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Series Info...Playing with History #19:

The Great Figures of Historical Gaming

by Michael Karlin
2004-02-11


"While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible."
-Lev Tolstoy, Author

I wrote an essay in the first year of my undergraduate degree, an essay where I first encountered the so-called Great Leader of History problem. It seems that many historians, especially political historians, liked to believe that extraordinary events in history were the product solely of one or two great leaders, and everyone else played a meagre, supporting role. My professor explained to me that this is rarely true, and that to paint over overwhelmingly complex social, spiritual and economic forces that drive and motivate great strides forward or backward in human civilisation is mocking history.

But youíre here to have fun, and not write essays. I'm here to entertain you, and to not mark you.

When creating a historical fiction game, especially a roleplaying game wherein social interaction is important, you may decide to include a great figure of history, someone people outside your niche interest recognise and can reasonably measure their importance to the time. There is a slight difficulty that arises here. Firstly, there is a tremendous amount of information on many great leaders, much of which conflicts when describing their personality. Some texts will say this general was gruff, whilst another suggests that he may have been aloof. Legend says Cleopatra was beautiful, yet CAT scans of her sarcophagus suggest otherwise. Was Communist leader of Yugoslavia Josip Tito a brutal oppressor or benevolent dictator? When faced with this problem, it will be your task to sort through the nonsense, pick out the treasured works on the leader, and figure out which paradigm you are going to choose. Then you don't simply tell the players how your game will interpret their behaviour, you show them through roleplaying the character.

The second issue, reverse of the first, is the difficult task of forging a character using too little information. How much is really known about Attila the Hun or Cyrus the Great? We know of their deeds, but to roleplay a character properly, you need information on their personalities as well. There are a few solutions to this problem.

Lastly, if you use a great historical figure in your game, you will be obliged to replicate their deeds in some way, and players will most likely want to take part in that. The players are playing the game because they like that particular era in history, and so there exists a certain obligation to make the events that make this era special come true.

1) A Moderate Figure Solution to a Great Figure Problem

You can avoid the use of a great figure in history by using a moderate figure solution, or using a leader (if you have one) who was not as well known as the great figure. Glory of the Nile takes place at the beginning of the rule of Pharaoh Amenhotep I, an intriguing figure of whom little is known. We know simply that the beginning of his 25-year rule was marked with small border skirmishes and modest territorial gains, and the rest of his rule was marked by building, consolidation of the religion, and social policy. Because there is little known about his personality, I can fabricate the character I want to write.

Don't think that moderately-important leaders are not integral to history; it was the people who built on former accomplishments, consolidated rather than expanded empires, elaborated rather than revolutionised religions, that allowed some of the great civilisations to flourish. If you only had great and poor leaders, kingdoms would have risen and fallen every twenty years and societies would not have grown to the extent that they did. Amenhotep I did not expel foreign invaders like his father Ahmose, nor did he double the size of the empire like Thutmose III, or erect the largest construction project in human history like Khufu. He simply built, exploited natural resources, opened trade routes, protected the lands from invading tribes, and beautified the cities. He was one of the few Pharaohs to be worshipped as a god on Earth after his death, not just a demigod as most Pharaohs, and simply for the fact that he made life liveable.

2) Delegate Responsibility

Another facet to the moderate figure solution is to centre leadership on a powerful official lower than the leader of the area. This could be the benevolent lord of a village, the stern Praetor of the province, the brusque colonel of the wilderness fort, etc. This character can be completely fictional, and thus at your creative mercy without sacrificing credibility. You could even have cameos of the great leader to "historically orient" your player base, perhaps allowing a change of leadership. This is a very practical solution, as you do not have the awkward change of personality when another player takes the reigns of the leader.

3) Lie

Perhaps that is stated a bit crudely. By "lie," I mean that you can appeal to the fictional aspect of historical fiction and use the popularly-considered caricature of the leader rather than trying to nail down exactly what the leader was like. Instead of doubting themselves or relying on officials for information, make them bold and fearless, a grand force of personality. Play a myth, rather than a man or woman. While this strategy probably will not lead to a very realistic interpretation of history, it probably will result in an entertaining one.

4) The Foot of God Solution

You know that great moment in history remembered for the rest of the ages? It never happened. The "Foot of God" solution to the problem is simply to redraft events in history by asking a lot of hypothetical questions. What if Alexander I made Russia more democratic like he promised? What if Caesar didnít die? What if the Axis won the First World War? I believe that the occurrence and outcome of great events change the people as much as the people change the events, so your great leaders of history will look completely different if you simply smash history and rebuild it to your liking within reasonable parameters. Iíll discuss this issue again next month.

In conclusion, think about whether or not you want to include a great figure of history, about which accomplishments you want to revisit and which you want to avoid, and about how you want to portray them. People look to the familiar faces to guide their roleplay, to introduce them to your era, so your choices will be important.

Next month: HISTORY SMASH!

[ <— #18: Theocracy 101 ]

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