“You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
— Morpheus, The Matrix
History is a damn rabbit hole. The deeper you go, the more warrens you find, the easier it is to get lost. This is probably one of the toughest (for me anyway) parts of GMing a historical roleplaying game, even an alt-history one.
One of the responsibilities you feel as a GM is to impart to your players a sense of “being there.” That’s not terribly difficult when you are working with a fantasy world. In that sense, all the important details of the place are right there in your imagination. But a real place? At a real moment in history? How deep do you want to go?
The correct answer is just deep enough to satisfy your players. But knowing when you’ve hit that point can be tough, and genre requirements don’t always help. Do my players really care who the Mayor of London was in 1689? In a swashbuckling game, quite possibly since rubbing shoulders with the nobility is a staple of the genre. Do they need to know how many seats there were on the city council of Strasbourg? Probably not, but its very helpful for you, the GM, to know what city councilmen (and women) were called and what social-strata they came from.
Do the players care what district of town the tanneries were common in? Probably not. They just want to be able to buy a nice suit of leather armor or a scabbard for that fancy magical sword. You, the GM, want to be able to say, “ok, so your character heads out to” X district, which is home to X social class, where you are also likely to find Y and Z.
That sense of verisimilitude. That’s part of your job. And you want to do it well. But doing it well at the expense of the meat and potatoes of your game? I hear a lot of GMs say: only develop what you are going to use. The same truth applies to creating the historical setting. If your Call of Cthulhu game will forever be based out of Nineteenth century London, you have every reason to dig deep. But if London is just another layover on the campaign map, then you only need to focus on the big ticket items.
One of the most useful nuggets of city/town creation for RPGs came out of the old Cook-edition D&D Expert set. When you create a town, start with the places your PCs are going to want to visit: a temple, a market, the thieves guild, a tavern, an inn. With a historical game, there is the temptation to wander much farther afield and include a bunch of stuff the players will never care about in a million years. Because dammit it was there!
This is something I wrestle with all the time, and I don’t come out on the “just enough” side very often. Because *I* want to know what that 7th century guard tower that dates back to Roman times has to do with the market district. Even if it’s nothing more than window dressing.
Here’s what I propose to you budding GMs who want to try your hand at historical RPGs (or old hands who, like me, all to easily wind up chasing your tail looking for historical minutiae): instead of a whole bunch of locations and corresponding details, create a handful of colorful scenes that you can toss at your players when they go wandering the city streets. Just local color: the dense accent of the fishmonger plying his wares on the wharf, a group of citizens harassing some social pariah while the city watch stands idly by, the smell of the food venders in the marketplace. Those sorts of scenes are far more likely to make your city come alive than knowing the minute details of a seventh century guard tower.
But go easy on yourself. I mean, it shouldn’t be THAT hard to find a floor plan of that tower on Google Images, right?