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Writing Historical RPGs, Doing Diversity

For a few years now, I've been seeing things like this and reading pieces elsewhere about apparent conflicts between historical accuracy in historical or pseudo-historical fantasy games and issues of deep interest to some parts (and some potential parts) of the modern gaming audience. I tend to write things which are both connected to history and are written to enable the fantasies of modern people, some of whom have a specific interest in not reproducing problematic parts of the past and present in their recreations, so it's something which touches on stuff that I do. And I think I tend to move and write in circles where this tends not to get much thought or attention even though I write for a game which makes accuracy a priority, so while none of this is new to people who grapple with these issues regularly, I'm thinking maybe I should say something about it to get it into spaces where I work.

So, how do I approach the demands of both accuracy and diversity in the stuff I do, which is a sort of weird version of social history? From a "writing a product" point of view, I'm coming down on the "representation matters" side. Part of it is purely mercenary: if I can interest a larger audience in the stuff I write, I get more sales and more of those fat stacks of gaming cash (fat stacks not included). Part of it is love of gaming: I like these games I play and write, and I want to share that with others, so I'm going to try to be inclusive of anybody who might be interested. And part of it is love of history. There's all kinds of stereotype-breaking stuff out there, and I think it's really cool and want to wave it in people's faces and say "Hey, isn't this really cool?"

On the other hand, there's at least the popular perception that historical populations weren't racially mixed, sexes were largely separate and living according to fairly rigid codes of behavior, and so on, which tends to exclude some kinds of people from many adventuring roles. So how do I reconcile that with the goal of writing something which accurately represents the times and places I address?

Part of it is by having enough of a grasp of history to know that diversity is accuracy. Wearing the Very Responsible Historian Indeed hat helps. Right off the bat, about 50% of any given population is women, holding up their half of the sky. Leaving them out leaves out half the world. And they're not just there in relation to men as wives and mothers, any more than we define men in most games as husbands and fathers. A broader-than-conventional range of gender and sexualities can be difficult to establish depending on the society in question, but they're there if you look.

Disability's another one. Without modern medicine, a variety of diseases and parasitic infections through history could cause deafness or blindness. Missing or disabled limbs were a very real consequence of participating in historical warfare or just accidents, and even less catastrophic misadventure, without the aid of surgery, could easily result in a limp or other limited movement. Disabled people were very present in most places and, again, leaving them out means you're distorting your picture of the past.

Then there's racial and ethnic diversity. The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that people got around a lot more than we might be led to believe by our fictions. DNA tests show a persistent presence of people with African ancestry in English graves through the Middle Ages (and a persistence of recognizable images of Africans in Medieval European art as shown in things like portraits of St. Maurice make me suspect that there may have been a reasonable presence of live models). A Roman grave contained the bones of someone with East Asian ancestry. The earliest European envoys to the court of the Mongol khan found a handful of Europeans already living there, mostly serving as craftsmen. There were black people in China at least as early as the Tang dynasty. These people are largely nameless and all but lost to history, but clues are telling us that the past was more diverse than we knew.

Another part of it is making choices in what bits and pieces of history I present. Choice of emphasis is commonplace in writing history. Nobody, after all, can say everything. Somebody doing old-fashioned kings-and-battles history won't talk about the same things as a social historian, who won't talk about the same things as someone dealing with the history of fashion, and so on. All may be equally accurate, in that they might contain no statement of purported fact which can immediately be demonstrated to be false, but they're all very different in emphasis. For the kinds of topics I write about, there are vast reams of information I don't really touch. I don't get deeply into hagiographies in Hot Spots: Constantinople. I pass lightly over poetry and literature in Hot Spots: Renaissance Florence. And so on. I've got 30-ish pages to sum up entire societies where primary texts and later scholarship can fill up libraries. I can't fit it all in, so I have to make choices.

My choice, then, is not to limit my definition of "accurate" to "representative." I select those bits of history which will enable and support the broadest range of fantasies, setting out both what's common and what can be made plausible. And for enabling fantasies, that seems to me the best way to go about it. Certainly, an adventuring party containing an English longbowman, an Italian female warrior in armor, a Kongolese priest, a blind Arab singer, and a Turkish merchant wouldn't be representative of any group of people to be found in the later Middle Ages. But all of them are real, and there are utterly plausible avenues by which any of them could be linked with any other. Highly improbable, but any group of people having adventurers is improbable. If you want probable, then you need to be playing a bunch of peasant farmers who may never travel farther than the nearest market town.

Of course, I may have to go out of my way, but I have to look for those things which will perhaps be engaging to diverse modern audiences. And I do so imperfectly. Some things are topics harder to find in the literature than others, some are particularly difficult to find if you don't have the right languages, my access to said literature is limited by both time (anything I write has deadlines) and reach. And my checklist of things I really should at least look for is constantly growing, with some topics which should have received a sentence or three in some of my earlier works not addressed. Still, the effort has to be made.

(Parenthetically, I'd also note that this kind of diversity is also directly good for games. It maximizes player choice when making characters and provides a wider range of hooks for adventures. Let's take the case of Africans and their descendants in Medieval Europe. Having everybody playing characters who have lived their entire lives as the same village as their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on is constraining. If, however, somebody can say "You know Robert the Cobbler? They say his grandfather was a sailor from a place called Morocco and he jumped ship when he fell in love with a London girl...", then you've got a whole range of extra possibilities. Maybe Robert's the long-lost heir to a mystical tradition or a royal house in a far-off land, which might even be in conflict with the English Crown or the local chapter of the Secret Druids, in which case you're off to the races. More choices for more players = better games.)


Anonymous said…
If in your book you make it clear that women / PoC / etc. are a significant part of the society, and how they and the white men fit together, then a player who doesn't want icky girls in his fantasy can ignore them with only a slight effort.

If you leave them out, then the player who does want to see non-white-male people doesn't know how they fit.

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