Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Gap in My Education

I've mentioned many times before how my experience of wargaming, in either its hex-and-chit and miniatures forms, is limited but at least I have actually played both types of games, so I'm not completely clueless about the influence they exerted over the early hobby. However, in my researches, it seems as if there's another influence over at least part of the hobby about which I know very little: historical recreation.

The late 60s seem to have seen an upsurge in interest in historical recreation, from the whimsical to the purist. Many science fiction and fantasy writers had an interest in such things, an interest that spread both into their writings and outward to their fans. Marion Zimmer Bradley was one such writer and it was (I believe) she who came up with the name "Society for Creative Anachronism" used by one of the more famous recreationist groups.

What's interesting is that it was at the home of Bradley's brother, Paul Zimmer, where Greg Stafford first made the acquaintance of writers interested in creating a roleplaying game for his world of Glorantha (previously presented in the wargame White Bear and Red Moon), including, through other intermediaries, Steve Perrin, who was himself a member of the SCA. Indeed, Perrin's modifications to OD&D -- the famous "Perrin Conventions" -- were in part based on his experiences as a historical recreationist, bringing "realism" into the very abstract system presented in the LBBs.

I'm sure there are many other connections between historical recreation and the early days of the hobby, but it's a topic about which I know comparatively little (my sole exposure being through a roommate I had in college). If there's anyone who knows more about this or could point me to resources to assist my researches, I'd be grateful. Like wargaming, historical recreation seems to have been an important part of the "culture" out of which the hobby grew and, from what I've seen thus far, its impact is much less widely known, which is a pity.


  1. It might have been Marion Zimmer Bradley who came up with the name. My understanding is that the SCA started as a theme party for Diana Paxson's graduation party. Paxson was Bradley's sister in law and collaborated on some the later Avalon novels.

  2. My experience with California SCA in the early 80's was short lived (the geek was just too strong there), but I have worked at Cali Ren Faires for over 20 years. The SCA is almost all Dungeons and Dragons players (at least back in the day), while the Ren Faires were mostly music and acting people. While I have made a lot of long time friends from the Faires, and got into the International folk music scene through it, I found the SCA to have people more on the creepy, dorky, geektard side of the fence. I got as much distance as I could from it long ago.

    I still work a great Faire in Northern California (in Hollister) in September and October, and I don't think I will ever get tired of it. Not just dress-up play time during the day, but on Fridays when you show up to set up camp, then walking around the village at night, it's hard for a gamers mind not to drift off into thoughts of gaming. Very inspiring for gamers.

  3. It's interesting that you would term the SCA to be historical recreation because even in it's early days, it was anything but. The SCA tries to style itself as such but to any real academic it falls pretty short of the mark. I say this as a long time member of the SCA. I think even at it's formation as a group the SCA has always been more about a romantic idea of how it was in the Middle Ages rather than the reality. A lot of SCA folk use the phrase 'the middle ages as they should have been' which really is a modern person viewing chivalry and the ideals of a past age which are highly distorted by the people who came after it. I love the SCA and a lot of people are trying to raise the bar of SCA participation to have a more firmly grounded historical presentation but to be honest the majority of people taking part in SCA activities know very little about the details of the time period they are trying to represent.

    Still, I wouldn't trade it for anything. The SCA is not like a living history group. It is it's own thing; one where the ideals of Arthurian legend are held dear by many of it's participants and people with a real interest in history can play side by side. It really is more like D&D than it is history. You won't find a Roman fighting a 14th century Knight from Germany then going drinking at a Viking's camp anywhere else. :P

    As a kid I played a lot of rpgs but as an adult the experience of fighting on a battlefield with hundreds of other participants, or fighting in a tournament with a sword in hand beats pen and paper rpgs hands down. I think both hobbies attract similar participants though and there is a lot of crossover. I know a lot of people who did or still do both.

  4. It's interesting that you would term the SCA to be historical recreation because even in it's early days, it was anything but.

    I used the term because it was broad and easily understood, much in the same way I'd call a lot of modern games "RPGs" even if they don't quite mesh with my more precise definition of the same.

    Of course, if there's a more accurate alternate term that encompasses everything from the SCA to Civil War re-enactors, I'd be happy to know it.

  5. WARNING: Unverified facts taken from faulty memory to follow -

    The only direct OD&D to SCA connection I know of is David Sutherland, who I believe started in SCA and was introduced to Gygax via Tekumel which he was introduced to when he lived in Minneapolis - I might have that all jumbled.

    Interestingly, I'm fairly certain that SCA in Australia started _after_ D&D, founded by a handful of D&D players wanting to recreate D&D live. In fact, they were originally called something like the Society for the Current Middle Ages, because they were worried that the "real" SCA would sue them if they used the same name (they learned about the original SCA from students abroad - I believe.)

    Take all of this with a grain of salt, but maybe as a starting point. I'm fairly confident I'm remembering at least ONE of the above facts semi-correctly!

  6. Writer Poul Anderson, whom you have mentioned many times, was an early and much respected Knight in the SCA.

  7. I believe Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games was an active SCA participant in those days as well.

    I got into the SCA looking for a Kendo instructor and stayed for 15+ years. I know that it helped shape my early D&D games and the way I viewed RPGs, though I never actually mixed the two - my SCA buddies and my D&D groups were separate.

  8. I'm not sure there's really a good term that encompasses all of those activities because the different groups sometimes protest at the mention of being included in any way with the others.

    For example, SCA people make fun of LARP players because it's even more nerdy. Even though we're all essentially doing the same activity when you really get down to the basics. And actual reenactors look at both SCA and LARP people as doing a completely different activity because of their lack of authenticity. Living History is a better term for true historical recreationists. The SCA is something in between a LARP and Living History I think because it encompasses a bit of both those activities.

    In any case I think the idea behind both pen and paper gaming and recreationist activities is very attractive to a lot of people. The idea that you can be someone else for a while and do stuff that in the modern world isn't accessible to most people. Adventure. Camaraderie. The doing of great deeds and the reward of reknown. It's an escape from the ordinary that helps draw people to those hobbies.

  9. I have prodded my friends in Bay Area SF fandom. Hopefully someone will come through. If not I should have Diana's email somewhere as I roomed with her at World Fantasy a few years ago.

  10. I was introduced to the SCA by one of my D&D friends in high school in the mid 80s.

    While the SCA may only approximate history, you'll never see them doing this.

    We were english wine merchants and brewed some in my friend's kitchen. Being in high school, the SCA was a fantastic way to combine early hobbies: role playing and drinking; there were plenty at the SCA gatherings who were able to assist us in that endeavor.

    I do have to credit the SCA for the first time I really worked on speaking "in character". Our group began as war gamers and had been more apt to say "my guy" or RP in third person. The folks at the SCA wanted to know where the young wine merchants were from and many other such things.

  11. Yes, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley who came up with the name on the spur of the moment when trying to reserve some space at a public park for the second gathering, and being told there couldn't be a reservation without a group name.

    Longer version of the story here.

  12. I believe that Robert Asprin was also a member of the SCA.

  13. While there is the SCA there is also the darker side, Daggerheir, Darkon and such. I find the SCA to be admirable in a way, but the others kind of scare me.

  14. I did a stint in the SCA during my high school and college years, and was one of many who got "Pennsic Plague" from the free beer at Pennsic XIII.

    The thing I remember most is that dance practice was a terrific place to pick up girls.

    Plus, if you look carefully at the cover of The Dragon #22, part of the image is from some sort of SCA fight. There might be some mentions in earlier issues, but that definitely stands out.

  15. Though I played RPGs first, I did in a round about way end up taking part in SCA activities and ultimately getting into LH. Currently part of a Viking Age group called Ravens of Odin, though I'd like to branch out into Iron Age Celt, Late Middle Age, and Landsknecht, if time and kit permit.

  16. Hi James,

    I have yet to read this, but it is in queue. I've had our library order it:

    Cramer, Medieval Fantasy as Performance: The Society for Creative Anachronism and the Current Middle Ages (2010)

  17. James, I think it's the Society for Creative Anachronism.

  18. Anarchist,

    Yes, it is. Why did I type that? How odd.

  19. Obligatory: http://www.theonion.com/articles/society-for-creative-anachronism-seizes-control-of,724/

    Historical Recreation sounds a bit too close to Historical Reenactment, which is more the ACW, Roman Legion and other types are than SCA.

    Living History might be a better term, as it can include but is not limited to historical reenactment.

    Not sure when RenFaire types fit in though. :P Though really I don't see a whole lot of difference except SCA's far more organized.

    Yes Steve Jackson (US) was in the SCA.
    "He has survived involvements with[...]the SCA (former landed baron and National Chronicler)".

    Greg Stafford's page on Runequest, including how it was made, including accounts by others. (also see his games and gaming page for similar articles)
    Everyone mentions the SCA and multiple members in their account of Runquest.

    Not a direct connection, but Greg Stafford bought the first D&D game ever sold. >_>

    I'd say about half+ of my online extended gaming group (5 out of 10) were or are in the SCA, some from back in the late 70s, some because parental units were in, some recently joined. About half of those are no longer active. Had a math teacher who was in it back in middle school, so we got to watch a joust one day. He was also into fantasy and I assume gaming tho I can't remember now.

    A cousin of mine did American Civil War reenactment but then got married and had kids and the costs were rising before then.

    Do they hold events for the public a lot or are they more like some Historical Reenactors and tend to do their own thing off from outsiders?

    Personally I think they're overrated, at least these days, but that may be just my reaction to their use by S.M. Stirling, David Weber and the like and as uber skilled and useful when Society Falls (tm).

  20. An article on the Society in an early Dragon (#27 IIRC), really helped spread the idea of the SCA to a much wider audience.

    The fumble tables in Runequest were apparently directly derived from observing the problems that occurred in SCA fighting, which probably explains the large amount of armour malfunctions and "hit self" results. In fact the idea of a fumble itself probably comes from SCA heavy combat.

    [SCA combat is not realistic. In modern SCA heavy combat most of the target zones you actually should use when using weapons are not legal targets. Similarly it's interesting to see how early attempts at adopting certain weapons (such as quarterstaffs and flails) were abandoned because they were too effective as weapons and people got hurt. It is good for getting people to experience wearing armour themselves, on the other hand, both to dispel the preconception of how armour actually encumbers you, and introduce you to how hot and smelly it can be, how helmets trade visibility for protection, how long it takes to put on, and the amount of maintenance required to keep it in good shape. And bemusement in how the real Middle Ages survived without duck tape. <grin>]

  21. "Living History might be a better term, as it can include but is not limited to historical reenactment.

    Not sure when RenFaire types fit in though. :P Though really I don't see a whole lot of difference except SCA's far more organized"

    The Patterson family of the hills just east of Malibu invented Ren Faires in their backyard, and their eventual company for Faire was called The Living History Center. Probably they were the first to use the term "Living History."

    From your comment about Faires not being organized as SCA, I can only double over and almost puke from laughing. A typical day at even medium size Faires includes 3-6 stages, dozens of major groups and guilds (peasants, nobility, merchants) and upwards of hundreds of vendor booths.

    I'll tell you a real big difference...at Faires I have made upwards of 200 bucks a day just for playing music, a couple Morris dance show a day, and swooping on free food and booze. Nobody ever made a dime at SCA.

    You also have to take actual workshops on history, language, accent, improve, and such at Faires when you are a newbie. At SCA you may just have tgo mow some fat knights lawn to get involved.

    Rev. Pavane: haha, duct tape and smelly helmets are my fave SCA memories, especially wearing borrowed, stanky helmets.

    At age 16 I did get drunk for the first time at a Santa Barbara SCA revel.

  22. A Renn Faire and an SCA event are fundamentally different creatures. One is entirely participatory while the other has paid people putting on a show for the masses. While it is possible to make money by providing goods and services marketed towards the SCA and other group's members, it's participants aren't there to make money. Some of us are just fortunate enough to have found a nice niche for ourselves to do so. :) Depending on the size of the event, organization for SCA events will vary. An event like Pennsic or Estrella War requires thousands of hours of preparation from hundreds of people, none of whom are getting paid for the job.

  23. Some of us are just fortunate enough to have found a nice niche for ourselves to do so. :)

    I'd say most ren faire folk would say the same, myself included. Not all make dough like I have, and not all go on to professional world class music sidelines or lucrative craft businesses. I have experienced both types of groups, and I think the main difference is people with the desire and talents to produce good times and entertainment for others, and a niche fringe of hobbyists who cloister among themselves for make believe that never leaves the private campground. To each his own.

    I think I have to mention my friends in the music group Wolgamut, who started out at So Cal Ren Faires with me in the 80's, and got paid a few grand to perform at Pennsic last year. The SCA homegrown musos played in camp for dozens. The faire dudes from So Cal made decent scratch to play for the other hundreds. Nothing wrong with actually doing what you love and getting pro scratch for it :)

  24. By organized I mean as in terms of an organization. The SCA is an organization. Is there a RenFaire organization and is it worldwide?

    AFAIK RenFaires are more ad hoc, with various smaller groups or single local faires.

    I consider both a bit snottish, and have seen Renfaires as knightly as SCA. Both can be fun and I've no stake in either.

  25. Gibb: I hear ya. I was actually introduced to both at the same time by a teenage sweetheart who was into both. I have to admit that it is quite possible I would have gone on to be more involved in So Cal SCA, but when me and the girl broke up, I started doing Faire instead of SCA because I had less chance of running into her at Faire. Of course I eventually did. 'nother story for 'nother time.

    Yeah, I guess it is easy to get snobbish (as I seem to have, amazingly). We are all proud of our the geek things we do!

    Another Faire type thing people might be interested in is the Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace in SF. A replica of Victorian Whitechapel London is created, and you play around there like you would at Faire. Just inside, darker, and with a much more menacing feel. Very common to run into characters like Sherlock, and not just Dickens characters. The occasional American cowboy or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen member is seen lurking the allyways. For anyone with an interest in that time period, that is the event to experience.

  26. I love Wolgemut. When my husband and I got married at Estrella War a few years back we hired them for our wedding, then 2 years ago I got to drum with them at the Red Hand's Tribe encampment at the same event. I have a picture of my friend poledancing on the pavilion pole of our Shire's pavilion during an impromptu performance they gave to escape the rains. ^_^

  27. Wow, lots of nostalgia here.

    I started gaming in the 70's, and joined SCA and Markland in the early 80's. I also attended the Sterling Forest Renn Faires and did Nero (and other) larps. Heard stories about all those folks who were in this at the beginning, and sometimes ran into the celebrities.

    Here's the thing. I made friends at SF/Fantasy/Comic/gaming cons, renn faires, SCA etc events, game stores, book stores, and college campuses. We all had similar interests, we all tried the same activities. We were nerds, we were partying, we were wearing costumes and we were having fun. I must've met hundreds of people, and the groups almost all overlapped completely.

    Now, you could argue about which groups attract more mainstream participants, but I don't see the point. You can talk about which groups are more elitist, but I think that would be generalizing. You can talk about which are the most geeky, but that would be cruel.

    My overall opinion is that most folks who were interested in some of these things, were more or less open to all of them. Being nerdy wasn't as acceptable a social option then as it is today, and we were just thrilled with every new discovery. I don't think you can draw bold lines on paper and try and analyze how much influence this group or activity might have had on any other, with any degree of accuracy.

    A splendid time was had by all.

  28. One other RPG-SCA connection no one has mentioned yet: Wilf Backhaus, one of the authors of Chivalry & Sorcery, was also a member of the SCA.

  29. Richard Garriott was also an SCA member and several of the NPCs in his Ultima computer games were based on SCA friends of his. The Ultima series still ranks with me among the best, most old school, most sandbox-like computer role playing games. I'll see if I can find the books I've read that make mention to it, there were a few written about the Ultima series that mention it.

    I've been in the SCA a good 20 years. In my area I actively discourage looking down on other groups. We're all looking for the game that fits us best.

  30. Hi James,

    In addition to those mentioned, Dave Hargrave (Arduin)was an active SCA participant and Dave Arneson was a very active member of the (ACW) First Minnesota Volunteers, http://www.firstminnesota.org/ . However he did not join that group till after the publication of OD&D. For the record, I have done French and Indian War reenacting and am a dedicated member of the Norseland: Norse recreation society and a past member of Gael Agus Gall in Ireland. http://www.gaelagusgall.org/