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I run a lot of games/write systems set in specific historical/cultural contexts, because I like rpgs as a way to explore them and think they provide a great sense of place. However, I tend not to choose more well-known settings, like WWII Europe or Victorian England, because they've already been so thoroughly explored that they lose some of the uniqueness factor I'm interested in.

So far the people I've played/playtested them with have been enthusiastic about the ideas, but the games tend to start slow as they are hesitant to be creative because they don't want to 'be wrong' about how things would work in that time and place. However, I'm not so much set on perfectly replicating, say, 19th century Hong Kong in a given game as I am interested in seeing the game evolve from an off-beat starting point.

Do people think the best solution to this is to separate the actual history from the game history (i.e. emphasize that this is an alternate universe and they can feel free to depart as much as they want to from the historical details) or to provide a lot of background information to ground them as much as possible in the time period so that they're more comfortable there?

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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Excellent question!

On one hand, the players' reactions are normal. Social context is central to any character, and the social context of medieval Europe just comes easier. You're asking for even deeper improv than a typical RPG session requires; it's skirting close to Whose Line Is It Anyway territory.

Which is great! If the players are on-board, this can be loads of fun. So, what to do?

Providing the players with a background information will certainly inform them of their options. However, beware of infodumps. You have a commendable love for history, but the players likely aren't as enthused about reading through pages of background information. Consider a one-page summary that lays out the half-dozen major, defining characteristics of the setting ("The Europeans rule," "The Chinese are martial artists", "Hong Kong is a big, dangerous port city"), as well as the major forces in conflict, what they want, major NPCs, and potential dangers looming on the horizon.

You can introduce one big non-historical fact into the setting. 19th-century Hong Kong is ruled by the Dutch, say. The English characters and flavor can be easily re-skinned into Dutch equivalents, and the basic conflicts will remain the same. This can break players' heads out of historical accuracy.

You can also help the players navigate this unfamiliar space by prompting them during play. When they get quiet, list a few action options. Maintain a light tone, making it clear that these are just a few ideas, and in no way a limitation.

Hope this helps!

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Thanks! I particularly like the idea of throwing in a non-historical fact from the start--seems like getting the icon-smashing done right off will make everything easier on the players. –  RSid Dec 17 '11 at 20:54
    
You're very welcome! Thanks for choosing my answer. :-) –  Brent Newhall Dec 20 '11 at 15:54
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As a Lazy player, I find two valid ways of being thrown into a situation like this.

  1. Sliders style. We are lost and confused, and thrown into a new place that we know nothing about. Be upfront and let the players know that they can do what they like, and no severe harm will come of them.

  2. "I take that back", style. As DM, correct me if I do something that my charachter wouldn't do. Feel free to use the rewind button, or "take backs" as needed. Eventually, I as the player will feel more comfortable. Be upfront and let the players know that they can do what they like, and no severe harm will come of them.

Both styles work for me, as long as the expectations are clear.

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Provide a means for trust and validate agency.

When there's a gulf of knowledge, one great fear of the people without knwoledge is that they will do something "wrong." When it comes to rules expertise, players tend to react to it in two ways: shyness or completely random and chaotic actions. By being agressively random, they not only test the boundaries of the GM and the rules, but insulate themselves from consequences by deliberately provoking bad consequences.

The same can be said for setting proficiency. As a GM, it's important to offer players background materials, especially during game. Perhaps you might want to allow players to pass notes about setting questions, or offer them the ability to undo conversations and actions (without limit at first, then tapering down as needed) to allow them to figure out the mores and hidden rules of the setting as well as the system.

Any RPG must be an alternate universe. While it is possible to be passive spectators, that level of passivity is more enjoyable in books. You should note that the starting conditions prevail and that the major actors may share some of the same motivations... but that the players actions are certainly able to derail whatever those actors have planned. No history survives contact with the PCs, that's why they're called the PCs.

You should offer as much background information as the players request. Don't force it down their throats. Don't pull a DM of the Rings:

DM of the Rings, Shamus Young

Instead, by offering yourself as a resource if they ask, you allow players to preserve agency and embrace authenticity if they so choose. If they choose to be non-authentic, either accept their actions or work with them on a way to reframe them for the time period. Having a specific prompt that you make, with the proviso that you'd like to work with them to frame their actions within historical authenticity, rather than to invalidate their actions, you should be able to support their own trust of their actions as well as preserve their agency.

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+1 for making me laugh and reminding me to keep it player-driven. –  RSid Dec 17 '11 at 20:57
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