Jan 16, 2012

My Megadungeon Was Vietnam

I'd like to hear from those in my readership who have played a historical game and not had it be one of the following: Imperial Rome, Charlemagne's empire, medieval Britain or France, the Napoleonic Wars, the Victorian Era, England or America in the interbellum period, WW2.

Lately, I've been noticing how repetitious historical settings are, and it's been driving me nuts. I think it's one of the things that keeps me away from running historical games. I used to love running Revised Recon I was younger (14-15 IIRC), because the Vietnam War was this strange foreign war I knew very little about, which really contributed to the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the whole thing as a setting both for me and the players. It meant the PCs really were stumbling around in the dark like real GIs might've been, but also that I wasn't really constrained by the need to be particularly true to life like I might feel now.Vietnam became this giant outdoor jungle deathtrap dungeon, with the PCs blowing up, being impaled on punji sticks, blowing up again, being dismembered by shrapnel, blowing up yet again, and so on. Recon's quick character generation helped, though we sped it along by just writing different names at the top of the same character sheets most of the time.

A session would start with me rolling on Recon's mission tables, which would then lead to a short descriptive set up, and then hours and hours of carnage. Nobody was really glib about the violence, but when you're playing guys in a jungle war with no oversight you don't exactly hold back. I only sort of understood the rank table, so I declared someone was the "Sergeant Guy" in charge of each "Quest" - sometimes the PCs would shoot one another to death to determine who got to be "Sergeant Guy". After a while, whoever was in charge would die, and someone else would appoint themselves in charge, or we would forget about the whole thing.

I'm surprised in hindsight at how good the tables and book were at equipping a 14 year old Canadian kid to run Vietnam War games, teaching me the appropriate terms for everything and suggesting tons and tons of well-thought out ideas. Quests included stopping a shipment of anti-armour rockets being transported in construction equipment across the Cambodian border on the Ho Chi Minh trail (I could not have pointed to Cambodia on a map at 14, I also had no idea who Ho Chi Ming was), guarding the owner of a rubber plantation while a revolutionary acting troupe who were suspected of being VC assassins toured the area, securing a captured NVA bunker, etc. This was all Erick Wujcik, my job was mainly to supply the explosions and roll the dice.

Since then, I haven't done a ton of historical gaming (though I have done some, I'm not a jerk). I've considered it from time to time, but the requests are always for the periods that I listed above, and which I've gotten thoroughly sick of after reading and reading and reading both for gaming and purely for the sake of learning about them. Really, if I were to go back to historical gaming, I'd like to get into some of history's less popular periods. The Byzantine Anatolian frontier, the Indo-Bactrian kingdoms (A few year ago, I played in a short lived Iron Heroes game online set in the Kabul during the reign of Melander/Milarepa and nearly played in a Burning Wheel game IRL set further south in northern India during the same period), Khitan during the Song-period, or the Conquistador phase of American colonisation (thus Emern). All of these are hybrid frontier cultures, which I personally tend to find easier to play in.

The nature of a hybrid frontier culture is that things are fluid and unfixed. So instead of expecting people to memorise De Ceremoniis, you get to say "I'm a rough and tough Armenian from the Caucasus, and though I may be Byzantine or something, I can't remember and don't give a shit. Where's my gold and girls, bro?" Frontiers have a way of drawing precisely the people who have the least invested in and the least interest in, the way things are, while throwing cultural contrasts in sharp relief as different ethnic groups mix with one another. I find them more playable than any other real world situation. More on this idea some other time.

In the mean time, as I said, I'm curious about all the uncommon and unusual eras your historical games have been set in. Comment it up, folks!


  1. Not sure if it would be considered uncommon or unusual, but I've become greatly interested in the mountain man era of the American frontier, approx 1805 to 1835, as a source of gaming inspiration.

    Your idea of "vietnam as dungeon" is right on target. I compiled several links related to that idea in a blog post:


  2. Fire in the Jungle> The whole concept of "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" has been an interesting one, though I'm not sure how playable it actually is. The Vietnam War game I was running was fast, furious and often unfairly deadly, but one of the things that made it sing was that both sides were equally capable of laying traps, calling in firepower from elsewhere, etc. There was more of a parity of power at any given moment than there is in a dungeon.

    I saw someone online propose doing FFV in a giant set of caverns once which neither side really controlled, and I think that would do a lot to make the concept playable, since it wouldn't just be a series of prepared death traps you had to wade through (which is how I often see the concept presented in discussion, whether rightly or IMHO, wrongly). You want the ability to clear an area, fill it full of your own traps, and abandon it for the enemy. The other thing I'd do is keep careful track of the enemy forces and the PC's allied forces during the adventure so that it wouldn't feel like an endless stream of VC Orcs that it was pointless to kill.

  3. BV> Are you playing with people who are familiar with the history of the period, only familiar with literary and media representations of the period, not familiar with the period, or some mix? How does that affect the game, especially when it comes to featuring politics, society, etc.?

  4. I've run Renaissance Italy (yawn for everyone else, new to gamers!), 18th century Makassar and Scott in the Antarctic (technically Edwardian, but close enough to your Victorian/interbellum as makes not much odds - just a curious hole there in the timeline). I would like to play 30 years war but haven't yet, and I'd even more like to play Seljuk Empire.

    Don't forget "medieval" (actually Edo-period) Japan!

  5. Some suggestions for historical games outside the milieux you list: 17th century Siam or Banda Sea, 11-12th century Turkestan (rise and fall of the Seljuk Empire). I note in passing that these are all adjacent to much more popular periods for gaming (12th c Europe, the Golden Age of Piracy) but they remain almost perfectly unexplored.

  6. Yeah, some of those would be fantastic. The Seljuk-Byzantine frontier in the early 11th century was what I had in mind with the reference to the Anatolian frontier. SE Asia in the 17th century would be excellent too.

  7. The Byzantine Anatolian frontier,

    I started off my 'Does 3e suck as much as I think?' test-run somewhere in the western edge of Armenia. I like being able to say, "You all speak Greek."

  8. I would love to run a game where the PCs are excisemen in Cappadocia sometime shortly before or after the battle of Manizkert. I'd give them a wagon with a ballista, a map of the area, and a total amount of gold they're responsible for bringing back, and then let them play "Tax farm hexcrawl".