Role-Playing Games as Educator: Adding Depth to a Campaign with Reality

Role-playing games are works of interactive fiction primarily designed for entertainment. Even in the RPGs fictional narrative there is opportunity to introduce factual data that is both informative and contributes to the campaign’s realism. Please understand that I am not advocating a purely educational role-playing experience like those foisted upon me in 6th grade history class.

“Pretend you are a European peasant and describe your day-to-day life.”

Peasant? No one want to role-play some crushed-under-foot peasant! Boring!

No, I am advocating inserting stealth reality that enhances the campaign, not ham-fisted “THIS IS EDUCATIONAL, NO FUN ALLOWED” moments.

My current interest is the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome. Rather than rely on Hollywood, I read a copy of “Gladiator: Romes Bloody Spectacle.” As an aside,  I highly recommend this book if you are interested in gladiators and the arena. Back to my original point, I found some great historical touches that will enhance any gladiatorial RPG encounter.

My personal favorite gladiator type was the Andabata. Andabata wore heavy armor because spectators did not want to see the spectacle end too soon with a lucky blow. I say lucky because Andabata fought blind. Yes, their helmets completely blocked vision and they fought through their other senses and the shouted warnings of the crowd. Now that is audience participation!

Remember those odd gladiator helmets with the tall metal crests? I always thought they were decorative and that certainly was a part of their purpose. That and they were razor-sharp! There is some evidence the razor-crests had utility when escaping from entangling nets. Undoubtedly a few gladiators opened unprotected arteries with them as well.

Some might call this kind of factual information trivial, but that is a subjective measure. Measured against the scope of Roman Empire, these tidbits are trivial. Players fighting a blood-thirsty, razor-helmed gladiator will rate the razor-helm as “critical, need-to-know information.” Odd how fighting for your PC’s life brings history into sharp focus. Literally.

Oh, do not dismiss using some factual history just because you are in a fantasy environment. Using the gladiator example above, nothing prevents you from putting a foul netherbeast into the arena with the Andabata. Historical accuracy is always less important than having a good time. It is a game, after all.

I initially started this post with the goal of encouraging game masters to add some factual history to their campaigns, but I feel the urge to editorialize a bit about an issue that deeply concerns me; gamer historical ignorance.

I am not going to say that all gamers are ignorant about history. That is not the case, many gamers I know personally have a deep and abiding interest in history in all its forms. That said, I feel that many younger gamers seem ignorant of any history not from a major Hollywood film. Of course, this perception is strictly anecdotal, but it saddens me to think that the next generation of game masters is missing the benefits of historical knowledge, both for their campaigns and to themselves.

That is the end of my rant. All I can say is crack open a history book and mine it for all it is worth to your campaign. Reality makes for better gaming!

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

One thought on “Role-Playing Games as Educator: Adding Depth to a Campaign with Reality

  • January 14, 2010 at 11:39 am

    As a fellow “long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff”, I’m right there with you on this, Trask.

    There’s an amazing amount of gaming flavor out there that can be readily accessed via the web or library. I volunteer at my local school library, shelving books. Check out the ancient civilizations section in the 930-932 section (Dewey decimal system).

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