Turn Back Time: Playing Characters From the Past

For every game we play set in a different, fantastical world far from our own, is a campaign set right here on our own home sweet home—Earth.  Historical campaign settings continue to be popular; equally popular is playing characters that have lived through numerous historic time periods.  When we sit down to write a character whose past is rooted in the history of the real world, there are a few things to keep in mind to make the experience streamlined and interesting.


Who are you?

In the sea of stats, historic details, and even casual research, we can lose sight of who our PC is. Sure, their philosophical and moral stance is important to know before playing them. But where they grew up, what their personality is like, their name and role in society are just as important. Well educated monk? Chimney sweep? Co-ed in the 1950’s? There will be stereotypes and images that come to you about the generic type of person your character is. As you define them, they take on their own unique look that often breaks from stereotype.  If you sketch out a character that ardently conforms to a stereotype, and you do that on purpose, there are two questions to ask yourself.

Do they conform to this stereotype because they want to?

Do they conform to this stereotype because they’ve been trapped by it?


Which side are you on?

Throughout human history there have been numerous struggles across political, social, economic, religious, and national lines. If you’re an American who pre-dates women’s right to vote in this country, were you for or against female voters? If a war occurred during your character’s lifetime, did they fight in it? Were they restricted from the front lines? Were they willing to go to war, or torn about the repercussions? If you take so much as a quick walk through Wikipedia, you can pull up a number of historic events. You don’t have to write a book on your character’s historic perspectives, but the sides people or characters take in the face of history inform and shape them.


Determine if you’re a stitch-counter.

For everyone willing to give on some details or gloss over certain things about the time period, there is an equal number of stitch-counters, people who know their history down to the very seams of their historic costume. Unless you’re playing with an entire group of people will a similarly tenacious ideal for cleaving to stringent historic detail, you’ll need to learn how to get along with your less strict fellow players.  Details can make for amazing nuance in your background, but you may need to let your desire for verisimilitude go at times during play.


How deep are you—and the game—willing to go?

While I was playing in a large Vampire: The Masquerade LARP, a number of the characters came from historic time periods. This is obviously pretty normal, being that blood sucking creatures of the night live a long time if not assassinated by peers, killed by hunters, or succumbing to ennui. There came a point in time where a number of WWII era characters were in play, three of which were Jewish, played by Jewish players.  Two had fought in the war, one had been in the camps.The game did an admirable job of treating the revelations about these characters with maturity and depth. I bring that example up because the closer we get to present day, the more we risk bringing up time periods that can be personally fraught for ourselves or other players.

Note: From ancient history to events of a few hundred years ago, we can still botch their handling during play. Just because an event occurred over a hundred years ago doesn’t mean it can’t carry a potential for deep, personal offense.  Slavery, colonialism, genocide and subjugation of entire peoples are deeply painful themes that have played out through all of human history. Some chronicles treat history with a light hand, while others are going to address it as thoughtfully as they can as part of the narrative. Always know what kind of chronicle you’re entering, and the story you want to tell, when rolling up your character.


Played characters in a historic setting or chronicle? Feel free to share your preparation techniques in the comments about gearing up to play a historic character.



About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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