Thursday, December 28, 2006

RPGs and Medievalism

I spent this evening watching a group play a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) called "Ars Magica." For those of you unfamiliar with RPGs, these are basically the "Dungeons and Dragons" style games, where players create characters and run those characters through adventures. The games are refereed by someone who is not playing, generally called the "Game Master," though the GM has only limited control over how the story will play out -- if the characters decide to do something different than the GM had expected, the GM has to be flexible enough to make that story adjustment work. In many ways, RPGs are collaborative storytelling.

"Ars Magica" is set in mythical Europe, which is nearly the very same as the medieval Europe we all know, except that in this world magic is real (and the players generally play characters who are mages). Unlike games in pure fantasy settings, however, "Ars Magica" is expected to stick pretty closely to our own historical world. The game I saw (I was able to participate a little) took place in Germany, along the Rhine in the 13th century.

I was struck by how much more educational this tabletop RPG was than any MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online games are the online roleplaying games like Everquest and World of Warcraft). Because of the collaborative storytelling aspect, tabletop RPGs allow the players to be more deeply involved in the creation of the world in ways that MMORPGs cannot allow. In the game I observered, the players and GM had the following discussions about the 13th century Rhineland:
  • How does one arrange a dowry?
  • How much would a dowry cost?
  • How would one initiate contact with a high-ranking Church official?
  • How would one initiate contact with mid-ranking nobility?
  • Would a mill or a forge be more effective for starting a community?
  • How fast would river travel have been?
  • How far and fast could a medieval peasant walk?
  • If there had been mages in the 13th Century, would they have pronounced Latin in the Classical way or the ecclesiastical way?
...etc, etc. I don't want to offer the impression that this game was a bunch of people sitting around having academic discussions, nor do I want to offer the impression that they always came up with the "right" answer (I have no idea how the dowry system worked at that time, for example). These little blanks had to be filled in, though, in order for the players to decide how their characters should proceed. Not one of them was a trained medievalist, yet each showed a greater degree of understanding of the medieval era than the average person would. I'm convinced that this was largly due to tabletop RPGs, and that had this been a group of people playing a medieval-themed MMORPG, they would have shown a lesser degree of sophistication, relying more heavily on the game design and mechanics to make decisions for them.

One last note: As I mentioned to the players, I have seen real medieval codices of "magic," and they were far less complicated than the magical practices outlined in the Ars Magica books!


  1. Ummm... Aren't tabletop RPGs the way most Gen-X/Y male medievalists got their love of the period? I know that's how it worked for me...

  2. Oh--and speaking of... I play-tested a copy of Ars Magica back in the day. Good stuff...

  3. Anonymous10:14 AM

    take it from someone who's lived in the 13th century -- mages would've spoke Classical Latin.

  4. The RPG as cooperative storytelling meme is a widespread misunderstanding of what a person actually does in play. One actually assumes the role of a person living in an imaginary world. It is, for all intents and purposes, something unique; fictional events that are actually occurring. Cognitive dissonance in its natural habitat.

    Ars Magica itself has been called many things, but a faithful emulation of the Medieval period is rarely one of them. In works better as a model of academic life, with the typical adventure much like a field trip, with the wizard as the professor, the companions the grad students, and the grogs as freshmen.

    As a matter of fact, Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein•Hagen were college students when they designed the game. Their original intention was to do an RPG on college life. They also played D&D at the time, and came to a popular conclusion among D&D players of the period; magic users (as wizards were then called) dominated with some experience under their belts.

    So Jonathan and Mark decided to take their college life game and use it to give dweomercrafters their proper place in the sun.

    Ars Magica ignores basic human nature, and says nothing of how working magic would change our world in numerous ways. The Parma Magica thing makes no damn sense what-so-ever, for Ars Magica would have you belief that no one up until fairly recently in Ars Magica chronology even thought of using their magic to defend themselves. Which is sort of like beekeepers practicing habitual nudity.

    You really don't want to get me started on the whole "covenant off in the wilderness" crap, when historical wizards and alchemists made it a point to seek the limelight and any spare cash they could winkle out of a patron's vaults.

    The whole hermeticism thing is just too ahistorical for words.

    Ars Magica has potential, but not with the starting assumptions it's saddled with now.

  5. Anonymous3:44 AM

    I'm not going to make presumptions about the particular game in question, but I did want to agree with the poster who suggested medievalists of gen-x/y got interested in the discipline through D&D. I don't mention this much because I'm never sure how it will color the perceptions of people talking to me, but I started playing AD&D (the advanced version of D&D at the time, when there was a simplified version for younger players) when I was seven or so. Due to that, I became interested in mythology, castle building, styles of government, fantasy literature in general (also a big gateway), and any and all medievalia I could find. That translated over time into an interest in the Society for Creative Ananachronism, and ultimately to my trajectory as a graduate student in English. In every case, what drove me was an attempt to better understand the period and the stories it contained, both of which I don't think would have mattered to me nearly as much if I hadn't walked into the game shop as a seven year old kid.

    I still play and semi-attempt to create my own games, although with school and teaching I don't get as much of a chance anymore. I don't think I'll ever really stop.

    Sorry if this seems long-winded or a bit off. It's running late here, but I felt I should just say something.

  6. Anonymous3:37 PM

    I play tested Ars Magica at one of the first game-cons where it showed up. Fun stuff. Good to see it made it off the ground.

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