Albrecht Dürer, St. Eustace
There is a lot of online buzz these days about “historical gaming”. Historical games can provide a greater sense of immersion, and a very rich and interesting environment for your players to explore. But there are also many challenges that come with that type of campaign, and some of them are pretty tricky. When we first created the Codex Martialis combat system the goal was to stimulate RPG combat by introducing the dynamism of a real sword fight. But that is just one part of a greater whole – the exciting, immersive experience that a well-wrought historical setting brings alive in a way that more generic fantasy genres can rarely match. Just as historical combat was a tricky puzzle to solve, there are also a few more that need to be handled carefully.
The late medieval world, which forms basis of most fantasy RPG settings, is so vastly different from our modern conceptions that it’s easy to get lost trying to figure it out. The research involved can be daunting, and can sometimes feel like an open-ended project. One way to deal with this is to do as some of the best fantasy authors did and create an “historically grounded” hybrid, just change a few of the names (like changing York and Lancaster to Stark and Lannister).
But there is another, even more basic problem: creating characters which can fit into an historical or even quasi-historical world. The real world didn’t have wizards who could fly and throw fireballs. So the elegant ‘natural balance’ that historical gaming brings to your game can easily be blown away by your favorite 10th level Wizard. Similarly, in the real world, fighters couldn’t withstand hits from 40 arrows and keep fighting. Historical laws, civic defenses, armies and fortifications are designed around the concept that people can actually die, even really cool people, so it’s a problem you’ll need to overcome. We can call this problem Power Creep.
Standard DnD characters are also somewhat over-specialized, particularly if they are similar to the computer game tropes of ‘tank’, ‘damager’, ‘healer’ etc. Standard RPG fighters often lack skills, wizards also lack skills, can’t wear armor and have no fighting abilities, healers can do little more than protect and ‘power-up’ the party, while Rogues have morphed into cartoon ninjas who can hide in plain sight and ‘backstab’ enemies who are fully aware of their presence, but are comparatively vulnerable and still lack the sort of skills which would make them viable in the real world. To be honest, all of them do. We can call this problem Over Specialization.
One good way to solve a big problem is the way an ant eats an elephant: one bite at a time. The first “bite” you can take is to limit the magic. Contrary to what you might think, there were practicing magicians in the historical world, at least from their own point of view. Magic practitioners were even hired by towns to assist in their military defense. But this was not the typical, cliché magic of fantasy RPGs and computer games. It was far more subtle. There was a real Dr Faustus in 15th Century Europe, apparently, and there were many others, some with famous names like Copernicus and Giordano Bruno, who dabbled in the Ars Magica. But none of them shows up in the records as having summoned beholders or teleported out of jail cells, and the world they lived in would not know how to contend with such power. So the first step toward making characters suitable for a historical campaign is to limit magic a little bit. This is what is called a Low Magic setting.
What “Low Magic” means precisely depends on your specific campaign setting. The simplest method is to just limit players to relatively low levels. This also solves the second major power creep issue: ginormous numbers of Hit Points (or the equivalent) making Player Characters almost immune to attack from mere mortals. Medieval castles were not designed to repel assaults from attackers who can fly, or melt the walls with a wave of their hand. Years ago somebody came up with one of the most elegant solutions to both of these dilemmas, and this was called E6. E6 just restricts your PCs to level 6 (after that they just get more Feats). You don’t have to pick this precise cutoff point, yours might be lower or higher, but either way, capping levels helps keep the game in the ballpark of reality.
Capping levels and restricting magic does create some balance issues with certain classes. Wizards are weak at low levels. Powerful spells later are kind of a reward for not having much to do in the first dozen game sessions or so. Hit points are one of a fighter’s greatest assets, and they don’t have a lot of other skills besides fighting. You can solve a big chunk of both issues by one fairly simple measure: Multi-Classing. Multi-Classing has been around for years, but in many game systems, players prefer to stick to a single class so as to focus their power – that is how you get the 200 hit point fighters and the Meteor Swarm and Power Word Kill spells.
Multi Classing, if you handle it with a little forethought, can slow down level progression while rapidly expanding player versatility. In standard OGL, each class is very specialized, but by mixing two or three classes, you can rapidly acquire a lot more skills, abilities and options. You can even let the players start out with two classes instead of one. Your fighter is no longer just stuck standing around waiting for a monster to kill while everyone else does the negotiating, lock picking, wall climbing and so on. The standard OGL experience point level progression encourages specialization in a single class but if, for example, you charge XP both for the total number of classes and for the new level in the class being acquired, that encourages multi-classing.
Versatility and the “Renaissance Man”
One of the realities of life in pre-industrial times, and in particular the medieval world, is that people tended to have many different kinds of skills. Nicholas Copernicus was not just an astronomer, he was a physician, a cleric, a lawyer, and a warrior who led men in battle against the Teutonic Knights. As in, he could stitch up a wound or mix up medicine, he could say mass, he could write a legal letter, and he knew how to shoot a crossbow. Nor was he unique in his own era. The famous 16th Century sculptor Benvenutto Cellini was also a goldsmith and a trained fencer and marksman who killed at least 7 men in duels and shot the commander of the army besieging Rome from long distance with an arquebus. He also describes practicing sorcery in his autobiography.
Citizens of medieval towns like Florence, or Prague or Zurich were expected not only to know have mastery of their craft or trade, and to fight in the town militia when necessary, but were also required to be able to read and write (often in more than one language) and to know arithmetic in order to conduct business. Builders like masons and carpenters knew the geometry of Euclid. Many sailors knew the art of trigonometry which was needed for navigation. The reason a physician like Copernicus was expected to have an interest in Astronomy was because they were required by law to know the position the moon before surgery. Having more skills like a person from the Renaissance can enrich your players gaming experience.
For dozens of examples of real life heroes and adventurers from the real world see my previous blog Historical Rogues gallery here.
Class specialization and subclasses
Another way to give players a few more options is to create subclasses or specializations within a class. This has been tried with many versions of DnD and is notably prevalent in 5th Edition, with dozens of specialization options like the Arcane Archer, the Battle Master, or the Eldritch Knight. Some of these seem to be intended as alternatives to multi-classing, while others are specializations on the main theme –like fighters who are particularly good as archers or on horseback. The real world has these types of specialists as well, including such skilled experts as knights, horse archers, and fencing masters. Of course, there were more than just fighting specialists. Real historical people could be specialized in things like sword making, locksmithing or mining, masonry or medicine, while also cultivating warlike and self-defense skills and having hobbies ranging from horse racing, to acrobatics, to composing and reciting songs and poetry. Not all that different from RPG classes necessarily, but with more skills and skills more tuned to the real world.
Both multi-classing and subclasses can be used together in your character development, depending on how many options you want to give your players. If you are just starting to experiment with historical gaming or are in the early stages of a shift toward that direction, it may be a good idea to somewhat limit your player’s options at first, and then gradually introduce more and more as the need or interest becomes apparent.
You can get a good start on making more realistic subclasses by looking at some of the ‘civilian only’ NPC classes in your current system. Often these are slightly less capable and interesting than PC classes, but that is not necessarily hard to change. Using resources like the Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic, and some of the others listed at the end of this article, it’s not too hard to modify some NPC class types or PC subclasses to more accurately reflect the type of lives people actually lead in Europe in the Middle Ages or some other place and era that you are interested in.
Once you’ve got the basics of more balanced, less overpowered characters you are ready to start historical gaming. The next step is to start taking a look at realistic historical combat and then perhaps, magic, but that is a discussion for another day.
Advantages Low Magic and multi-classed characters (Special thanks to Jack Gassmann for this commentary)
Low Magic means magic is strategic rather than tactical, it’s for plot hooks or overcoming major obstacles or villains rather than routinely incinerating henchmen. There are no easy outs. Multiclassing means everyone gets to be a specialist and a fighter. You don’t have to pick. You can be a crazy engineer building diving suits and have medical training. Subclasses are a part of that.
Taken together this all means that there is a much flatter curve in power levels. Your average character is not a lot better than your beginning character, and not a lot worse than a high level character. A “Special Ops” guy is going to be good but he won’t take out entire platoons of enemies by himself.
That has a few big advantages for gameplay – things are always a challenge, you can’t get cocky – Your starting characters are interesting and have capabilities. This way your beginner but ostensibly heroic character doesn’t start completely bereft of skills. And losing a character isn’t quite as harsh because you won’t have to spend tons of sessions building up to a decent one again.
While an interesting matchup, this is perhaps not a perfect fit…
Aside from protagonists, every good genre story needs a villain, and every RPG game needs at least some enemies for the party to oppose. But the historical world is a bit different from a generic fantasy kingdom powered by inexhaustible supplies of ‘handwavium’. There was no shortage of drama and intrigue in the real world, and many villains who could scare the claws off of any orc, but there was also a fairly tense, ongoing balance of power between armies, between factions in aristocratic families and towns, peasant clans and tribes, and everyone else who lived in the pre-industrial world. These settings are ripe for adventure of many kinds, but you can’t have a Beholder flying over 14th century Nuremberg. Nor can you have vast armies of Orcs and Hobgoblins for your PCs to hack through like so many sheaves of wheat week after week.
Most opponents in an historical campaign are typically going to be people, though people can be monsters too. That said, there is some wiggle room for the supernatural. People in all ancient periods, including and especially medieval Europe, did have many superstitious beliefs, colorful mythology, and scary or uncanny legends, (some of which were perhaps their way of explaining the type of human monsters we know today as serial killers or mass murderers). They had the idea of things like werewolves, the doppelganger, the troll and Wild Hunt, the Leshy and the Wildmann, as well as a variety of angels, demons, and intermediate spirits. The important bit though is that they thought some of these phenomena were real, or at least, possibly real. So they fit into that society, there was language for what it was, proposed remedies for dealing with them and so on. It helps a lot when you do go into the supernatural, to tailor it toward concepts that were part of the world you are putting it into.
So when you are creating NPCs and villains for your player characters to contend with in an historical campaign, you don’t need to shy away from the supernatural entirely. Generally speaking though, it’s best not to flood the market when dealing with the uncanny in an ostensibly real world. Think of the scariest horror movies you ever saw. How many monsters were there in Alien? How many in American Werewolf in London? But were they scary? Sometimes less is more.
I already mentioned our book the Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic, which is our best current tool to provide a useful historical reference for one specific time and place – North-Central Europe in the mid-15th Century. Volume II of that book should be coming out in a few months. These are purely history books however and do not have any content specifically related to gaming. We also have a two other supplements including one on close combat weapons called Codex Martialis Melee Weapons of the Ancient World and a second on armor and missile weapons called Codex Martialis: Armor and Missiles of the Ancient World. Both are intended for use with Codex Martialis and OGL, but have a great deal of “system agnostic” information and data which can help you kit out your characters and NPCs for any historical game, or to adapt to a fantasy or other genre game to make combat a bit more satisfying. But there are many other interesting eras and you can find other good resources.
Games and RPG Sourcebooks
Here is a short list of some books and games I’m familiar with, not necessarily representative.
Call of Cthulhu This will probably date me, but the original Call of Cthulhu rulebook had a short but very useful section of historical information, maps, drawings and descriptions of places someone might experience in the early 20th Century. Which is relatively recent but still historical. Prisons, trains, ancient temple complexes, and many other interesting locales were described and mapped out. This is a great example of the type of thing which won’t necessarily help you generate characters, but it will help a lot to fit your characters into the world they inhabit.
Cthulhu Dark Ages Chaosium later released a supplement set in a kind of vague quasi medieval world, but it ended up having some useful resources for a kind of early medieval setting.
Hârn Hârnmaster is an entire very comprehensive fantasy RPG system set in what is pretty close to a medieval setting. I haven’t seen it all and never played the game yet but I bought about 5 or 6 of their sourcebooks about fifteen years ago, so my perception is based on that. At that time what they had was a pretty close analogue for a fairly historically accurate setting for roughly 9th-11th Century medieval Britain, and maybe a bit of France. It’s a low magic historical setting but integrated with most of the standard fantasy tropes. There isn’t much about urban life that I remember, and overall to me it’s not the most exciting historical period, but it does a good job of covering nobles and the feudal countryside. So if you are trying to figure out the kinds of problems which come along with creating a hybrid historical / fantasy setting (and characters) this is a good place to look.
Burning Wheel A great Indy game which features one of my favorite things in game design, one which goes back to the original Traveler RPG – a Lifepath character generation system. This means instead of just rolling dice, you kind of quickly run through your characters life, picking up skills and life experiences as you go, and end up with something much less ‘canned’ or artificial than regular character generation and often a lot more nuanced and interesting. I think this is the way to do historical character generation too and it`s how Codex Ingenium (not yet released) works.
Warhammer FRPG Another classic, still very popular today, with a somewhat Low Magic setting, kind of an ultra-grim dark fantasy version of late medieval Europe. Their character generation system also has elements of a Lifepath system, and yet it’s pretty quick to use. Even if you don’t to fully adopt precisely the same “Doomed” setting they are in the ballpark of a good fantasy / historical hybrid and therefore it’s another good place to look.
Crusaders of the Amber Coast – set in 1206 AD, system BRP, Alephstar Games. This seems to be out of print now but as the author of a book set in the same place as the one I wrote (albeit with a 250-year time gap) I didn’t agree with everything they wrote, but overall I think they did a pretty good job with this book. Covering anything outside of England or France in medieval history is pretty rare to find anything about in popular history, let alone games, and the Northern Crusades doubly so. If you are interested in a High Medieval setting, which means the period from roughly the 12th -13th Centuries, and one outside of Europe which deals with both Christian and Pagan societies, this might be a good resource to pick up if you can find it somewhere.
Avalanche Press – These guys are a Wargame company which briefly veered into the realm of D20 content back in the early days of the OGL. They made the (to me) somewhat unfortunate decision to put a fairly ridiculous image of a semi-nude woman on all of their covers, and I’m not sure how much they fully understood D20, but as you might expect from a Wargame company their historical knowledge was pretty solid. I read their book on Vlad the Impaler, on Byzantium, and their Celtic book, all of which were well written, well researched, and they did a good job of making the information easy to digest without dumbing it down too much. They are no longer easy to find but apparently not quite out of print, I found some of their books still listed on their website here.
Magical Medieval Society, City etc. Expeditious Retreat Press put out a series of sourcebooks on Quasi-historical settings, of which I have bought and read at least two, their “Magical medieval City” supplement and their one on the Silk Road. In both cases I would have some quibbles but overall I thought they were quite thorough, solid on the rules kind of stuff, and at least well within the ballpark of knowing what they were talking about historically. Their medieval city definition has a lot more nuance (and is closer to the mark) than what you would find in most popular history books on the medieval world or documentaries etc. Perhaps more importantly for gamers specifically these were some of the most thorough and complete supplements of this type when it comes to the integration of historical realities with standard gaming concepts.
Osprey Military Books are heavily illustrated military history ‘cliff notes’ which typically focus precisely on a particular time or place (like a famous battle), or a particular type of warrior, or both. Each one is a relatively short magazine sized booklet of somewhere around 30-80 pages, a few are longer. They are written by different authors and illustrated by different artists, so the quality varies, but almost all of them are at least a pretty good introduction to the time and place, and specifically to the warriors and all their kit. This is where it becomes useful for gamers. You want to know exactly what kind of arms and armor a Viking had in 900 AD? Or a Samurai in 1300? Or a knight in 1500? Or a pirate in 1700? There is an Osprey book for that. These books will also provide some insight into what kind of tactics they used, what kind of conditions they dealt with, how they were organized and what their opponents were like.
Hopefully this little essay will give you the gamer (or other interested party), some insights into factors that go into making characters for historical RPGs. This also gives you an idea of some of the thinking that has gone into our own Codex Ingenium character generation system, which will be out some time this year. In part II of this blog, I’ll get a little deeper into the process of actually making historical characters and share a few examples of characters generated with our new system so we can see how fit into a historical setting, and how they can make combat and role playing more fun and immersive.