Role-playing reviews

Reviews related to role-playing games, with a focus on Gods & Monsters, and a bit of superhero gaming.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Living the Past

Jerry Stratton, July 18, 2006

It is very easy to find pictures of ancient castles, kings, and temples in popular history books. But the small things are often forgotten in such overviews. This makes Val Horsler’s Living the Past especially useful: the living museums it describes try to recreate all levels of society.

While it certainly has lots of pictures of castles and grand halls, and kings and nobility, it also has pictures of people as they would have lived in or visited those places. Game masters looking for a description of, say, an Anglo-Saxon peasant’s fenced-in home can turn to page 67 and describe that scene.

Written for and with the assistance of English Heritage, the book covers English historical re-enactments in Britain. However, as I wrote in Populating England, that land has seen many cultures. The island has seen Celt, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman invasions. Much of the first section of the book is useful for any European-based fantasy gaming. (It goes all the way up to World War II.)

Every page has pictures. The photos of soldiers, hovels, peasants, and families are useful resources for the adventure guide looking to write flavor text.

People from various levels of society feature in the Weald and Downland Museum’s recreation of life in a Sussex parish in 1626. The Clares, a prosperous yeoman farming family at Pendean Farm, employ labourers to bring in the harvest, bound in authentically shaped sheaves.

Each era is broken into three sections. It begins with a short “approaching” the era, one or two pages long, that describes the historical background. Then, a longer “visiting sites” of the era covers places that still exist and can be visited. Finally, a “recreating the past” section covers the living museums and “interpreters” who attempt to recreate this era through costume and role-playing.

“Many people think that the most difficult thing about medieval cooking is using the open fire. But for me, the strangest thing is the lack of forks; you just have to hang on to your knives.”

This is not as densely useful as other books I’ve reviewed. Much of the book is about the people taking part in the re-enactments and how they fare in these living museums. But there’s still enough about the re-creations themselves to make it useful for gamers.

Bede’s World offers real, hands-on experience of life in the Anglo-Saxon era. Interpreters in costume demonstrate a wide range of crafts: spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidery; pottery-making with a hand-turned wheel; hurdle-making, bead-making, basket-making, forging and leatherwork.

In a couple of places it shows some step-by-step examples of things that people did, such as how a warrior puts on his armor.

The book’s focus on historical re-enactments, interpreters, and living museums is an interesting one, especially from the perspective of role-players who role-play similar fantasy settings.

The book also shows how, throughout England, there are societies attempting to recreate the life of various historical periods, and doing so by re-creating a specific building, town, or organization. These can all be visited, and this book describes quite a few of them.

Besides visiting the living museums in person (difficult for those of us across the pond), the English Heritage web site also has some useful sources on their free publications page. There are a lot of agendas, advisories, listings, and reports, but among the publications are one or two very interesting items. One that I found is an artist’s impression of a garden inside of what looks like a defensive wall. (Look under A for Artist.) More useful is their photo collection, though this seems to focus on the more traditional really big stuff.

The other organizations also often have interesting pictures from which descriptions can be drawn. Living museums appear to be a fascinating and useful resource for the fantasy gamer.

  1. <- World War II
  2. Gentleman’s House ->