the bibliography for GURPS Aztecs and said, "It looks like the syllabus for one of my classes".  

    I have purchased several GURPS books for the fun of reading them and have used their bibliography to do further reading.  

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  2. I'm surprised there aren't more, or more popular, role-playing games about modern criminals.

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  3. I fully concur about the alternate history western games that seem to be the rage nowadays. If I ever do run an A&8's campaign, I'll be going with a more historical background.

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  4. May have to do with things like "The DaVinci Code" and "Assassin's Creed." History doesn't seem to interest us kids anymore unless we can bring it into the mosern world somehow. I remember bringing up the idea of playing a game set in the Ice Age with my gaming group. Their response? "Maybe just for one session..."

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  5. Peter V. Dell'OrtoApril 23, 2012 at 2:03 PM

    I loved Gangbusters and Top Secret, Boot Hill - not as much. For the first two, I think the weakness was being class-and-level based. It wasn't really clear why either needed levels even if you could make a case for classes. So although we played we tended to wind down the game long before anyone promoted more than a level or two, or, in Gangbusters, they'd get a going criminal concern and rack up money quick enough that levels didn't matter much. Still, we liked the games and I'd play a game in those genres again.

     The third, well, combat was extremely fatal so characters tended to die quickly. So quickly that you either have character fatalities each session or avoided combat, and we didn't avoid combat, so . . . Boot Hill played more like a skirmish game than an RPG, in retrospect.

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  6. I'd have the same problem playing in a historical setting that I would playing in something like Forgotten Realms: I've read too many books about it and every in-game deviation would irritate me just a little (but they'd add up).

    By explicitly making it alt-history you have the opportunity to both add a fantastic element and prevent people with my neuroses from getting a headache, each of which can expand your potential market. 

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  7. Gangbusters doesn't really interest me, though I would enjoy playing Boot Hill.

    Gotta admit, though, if I ever did start planning a Boot Hill campaign, it would probably turn into Six-Guns & Sorcery, PDQ. I love Weird West stuff!

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  8. I like the Aces & Eights version of history. The multitude of national factions allows the West to be a genuine no-man's-land, instead of just a place where government authority hasn't quite been fully established yet.  The real West was never as violent or lawless as it was made out to be; established cities of the period had higher murders-per-capita than the frontier towns did. And if I did want to play a historically-accurate game, it'd be the easiest thing in the world to ignore Aces & Eight's setting without any mechanical consequences (unless I'm drastically misremembering).


    Would you count Flashing Blades as historical? The inspiration is more literary than historical, but there's no zombies or aliens or alternate history (at least not intentionally... the brief reference to Poland being an Ottoman vassal must surely be an error). I guess it's not in print or actively supported, though.

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  9. I wonder if that has to do with an uneasiness to promote modern criminality, post-80s scares, etc?

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  10. " D&D (for fantasy), Traveller (for science fiction), and Call of Cthulhu (for horror)"

    This was my group's trinity of go to games as well. I wonder how many folks who started gaming in the early-mid 80s had the same experience?

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  11. For us it was D&D, Star Frontiers, and Marvel Superheroes.  Call of Cthulhu came later, but has remained a stable in every group I've been in since.

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  12. Interestingly, this is precisely why I wanted to host a Boot Hill session at Osrcon this year.  While I love the western genre I am not partial to the novelty mash-up.  I find the violence promoted in BH (pardon the partial pun) unforgiving and relentless.  I enjoy the notion that survival is never assured and that gunfights prompt legitimate 'death anxiety'.

    I'm not sure that Saloons & Shootists should stay on the hard drive.  Without the pressure of commercial, surely there those who enjoyed and are looking (desperately) for OSR 'historical games'.  Perhaps one of the great aspects of the continuing OSR is that there IS the potential to move beyond fantasy...    

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  13. Strangely enough, Poland-Lithuania actually was a (nominal) Ottoman vassal for about 10 years. 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vassal_and_tributary_states_of_the_Ottoman_Empire

    (I'm pretty sure I've seen this mentioned other places too, for those who doubt Wikipedia's relability...)

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  14. The historical genre that puzzled me was the short-lived mania for games set in World War II. Behind Enemy Lines is the one that stands out. Maybe it's a combination of being a history geek and a veteran, but I can't think of anything more boring than RP'ing a member of a modern military organization. Battles are not decided by individual action, and most of the daily life is boring and miserable. Even the elite units followed the months of training and BS followed by weeks in combat model.

    I did enjoy Top Secret when we played it as a "Mission Impossible" type episodic game.

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  15. I stumbled on Stuart Robertsons' Weird West and it struck me how many interesting scenarios one can imagine, where the only magic there is serves to provide the mystery and atmosphere and not necessarily another weapon for the PCs. I think about comics such as the french "Blueberry" by the late Moebius/Giraud - with stories ranging from clasical western-themed to a full-on political conspiracy involving the assassination of president Grant... I don't know if you can find these in english, but they could be a fantastic source of inspiration for a historical Western campaign (plus, there are no zombies...). "Saloons and shootists"? I dont' know about other gamers' appetites, mine certainly include historical RPGs. What a pity your western game stays in the closet...

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  16. Louis L'Amour's western stories and novels are very good at making you realize that gunfights were a deadly business. But of course it doesn't always have to be gunfights; he got a lot of variety in situations in his stuff. (And there was so much real life weird stuff going on in the West, I'm sure a good campaign could be full of all kinds of adventure.)

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  17. What about Man, Myth and Magic that came out in 1982 from Yaquinto? Not too deep a field of pre-made adventures but 5,000 years of historical settings to play with. My group picked it up when it came out and played it for about a year.

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  18. 2 ideas:

    1) What  jwnewquist touches on, the pseudo medieval amalgam of D&D and the freedom of the future Traveller gives you is much easier than trying to master the real details of a precise setting.  I'm both drawn to and intimidated by the intricate details of the firearms in Boot Hill.2) The archetypes and stories for those genres are different and thus harder to sustain than the rags-to-riches/king-making story inherent in D&D or the wandering merchants of Traveller.  How long is a Gangbusters campaign going to last before the big boss goes down in a riddle of tommy gun fire and do you really want your Billy the Kid clone to make it to the old folks home.

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  19. I actually played quite a bit of non-D&D games during the 80s. Probably the most appropriate one for this discussion is Task Force Games' Delta Force.  My brother and I were military nuts and the game was highly conducive to one-on-one play. There wasn't a good deal of emphasis on actual roleplaying, but it was a very interesting tactical simulation of battles between elite forces and terrorists. Gangbusters was also quite a bit of fun, but being that I was about 12 when it came out, I didn't quite understand the 1920s. We didn't have any internets back then to research it, ya whippersnappers.

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  20. Fantasy and science fiction have the advantage that it's hard from someone, even your inner voice, to say "You're doing it wrong." Wrong can be being inaccurate to history (with extra concerns for handling historic bigotry).  Wrong can be inaccurate to plausibility (Someone who risks their lives repeatedly in the real world tends to get killed). This may also be why despite the obvious appeal that MERP isn't a major commercial player today.

    Fantasy and science fiction give you permission to make things your own. I find it telling that the relatively realistic and modern Leverage  makes it clear that the game isn't set in our world, but instead in "Crime World," where things are even worse and so vigilantism is more acceptable and more likely to succeed.

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  21. I was thinking about it recently, how one could use historical RPGs to kind of enhance teaching history... From the players' side, to be able to actually take part in the events we learn about in history lessons and view them "from the inside" could be complementary to the facts learned at school. Referee-side it's even more interesting - since it demands much more hard work on the setting and many hours spent in the library - but it's even more rewarding... The Wild West or the Twenties are fantastic historical settings, because they are relatively easy to imagine - given the amount of western or gangster/adventure/pulp movies - and at the same time they are set in a very historically and politically complex world, that offers many possibilities for different kinds of adventure inter-related with modern history... And both settings have a "romantic" aura to them that makes them even more attractive. 

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  22. I second this - 'doing it wrong' is a major disincentive to historical (and 'solid' fictional world) gaming. I'd happily play a historical board or miniatures game - the rules define the world, and mistakes are those of the designer. An RPG is open, with endless possibilities, and so there are plenty of chances to get it wrong. And if you're not bothered about getting it wrong, why not play a fantasy game, or at least an alt-history game? 

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  23. Agreed. I played some historical rpgs, wrote the historical background for one, and had an extensive vampire capaign in the late 18th century and french revolution. YThe main probleme is ther: as a player, you have your own knowledge of the time and execpt your GM and fellow players have - and the reverse. So many time this thought prove false and it disturbs the game. I just finished a steampunk late 19th cenury campaign as a player, and I was happy he did it in an alternative Europe. Even with that, differences of knowledge among players about historical and anthropological facts was a common trouble. 

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  24. We did plenty of historical (and contemporary) adventuring, but we didn't use a new game for it ... we just house-ruled it from "The Fantasy Trip."

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  25. Within the first couple of years of my entering the hobby, my friends and I firmly established a trinity of roleplaying games as our go-to games: D&D (for fantasy), Traveller (for science fiction), and Call of Cthulhu (for horror).
    For my group at that time we'd replace Traveller with Champions>/i> as our trinity.  We weren't big into sci-fi (especially the hard science stuff) but we loooooved us some superhero role-playing.

    As for other games, I couldn't get my group to try them but I'm right behind you on Gangbusters.

    It is a shame that historical RPGs get the short end.  There's just certain genres that don't catch on (Pulp - one of my favorites, Savage Worlds aside) or won't get a following unless you tweak it with something else (the aforementioned Western genre).

    -SJ

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  26. Interesting. I guess it makes sense, given where Batory was from. I bet Kara Mustafa Pasha wished that situation had lasted another century.

    Still an error, though, since Flashing Blades is set specifically in the 17th century. Just less egregious than I'd thought.

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  27. That was "nominally", and for about 10 years in the 16th century... Since"Flashing blades" takes place in the 17th - the relations between Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire were actually a *bit* different:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vienna

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  28. For us the Trinity was D&D (for fantasy), Space Opera (for sci-fi), and Champions (for superhero stuff)

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  29. In Spain we have Comandos de Guerra which was historic WW II, and we have also Aquelarre (which is more fantasy indeed, although it has quite some history background).

    While no idea if this is true or not, maybe history based games are more popular around Europe than the States (in players and in games available).

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  30. I was pretty much surrounded by "D&D-only" back then, I could only get in Top Secret or Star Frontiers with a shoe-horn. Twilight:2000 flew pretty well among both my wargamer and RPG friends. The Old West never bit me, nor the gangbusters era, but I might have tried Boot Hill. Pure historical games would have run up against the fact that I was the group's history buff, and no one else wanted hear me say "you're doing it wrong." 

    Since then, I've run semi-historical D&D (late 16th-century Poland, in fact), but that had a smidgeon of fantasy. I'd love to run Twilight:2000 in the chaos following WW1. I have a good time with Serenity, which is Wild-West-meets-Traveller. Ancient Roman might be cool.

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  31. That depends on just how "straight historical" you want to define the term.

    As a GM who came to RPGs through board wargames in the 1970's, if your game includes magic, supernatural entities, psionics, or anything not present in the historic setting, it's not straight historical, but there are quibbles, even with that definition.  For example, one could make a convincing argument that Gangbusters is pulp, not straight historic.

    So that's the definition I'll use here.  That being said, straight historical games, are a tiny niche in the niche hobby that is RPGs.  This is true in terms of sales, and I suspect, in terms of players who actually have an interest in playing in such scenarios

    When you look at the genres represented in the hobby, the 400 lb. gorilla is sword and sorcery fantasy, in its many variations.  This is followed next by supers, then sci-fi (a broad category that could be further broken down into post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, space opera, hard sci-fi, etc.), horror, and then all the rest.  Even pulp, steampunk, and alternate history command more attention than straight historical settings.  It's too small a niche to build a gameline on.  Maybe a sourcebook for a generic system (GURPS) or at least easily adaptable system (thinking of some of the d20 Modern/Fantasy OGL) stuff in the last decade.

    I've run some strictly historical campaigns/adventures before, mostly straight Old West (Boot Hill in the old days, Sidewinder Recoiled during the height of d20, straight World War II (using BRP/d20 Modern), and straight modern Special Forces/Espionage type stuff (Spycraft/d20 Modern). 

    The truth is, I'd say about half the people I've gamed with over the years, would have no interest in playing a straight historical setting or straight modern setting (i.e. without magic, or some alternate history twist) under any circumstances.  Oh, many of them are fine with steampunk, pulp, period supernatural horror,  or something like Deadlands, but not straight historical.  I can't say that for any other type of game I've run.  I've thrown it out there as an option several times for my current gaming group, and not really got any nibbles, even though, as a lover of history, and research, I know I could run some incredible games.  Sigh.

    As for your statement about Aces and Eights, my guess is the sort of GM that is likely to want to run a historical game (and probably most of his players) has a passion for the period of the game he's running.   For me personally, my notion is that I can build a better "straight historical" setting with the kind of research I'm likely to do for such a campaign, and do it far better than an RPG sourcebook could (though god knows I've stolen ideas and inspirations from a mountain of GURPS 3rd Ed books as starting points over the years).  Maybe this is why Aces and Eights doesn't bother with a historic setting, because in this day and age, one can build the skeleton of a historic setting (particularly for the Old West) just browsing the Web, followed by an afternoon at a good library.

    Straight historical games also tend to run into the same sort of canonical problems that are more commonly associated with published settings that have a ton of material devoted to them (e.g. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Star Wars), and that question boils down to the eternal question:  what do you do when your players break canon?

    At some point, unless you stretch the credibility of your world to the breaking point, your players are going to cross paths with, or want to rub elbows with, historical figures.  If your player wants to put a lead musketball in the back of Jefferson Davis's head during the Mexican War to prevent the Civil War, do you still have a "straight" historical game?  Do you let him?  What do you do afterward?  You think I kid, but I've seen Star Wars players and GMs agonize over this garbage, and there, we're only talking about a fictional setting.  Here, we're talking about real events.

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  32. Interestingly, in the war game branch of the hobby, historical simulations were/are the norm, and fantasy and science fiction war-games were the outliers.  Miniatures on the other hand, at one time were mostly about historical simulation, but the folks you see these days are painting figures of space marines, robots, or dwarves...

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  33. Interestingly, in the war game branch of the hobby, historical simulations were/are the norm, and fantasy and science fiction war-games were the outliers.  Miniatures on the other hand, at one time were mostly about historical simulation, but the folks you see these days are painting figures of space marines, robots, or dwarves...

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  34. My group just got together to play Call of Chulhu on Friday night and the subject of Western RPGs, and Boot Hill versus GURPs, specifically, came up. Out of the four of us, I had played Boot Hill back in the day, and another guy had played GURPS Wild West, and both of us had a blast. We started wondering why no one seems to play games like that as much any more. Our theories:

    1) It's purely "what came first." We tried to extrapolate a scenario where the first true RPG for sale was based on the Wild West instead of fantasy, and how that would have shaped the hobby up until today. 
    2) What some people describe below - with fantasy or science-fiction, there's more allowance for "making things up" whereas in historical games there's often a feeling that you're reading a history text book just to play.
    3) Real Life versus Fantasy. As people these days seem to have less time to play, their playing efforts get focused on games that help to remove them everyday life. It's the same thing as killing zombies in a video game or being a wizard or a fighter with a magical sword - it seems to take you out of reality more quickly than an historical game. Speaking of video games - with the exception of WW2 games, it seems that there aren't many FPS I can recall that have a historical background. It's mostly fantasy or science fiction.

    That's what we came up with at 11pm on a Friday after a few hours or role-playing and a few beers.

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  35. Why don't you Kickstart Saloons & Shootists after you finish your current project?

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  36. If I decide to go ahead with producing it, I can easily do so without the need for a Kickstarter. It's more a question of whether it's my time, since I'm not sure there'd be much interest/demand for it.

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  37. There are a number of skirmish-level western wargames (as well as those in other historical genres) that are complicated enough - in the sense that the "miniatures" are detailed enough in characteristics to form viable (and distinct) characters - that they can readily be used as role-playing games.  My favourite of these is Once Upon A Time In The West which even spawned an expansion that encouraged more people to "swap their +1 swords for six-shooters."

    I've found one reason people don't like playing historical games is that they feel very constrained by history.  They don't feel that the game is about them so much any more, but rather about the history. Plus, it is often too close to their normal life to prevent escapism and daring do.  After all, with magic, you avoid the problems of being speared through the gut and dying of peritonitis two weeks later.

    I do admit I like reusing history in games.  I ran an 18th/19th century space campaign based entirely on the naval warfare of the period.  Since Australians are woefully ignorant of history (in general), it allowed me to use the actual historical events.* The naval rules were actually based directly off a set of Napoleonic-era naval rules with the serial numbers scraped off.

    I also like the idea of historical games with the mind-set of the times.  Magic may not actually work, but the player-characters are people that believe that it does.  Spells are actually fakery.

    [* They finally realised something was up and went scurrying to the library when the Earth Mail Packet Trent was intercepted by Colonial Union forces and two Federation delegates on their way to the Core Worlds were removed from the ship.  That was from a role-playing game that started well before the Colonials declared their independence from the Core (in particular Earth).  Which is also what closed the campaign (I had expected them to catch on a lotsooner).  And yes, like many of my games it was intentionally multi-generational.]

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  38. Farmer in the SkyApril 24, 2012 at 2:20 AM

    D&D, FASA Star Trek, and Villians and Vigilantes.

    I had Boot Hill (don't remember where or how I got it) but my gaming group at the time was not interested.  I seem to remember pitting different characters against each other in shootouts by myself.

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  39. It's sort-of in print. At least, you can still buy copies from FGU.

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  40. Lee, 16th century Poland sounds like a really interesting era to base a game in.  Can you recommend any source books for someone looking for an intro to the era?

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  41. I've often wanted to try playing a WWII commando game, something with a "Guns of Navarone" feel to it.  I like a dose of weirdness in my games, so throw in some occultism and make it like the "Castle Wolfenstein" games would be fun.


    Hellboy comics have some good ideas to mine for this.  The only problem is that I'd rather play in a game like this than run it.  The GM's eternal lament.

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  42. I'm interested in Saloons & Shootists...

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  43. It's my theory that roleplayers' tastes are influenced by films more than by books. Games like Boot Hill and GangBusters aren't about history as much as they're about history as portrayed on the silver screen. I grew up watching Westerns and gangster movies every Saturday afternoon on TV, as did pretty much every other gamer and game designer I knew in the '70s and '80s, but those types of movies just aren't very popular anymore.

    The GangBusters campaign that we played with Mark Acres as GM remains the most amazing RPG campaign I've ever participated in. All the best GMing tricks I know, I learned from him.

    Even my D&D adventures always have a strong historical bent to them. When I paint PC miniatures, I prefer to buy figures from historical ranges--fighters in chainmail, with round shields and straight-edged swords--rather than anime-influenced caricatures. But again, I trace it back to movies like The Warlord and Ivanhoe planting those images in my impressionable mind as the "correct" way for warriors to look.

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  44. My own reasoning, and this may strike some as being a bit asinine, is that real-world history is a bit darker than I like my games to be.

    Don't get me wrong, I draw a lot from horror films and novels in populating my game-worlds with threats.  But I far, far prefer those imaginary terrors to dealing with, say the bounties placed on scalps during the American westward expansion.  

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  45. Change the name to Saloons, Shootists, & Sorcerers and it will sell.

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  46. It's my experience that gamers' tastes are influenced by film more than anything else. Most of the gamers and game designers I knew in the '70s and '80s grew up watching Westerns and gangster movies on TV every Saturday afternoon, and I was no different. Those types of movies aren't popular anymore, so the genres don't see much play in RPGs, either. Westerns had a small shot while Deadwood was running on HBO; IIRC, that's about the time when Aces & Eights appeared. If either of those genres enjoys a renaissance in TV and movies, I'd wager that we'll see games, too. Until then ... probably not.

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  47. I've actually been running a WWII game based on simplified Cyberpunk 2020 rules.
    http://billygoes.blogspot.com/search/label/Polish%20Resistance

    OK, really it's a 'blend'--it has zombies.  But I picked WWII because I enjoy the historical aspect and creating stats for Panzers and PTRS-41s...

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  48. I played as much Gangbusters back in the day as D&D.   We loved that game.  I still have a copy of the brown box.  Firstly, I think much of the reluctance to play historical RPG's has to do with the same difficulties present in studying history.  History classes are a drag because of the built-in guilt complex.   I love history but absolutely despised all the college history classes because of the obligatory kabuki-theater of hand-wringing that is included.   As Nathan Easton points out, dealing with real history means dealing with the "real evil that men do".   Secondly, anyone who has dipped their toes in the waters of historical wargaming knows that the greatest impediment to fun comes from the brigade of button-counters in that community.   Whether we care to admit it or not, that same kind of smarmy arrogance is rife in all varieties of geek-dom and I fear would derail a historical RPG effort.   It's a lot easier to convince a player of the validity of your reality in your homemade world.

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  49.  Although I own the excellent “Beat to Quarters” by
    Omnihedron Games (an RPG where players take the role of officers and sailors in
    the Royal Navy during the time of Napoleon), I still have yet to play it with
    others. I agree with a number of other posters in that a GM has pressure on
    them to “get it right” to make sure you keep the flavor of the period. I would
    also add that, like historical miniature wargaming, I believe that any game
    based on history has so many options that it is a huge challenge to get a group
    together that can agree on a time period of play. Ancient Greece? Rome?
    Renaissance? WWI? WWII? Civil War, Napoleonic Wars,… the list goes on.

     


    http://www.omnihedron.co.uk/dutyandhonour/?page_id=94


     


    The closest that I have ever come to getting “Beat to
    Quarters” on the table is by leaving the rules on a nearby chair when my
    miniature wargame friends get together. They are curious. We’ll see what
    happens.

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  50. From my anecdotal point-of-view... While there are a lot of us who are interested in historical gaming, we’re still a minority within the hobby. I think I have been the only one in any of my groups who really liked it. (And honestly, my enthusiasm for it isn’t what it used to be either.) I think the lack of historical games in-print today is merely a reflection of the fact that they never caught on with enough gamers.

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  51. (Disqus doesn’t want to coƶperate with the iPad...)

    That said, I think historical systems are useful even if you aren’t going to play it straight because they let you add the ahistorical bits yourself. Plus, a book on gaming in an era can give you perspectives that aren’t covered much in straight history books.

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