For we who grew up tall and proudQueen, Hammer to Fall
In the shadow of the Mushroom Cloud
Convinced our voices can’t be heard
We just wanna scream it louder and louder and louder
I’ve been thinking a lot about gaming in historical periods. In my gaming experience, I have very, very rarely played in a game set in “today”. That’s not too surprising with my favorite game, Call of Cthulhu, tending to default to the Jazz Age of the 1920s.
However, as I’ve grown older (I’m heading towards the big 5-0) I’ve become aware that there are periods which I remember—and remember quite well—which are historical periods to many people. One of the pieces of advice in TSR’s Gangbusters game was to talk with your grandparents about life in the 1920s and 30s. Doing some quick math, someone aged 15 in 1930 would be 67 in 1982, the year Gangbusters was published. It was quite reasonable to assume that a lot of younger players would have access to people with actual memory of the 1920s and, even more likely, the 1930s. Nowadays there are very few with such memories. There’s some—the oldest American, at the time of this writing, is Alelia Murphy, born in 1905 and 114 years old. However, for most people, that is a closed door.
I’ve come to realize over the past few years that the time I first began gaming, in the early 1980s, is not the recent past but is history for a large portion of the gaming community. I think it was 1981 that I discovered D&D in the form of the Magenta Basic Set, around 38 years ago. To give myself some perspective, I looked it a different way. Thinking what it was like 38 years before I started gaming and realized that 1943 would be challenging for my 1981 self to picture…
This has really been on my mind as I consider a recent thread in the Facebook Call of Cthulhu RPG group. Someone asked if in the 1970s and 1980s people were “really” worried about a Soviet invasion, nuclear war, or Soviet sleeper agents. A lot of younger people were quite surprised to discover that while very few people had real fears of a Soviet invasion, there were occasional news stories about a Soviet spy being arrested—and that the fear of a nuclear war was, for most of us, very, very real.
This conversation was rather illuminating for me, being a child of the era. The “duck and cover” drills were before my time but the threat of a global nuclear war was quite concrete. Moreover, the whole conversation got me thinking about the challenges of setting an RPG in the “recent-ish” past. I realized is I’ve never actually done such a game. I’ve set games in the future of the 23rd and 24th centuries for Star Trek or in the future year of 2020 for Cyberpunk 2020. (Checking the calendar—still the future at the time of this writing, but not for much longer). I’ve done a few games in the modern-day—superheroes and espionage being biggies. But I don’t believe I’ve actually pulled the trigger on a game set in the past but within my lifetime. Lots of gaming in the 1910s and 20s. A Delta Green and an Icons game set in the 1950s. I don’t believe I’ve gone as far as the 1960s. I’ve never set a game in the 1970s. I’ve set games in the 1980s, but I did so in the 1980s…
As I think about it, it seems a missed opportunity. As I’ve told my daughter as she dressed up for 90s Day as part of Spirit Week at her high school, it wasn’t an era or a cliche for us – it was simply the time we came of age. I spent the first four and a half years of the 1990s in college, I began my career, met my wife, got married, moved to Massachusetts, all in the 1990s. My wife had a cell phone, though I did not get one until either 1999 or 2000. Her first cell phone was huge – a literal car phone, analog, and costing a fortune to use. As a person who would now be lost without a smartphone, I’m amazed I lived nearly thirty years without a cell phone at all and even when I did get one, it was laughably primitive compared with what was to come. Though I still do miss my Motorola RAZR from time to time…
So thinking about it, what are my thoughts about a “recent-past” game? I’m going to use Call of Cthulhu as my baseline because… well it’s how I think. First and foremost, there’s the initial decision to set a game in the recent past. Why do it? I can think of a ton of reasons. One might just like the style and feel of the period. I suspect it’s a large reason why the 1920s are so big for Call of Cthulhu. There may also be things going on or political entities that exist in a certain period that don’t in others that may help drive the game. The existence of the Soviet Union is an obvious example – while the United States has adversaries in any period, the Cold War marked a period of intense competition with another superpower – with the possibility of any stumble leading to a global war. Nyarlathotep would be all over that. There are also different social trends in different eras. For example, the 1990s was the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy-based games. Delta Green came before the X-Files and the decade also brought us Conspiracy X.
Even if one lived in a given era, research is your friend. I love going through old newspaper archives and videos on YouTube. I’ve lost a few hours watching commercials from the 1970s and 1980s New York City. There’s nothing quite like seeing and hearing the people of a time period and being reminded of what they valued, how they talked, what they looked like. Research can help you stay accurate with things like popular entertainment, technologies in common use, etc.
There’s also some thought to have about how to portray and possibly change the past. While the recent past was a lot more progressive than the 1920s, there was still behavior that we would consider backward or reprehensible. Calling someone gay in my middle school was a casual insult. Racist and ethnic jokes, while still around today, were a lot more commonplace. There was considerable debate as to whether it was ok for women to be working instead of staying home with their kids. The terms for different races and ethnic groups were often different than those of today. Like anything else. the key is, in my opinion, to have everyone at the game table comfortable.
Like any other era used in gaming, one may find oneself making tweaks to real history for the benefit of a game. Author Jack Finney adjusted the building of the Dakota Apartments in New York City by a few years to fit the needs of the novel Time and Again. However, this is something that the table may come to an agreement on. Making an 1880s apartment building be built a few years early likely isn’t going to feel odd to anyone. However, changing what people actually remember might be a little weird—your mileage may vary.
What if you’re looking at a setting before your memory? Through the glory of the internet, one has access to people with memories going back decades. Places like Reddit, Facebook, and Quora are great opportunities to ask “this may sound dumb” sorts of questions. And the advice in Gangbusters is quite accurate – grandparents (and middle-aged parents like me) are great sources of knowledge from times past. Some of my fondest memories of my late maternal grandfather are his telling me about his life in New York City and serving in World War II. I can certainly get more detail from a history book or a documentary but the flavor I received from those conversations is irreplaceable.
As I was proofreading and finishing up this article, I had a very weird thought… The 1955 that Back to the Future went back to was closer to its present, 1985, than today is…
~ Dan Stack
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