Dear Rolling Boxcars,
When running/playing in a historical setting should modern attitudes replace historical one? If those attitudes are replaced is it still historical?
Lost in Time
Dear Lost in Time,
Thanks for the great question! This is something that is coming up in conversations more and more as of late and for good reason. We believe that all games, no matter what genre they fall into, can be approached from modern points of view. I know that seems like a short answer, but let us elaborate a little more.
The world is an ever-changing landscape and just because something was acceptable OR unacceptable at a particular point in time, applying modern attitudes isn’t wrong. First and foremost, we are playing games to have fun, a little escapism. But we do not need to indulge or promote period social norms if they are counter to modern (ever-evolving) attitudes and sensibilities. We are of the firm opinion that at no time should discriminatory attitudes or language be used in roleplaying games. There are ways to mechanically address things like racism without ever narratively crossing that line. Chris Spivey’s amazing Harlem Unbound for Call of Cthulhu specifically tackles the issue of racism in Harlem in the 1920s through mechanical, not narrative means. He created an in-game mechanic that allows Keepers to add a penalty die to social rolls as a way to mechanically emulate racist attitudes. This simple mechanic works very well and allows for stories to maintain their historical feel without cross lines.
As gamers, we should be cognizant that there are others at the table that may have different attitudes and experiences from our own. Historical games are rooted in facts as the author understands them, but as players and gamemasters, we bring our own modern attitudes to the table. It is our opinion that historical settings do not lose any of their historicity by framing the narrative with modern attitudes. Dan’s recent article about his current King Arthur Pendragon game highlights that modern gender identity frameworks and same-sex relationships work in that historical setting without it losing any of its historicity or feel. But it does require the GM and the players to be understanding of the idea that they are applying modern attitudes to that setting. It’s working nicely for them.
If you or your group really wants to incorporate period attitudes into your historically themed game, that is a conversation you need to have with each and every gamer at your table. We believe that you will find that your group is most likely not willing or wanting things like racism, xenophobia, misogyny and other forms of discrimination in their games. If you or they want such things as a way to keep the historical vibe of the setting, we recommend that you follow the mechanical model put forth by Chris Spivey, make it an obstacle to overcome and not something to suppress or insult your players.
I’m sure we don’t need to mention this, but we will, some historical settings are not right for all players. For example, a refugee or veteran from Vietnam might find a game set in the Vietnam War just too personal, no matter how much care is taken.
The long and the short of it is, we can play any game, in any setting, with our modern attitudes without the game setting losing its historical vibe. Also, the Will Wheaton rule applies “Don’t be a Dick!”
Do you have a gaming or geek-related question? Do you need help with a situation? How about a recommendation? If so, submit your questions to “The Boxcars” and let us weigh in with our collective wisdom. Questions can be submitted on the Ask The Boxcars page.
~ The Boxcars
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