Series Info...Playing with History #2:

I believe in yesterday...

by Michael Karlin
February 19, 2003

"To some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography. So far from being false or fabulous in the common sense, it contains only enduring and essential truth, the I and you, the here and there, the now and then, being omitted. Either time or rare wisdom writes it." — Henry David Thoreau

Hi again.

This week, I am going to talk about the roles of history and mythology in your game, as well as in mine. If history is the past thought to be real, then mythology is the past believed to be real. Mythology is an integral part of history, because many cultures defined much of their existence around it. Do not dismiss it as simply a collection of primitive storytelling that influences a culture. The beliefs people subscribe to have proven a powerful instigator for some of the most significant events in early history. Mythology can also introduce great heaps of fun into your game. It can mean a significant change in the genre of your game, but as well it can mean the introduction of colourful characters, magics, events and locales ironed out through the generations and waiting, copyright-free, to be adapted into gameplay.

Mythology and Genres of Historical Fiction

There are only three genres of historical fiction that I can think of at the time of writing this article: historical fiction, mythological fiction, and historical-mythological fiction, which I lovingly dub "Fudge." What ever happened to the western, or medieval Europe? These are temporal or geographic settings. Granted these come with certain archetypes of values that greatly differentiate one from another, but on a macro-level they are the same. What if your game took place in Hell, or on Olympus? Those are mythological realms rather than genre of historical fiction, yet are so linked with history and the cultures that created these worlds that they are quite relevant to my column.

  • Historical Fiction - This type of game occurs in an authentic time and place the Earth has witnessed. Examples of this are Elizabethan England, feudal Japan, or 14th century Inca Empire. Of course, people and events might change at your whim, but usually the time and place are fixed to be recognizable to those history-minded. You may exaggerate aspects of the world for your creative pleasure, but the fundamentals and the facade of the world is deeply ingrained with real history.
  • Mythological Fiction - This type of game occurs in a realm defined by the cultural beliefs of a historical people, though there is no evidence that this realm actually exists. This is not to say that these realms do not exist, but the only evidence that they do is through the faith of those who believe in them. Examples of this are the Chinese heavenly plains, Christian Hell, or Atlantis.
  • Fudge - Fudge is my favourite, and the setting for Glory of the Nile. In a sense, this mixes the two other types of fiction, injecting a healthy dose of one into the other. The amount of mythology entered into a historical context, or vice versa, is the decision of the game designer. Although self-proclaimed as fantasy, I still suggest taking a look at the "Book of the East Wind" column here at Skotos for the Qigung perspective. Qigung was more of an example of historical bytes (names, clothing, etc) being injected into a fabricated mythology (fantasy) than Glory of the Nile, which will be the reverse.

Mythology in GN

I will be surprised if a player will play GN for six months and not see one aspect of mythology in action. The gods will be watching, and will be active in the affairs of mortals. There will be beasts of legend scouring the alleys or back streets at night, and healers calling upon divinely-inspired power to miraculously close grievous wounds of war. We designed it so that those wishing to minimize these aspects of the game will be able to, but offer much opportunity for the myth-minded. This has been a challenging process. Certain issues made themselves acutely aware at various times during the early design process that Ryan (lead coder and developer of GN) and I contemplated over. We did not want magic and gods to be the excuses for poorly-planned plot devices. In a high fantasy game such as Castle Marrach, it is perfectly acceptable that items appear and disappear without obvious or rational explanation. It is a very magical place, after all, and is a staunch member of high fantasy. However, an integral part of history is the economy that has driven it, and so explaining the appearance of goods in Thebes by claiming magical sources would be a crock. Mythology can and will certainly add fascinating elements to our game, but by the same token, we must be wary that it will not detract from its quality.

Mythology is a great pillar of history, but make sure that it is being supportive rather than being used as a crutch. Don't rely on mythology of culturally-defined magic to solve all of your problems that can be solved via other means, because it dilutes its impressiveness, and will not generate any respect from your player base.

The Tabula is NOT Rasa

If you choose a place and setting of interest that you decide will house your game, you have a few decisions to make regarding mythology. Firstly, does mythology benefit your atmosphere? Using my earlier example, Elizabethan England did not have a significant mythological aspect to its culture. I could technically add one, but I do not see a good reason for it. There are many interesting aspects of that time frame that I could exploit that would be unavailable to a mythologically-rich ancient Greece. Secondly, to what extent does the mythology you have chosen restrict you? In order to tell Fudge from fantasy, it is important to note that mythologies are relatively rigid. I chose ancient Egypt as the locale for my Fudge game, GN. I am therefore realistically restricted to the pantheon the Egyptians adopted. Of course, I still had leeway. Thebes only had three gods worshipped within it during the New Kingdom, and yet I'm adopting sixteen from the Middle Kingdom. I am not, however, adding Zeus or Hera. They are not Egyptian, and to stress that GN is mythological fiction in Egypt, I decided to use only Egyptian deities.

Mythology and history are often distinguishable, but nevertheless inseparable. It offers much to the game designer, and yet still gives the opportunity for its creative application. It is a pivotal part of the story about the time and place you chose.

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