Guest Post: Historical Fantasy Campaigns

Todays post is a guest post from Cavan Helps. Cavan is a friend of mine who was telling me about a very interesting campaign he was running. I asked him to write a quick post about it to see what others thought.
From Cavan:

The Maiden of Orleans
I love historical fiction campaigns. Perhaps the best thing I did with my Russian degree was run a D&D 4e campaign set in Russia during the Communist Revolution.

Wanting to recapture the fun of that campaign, and wanting to have a good excuse to do a lot of Wikipedia research, I decided to run a short Joan of Arc campaign with my regular long-running group.

We’re running it in Pathfinder, because that’s the only fantasy RPG that I particularly like at the moment, and the players are all comfortable with the ruleset.

There were a couple design decisions I made based on my experience from the Russian campaign:

The players have to be the chief actors: I didn’t want the players to follow Joan around, I wanted them to be Joan.

All the players have to be important: The quick ‘n dirty method I used for this was giving them all powerful connections. (A strategy I can scarcely endorse enough!) Joan of Arc talked to God. The party wizard was a disenfranchised nobleman from English-controlled France who was connected to the dauphin. The rogue was connected to the most extensive and powerful smuggling ring in the nation. The bard was a celebrity. The barbarian was an English turncoat.

While the paladin Joan made an obvious party leader, I made sure that all of the character’s backgrounds came up at critical points in the story, so everyone was helping bear up the load. I’m pretty pleased with how this turned out.

Sexism has to be alive and well for the story to work: I normally encourage players to run characters of the same sex as themselves for the simple reason that it helps avoid pronoun confusion. The story of Joan of Arc, however, cannot be told without a sexist environment. I told my majority-female gaming group that women were treated as second-class citizens in fifteenth-century France, and I wasn’t going to shy from that. For that reason, I asked them to consider playing male characters if they didn’t want to deal with it. Clearly, Joan’s character had to be female.

Joan has to be special. I did this by making Joan a paladin, and the only divine caster in the world. “Clerics” in this setting were people with several ranks in Knowledge(Religion) and First Aid, and were not really playable as a character class. Arcane magic existed, but were thought of as consorting with the devil. (God told Joan it was okay to travel with this wizard, however, whose heart was pure. I will fully admit to some hand-waving here.) Nobody wanted to play a druid (because, I mean, yuck), so that didn’t come up.

Combat has to be brutal. I love the E6 variant of Pathfinder. Essentially, it says that the highest level character anywhere in the world is level 6. This creates more of a heroic fantasy feel, because anyone, even the most legendary swordsman, can be felled by a few lucky blows. I wanted combat to be scary, and the paladin’s healing to be miraculous. Careful readers may note that Cure Light Wounds is available to bards. After discussing the theme with the group, we decided to house rule CLW as a buff to first aid checks.

Full disclosure: In pretty much every campaign I’ve run, I’ve thought, “This time I’ll make combat really dangerous!” with the appropriate evil cackling. This is probably because I’m a George R. R. Martin fan. Anyway, in this campaign, I really committed to making combat dangerous, and I didn’t care for the result.

That’s a pretty good segue into what I learned from this experience, and what I think I did wrong.

Pathfinder is a completely different game without clerics. I understood this going in, but I don’t think I appreciated how different it was. No clerics (and only one lvl 3 paladin in the world) means healing items simply don’t exist. Fights need to be rare, and need to be scaled down considerably, as character death is a huge threat in this setting. For some groups, this will probably work great. My group, however, likes to give their dice plenty of exercise. A heavily injured party can take about a week of game time to recover, and multiple combat encounters in a row, like, say, when storming a city, all but guarantee player fatalities.

Historical Fiction is great, but playing actual historical figures is meh. Our paladin, shockingly enough, was not played by Joan of Arc. Rather, it was my friend Sam. The funny thing about that is that Sam and Joan of Arc have different personalities, opinions, and backgrounds. My options were to railroad the heck out of her (which I despised) or let her make her own choices, (in which case, she stopped being Joan of Arc in a very real way.) Were I to do this again, I think I would make the story’s plot a much more generic one about holy warriors liberating France, and that way the players could go as far off-script as they wanted.

Don’t enslave gameplay to (hi)story. I expect some readers to hate me for this point.

I am a strong subscriber to Rule Zero in RPGs: The game must be fun for everyone at the table. I’ve been yanked around at tables where the DM wanted to tell an epic story, players be damned. I’ve sat for hours, bored, as one or two players at my table wanted to sort out their deep, emotional, personal storylines that had nothing to do with the rest of the party or the overall story. Those are hours of my life I will never get back. I know there are groups out there who want RPGs to be little more than cooperative storytelling or wish fulfillment, and see dice, minis, and tactical displays as an inconvenience–or even a dilution of pure play. I have no quarrel with such groups, but I don’t want to play with them, either.

My group likes epic stories, well-rounded characters, and a healthy dose of tactical combat. Since that is the group I am playing with, those are the games I should run. A game where characters could die from a single errant arrow, and where the rails are pretty firmly set by history, (each session covers a historical battle in the Hundred Years War) has been a lot of fun, but ultimately is the wrong fit for my group.

Maybe it’s the right fit for yours.