Dames Don't Belong in Dungeons (unless they're bound and scantily-clad)

A few weeks ago (yeah, I'm really behind on my blogging) there was some debate floating around in certain dark corners of the Onling Gaming Blog Community (which I affectionally like to call the Ogbloc) about how closely role-playing games (and by extension, "fiction" and "history" in general) should or should not adhere to historical accuracy.  A quick glance at these blog posts - here and here, paying special attention to the comments sections - will either make you laugh with the absurdity of the argument, or cause your blood to boil with unbridled academic nerd-rage. 

Not writing for a while gave me the advantage of time to mull over my response to this phenomenon (or maybe just made me miss the boat completely). Originally I wrote a scathing, satirical argument about the whole thing (I won't tell you which side I took), but the light of reason (ie, my wife/editor) showed me the way back up out of the hole where the Internet trolls ply their trade, and I rewrote my post to be a little more balanced.

The main supporter of protecting history, actually made a valid point.  We often do forget elements of the past in our quest for a simplified, antiseptic and fun present and future.  History is full of ugly stories of the crimes men (and women) have committed against other men (and mostly women).  In our current world where scantily-clad heroines fight monsters and kick ass on a regular basis, we sometimes forget that for centuries in our own western society, the lady-folk were treated as little better than cattle.  If a woman actually showed up in battle, pretending or trying to be a knight, she would expect to be sexually assaulted, tied to the back of a horse and dragged back to her hovel where she starts cooking, spitting out babies and dying in childbirth where she belongs.  Ditto for open homosexuals, Jews or non-Caucausians.

We want our RPGs and history like we want our mayonnaise - white, bland, non-kosher and made by a woman who knows her place is in the kitchen.... I think I messed up that analogy somewhere.
Should we forget that such elements of our history exists?  Of course not! But do we need to be reminded of it constantly?  I really don't see why.  Games, stories, movies - they're all meant first and foremost as forms of entertainment.  Yes, they can be educational, and yes, it's nice when they treat topics truthfully and respectfully, but oftentimes it's much better to just have fun with the material.  Sure a game with a female warrior-empress of England or anachronistic weapons may not be accurate, but it could be a lot of fun.  Pirates of the Caribbean probably wasn't a particularly accurate depiction of pirate life in the 18th century, but that doesn't mean you're not allowed to enjoy it.  And hey, if Dan Brown's books and movies float your boat then more power to you.

(A little aside about Dan Brown:  When the Da Vinci Code hype exploded years ago, I was one of those guys who bitched and complained about him, about how the book was over-rated and his historical references were ripped-off, dumbed down and in many cases, wrong.  Over time, however, I have developed a healthy dose of respect for Mr. Brown.  This is a guy who has taken a so-so thriller and not only made a fortune off of it, but has pissed off countless people in doing so.  People have made careers out of debunking this guy, not to mention all the spin-off documentaries and copycat thrillers that have come out since then.  All of us wannabe writers should wish we could be like Dan Brown - a successful writer, instigator of employment and economic growth, someone who has single-handedly jump-started a generation's interest in art history, and the biggest fucking troll on the planet.  Let's see John Grisham pull that off.)

Also, anything that gets Audrey Tautou screen time is A-OK in my book.
I do think that with a mature audience, dark unpleasant topics should be dealt with from time to time.  Whether that's stereotypes, or being treated unfairly, or whatever, I'm sure it would make for a riveting game.  It makes for great books and film when done correctly.  But if the players don't want their character to have to deal with that, then they shouldn't have to. Again, it's a game.  You should have fun, not be made uncomfortable.

A long time ago I suggested that people should find like-minded people with which to play games, and I still believe that.  Some people like playing heroic, non-historical, anachronistic settings where a gay black Sir Galahad beats the tar out of Robin Hood.

And if you could somehow make Robin Hood a fox furrie, all the better.
Other people enjoy when every detail of their game is perfectly and historically recreated. They may feel you are not qualified to run a true medieval role-playing game until you have at least a PhD in European history and several published papers.  That every detail of shitty peasant life must be painstakingly recreated.  That every cousin and bastard child of every king has to be included, fully-fleshed out and statted, and role-played with the proper intonation, accent and colloquialisms for his social standing and geographical location.

For some people, that's fun, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Some people have weird definitions of "fun."
I think both opinions and styles can co-exist in this world - in fact I think they need to.  We need the fun, creative, entertaining and sometimes frivolous games and stories to make us forget the shitty stuff we need to deal with in our daily lives.  But we can't actually ignore the bad stuff in the past either, whether that's political history or those old-fashioned games that grognards like to play.  We need to recognize these things in order to learn from them and improve the future.  We need a healthy mix of irreverence and somber realism in order to maintain both our sanity and our intelligence. 

Feel free to agree or disagree - that's what the comments section is for.  I probably would have gotten more responses with the original post, though. ;-)

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  1. Book_ScorpionOctober 11, 2011

    There are games where I put a lot of work and thought into making my characters as historically accurate as possible, but when all is said and done, the games are not that accurate themselves. I mean, I go to great length to research my Cthulhu Victorian Age retired soldier and the first thing he does is go off to chase some kind of fungus monster. That swishing sound you heard was realism going out of the window. Research and realism in games are fun, but so is the fantastic element and being able to do things you would or could never do in real life. So I like my games to have both.

    Your female character cannot be in this dungeon - women weren't allowed in battle.
    Um, you're an elf. Your point was what, exactly?

  2. Maybe I'm missing some context, but I don't see the two blogs you linked two as being comparable. It looks like Gleichman picking a fight in order to push his political/academic agenda and then going off to sulk about it on his vanity blog/bully pulpit when the general consensus goes against him. He wants to tell people how they should play while at the same time bristling at any criticism (perceived or real) of his own style of play. It's a classic passive aggressive attack, complete with the, "I was just testing you and you failed miserably," disclaimer.

    Live and let live is all well and good, but when, in pursuit of fairness, we give trolls the same air time and credibility as a other participants in a discussion, we become trolls ourselves.

  3. You know, I've played historical games before, and it can be done okay, but I don't personally enjoy those styles of games. I prefer more fantasy to my fantasy. While I don't begrudge people who want to play historically accurate, if you come to my games, I'm probably going to be as accurate as Swashbuckler! the movie in my pirate game, or Prince of Persia in my Mid-eastern game.

    I give full points to the people who want to get down into the grim and gritty, though. They have fun exploring the idea of the past. I've seen some people that encyclopedic knowledge is truely amazing. I just don't find it as much fun.

  4. Brian GleichmanOctober 11, 2011

    Just to clear something up, I'm really not all that oppose to ignoring parts of history in general for genre based gaming. If a group to wish to overlook slavery and the post civil war racism in their games, they may. I'm fine with it.

    It only becomes objectionable when they remove it completely as a statement of setting such as Deadlands did.

    Further I  object to giving opinions and traits to historical characters that they didn't have and would have likely be revolted by. Making Abe Lincoln a supporter of slavery for example, or in the example case over at Jeff's Gameblog (in another post)- making a not unimpressive military leader a dandy and mommy's boy because he wanted to make fun of a picture. It's the act of a self-centered juvenile.

    On top of that I add the charge of hypocrisy when the same people aren't will to have the same thing done to themselves, even if it was after their death.

    And above all this, I am disgusted at the idea expressed there that the living owe the dead nothing as justification for such behavior.

    And as for consensus being against me, I knew that before I started. It is vastly against me, and it sickens me that our culture has become so corrupt and self-absorbed. But consensus being against one is no reason to remain silent. And I'm far from silent.

  5. CDGallant_KingOctober 11, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your point of view.  You make very good points and even if I don't agree with all of them, I think you do bring up an important argument, one that I find very interesting and thus is the reason I quoted your blog many weeks after the fact.  I wanted to write a response at the time but my knee-jerk opinions aren't always the best one, and certiainly not well thought-out, so I needed to let is simmer awhile. 

    As you point out, it's worth debating and there's no debate if you keep silent about it.

  6. CDGallant_KingOctober 11, 2011

    Preaching from your pulpit is the whole point of this blogging thing, and being a little inflammatory tends to be the best way to spark debate on these here interwebs. I've been known to do the same thing from time to time.

    Whether or not you agree with his points or have a problem with how he presents them, I do think there's an important argument and debate worth having located somewhere at its heart, which was ultimately why I wanted to write my own two cents. 

  7. CDGallant_KingOctober 11, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your point of view. You make very good points and even if I don't agree with all of them, I think you do bring up an important argument, one that I find very interesting and thus is the reason I quoted your blog many weeks after the fact. I wanted to write a response at the time but my knee-jerk opinions aren't always the best one, and certiainly not well thought-out, so I needed to let is simmer awhile.

    As you point out, it's worth debating and there's no debate if you keep silent about it.     

  8. CDGallant_KingOctober 11, 2011

    I am a strong, strong believer in artistic licence and creativity, and fucking with things just for the hell of it. BUT (and this is a big "BUT") I learned long ago in theatre school that you have to LEARN the rules before you can BREAK them.  In that context it was referring to making weird art for arts sake and bucking conventions, but it applies here, too.  There's a big different in changing certain aspects of history in a story or a game in order to try something creative or to highlight some point, and in ignoring said history because it's inconvenient or you don't like to think of it that way.  We should think about bad and unpleasant things sometimes.  You're still free to go and play make believe any way you want to, you shouldn't revel in your ignorance about it.

    it's cool to pretend to be an elf, or to read novels about King Arthur and Robin Hood.  It's when people assume that King Arthur and Robin Hood were real, literal people without knowing any of the history about it that it becomes a problem.

  9. CDGallant_KingOctober 11, 2011

    I agree that I like my games fun and silly and anachronistic.  Too much history can bog it down. Still, even if you can suspend your disbelief, it doesn't hurt to know that any actual Prince of Persia probably wasn't a white guy. (Didn't that bother anyone else?  Jake Gyllenhaal his half SWEDISH for crying out loud)

  10. Just My Opinion (tm), but I think the whole idea of medieval "accuracy" in RPGs is just so much bushwah, unless you're playing "Fantasy Wargaming" or "Warhammer RPG" or something.

    So it's a roughly 10th-Century level of technology; that doesn't mean that it necessarily is going to parallel history, particularly with the fact that, historically, 17th Level Wizards, red dragons, and world-shattering plots by liches and their army of undead minions are, well, kind of totally lacking.

    That said - I see nothing wrong with more scantily clad dames being bound in RPGs. I -


    what were we discussing again? ;)

  11. Even the most rabidly historical renfaire guilds I know let women fight (with one exception, and no one likes those guys). If a group of people dedicated to educating patrons about history can lighten up enough to realize that it's more fun for everyone if they bend the rules a bit, I have no idea why people at their own gaming tables would find it noble to fail to do so. 

  12. Book_ScorpionOctober 12, 2011

    I played a game of Cthulhu set in 1938 Germany once. I only agreed to this because I knew that all the players and the GM were well versed in history and knew what they were doing. Definitely a case of knowing the rules before breaking them.
    I also find that I can forgive a game/movie/book a lot of rule-bending when I see that the GM/writer/author did some basic research and thus hits the right tone. Amadeus comes to mind, or CSI.

  13. CDGallant_KingOctober 12, 2011

    Exactly. That game could have been very tasteless and even insulting if it wasn't handled properly, so a good grasp of the material probably leant credibility and tone to the game. There's nothing wrong with then kicking some Nazi cultist ass, but it's a good idea to have a bit of background on the culture and climate of the time.

  14. It is an important discussion and it emphasizes why I tend to avoid historical roleplaying games entirely, with the possible exception of Call of Cthulhu. I am a fond reader of history, an admirer of the past, and can even sit through (most) of a Ken Burns documentary, but I just can't get up the urge to play through historically accurate games. I need a little bit of the fiction if I am to enjoy myself.

    Besides which, the majority of my gaming group is female and tends to play female characters. They would have a very dull time in, say, WWII if I played it true to life. :-P


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