I’d like to share some principles I follow when I work with historical and real-world settings, either in play or in design. For shorthand, I’m going to refer to them as “historical,” but many of these principles also apply to games set on contemporary Earth. This article refers to choices I made in Thousand Arrows, but it isn’t really about Thousand Arrows, so you still get a proper Imjin War-focused Part II later on.
Why bother working with historical settings? They demand research and are more likely to offend. Why not stick to fantasy where you and your players needn’t be so accountable to real people?
Because I Get to Represent Forgotten People
I want players whose stories are scarce in Eurocentric history and fiction to see themselves in my games. I want them to feel seen and heard. But in an overwhelmingly cisgender, straight, white, male hobby, it’s not enough for me to say so: I want the game itself to have marginalized players’ backs. Historical games fight the default on both fictional and nonfictional fronts.
Because Fantasy Doesn’t Excuse Bigotry
In every argument about whether a fantastic setting is harmful or not, at a certain point someone shows up and says, “Look, I don’t know what you people are offended about. This isn’t real England—this is Avalon, a made-up fantasy country! Why would you be offended by the depiction of people who don’t exist in a country which doesn’t exist?”
… because filing the serial numbers off of real-world concepts fools no one and never has. Our human brains excel at associating similar things. If you load a fictional country down with signifiers, intentionally or otherwise, which point to people, places, or things in the real world’s present or past, we’ll connect them in our heads.
Show me a fantasy setting, any fantasy setting, no matter how far removed from the real world, and I’ll show you the touchstones which connect it to the real world. The cut of characters’ clothing, their faces’ shapes, their language, their buildings’ architecture, their weapons’ design—every last little detail connects to some antecedent in real life. No matter how hard you go when you try to invent things wholecloth, you can’t escape the human brain’s power to draw connections, as either a creator or a consumer.
Maybe you didn’t intend for anyone to draw those connections. Maybe you hoped the signifiers would point to something else. But your intent matters way less than how your consumer interprets your material. They may not even realize they’re interpreting things that way. In fact, these kinds of subconscious associations, which are particularly dangerous in fantasy where people might not think to confront or consider them, can pose even more common and insidious problems when they reinforce unconscious bias. One thing leads to another, and soon we’re having conversations about how “orcs are brutal savages and so it’s okay to kill them” and some people at the table are sitting there wondering obliviously why others are squirming but don’t feel comfortable saying anything.
As a designer and a man of color, I feel more comfortable when problems are out in the open. An explicitly historical setting lets me hold myself accountable, and lets you hold me accountable too.
Because Learning Is Fun
I know I sound like a library poster here, but historical games make learning more fun and less work for everyone.
Prioritize Player Experience
When I design historical games, my priorities are as follows, in descending order of importance.
The health, safety, and comfort of real people, especially the players in the game
A fun, functional play experience
Historical accuracy and stuff
I value historical integrity, but the game needs to play to convey that integrity. You can play as Tokugawa Ieyasu or a farmer in Thousand Arrows, but even if Tokugawa Ieyasu didn’t usually talk to farmers in real life, in this game he’s still gonna hang out with the farmer so the players can interact, à la The Hidden Fortress. Even more important than either of those things, though, is a safe human experience. There’s already great material out there on how to manage conflict between #1 and #2. But in historical gaming specifically, archaic attitudes towards concepts like conquest, gender roles, or consent sometimes create conflict between #1 and #3. #1 has to win here, on two fronts: in character, and out of character.
In Character …
I want to represent and validate players’ real-life identities. Every culture throughout history has had disabled, gender non-conforming, and queer people, whether or not the people in power and the people who wrote down history admitted it. I also want to give players the choice about whether they want to engage with identity-based oppression in the game or not. If a player independently decides their character had an abusive relationship in their backstory, that’s great because they themself chose it. But I’m not going to force trauma on any character. Daniel H Kwan’s game Ross Rifles, about Canadian soldiers in World War I, explicitly allows characters of all genders and ethnicities whether or not they fought for Canada in the Great War (although Daniel has great historical anecdotes on the surprising diversity of real Canadian soldiers). Thousand Arrows’s Catholic allegiance playbook has options for characters who want to dive deep into the struggle of Japanese Christians’ struggle against suspicion and oppression, but you can also just decide, “hey, my secret agent is Catholic but it’s no big deal.”
It’s okay to set some limits, especially when they focus the game experience on marginalized people, or downplay identities from dominant demographics. Nahual requires all characters to be poor Mexicans. Thousand Arrows has no European playbooks (at least in the core) because between James Clavell and Tom Cruise and Wolverine, “white dude becomes a samurai” is played out.
… and Out
Don’t let historical accuracy give players free rein to act in an oppressive or exploitative manner. If your game includes characters with backward attitudes, remember that the game master or player portraying them may well end up speaking or acting their bad behaviors in character, which may make other players (or, hell, random passersby) feel bad even if they know it’s just play. Worse yet, role-playing games and other genre events which enable or excuse such conduct sometimes attract people who see them as a safe space for regressive views and behavior. Your concern for real people also extends beyond the table, so don’t let history or fun foster bad behavior towards people in the real world just because they aren’t present in the game, either. This problem deserves its own entire article, but for now, suffice to say: please don’t rely on safety mechanisms as your only protection. Design for it.
Adjudicate In-Character Evil
It’s okay to design games which replicate oppressive situations in role-play so we can explore and work through them. I’ve played satisfying Monsterhearts and Velvet Glove games which did that. That’s great, so long as you signal players ahead of time so they know what to expect, and emplace safety mechanics so they can modulate their experience. But as with games which criticize marginalized groups (see “Leave Criticism to the In-Group” below), you should probably let the group’s own members take the lead with stories about their own oppression, so you don’t wind up enabling identity-based misery tourism.
Your game’s social contract needs to set out how you, as both players and characters, will categorize different forms of evil behavior. I’m going to give examples from a hypothetical live-action vampire RPG.
Evil inherent to the setting which we will engage with, but never question or interrogate. Example: Vampires drinking human blood to survive.
Evil which we will engage with, but which will be a point of conflict between characters. Example: Vampires socially manipulating humans.
Evil which will happen, but the players won’t do it, and will oppose it when it shows up. Example: Vampires using mind control to order humans around.
Evil which even villains won’t think to engage in, ever. Example: Vampires using mind control for sexual purposes.
Setting these expectations ahead of time heads off awkward situations. For instance, in addition to the troublesome situations listed in the headings above, players who bring anachronistic modern attitudes to dated settings may derail a deep dive in good faith into the material. If you set a game in the United States in the 1950s or 1960s to deconstruct American values, and a character uses contemporary leftist vocabulary to harangue another character who’s role-playing a period-appropriate misunderstanding of, say, the gender binary, the players probably aren’t on the same page with regard to where on the 1 to 4 scale gender-based oppression falls.
Lowering Barriers to Entry
The most common deterrent to players getting involved in historical games is “history panic”: the worry that they don’t know the game’s time and place well enough to understand what’s going on, play respectfully, or enjoy themselves. I suppose we could call the equivalent anxiety for settings with elaborate mythologies “canon panic.” The personification of these fears is that one player—you know the one—who knows, or thinks they know, every last detail of the canon or the time period in question back to front. They correct you out-of-character every time you get a detail wrong. Their character won’t stop haranguing your character for not living up to norms or values you don’t understand. They constantly use foreign terms or setting jargon and either don’t explain or over-explain them. You find yourself sitting there wondering whether they’re really just that obliviously excited, or they’re trying to gatekeep you or make you feel foolish as part of a creepy status game you never wanted to play.
While the material below points mostly towards the problem of high-familiarity players discomfiting low-familiarity players, this is not to say you should discourage players from learning about history and drawing on that knowledge in game. If I didn’t like to do that, I wouldn’t be designing historical games in the first place. Making fun of players for a respectfully-expressed interest in history, or no-selling their contributions to setting consistency, isn’t cool either. But I think the ideal historical game allows for a realistically wide range of familiarities with the subject matter.
Teach Slowly and Clearly
A game which sets expectations and teaches its content clearly and at a comfortable pace undercuts this kind of gatekeeping. It tells the lorebro, “Exposition is my job. You focus on something else.” For example, Thousand Arrows’s quickstart documents include just under a page (or just under three minutes’ reading aloud) of pre-game background on the setting. Everything else the players need to know appears in character creation and the common moves, so the process of getting to know each other’s characters and the rules is the same as the process of learning about sixteenth-century Japan.
When introducing an unfamiliar culture, I recommend introducing elements which are similar to your audience’s experience before introducing elements which are different. I’m not out here to say “deep down, we’re all the same!” because we’re not, but I still think this approach is less likely to other or exotify the culture in question. The insistence on casual speech in modern idiom that I mentioned in Part I supports this principle, but as another example: It’s understandable but frustrating that English speakers commonly refer to a Spanish jinete or French chevalier as a knight, but not an Ottoman sipâhi or Indian kṣatriyaḥ or Japanese samurai. I get that a chevalier or jinete is probably more like a British knight than a sipâhi or kṣatriyaḥ or samurai, but the divide still seems othering. So, the text of Thousand Arrows translates every Japanese word which could conceivably be translated into English. Samurai are knights. Rōnin are knights-errant. Ninja are secret agents. Katana and tachi are longswords. This principle also appears (with funnier examples) in Clio Yun-su Davis’s live-action game The Long Drive Back from Busan, which is about a Korean boy band. If Thousand Arrows had an equivalent to Clio’s kimchi rule (“This is not a win or lose game, but if any player says the word ‘kimchi,’ they automatically lose”), it would probably be, “If at any point anyone says someone has no honor, Mendez will portal into your room, flip the table you’re playing on, and leave, even if you’re playing online and there is no table.”
If You Absolutely Must Correct Someone …
I hate correcting people. It’s awkward. One advantage of the Warring States setting over the Heian or Edo periods is that the wartime atmosphere makes the specifics of propriety and decorum less important. After all, the most famous figure of the time was Oda Nobunaga, who presumably had heard of propriety and decorum, but generally acted like he hadn’t.
You know your game’s didactic approach works when you (not to mention the lorebro) get to spend as little time as possible telling people they’re wrong. Still, it happens sometimes. When I run historical games, if someone makes a character or role-play choice that’s uncommon or unrealistic for the setting, I might point that out if …
it’s based on misinformation from a problematic source: ninja swords with straight blades, rākṣasas with tiger heads, Japanese monks fighting unarmed like Chinese monks
it implicitly limits the choices other players or their characters might make: “My character says, ‘No self-respecting knight would allow Portuguese missionaries into his domain!’” or “My character’s father would be so angry if he found out he’s dating another man!”; or
it contravenes the game’s social contract, perhaps with regard to the four categories of evil described above.
If it is, I always suggest an alternative so the player doesn’t feel shut down or embarrassed. A choice of alternatives is even better, because it grants the player agency right away. So, if a player says, “Of course my warrior monk always fights unarmed and unarmored,” presumably because of Dungeons & Dragons-based misconceptions, I can’t just say, “Japanese monks don’t usually do that,” and leave the player feeling embarrassed. Instead: “That sounds really risky—are you sure you don’t want a weapon and suit of armor, just in case? Warrior monks often specialized in either the arquebus or the glaive.” Now the player can move on immediately from being corrected and feel in control again.
If the uncommon or unrealistic choice is not one of those three things, I might still point it out, but I’d much rather find an interesting offbeat reason for it to work than tell them no. “Huh, your samurai fights with a sword and shield? That’s really interesting! Might you have trained with an Okinawan or Chinese pirate in the past?” During the original run of “Dragon King’s Gambit,” one player requested a pair of Chinese hook swords, and I still regret telling him they hadn’t been invented yet. I should have just suggested that in that timeline, his character invented them.
There’s an argument that supernatural, mythical, or religious content dilutes historically accurate games. Especially when it comes to non-Western settings, I generally disagree. If I write a game set in Korea which has a dragon, I’m not including that dragon because I think dragons are real. Whether dragons are real or not isn’t at stake here. I’m including that dragon because dragons’ presence in East Asian religion, folklore, and literature shows they’re important to the worldview of the people I’m representing. I don’t mean to say every East Asian game must brim with dragons; that idea has its own pitfalls, as we’re about to see. But when “this isn’t real/historical/scientific” becomes a rationale for disregarding marginalized people’s perspectives as primitive, backward, or unworthy? Miss me with that.
That said, please avoid using supernatural content in these disrespectful ways.
Don’t reassign humans’ misdeeds to supernatural creatures. If your game says, “Vampires took advantage of the slave trade to prey on slaves without repercussions,” that might be fraught, but okay: you’re talking about a supernatural villain capitalizing on an existing system of oppression. However, “Vampires secretly precipitated the transatlantic slave trade so they could drink slaves’ blood” is not cool, because now you’re shifting blame away from real people who should be held accountable for their actions. If revisionist history that shifts the blame for chattel slavery doesn’t sound like a dangerous idea to you, you need to pay better attention to the way real-world bad guys and conspiracy theorists mislead the public.
Don’t mythologize or mystify certain populations to a degree that exceeds their neighbors. Suppose you set an urban fantasy game in modern London. If Polish immigrants seem to have way more vampires, ghosts, and witches among them than anyone else, that’s a bad look. Poles already have a hard enough time getting by in England without you lowkey reinforcing stereotypes that they’re superstitious. You needn’t throw out Polish mythology, but you are obligated to include other ethnicities’ legendry on a similar scale, as well as to diversify your characterizations of Poles. “Positive” versions of this stereotype, like wise mystical Asians, don’t get a pass either. If you have one wise mystical Chinese guy, you better have some Chinese characters who are about something else too, the way Rogue One juxtaposes Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Jiāng Wén’s Baze Malbus.
Don’t overwrite one culture’s mythology with another’s. If that urban fantasy game says Kālī is not actually a goddess, but an ancient vampire queen pretending to be a goddess, you’re colonizing Hindu mythology. It’s great that you want to include Indian material, but this kind of interpretatio Graeca denigrates millions of real human beings who worship Kālī. Make space in your mythology for multiple worldviews.
Leave Criticism to the In-Group
I think we can and should make games and fiction outside our lived experience. Do your research. Hire consultants. Try, fail, listen, do better. But tread lightly when it comes to critiquing the people you describe. Ostensibly well-meaning external critiques have a long history of doing more harm than good. They’re frequently inaccurate because they lack an insider’s perspective. They tend to highlight problems which become negative stereotypes, even if the problem isn’t much worse in that community than elsewhere. Worst of all, those critiques embolden outright bigots, who can misuse those critiques for oppressive purposes, especially when concern trolling.
I hope this article helped you understand why I love the challenge of game play and design in historical settings—and perhaps emboldened you to take it on yourself. Watch this space for more best practices as well as examples of how to apply them. If you want to read more about these principles and how they came up in Thousand Arrows and elsewhere, you can peep the Giant Robot of Offense, Part I of Thousand Arrows and Sensitivity, or my interview with the aforementioned Daniel Kwan on the Asians Represent! podcast. If you have more questions, hit me up in the comments, on Mastodon, or on Twitter.