The World Is Your Setting Guide 5

Time for another instalment in my occasional series about books on real-life subject matter which can be potentially handy for games set in the real world (whether in the modern day or in history). This time around, I’m going take a sort of thematic look at the world of heresies, secret societies, folklore and occultism. All of these are things which fantasy and horror fiction drawing on real-world history loves to play with – think Ars Magica, think Call of Cthulhu, think the entire World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness family – so real information on the subject matter is often useful.

One of these books offers a modern-ish treatment of a subject which has had an awful lot of rubbish talked about it, and is useful for getting an accessible pass at what our current understanding of the subject is. The rest are also somewhat more archaic, but precisely because they are a bit old are interesting for getting an insight into how people at the time the books in question were written viewed the subjects in question.

The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea

There is an amazing amount of nonsense written about the Cathars, largely thanks to the romanticisation their legend has undergone ever since the reassessment of their cause in the early 19th Century by French intellectuals of an anti-clerical bent. If you want to know the actual history of Catharism, the dualist heresy of the 12th to 14th Centuries which became so widespread in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France that it inspired a Crusade against fellow Christians, the foundation of the Inquisition (and its pioneering of modern police state tactics), and some of the greatest atrocities of medieval Europe, The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea is a great big-picture survey of the subject.

Continue reading “The World Is Your Setting Guide 5”

The World Is Your Setting Guide 4

It’s been a while, so here’s another in my series of interesting sources to look at for campaigns set in Earth (whether modern-day or historical). This time, an overview of a particular society at a particular time, a big picture view of the history of magical grimoires, and a somewhat more dated book on the same subject.

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This is a guide to medieval society which steps away from providing a recounting of events and focuses more on presenting a more immersive view of the times, Mortimer’s technique being to treat the period in question like an actual place and then giving a rundown of the sort of details you’d notice on an actual visit. This means that a timeline of major events is avoided (after all, how likely are you to participate in any of those if you visited?), but there’s more details given on things like the social order, overall cultural attitude, methods of travel, what you eat, how you dress, how towns are arranged, and so on and so forth.

The approach is rather similar to another book I’ve covered in this series, The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, though I would say the two books complement each other rather than rendering each other redundant. Crucially, Mortimer’s focus is a bit geographically tighter (just England rather than England and France), and relates to a somewhat different time period – 1300 to 1400, rather than 1050 to 1300.

Mortimer’s book is incredibly useful for anyone running historical RPGs, or RPGs using settings riffing on history, at the tabletop or in LARP format. This is simply because it gives a great look at the actual practicalities of life in the era. If you want to depict a realistic cross-country journey, feast, market visit, or sailing voyage in the era, Mortimer has you covered. This is the sort of question which might often come up in a historical (or close-to-historical) campaign: Wikipedia can quickly tell you when a particular battle was or who was king, but can be a bit less helpful in giving you an idea of, say, how you would actually make your way from London to York in an era when accurate maps simply aren’t available, and those maps that do exist really aren’t made for the rigours of travel.

Continue reading “The World Is Your Setting Guide 4”

The World Is Your Setting Guide 3

As readers might be aware, one reason I like historical or real-world settings for tabletop RPGs is that it means that there’s a wealth of material out there in non-gaming reference works ready for you to adapt for your game. In this occasional series, I review things which have caught my eye as being particularly useful for adapting to RPG purposes.

The Isles of the Many Gods by David Rankine and Sorita D’Este

Put out by Avalonia, this is primarily aimed at a pagan audience, but is particularly aimed at what’s sometimes called “reconstructionist paganism” – as in people who are not so much interested in constructing new forms of paganism as they are in figuring out how older forms of pre-Christian spirituality may have been practiced.

Specifically, it is an attempt to provide as comprehensive as possible a list of the deities with some form of recorded worship or recognition in Britain, prior to Christianity becoming predominant. The growth of Christianity in Britain went in fits and starts – the Roman Empire converted, but people didn’t exactly forget their older traditions overnight, and outside of Wales the Romano-British territories were largely taken by the incoming Saxons.

As Rankine and D’Este note in one of their introductory essays, by the time Alfred the Great compelled Guthrum, ruler of East Anglia, to convert to Christianity as part of a peace deal in 878 CE things were on the wane. They note that from the tenth century onwards, any pagan practice had to be clandestine; they don’t note, possibly to avoid offending that section of their readership who buy into Wiccan myths about their religion being a survival of an ancient pagan faith and other such legends, that by the time of the Norman era pagan worship in Britain was basically done.

Continue reading “The World Is Your Setting Guide 3”

The World Is Your Setting Guide 2

A while back I wrote about how the advantage of running a game set in the real world is that there’s ample setting information to use, and offered examples of sources I’d found useful in working on Anarchy, the historical LARP I co-run that’s set during the 12th Century civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in England. I’ve decided it’d be nice to keep that going, and turn it into an occasional series providing profiles of useful source material for designers and referees of historical games.

Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England by Sharon K. Elkins

Running games set in historical time periods when the culture was overtly and unapologetically patriarchal can be tricky. If you simply ignore this and present a setting where that sexism doesn’t exist (or doesn’t apply to the PCs) this can make the game more appealing if your players feel like they deal with enough sexism in everyday life and want to play a game where they don’t have to think about it; at the same time, this does mean that if you are very keen to explore history through the game, that motivation is compromised. It also means you are specifically passing up the chance to tell stories specifically addressing themes of prejudice and gender and so on.

On the other hand, if you go with “we’re running a game where the society in question has the sort of assumptions about gender roles and sexism that it historically had”, there’s always the risk of that degenerating into sidelining the role of women in the setting entirely, particularly if you frame the game around male-dominated activities for the era and if you gloss over the existence of exceptional women who bucked the biases of their era – or who did notable things within the scope of those biases and informed by them.

This was a Christmas present from some of the other Anarchy referees, and I’ve found it helpful in looking up interesting anecdotes and stories of nuns, hermit women, anchoresses, rulers of priories and abbeys, and other women who dedicated themselves to a religious life in the time period in question. There is also a lot of detail on institutions that included such women, circumstances around their foundation, controversies around their governance, and so on. (Some of this may also be applicable to bodies of monks as well as nuns in the era, whilst other aspects are particular to nuns.)

It’s an academically-oriented piece which is a bit heavy going and would probably be a bad fit if your campaign is more historical-flavoured than full-fat historical, but if you’re running something like Chivalry & Sorcery or Maelstrom Domesday and going with the sort of campaign where rich historical detail is part of the appeal, it may be worth a look if you want inspiration for women existing within a sphere (the Church) where it’s easy to just assume it’s all men.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot

Reginald Scot was a 16th Century debunker; perturbed by the uptick of witchcraft trials in Elizabeth I’s reign, he put this book out in 1584 in which he put forth the view that the Malleus Maleficarum‘s claims about witchcraft were nothing more than “popish” superstition and nonsense, that witches could not possibly have many of the powers supposedly attributed to them, and that many witchcraft trials were mere harassment of confused elderly and vulnerable people, often poor and very often women.

That isn’t to say he always argues from the same logical grounds that we would; for instance, he makes the case that witches cannot cause storms and thunder and rainfall and whatnot because there’s Biblical reason to believe that only God can do that (and that indeed an apparent power over the weather was a sign that Christ was the Lord), and therefore the Devil could give to witches powers which were God’s alone.

Then again, his Biblical objections to the witch trials also strike on salient points – like how the whole thing about how “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” may be a mistranslation from the Hebrew and it should instead read “thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live”. He goes on to say that if a supposed witch has killed someone by poison, then there’s already a good law to convict her by – namely, murder – so accusing her of witchcraft and allowing all sorts of nefarious characters to testify against her who’d be given no credence in cases built on other charges is pointless (Along those lines, Scot points out that a lot of the ills that witches supposedly do are already covered by other laws, and if ultimately they commit idolatrous worship or are apostates from Christianity there are already laws against those things.)

At the same time, the book also provides interesting documentation of various historical stage magic tricks, intended to put an end to the idea that these were accomplished through real magic, and the book is therefore an important early text explaining how some tricks were accomplished. There’s also a brief grimoire-like rundown of demonology, in the context of a section largely dedicated to accusing “popish” clergy and monastics of being the main practitioners of such.

Though it’s a bit of a tricky read due to its archaic language, The Discoverie of Witchcraft is such a deep resource of period material that it would be worth a look to anyone running, say, an Elizabethan-era Maelstrom game, or Clockwork & Chivalry, if they wanted an example of how then-current thinkers might raise objections to witch trials – or how Elizabethan conjurors and street magicians might have plied their trade. (For that matter, it could also provide potential inspiration for WFRP, since WFRP has a highly Renaissance-era atmosphere to it.)

The World is Your Setting Guide

At the moment I’m involved in running Anarchy, a LARP set during the 1135-1153 civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. As I’ve found running Ars Magica, the advantage of running a historical RPG – in whatever format – is that there’s stacks of material out there you can use for reference material. Here’s an overview of some of the materials I and others on the GM team have found useful as resources.

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

This doesn’t quite have as wide a scope as the title might imply – it specifically focuses on life in medieval England and France in the span of 1050-1300 – but if you are looking for a general overview of that place and time, this isn’t bad. The emphasis is less on reciting the sequence of historical events so much as it’s to offer an overview of what everyday life was like in the era. Usefully divided into subject-specific chapters, it offers a solid foundation and a useful jumping-off point for deeper inquiry.

Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury

This is a brief and highly readable summary of the history of the period we were looking at. It wasn’t perfect – it’s arguably a bit pro-Stephen, though where the line exists between being partisan and treating Stephen fairly lies is hard to judge. Nonetheless, it’s useful with this sort of project to have a main reference you go to to set a baseline before you incorporate other features or make alterations, and for that purpose it’s pretty good.

The Oxford History of the Laws of England Volume II: 871-1216

As an academic reference work, this obviously has a bit of a price tag on it, but I’ve found it fascinating. It gives an overview of the development of English law ranging from the Anglo-Saxon era all the way to the end of King John’s reign. John Hudson, who wrote this volume, writes in an extremely accessible style, arising from the necessity of making law intelligible to historians and history intelligible to interested lawyers, so this is really handy if you want to depict the legal procedures and norms of a particular era within the time period covered.

If you want a book which, whilst still quite detailed, is substantially easier to digest (and easier on the wallet), John Hudson’s The Formation of the English Common Law might be a good option. Covering the span of time from Alfred the Great to Magna Carta, it’s quite good at teasing out how the law developed over that period of time. Whilst this subject can seem quite dry, it also opens a window onto how people generally saw their relationship with the law and their rulers, and thus is a bit of a snapshot of society in general, and so is particularly useful if you want to think about how society changed over the time period in question (and change it very definitely did). Such considerations are really important if you want to avoid treating the medieval period as just one big generic blob of time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

As a historical document, this is available in various translations into modern English; I’ve got the one that is translated and edited by Michael Swanton, who provides all the different variant texts of the different chronicles presented in a nice clear way, and also extensively annotates them to help unpack matters which the monks writing entries don’t explain very well, offer additional insight, and point out outright errors or propaganda. The time period covered in detail ranges from the coming of the Saxons to Britain to nearly a century after the Norman Conquest, including the events of the Anarchy. What it lacks in precision, neutrality and accuracy it more than makes up for in flavour.

The Domesday Book

A rather dry prospect if you attempt to read it cover to cover, this is another text which is mostly handy for inspiration – just dip into it anywhere and you get a snapshot of just how much individual character William the Conqueror’s surveyors managed to capture of each manor and holding in England.

The Bible

If you are running a historical game set in a time period and a culture where Christianity is a significant force, then you’re going to want its base text, of course. For actual quoting purposes I like to use the New English Bible from 1970 which I picked up second hand – it casts the text in modern English, distinguishes neatly between text that seems to have been intended as poetry or song and text that seems to flow better as prose, though it isn’t especially gender-inclusive and uses a default “he” to a greater extent than the original text necessarily mandates.

However, any edition of the Bible is a dense old text to look stuff up in, which is why it’s nice that some of my co-referees got me the Illustrated Family Bible from DK. This thick, handsome book boils down a surprisingly large number of Biblical stories into easily-understood two-page spreads, with useful sidebars providing additional historical context. This is very handy to look up the broad brushstrokes of an idea in before you look up the full-fat text in your Bible of choice.

The History of the Kings of England (by Geoffrey of Monmouth)

This is absolutely wackydoodles, so it’s perfect either for emphasising how confused medieval scholarship could get or for mining for a mythic history of Britain that didn’t happen.

Heresies of the High Middle Ages (ed. Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans)

This is a translation into modern English of various first-hand sources on the subject, ranging from Church condemnations of heresies to heretical texts themselves. (Cathar fans note: this has got the full text of the Book of the Two Principles which was quite significant to Cathar theology.)