What do you look for in RPG books describing or detailing historical periods of play?
Graham Walmsley asks over at the Story Games forums, and I thought I’d echo the question here, to get some more takes on the subject. What do you like to see? What do you need to see? What justifies the purchase or the time spent reading an RPG book when you could be reading a straight-up history book?
Turn it around, too: What irks you? What diminishes your enthusiasm for an historical setting for play? Has a book ever convinced you that a particular setting was a terrible time or place to play in? How did that happen?
I’ve long thought that part of any historical setting book’s job was to grant license to play amid the history. Not to observe or recite or recreate, but to play. That means giving out toys (in the form of people, places, customs, trivia) and permission and authority to experiment.
I’m tempted to say, here, that historical-setting books should actually be story guides. They should concern themselves with the stories to be found at the intersection of time and place—focus on the conflicts and the characters. Don’t just show us the proper way to address a Spanish duke (or whatever), but show me why I’d want to or what the consequences are for not doing it right. That’s conflict. Don’t just tell me who people were, tell me what they want and why they don’t have it yet. That makes them characters.
Fill the book with potential energy. Things should be on the verge of happening, whenever the book is set.
The truth, though, is that I’ve enjoyed plenty of game books that employ other approaches. So I don’t think it’s my way or the highway. Just thinking about this has me that much more excited to hear what you like in historical-setting books.