Empire and Resistance: Challenges in Historical Tabletop Game Design

Geoffrey Gimse, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Courtney Herber, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

There is a certain allure to using roleplaying games as a means of historical exploration. Roleplaying games, in their demand for active rather than passive participation on the part of the players, can help draw those players into a far deeper understanding of the historical settings they use (McDaniel, 2000; Beidatsch & Broomhall, 2010). This, in turn, allows the players to better understand those histories. For many historians, it is not enough to merely to know the events of a time. Names and dates on a page are meaningless without a deeper understanding of the reasons behind and the questions that surround those moments. Roleplaying games have the capacity to draw in players while helping them to expose those reasons and reveal questions that remain. As William Offut (2015) suggests in his opening to the instructor’s guide for the Reacting to the Past module, Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775–1776, the mechanics and elements of contingency and chance, present in such games, further reminds players that history is not static (p. 6). Historical events, their names and dates, are not absolutes but tendrils of shifting connections, moments, and actions that could have just as easily gone another way.

It is in its precarity that history comes alive. Too often, history is portrayed as a progressive set of linked occurrences that are outside modern experience and contextual understanding. This temporal distancing limits the possibilities of engagement with those time periods and that limited engagement helps to diminish a more nuanced understanding of the issues and people of the time. Roleplaying games provide an avenue for centered engagement. Rather than simply reviewing the events from a distance, the players in these games must actively engage with the time and deal with the issues and limitations of the period as part of the structure of their game world. By positioning themselves as participants within that world, instead of passive viewers, players’ relationships to those worlds and each other change significantly. In the movement from passive reader to active participant, they become directly enmeshed within the construction of the world. As participant, they are afforded a sort of dual role that affords an implicit tension. They are at once a cooperative member of a group of players and a representative for a specific character with goals and interests that may not always align with that larger group. While there is often external conflict in tabletop roleplaying games, much of the dramatic tension in these games comes from the struggle between the player working in their character’s interests and the player’s ability to help meet the larger interests of the group. As they play out these conflicts with one another in the context of a game world, players must engage as their characters seeking out their interests while striving to understand the characters the other players are supporting. For Innes and Booher (1999), this form of dialogue and play that require a player to advocate for the interests of their character while cooperatively working with a group of different players helps to drive consensus building.  It is also a powerful way to help players learn about and better understand the world in which they and their characters live. As Innes and Booher (1999) conclude, “Because these simulations include real life actors, the exercises themselves and the learning associated with them are part of the product. Players learn how the dynamics of their own linked ideas and actions play out in a complex world of interlinked players and unanticipated events” (p. 20).

The immersive value of this give-and-take cooperative play is an important part of any tabletop game, however, it also creates significant challenges for any game developer who seeks to use historical moments as the setting for a roleplaying game. Perhaps the most evident of these challenges is the attempt to balance the didactic elements implicit in the use of an historical setting with the broader goal of entertainment that is expected from a game (Tekinbas & Zimmerman, 2004). This balance is tenuous. A game world, realistically, cannot encompass the vast complexity of the true historical setting. This is, in part, a reality of the telling of history. There is no one story, but rather an amalgam of different expressed experiences from which certain narratives arise. It is inevitable that within these narratives, further modified by various game mechanics, certain ahistorical simplifications will occur. Even in historical roleplaying games, like Reacting to the Past (RTTP), which focus on historical education and encourage players to actively act out their characters’ speeches and actions, there is an expected level of ahistorical content (Offut, 2015). In simplifying the game world, however, it is easy to turn these settings into caricatures of themselves. By relying on historical tropes and simplifications, these games often end up reinforcing existing narratives rather than pushing players to discover new ones.

Most fantasy roleplaying games use this form of caricature to their advantage. In fictional settings, these tropes and stereotypes provide players with a game world that is both different from their usual expectations, but similar enough that they can place and play their characters within it. Much of the medieval fantasy genre relies on a sort of historicized framework for the foundation of their design and structure. Using Dungeons and Dragons as an example, the manuals of the base game encourage play in a quasi-medieval world, modified with influences of magic and myth (Wizards RPG Team, 2014). While there are several reasons why these worlds tend to be popular, there are two that we see as of primary interest to our work: the simplicity of mechanics and the familiarity of the narrative. The mythologized medieval world is a world where access to complex machinery is limited. This allows for game mechanics that focus on simple machines and weapons without requiring additional rules and explanations for those more complex systems that arose in the industrial and technological ages. This difference in mechanics is plainly evident in tabletop games whose settings are placed in the present or the future. The complexity of rules surrounding machines, advanced weaponry, and armor invariably increases the difficulty in developing and learning those game mechanics. The second reason for the popularity of the genre is its narrative familiarity. In linking game play to myths, there is a rapid flattening of the game world and its narrative components. The game worlds are based on stories the players know. The creatures and characters are part of a cultural pastiche that continues to grow in popularity. The game world, then, is simplified into frames of black and white based on these mythological constructs. The players, as protagonists, are placed in conflict with a series of potential antagonists. The moral center of the game’s story revolves around the resolution of that conflict. The rest of the world beyond the characters’ experience doesn’t matter. The non-player characters and the places and objects that populate that world exist solely to advance the core story. This is not to suggest that tabletop games cannot have narrative depth or complexity, they can and often do. That complexity, however, is rarely found in the construction of the game world. Narrative depth comes from the players (including the game master) and their interactions rather than in the structure of the world. Indeed, the simplicity of a game world can help to encourage complex narratives precisely by dismissing aspects of a world that would otherwise slow down play and draw attention away players and their stories.

In developing Empire and Resistance, we had to accept that we would need to make some sacrifices in the structure of the game settings and mechanics to enhance gameplay. Our goal then was to develop a game that would allow for flexible game play without sacrificing the sense of the historical setting and the factions and powers that drove it. The choices we have made in the development of this work, from the game system to the modifications we have added, were designed to maintain this balance in the best possible way.

The first step in this development process required a clear determination of the setting. There are many roleplay games and supplements that center on Europe before or after the early modern era, but tabletop RPGs set in Europe during the early modern era are still somewhat rare. Certainly, there were other games that embraced the era. The many wars and conflicts that make up much of the early modern era have proven quite popular with war gamers who map out and replay battles with impressive array of figures and maps. There are also several RTTP modules that focus on the early modern era. As we noted earlier, these games do take a decidedly more didactic approach to their game design. Most RTTP games are designed for college classrooms and other learning spaces. While RTTP modules are amazing in their ability to bring students into the historical worlds they are studying, we wanted to create a game that would be just as readily embraced by players in their living rooms.

To that end, we settled on early modern Ireland, primarily Dublin and the surrounding counties as the primary setting for our game. Simply put, early modern Ireland provides a phenomenal setting for historical roleplay. The early modern period was a time of massive upheaval within much of Europe and early modern Ireland found itself in the middle of the mess. The stories that arose out of Ireland at this time still resonate today. These are stories of struggle. Those who lived during this time struggled for land, for identity, for safety, and for finding a place within a shifting world. We placed the start of our game just prior to the rise of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) during which the simmering hostilities in which the players’ characters are living boil over into direct and violent conflict. By placing our players in the moments just prior to these events in Ireland, and by placing them in positions of power, we want to challenge them to think about this world and the opportunities and losses that drove it.

In this sense we were able to embrace the reality that direction of the setting will invariably shift from its historical moorings during the course of the game. Rather than looking to this as a problem, we wanted to see it operate as possibility. In the larger story that encompasses Empire and Resistance the potential for an ahistorical moment acts as the impetus for the players not a barrier. The future as we know it is written. The players will likely know that war is coming as this was the historical outcome. The players’ characters, however, do not have that same knowledge. Through them, the players can remap the events of that time, for better or for worse. The players must decide through their characters’ actions whether they will continue to drive their world toward war, or if they will attempt to alter course. If they do attempt to alter course, they must then contend with the inevitable consequences of their decisions. These questions undergird the storylines within Empire and Resistance, and push players to engage with the history not as a static reality, written in stone, but as potential.

Perhaps, the largest challenge we faced in developing this game was in choosing an RPG ruleset upon which to build. Early on, we knew that we did not want to create an entirely new set of gaming mechanics. While there is, admittedly, a sort of thrill that comes from developing new game mechanics to seamlessly fit into a game setting there is also a price. Learning any new roleplaying game often requires two separate and time-consuming tasks: learning the system and learning the setting. Using already existing ruleset allows players to focus more time on learning the setting. This is a significant issue for Empire and Resistance as the more knowledge the players have of the setting, the more options they will have in crafting their game.

Luckily, this is a wonderful time for tabletop RPG game designers. The rise of the Open Game License (OGL) and its adoption by many of the most popular games, including Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, have allowed designers to take advantage of player experiences and preferences in game mechanics while opening the door to new worlds. The OGL is an open source gaming license that encourages game developers to use existing an existing ruleset and structure as the basis of their game. First published by Wizards of the Coast in 2000 the OGL provided a way for game developers to create content for rulesets without fear of violating the copyright of the original developer. The OGL marked a significant shift in tabletop gaming. Prior to the OGL, there were free systems available to the public (Sullivan 2001). Without a specific license, however, these systems never saw widespread adoption. The development of the OGL changed that and very quickly new games and new systems of play arose around already well-established rulesets. This new openness in game design has had two very positive and powerful benefits. First, the use of a well-tested and understood ruleset has further allowed designers to focus more on crafting their worlds rather than ensuring that the base mechanics of the game work. Second, players and game masters are not forced to learn new systems for every game they play. Players can transition between games and game worlds much more quickly providing new opportunities for interesting and unique gaming experiences based on re-interpretations and adaptations of familiar rulesets.

While the opening of rulesets to further development has helped lead to an explosion of game worlds and settings, there is always a danger with the proliferation and homogenization of game rules. The feel of a game is heavily reliant on the nature of its rules. The setting is not separate from those rules, but rather a component within them. Thus, an Empire and Resistance game played via a 5th Edition format would take on the feel of that system. In a 5th Ed. system, the structure of play is based on a series of contests. Players’ skills and attributes provide bonuses to dice rolls made against specific difficulties that, in turn, determine success and failure. This leads to games that heavily focus on a balance of character skill and strengths which tends to push players into competitive rolls against NPCs or settings. Roleplay, while encouraged, is driven by player and game master interaction outside of dice rolls. While this is wonderful for games full of direct conflict and potential violence, it limits gameplay in worlds where such violence is frowned upon or lacking.

Early modern Ireland is not a fantasy setting. It was not a lawless place of random violence and conflict that seem so readily common in many of these fantasy game settings. Rather, there were strict rules and laws that limited a character’s actions and provided harsh and swift punishments for characters who acted as if they were above the law (Sponsler, 1997). Players in Empire and Resistance required a system that could adapt to these challenges and still provide a system of rules and consequences that did not always descend into directed forms of combat.

Fate Core fit those requirements quite well. Fate is a modification and expansion of the Freeform Universal Do-it-Yourself Gaming Engine (FUDGE) which was one of the more popular open game engines of the 1990s (Grey Ghost Press, 2015). The FATE system focuses on loosely defined set of character attributes and aspects which shape the character’s story and the world. These aspects, often sentences that deliberately provide options for opportunities or issues for players, can be activated and used during game play. Because of the open nature of the Fate system, we were easily able to add skills and modifications that did not push us too far from the core rules. Players with experience in the core system can easily pick up Empire and Resistance and begin play. Furthermore, Fate is accessible. The core rules are released online in a “pay-what-you-want” model allowing players to pick up the game and learn it without significant overhead.

The Fate system provides a powerful set of mechanics that allow for a certain level of unpredictability that helps make RPGs fun while simultaneously allowing players and game masters to fully develop and interact with their game world (Evil Hat Productions, 2013). This development and interaction begin at character creation and extends throughout the game. Because Fate treats character creation as part of the process of play, and not a precursor to it, players must think about the relationships between their different characters and how those relationships are shaped by class and position. These early elements which will remain key aspects throughout the game are set in clear relief at the very start.

Even within this flexible system, we were forced to make choices in terms of simplification. In identifying three factions, we invariably overwrote other factions or potential sub-factions that were present in the period. It could also be said that we deliberately place the people of those factions in broader opposition to Thomas Wentworth who quite often is portrayed as an antagonist throughout the game. This characterization simplifies the challenges and political exigencies that Wentworth is contending with as Lord Deputy. The players, as subjects to the power that Wentworth holds, often find themselves seeking out ways to resist that power.

There is a certain romance to these historical moments that make them fertile spaces for the public imagination. Roleplaying games often operate as a sort of cooperative story-telling. Players gather together and share a common story from the perspectives of their characters. The game master provides the contextual space manipulating the intervening characters, scenes, and objects in which the players’ characters find themselves enmeshed. The shared story that evolves from this game is dynamic but arises from the whole of those telling it. History, in many ways, is not so different.

While the fantasy tropes that drive many popular RPGs can be useful fictions for game development, they become a critical problem for game designers and scholars who are developing roleplaying games positioned within historical spaces. In delving into the creation of an historical setting, game designers must delicately balance the game design elements of their system and setting with the historical realities that were occurring. No matter what the final version may be, these choices will always carry with them a specific historical perspective. We cannot and should not deny that. History is not neutral, and neither is gaming. Rather, each seeks to provide individuals with an understanding and experience whether that be of a time and place or simply of each other. In Empire and Resistance, we hope to provide a little of both.


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