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Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming 
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Post Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
The following is from my blog, about a year ago. Since Jim is lambasting me for putting stuff on my blog and not here, and since it's germane to several recent threads, I thought I'd be like Pundit and repeat it. :D

This is from an exchange I had with David R on the RPG Site. He mentioned that his IHW: Napoleonic Naval game was historical except for gender roles - i.e. they had an openly female captain. He added that he supposed that this made his campaign not historical. My reply was that all historical games become alt-historical once the PCs set foot in them, though some are more historical than others. This is a very important point, and one which could go a long way towards easing the apprehension most gamers feel towards running historical games.

It's like the man who asked a woman if she'd sleep with him for a million dollars. She thought a bit, and said she would. He then asked if she's sleep with him for twenty dollars. She got very angry and asked if he took her for some kind of whore. His reply was that they had already established that, and were now dickering over the price. By allowing PCs into an historical setting, you have established that it is non-historical, and now you are just dickering over how non-historical it's going to be.

GMs in particular fear running historically based games because they don't want to mess with history. They prefer something which is alt-historical from the get-go, because then they can let the players have their head. This can lead to what I call the "Inglourious Basterds" school of historical gaming, where they go completely over the top, because as long as they are being non-historical, anything goes. BTW, I'm not knocking the movie, as I loved it - it was my favorite this year, and the best thing Tarantino ever did. :D

Other GMs, if they do allow their players into an otherwise historical setting, try to keep them to the cracks and crevices of history, places and times where not a lot is known, and nothing important is happening. Thi "PCs as Historical Roaches" approach has never really appealed to me, and it seldom appeals to players. They prefer to be where things are happening, important things, where they can take a hand in forming what comes next.

That's a big point in my experience! Players love making history. My approach is to keep it as historical as possible, except for the PCs' actions, and the reactions to those actions. They were not there historically, but they are there in the game. It's their presence that makes this alt-history, and they can change it however they wish, so long as they make their rolls, and work with the materials that are there. If they want to kill Hitler, then they are welcome to try. It ain't going to be easy - many, many people tried to assassinate Hitler, and they all failed - but it will be possible.

So the question is not "Is it historical?" The question is "How historical is it?"

-clash

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Thu May 12, 2011 12:17 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
I agree with everything your saying, but prefer to keep the designation label 'historical' for games that start out on a historical basis, and 'alt-history' for game that are clearly changed from actual history at the beginning of the game. It's completely understood that players will do things to change the setting or people in it in any genre, as far as I'm concerned. I don't find the splitting of hairs over history/alt-history based on player actions to be useful, as far as genre classification goes.

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Thu May 12, 2011 1:51 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
What you're saying is completely non-controversial to me.

I think there's the sweet spot of a-historicity to be found for each group. And it'll vary with each game. The bottom-line should remain that the PCs have an open field to play with, and that as far as their actions go, anything can happen, with natural consequences trickling up or down from there to affect the big picture, sometimes subtly, sometimes with a big bang.


Thu May 12, 2011 1:56 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
I of of the same mind entirely. Which makes me a poor candidate to continue this thread.

I think many historical novels are good examples of this. I am currently rereading the Mauritius Command and O'Brian says in the preface that the entire Mauritius campaign happened almost exactly as he tells it. He just replaced the real commander with Jack Aubrey. Same concept in the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell: Uthred is often the actual commander responsible for a victory, but history has remembered someone else, often one of Alfred's flunkies.

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Thu May 12, 2011 1:57 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
I'm not surprised that you three gentlemen in particular feel the same way, as you all run historical games, but if you read the threads on RPGNet where people who *don't* run historical games post their thoughts on the subject, these very points come up time after time.

In particular:

Thalaba - I use the same differentiation in nomenclature.

Benoist - Exactly! Each group has a sweet spot, and only the group knows where it is.

Ryan - Excellent examples! Sometimes it takes a long period of play for a campaign to go completely a-historical, with small changes accumulating until suddenly it all precipitates into a new alt-reality, and historicity is definitely violated. My current IHW:Napoleonic IRC game is like that, whereas my face to face game left history in the dust long ago. It happened with O'Brian - the last few novels were jammed into a peculiarly elongated war because O'Brian still had things to say about Aubrey and Maturin, and not enough war to say it all in. :D

-clash

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Thu May 12, 2011 2:28 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
flyingmice wrote:
It happened with O'Brian - the last few novels were jammed into a peculiarly elongated war because O'Brian still had things to say about Aubrey and Maturin, and not enough war to say it all in. :D

Yeah, my favorites in the series take place in the repeating 1813.

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Thu May 12, 2011 2:40 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
But, not that I've done this, surely you can have an historical game where (a) it's virtually impossible for the players to change history, on any significant scale, but (b) the players are nevertheless in the thick of it.

Saving Private Ryan is my chief example. And actually I'd imagine that Clash's two historical airplane games (Aces in Spades and Aces and Angels) would be pretty much like this.


Thu May 12, 2011 6:02 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
ewilen wrote:
But, not that I've done this, surely you can have an historical game where (a) it's virtually impossible for the players to change history, on any significant scale, but (b) the players are nevertheless in the thick of it.


Yes you can. This happened in my Aces & Angels, WWII campaign (RedTail Blues) about black fighter pilots.

As mentioned upthread it all depends on the groups fidelity to historical facts. This is why it's so problematic to have discussions about historical games online. When people think of historical games, the assumption is that all games are like what you described.

Regards,
David R

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Thu May 12, 2011 7:17 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
Oh, yes! I was giving the two most common examples of how GMs who are nervous about historical gaming approach it. If that's the way you want to approach it, it's perfectly possible to do, so long as that's what the whole group is interested in doing. My IHW Napoleonic IRC game has been running for years, and they are still in the "haven't broken history" yet state, while still being "in the thick of it". My other IHW Napoleonic group, however, the one I run face to face, has been going since playtesting. and they began changing history before I published the game. These are the guys who, when presented with the capture of the Philadelphia in the Barbary wars, firebombed Tripoli from hot air balloons using fused kegs of naptha and crude. That's the way they are, larger than life, and the world has been changed accordingly. Every group is different.

-clash

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Thu May 12, 2011 7:41 pm
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Post Re: Historical and Alt-Historical Gaming
(EDIT: Cross-posted with Clash.)

Wait, but I mean that it's impossible because it would basically be inconceivable even from the characters' perspective. So there's little to no need to rein in the players (artificially).

I suppose, especially in the naval war, there were actually a few people who, because they made their skill rolls, they had a major effect on the war--like the dive bombers at Midway, or the Swordfish pilots in the hunt for the Bismarck.

If you're playing a soldier in Europe, up to a rank of, say, major (if you prefer, lieutenant or captain), you could be in the thick of it continuously and never really be in a position to change the course of the war.

The big issue that remains, though, is that the players might feel uncomfortable knowing what was going to happen next. Like if you were at Omaha Beach, it would be interesting to know if your character would live or die, and whether he'd kill or capture anybody, but there'd be no suspense over the actual success of the operation (at the one beach or Overlord as a whole).

And then there's a question of whether other stuff outside the fighting (between battles) would be of interest. Or if you'd just do a series of fights colored by the advancing state of the war. In any case, lots would be happening which would be of intense personal interest to the character & the player. (I mean, living or dying, doing your duty, having your friends survive or not--that's interesting stuff, right?)

Point being that for practical purposes, for certain types of campaign, you could stick 99.999% to history, give the players as much freedom as their characters would historically have, and still put them in the thick of it. The main issue would be whether knowing the future, not of yourself but of the war as a whole, would be too much of a drag on interest.


Thu May 12, 2011 7:56 pm
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