Gaming in the Age of Enlightenment

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  GothicIt 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 in September of 2021, with digital copies released to Kickstarter backers. Flames of Freedom Grim and Perilous RPG is based on the popular (and apparently always capitalized) ZWEIHÄNDER RPG.

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 Bladeswith 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?

~Daniel Stack

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    A couple of obvious ones are Cake & Walton’s Dark Streets set in Georgian London, now using the same rules engine as Clockwork & Chivalry I believe and also Good Society the Jane Austen rpg set in the Regency. An unlikely but outstanding candidate is GURPS Goblins: yes, really! If you have not seen it check it out. Georgian London where everyone is a goblin, to mitigate the horror by dark comedy. It was a wonderful game!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Daniel Stack says:

      Good call on Dark Streets – I’d love to see C&W ramp their Renaissance games back up again.

      I think I actually have a pdf of GURPS Goblins somewhere on my cloud drive – I’m going to have to give it a read.

      I’d not heard of Good Society – going to be doing some googling… My wife is a huge Jane Austen fan – I recently got a new car and a strange tradition has all our family cars having names – Mr Darcy is a leading contender… My tastes are a little bit more towards Aubrey and Maturin, which does remind me there’s a few Napoleonic games out there too – possibly a touch outside the Enlightenment but I think the early 19th century tends to make the cut as the tail end…

      Like

  2. Great rundown Daniel. I tried thinking of any that didn’t make your list. A game I remembered is WITCH HUNT, though it is admittedly obscure. An attractive game and good case study of backlash against the Enlightenment.

    WITCH HUNT: Role Playing Salem 1692 – Old School RPG Obscurity (1983)

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    1. Daniel Stack says:

      I think that wins the prize for a game that didn’t slip my mind but that I’d never even heard of….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gary Furash says:

    Witch Hunter the Invisible World

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Daniel Stack says:

      I remember when that came out – never got to play it but it looked interesting

      Like

  4. To add to this quite comprehensive list: Duty & Honour and Beat to Quarters. A pair of card based games set during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars inspired by the Sharpe and Aubrey/Maturin novels respectively

    Liked by 1 person

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