I’m writing this article in the week before America’s Independence Day. And that has me thinking about RPGs set in a Colonial or Revolutionary America. Or during the Age of Enlightenment in general, roughly the 17th and 18th centuries. It occurred to me there’s not a bit of a dearth of RPGs set during that period.
This article’s main purpose is to examine why that might be. Looking at popular historical eras for gaming, it seems the latest period commonly used for RPG campaigns (outside the present day) would be the pulp era of the 1920s and 1930s. The Victorian era is popular, as is the American “Old West,” often with a dose of alternate history. Then there seems to be a big gap until the Middle Ages, with only a few exceptions. A big reason for that is probably one of popular fiction. While there’s lots of media set in the Old West, Victorian era, etc., there’s not much set in the American Revolution or the Seven Years War. I suspect there are also a lot of uncomfortable considerations during such periods. For example, the man who wrote “that all men are created equal” and were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” enslaved his fellow humans. I suspect one reason for alternate history being popular in RPGs set after the Civil War is that it allows publishers to change some unpleasant realities. For example, early Deadlands products, set in an alternate 1870s, had a still active Confederacy miraculously conclude that “racism and slavery are bad.” I understand why such decisions were made but given the real-life humans involved with such decisions, that seems exceedingly unlikely.
The reason for this brief sojourn into introspection is to warn that the period can be a bit of a minefield, and one should talk things over with fellow gamers to make certain everyone is playing a game that they enjoy.
So, supposing you have a group comfortable with such concepts, what’s out there? For purposes of brevity, this will not be a series of reviews, but I will occasionally offer some brief opinions.
The most supported American game set during the Enlightenment would have to be Rogue Games’ Colonial Gothic. It is canonically set during the American Revolution, with additional supplements covering the French and Indian War (a front in the Seven Years War) and French America. It looks like our own history from the outside, but under the surface is a mystical Secret War, supporting supernatural historic horror. It handles topics of slavery, race, and indigenous nations with care and respect. There is no shortage of adventures and supplements for it. My only complaint about it would be I’ve never particularly cared for its d12-based game mechanic. A new incarnation Colonial Gothic, re-worked and re-titled Flames of Freedom Grim and Perilous RPG, should be widely available
Going back a hundred years gives us Cakebread and Walton’s Clockwork and Chivalry. Based on the OpenQuest RPG (which was, in turn, inspired by RuneQuest), Clockwork and Chivalry takes place in an alternate version of the English Civil War, with clockwork scientific inventions, alchemy, and witchcraft. In this setting, various factions like Loyalists, Catholics, Satanists, etc., add important details to characters. A free generic set of rules for this is available as Renaissance Deluxe. This game would be easily adaptable to games set in various periods from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic Wars.
Now published by Chaosium, 7th Sea takes place on the continent of Theah, an analog for Age of Exploration Europe, with supplements adding new lands such as analogs for the Americas, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East, etc. The nations and cultures these are supposed to represent are very obvious, but it provides a nice way to avoid real-world issues. Thankfully, it avoids tropes like “Native Americans are elves”—everyone is human. It provides a nice combination of the familiar and the magical, describing itself as “swashbuckling sorcery.” It makes use of a “bucket of dice” gaming engine.
The Three Musketeers, set early in this period (arguably a little before it), provides inspiration for several games, with the caveat that these are games I am not particularly familiar with. There is the early 1980s Fantasy Games Unlimited Flashing Blades, with its Age of Piracy supplement High Seas. Triple Ace Games published All For One: Régime Diabolique using the Ubiquity System and a follow-up using Savage Worlds.
I’m sure this brief overview missed many. Any favorites I should be checking out? Any of the above you’d like to see a full review for?
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