Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Twisting (recent) history

Jerry Stratton, March 13, 2009

Johnny Carson had a running gag that it was always too soon for Lincoln jokes. We have similar problems in role-playing past times but I think it’s especially problematic when role-playing recent past times. What to do with real historical figures when fictionalizing history is a tough question. I ran into it several times when writing Helter Skelter, which was set in 1969 San Francisco and 1955 Las Vegas. Some of the people who were in the 1969 part of the adventure—and even in the 1955 part—are still alive today.

In some cases, I kept the real historical figures out of the way; Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joe Louis didn’t show up for the major portion of the adventure. In other cases, I replaced the real person with a fictional one. I decided not to use Nancy Sinatra for the San Francisco portion of the adventure as originally planned, for example. Creating Deanna Carmen as a replacement for her ended up making a better adventure because I was able to use her more freely, and integrate her history more deeply into the adventure.

I also redid all of the management of the Moulin Rouge (except Louis), just because there’s been so little recorded about them and I didn’t want to say something egregiously wrong about real people.

Charles Manson showed up just once before leaving for Southern California. The Weathermen and the Death Angels were optional encounters. As it turned out, they hit that part of the adventure just as two of the weathermen came back into the news! I ended up modifying the first names of Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers slightly just to keep from invoking reality too much. The adventure wasn’t meant to be a statement on the presidential election, and I had never expected these historical figures to have recognizable names. (I found out later that in Billy’s case he actually went by that name during that period.)

Even then, I felt I had to add an explanation both for myself and anyone else who might read the adventure:

This is a fiction based around real events, some of them horrific. There is evil in the world we do not understand. We may never know who Jack the ripper was, or who the zodiac was, but we do know that they were real, and that they needed no fantasy demon to goad them into killing.

The death angels didn’t need an insect mesh to tell them to hack apart a man until “his skin hung in bloody strips from his skull”. The weathermen killed and severely wounded police officers using a nail-lined pipe bomb without any help from the supernatural. No interdimensional bugs created the Manson family, nor motivated weathermen leaders to “dig” the Manson victims’ treatment and dedicate their manual on revolution to, among others, Sirhan Sirhan.

That was real. That was our world. It may still be.

It’s important not to whitewash evil in history, even for fantasy fiction, because doing so affects our ability to see evil today. I think, specifically, that it is very important to not shift responsibility away from the true actors and to not trivialize the harms caused to the victims of their actions. At the same time, player characters need freedom to act and should be the center of attention.

How have other people handled this? Often, not well. I’m going to pull out an adventure I’ve never run, and look at the ending to a decidedly ahistorical movie.

Wings of the Valkyrie

September 18, 1931: The Munich Massacre occurs. Masked men kill off the Nazi Party elite and several others in the Munich area. Evidence is sketchy, but the logical enemy of the Nazis, the KPD (German Communist Party) is suspected of having performed the killings.

No discussion of fictionalizing real-world villains is complete without some mention of Adolf Hitler. He personifies evil in our modern mythology, and there are some things we just can’t do with him. I’d argue that it’s a good thing that we can’t. We can’t make Hitler be a good guy secretly working against evil in the world. It’s dangerous to even make him be an unwitting dupe of someone else more evil than him; his place in history requires that he remain the actor. It’s hard to even let people preemptively kill him. It’s almost a requirement that if you go back in time to kill Hitler, you either can’t do it, you assist his rise to power, or something even worse comes to pass.

Back in the eighties I bought a Champions adventure called Wings of the Valkyrie. It’s a fascinating adventure that I’ve never had the nerve to run. It uses option 3: the destruction of the Nazis in 1931 results in civil war in Germany. The German Communist party steps in to provide order, leading to the supremacy of Communist Germany in Europe and also Communist China in Asia. Nuclear war has broken out once and will probably break out again. It’s fascinating to read, but in many places the player characters’ path is too forced to really run.

This is a story that makes more sense as a movie than a role-playing adventure. It’s very much a railroad. The player characters need to be at the right places at the right time far too often. At one point, Hitler himself is on a railroad, but the PCs can’t find him. Why? Because the adventure says so. There’s another encounter that won’t occur if one of the player characters has telepathy, for the sole reason that if the player characters use their powers too effectively, the carefully planned plot won’t happen as planned.

This adventure is fragile. All it takes is one player thinking outside the box to derail it. The cinematic ending is that the players have to choose between killing Nazis and ensuring a horrific future, or letting history stand, ensuring their own future. But what about shapechangers taking over for some of the Nazis? What about mentalists influencing the Nazi leadership or the German politicians who gave them power? What about starting a magical or interdimensional underground railroad to help concentration camp victims? I’m sure that there are other things superheroes could do if they thought about it.

Superhero games are very difficult to railroad without making the rails extremely obvious to the players. Wings of the Valkyrie makes the rails extremely obvious. The player characters are secondary to the plot. They’re not the center of attention, the pre-scripted plot is. This is inevitable when dealing with historical figures at this level, especially when the ending is or must be set in stone. The player characters must be free to alter history, and must be free to alter the course of the adventure.

The food, prosperity, and peace of Louis XIV

The less important a character is, the more you can change them. Dumas was a master at taking unknowns and putting them in the spotlight. Dumas’s stories, unfortunately, are difficult to turn into movies, because moviemakers are too enamored of the historical figures involved rather than the “player characters” Dumas wrote about.

Hollywood will sometimes break the rules about dealing with historical figures, but more often out of ignorance than any desire to break with tradition. I have friends in France who were vocally disappointed with the ending to The Man in the Iron Mask movie. At the very end, the movie states that “the king known as Louis XIV brought his people food, prosperity and peace. He is remembered as the greatest ruler in the history of his nation.” My guess is that the author just made it up, or knew that Louis XIV was considered a “great” king, but didn’t know why.

Louis XIV raided his nobles for gold to fuel ostentatious displays of power, and he raised taxes upon peasants to pay for his wars, which continued almost to his death. He was a great king the way that great kings are ever measured: by wars waged, land grabbed, influence gained, and wealth hoarded.

Without that line, this would have been a decent enough movie, if disappointing for Dumas fans (all the more disappointing for the extremely well-cast parts). The line was completely unnecessary, and served only to whitewash history. It’s an odd strike against a movie that is a piece of fiction in any case, but there was simply no need to pretend that Louis XIV was a “good” king in the real world.

This story might have made a better adventure than movie. When the movie ends and the voiceover starts, we know they’re talking about “our” Louis XIV. Role-playing games don’t have to have endings. We won’t know that the ahistorical Louis is a good king because the GM does a voiceover. We’ll know it because we play through as Louis’s advisors and change history ourselves. The player characters should always be the center of attention, and we should get to change history if that’s our goal and we play it right.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Alarums & Excursions 399, and was inspired by a comment in an earlier issue.

  1. <- Nisus Encounters
  2. Morally unaligned ->