Historical context and cultural sensitivity in my game

estrogenesys

socially engineered
Validated User
#1
So add my name to the never ending list of people writing their own RPG setting and system. I do not wish to discuss the system here, but rather the setting, and am looking for advice on handling sensitive historical and cultural persons and events.

Tentatively, I have chosen to set my game in our own world (London and New York), circa 1901. I wanted to go post-Victorian, but pre-WWI. This gives me about a decade of room to work with.

I also chose 1901 because the Spiritualism movement is on the rise, providing a good historical and cultural context for my setting. Without getting into too much purple prose, my game is about magical warfare happening in the shadows, unbeknownst to most everyday people in the "real" world. Original, I know.

I was looking at historical figures in the Spiritualism and Occult movements of the time and wondering what the ethics would be of including them in my game and presenting them as NPC practitioners and leaders of real, provable, magic and spiritualism. Or should I leave them be as "frauds" that provide a natural layer of diversion? I know that historical figures have been presented in media as more or less than what they actually were for the purposes of dramatization and entertainment, but as a creator I want to make sure I am on the proper and respectful side of this.

I could move my setting to a fictional parallel world that looks like our world circa 1901, but sans the historical and cultural events and people that could potentially be controversial, but I feel that would be lazy and disingenuous of me.

There are also other important historical and cultural events and conditions I want to consider and discuss here, but I would like to use this as an entry point for this conversation.
 

KnockingBox

Registered User
Validated User
#2
One thing to consider is that Victorian-style spiritualism and skepticism had gone hand in hand from the beginning, and there was a well established tradition of skeptics and debunkers in 1901. If you're presenting spiritualists as genuine magic workers, which I think is fine, you should also ask how you're presenting the people who worked to debunk and disprove them. Are they liars? Mistaken? Pawns of dark forces? Sometimes right, sometimes wrong?

e: another thing to ask is how you feel about presenting people who, for example, targeted grieving families for their money, as genuinely performing the magical service advertised. Personally, I'd say that there's no conflict between having actual magical powers and being a scammer who trades on one's inflated reputation, but it's something to think about with how heroically you're depicting the magic users.
 
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AnEristicPrinciple

Changed by Circumstance
Validated User
#3
This is pretty much the question and concern I raised for my own (Victorian) RPG here: https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/historical-rpgs-how-far-should-you-go.833363/

As a writer of games, you're not a historian, you're a storyteller. But you're right. you have a responsibility to ensure that you don't misrepresent real figures from that time. In my case, my concern was (and still is) misrepresenting the "common people", less than major figures. If anything, I would think a writer of fiction (which we are, even if it is a "historical RPG") has more of capacity for flexibility when it comes to how they describe major figures from history. Take Doctor Who as an example; Winston Churchill pops up in ALL sorts of episodes and is aware the presence of aliens, seems half-cooked on brandy whenever the Doctor meets him and is in essence, a much more gregarious and larger figure then even we know the truth to be. You can get away with that and heck, I'd love to meet the likes of Allan Bennett and Aleister Crowley as actual characters in a game. :)

As K KnockingBox alludes to, and I touch on in that links, my main concern would be ensuring anything that references the non-fantastical and the common woman or man, is handles respectively.
 

SunlessNick

Mildly Darkened One
Validated User
#4
If you're presenting spiritualists as genuine magic workers, which I think is fine, you should also ask how you're presenting the people who worked to debunk and disprove them. Are they liars? Mistaken? Pawns of dark forces? Sometimes right, sometimes wrong?
Even in the real world, debunkers weren't always above faking evidence of fraud if they couldn't find it - and mediums who to all appearances believed in their own powers weren't always above cheating anyway. That makes the waters muddy enough that you can put skeptics all across the map - and I think they should be. Likewise, there should definitely be fraudulent mystics along with the real ones - and possibly one type of power being faked as another (eg a telepath could fake contacting the dead better than anyone).
 

Stattick

Electronic Thing
Validated User
#5
And to muddy the waters even more, maybe one type of skeptic is the so called, "Nega-Psychic". They're psychics, but are so convinced that psychic abilities don't exist, that they (at first) don't even realize that they're psychics. They're abilities amount to dampening other actual phenomenon. But nevertheless, some of them eventually see some shit, and realize that some stuff out there is real. If they make the effort, they can learn to use their abilities to shield themselves and others, perhaps even being able to help exorcise possessing spirits and the like.
 

Knaight

Registered User
Validated User
#6
Riffing off the name "Nega-Psychic" a fun case could be that the prominent skeptics are often nega-psychics, with exactly one power invisible to them: Large area power suppression. Around them those powers genuinely don't work, and they've come to the conclusion that the people claiming them are frauds and not that they have an unknown personal power to shut down nearby magic workers.
 

Strange Visitor

Grumpy Grognard
Validated User
#7
You don't even have to have them be specifically nega-psychics; say that psychic abilities work, in some fashions, like a radio transmitter; if you've got an untrained and unaware person who's still got a big "transmitter", he or she's going to bollix up other transmitters and receivers just by the nature of being near them and randomly sending out bursts of psychic energy all the time.
 

wheloc

Cardassian Tailor
RPGnet Member
Validated User
#9
My take is,

If you're doing "roleplaying" and not "re-enactment", then you're taking liberties with history regardless; it's just a question of how many liberties you want to take. There's no right or wrong answer here, just what you think will be the most fun.

Likewise, I don't think you're under any obligation to portray historical figures accurately. Rather, go the film route and make it clear that you're not tying to portray the actual historical figures, you're portraying fictional people that are (perhaps only loosely) based on historical people. "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental"
 

Airos

Actual tiger
Validated User
#10
My take is,

If you're doing "roleplaying" and not "re-enactment", then you're taking liberties with history regardless; it's just a question of how many liberties you want to take. There's no right or wrong answer here, just what you think will be the most fun.

Likewise, I don't think you're under any obligation to portray historical figures accurately. Rather, go the film route and make it clear that you're not tying to portray the actual historical figures, you're portraying fictional people that are (perhaps only loosely) based on historical people. "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental"
That sounds like it'd be great advice for individual gaming groups when it comes to the question of what they want to do with an established system and the freedom to customize the setting to their enjoyment. When the game designer is asking about portraying historical figures respectfully (a word with very different meaning than "accurately"), there certainly are wrong answers.

One wrong answer is to claim that any resemblance between a character based on a real-world figure and that real world figure themselves is "purely coincidental". That's a lie, because the resemblance between the two is entirely deliberate. It's being done by design, and with purpose. Lying to your audience just to dodge the potential criticism that they don't match up doesn't equate to being respectful, nor does a boilerplate disclaimer automatically negate that criticism.

If you have changed the characters to the point where they no longer resemble their inspiration except in entirely coincidental ways, then you have for all intents and purposes removed those people from the game.
 
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