History accuracy in Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying and board games reviews, podcasts, videos and interviews

HP_Lovecraft_D[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

My dear readers, today I come to you with a question that arose to mind after play-testing “Many Fires” with my regular group of friends at the gaming club.

Many Fires is an adventure for Trail of Cthulhu, still unpublished at the time of writing this piece. I will not go into the ins and outs of the adventure, since it is very possible many things have changed since I play-tested it. Suffice to say that the adventure was enjoyable enough. However, I will say that it is based in Mexico and in the late 1920s.

For once I was happy that my Spanish accent was going to come in handy and indeed it did. Unfortunately, I did run into another problem I wasn’t anticipating: The pedantic nature of some of my players, who would point out any small historic inaccuracy.

For example, one of the character wanted to bring some cash into Mexico and change Dollars into Pesos. There was a discussion about the exchange rate at the time because it was about to coincide with the depression. Likewise when another player, who was running a wealthy British expat living in the USA, about the difficulty of getting money transferred from a British bank account to an American one, and the time it’d take for him to get his hands on some cash when in Mexico.

Now, this is just irritating, but it didn’t bother as much as the following issue that presented itself, and it was early 20th century culture and manners.

Let’s face it, we were a lot less civilised at that time. Attitudes that we consider to be sexist, racist or just plain bigoted were the norm. The feminist movement was in full swing and women had to fight a constant battle to be acknowledged and respected outside the traditional “being a wife and a mother” duties. Men ruled the work-force and the  money making machine. Black people were still servants, at best and such thing as animal welfare and modern medicine ethics weren’t even in the thought of most people.

Thus, when four of my friends decided to play two women, a Mexican exile and a hobo, the two women were patronised by an old man from Chicago and by pretty much anyone else in Mexico. The hobo would not get the attention of the rich people and struggled to get the NPCs to respect him. And the Mexican man was but a paid slave.

So now I get disgruntled complains from my friends!

One of them, being a woman, found the character insulting. The hobo found it frustrating to interact with NPCs. The Mexican character didn’t like to be treated like a servant.

What on earth did they expect? An early 20th century with proper anti-discrimination laws? Equality for women?

We struggle to keep those up at present time, what are the chances 80 years ago?

The thing that got me totally wound up about it is how demanding people can be when the GM changes some aspects of daily life to make gaming easier (money transference, exchange rates, access to news…) and how intolerant when less pleasant aspects of the period are role-played for the sake of chronological congruence.

I think it is a great thing that my friends got upset with being treated the way their characters were treated. It means they have an awareness of themselves that’s cohesive with the world we live in. I can only imagine more bigoted and intolerant people actually agreeing with some of the attitudes I brought to the table.

However it brings an issue to the game, which is the compromise that needs to be obtained between playing the setting as close to reality as possible, or dilute it to cater for today’s sensitivities.

Since you, my dear readers have PhD’s in Incredible, I turn to you and draw on your brilliance and ask you this. What matters most, though? Keeping the spirit of the times alive, or bending history to make gaming easier?


2 Responses

  1. Ah, Paco. You have hit the age old problem between Exotic and Alien. People want things to be different becausen that is what makes it exotic. But if things were to become too different then it becomes alien and we have trouble playing in it. If you produced a truly historically accurate game, it would be unplayable. The slang words and phraseology alone would make it impossible to play. So, whatever you do will be a compromise between keeping the spirit of the times alive and bending history to make gaming easier. And the answer is always the same: you design it so that everyone (including you) has fun. Anyway, adding Cthulhu to the mix is a big change to history, who knows what effects it would have

    • I agree with what you say. What kind of gets me by surprise is when you add elements that are pretty obvious, but people refuse to accept and role-play them. Even when it is a logical consequence to their choice of character, they rather have an easy ride rather than make an effort to do their character justice.

      I guess some players are more committed than others (and I am a bit freaky!) 😀

Leave a Reply