Historical Roleplaying: We Were Here, Assholes.

"So you're going to play a woman? In 1920? What profession did you choose? Because women didn't do that."

"You can't be a pilot. Women weren't pilots. They were wives. Who's your husband?"

"Women weren't knights. Do you want to be a courtier?"

"You have power. Who did you marry to get that power? Or was your father powerful and your bother died?"

"Well, I mean, it's medieval times. So you can't really do that. Women were mostly there for marrying. Do you want to be engaged to one of the men? Or... you can be a lady of the night..."

"It's Norse culture. I mean, sure, sometimes women picked up a blade, but mostly they were home keepers. So let's say you're the daughter of one of the warriors. You mostly keep the home."

This is how much I care about your historical accuracy rant.^

Women have always existed. At least, as long as humans have. So have people of colour and queer people and people who don't exist in the limited gender binary. We've always been here. Just like white straight cis men have. So let's break this down. Because if I hear one more dude (and it's always a dude) say "You can't do that because history" I may actually go to jail for murder.

Some Perspective
People love to talk about how history is written by the victors. Mostly. And that's partly true. Because the writers of their times were writing about their experiences. If you're willing to tell a player that their female character is being beaten down by the patriarchy, you must also accept that men had all the power way back then and since they had all the power you know what they wrote about? Themselves. Of course women existed. And of course they did shit. History is littered with the fragmented tales of kick ass women whom existed outside of their respective roles. 

If you're going to use history against your players, let your players use history against you. There were also people of colour and queer people and people with different genders kicking around back then too. White men just had a tendency to hurt these people, or try to pretend they didn't exist, or better yet, they change details that were historically different, or different in the writings, in modern culture to eliminate those bits. Isn't it way more interesting when Achilles has a dude lover? I mean, I think it is. Because that's compelling. Saying he's just another dude with some women at his arms is way less interesting. It may be more comfortable for some, but it's not interesting.

The exceptional is where stories come from. We love Agent Carter because not only is she bad ass, she's an exception for her time. Media has a love for stories about the underdog who is awesome and capable even though culture and society says they shouldn't be. While this thought process is inherently a problem, it doesn't change the fact that stories, and your characters, are meant to be exceptions to the rules and not average representations of it.

So please remember that because history is written by white men doesn't mean no one else existed or did shit. It just means that because white dudes had all the power, we didn't get to hear from anyone else. Nor did we hear about the people white men deemed unimportant, which was everybody else. 

Are there monsters?
So you want to play a historical game. Great! Let's break those down into genre.

Fantasy! Yay! Seriously. Are there dragons? Orcs? Goblins? FUCKING MAGIC? If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to tell me you can get on board with mother fucking dragons, but you can't suspend your belief long enough that the main hero would be black, you are a piece of work, my friend.

Historical Urban Horror! Oooh! Spooky scary! So you're telling me vampires and werewolves are a-okay in your books, but a gay person who can function in society as a normal person somehow is too unbelievable for you? Take a hike.

Cthulhu/Lovecraftian Horror. This is the most common one I see people get all uppity about. I think because it's the most accessible to us historically. There are loads of examples in fiction and in real life of exceptional people who were also women in this time. Plus. Hey. Ancient gods. Elder things. Azathoth. Just sayin'. If you can hold out for Nyarlathotep but not imagine a female hero, aren't you the problem

Arthurian...medieval... stuff. Dragons and magic. See above.

Basically, if there are monsters or magic in your game, what you are saying to anyone wanting to play someone not a white dude, is that you are willing to believe eldritch horror is more believable than their non-white-dude character. 

True, all the people who aren't white-dudes were othered in history. Just because it's the modern day doesn't mean they aren't othered today. Now say I'm a woman and I want to play an RPG. When I sit down to play, I roll up a female knight. Someone tells me women can't play knights. It's now pointed out to me that because I am a woman I am inferior to the other characters. I am also a woman in real life. Am I inferior to the men at the table? Hell no. But that doesn't mean I wasn't just treated as other.

When we treat people as less than us at the table, by making their character have issues the player may already deal with in real life, we're not letting them suspend their disbelief. We are forcing our perceptions of the issues upon the person and their experiences are less important than how we perceive it. I deal with sexism every day. I don't want to play a role playing game about sexism. Just let me be a knight. Go away.

If you are the GM, encourage awesome characters. Encourage people to break out of their own narrow perspectives of history and embrace the different-than-we-were-taught. It's awesome. Diversity is awesome. And we should forge spaces where everyone feels welcome. Treating diversity in your game as an othering experience will send the message that you perceive people who aren't traditional straight white men as other. Even if you don't mean to. Do you really want someone walking away from your table thinking you're racist or sexist or transphobic or queerphobic or ableist? 

Would you do this?
If someone who isn't a straight white guy wanted to play in your game, would you tell them no? If a woman wanted to join? Or a black woman? Or a gay man? Or a trans woman? Would you tell them no based on how they looked or who they were? Of course not. You're not a bad person.

But if you want to enforce the very things you would never do as a person in the real world in your games, you're still perpetuating racism, sexism, and other problems that exist in history and today. It's your world. Do what you want with it. 

The one I heard most recently was an urban horror World of Darkness game where the GM said "you can be gay, but being gay is awful in this world and you may be killed for it." Basically, the GM is saying "I'm hating on gays in this game, but I don't really hate gays because you can totes be one." I'm sure the GM is a pretty decent guy (maybe?) but what the fuck? Who creates a world that hates on gay people? What does that say about that person? And should you set that world without the consent of your players?

When is it okay?
In some games, as people are sitting down and making characters, someone will start talking about problematic content. I ran Trail of Cthulhu recently enough to have this discussion. Mostly about how one of my female players asked if sexism would be a thing in the world because if so, she didn't want to play a female character. 

In this scenario, it was definitely not okay to have sexism in the world. One person flat out stated they were uncomfortable, which means, don't do it. 

But if you're sitting around a table and you're playing a game that you want to include some problematic elements in, check the fuck in with your players. Bring it up at character gen, see how people feel, and you better do your god damn homework. If you start bringing in racism into a game and you're just throwing it around as though you understand it and its implications when you're a white person who has never experienced that kind of othering in your life, you better sit down and do some reading and learning

Remember to always play with having fun and that means everyone having fun, in mind. If one player wants to play with sexism because he finds it authentic and your female player says no dice, then she wins, because sexism is a big problematic thing and we don't play with it if it will emotionally hurt someone. Someone's enjoyment of a thing does not outweigh someone's discomfort or triggering. This is a golden rule. Do not break it.

It is totally okay to take problematic content and explore it if, and only if, you have everyone's consent at the table and you have that x-card there to let people tap out.

Some final notes
We don't live in a world void of these issues today. Any person who isn't a cis-het white dude can tell you that shit is still real in the modern world. But, many many people aren't assholes. Many people aren't blatantly racist or sexist or transphobic or ableist or queerphobic or classist. If you are going to play in a world where your isms come in as themes, then remember that the hashtag that I hate, #NotAllMen, is something to consider. Social politics aren't important to people on a mass scale. Generally. I can't speak to what's happening with the presidential campaigns in the States. (No, seriously, wtf?)

Never, ever, ever, ever tell someone you can't do that because of your gender, sexual orientation, gender presentation, ethnicity, race, abilities, inability, or anything else that would make them feel less than just because of who they are. It's a dick move. It's gross. It's problematic. Do not do it. 

If someone does this to you? Call them on it if you feel safe. If you don't, walk away when you can, make an excuse, or just bear it until the end of the game and never return. It's time we, as a gaming culture, stopped allowing shitty behaviour to continue. No one has the right to make you feel like less than them, or force you to play a game that suggests you are less than them. 

Kick ass. Take names. Show no mercy.
Well behaved women rarely make history.