When it comes to stories, there isn’t much better inspiration than the sprawl of human history.
Unsurprisingly, the endlessly expanding chronicle of humanity has resulted in a huge number of tabletop RPGs capturing specific times and places. Some recreate the life of British sailors in the Age of Sail (Beat to Quarters), warring samurai in feudal Japan (Sengoku, Legend of the Five Rings), or jump off the deep end and fill a Victorian steampunk city with ghosts (Blades in the Dark).
As someone who loves both history and roleplaying, here’s five historical RPGs that let you build your own stories in slices of the past.
As a quick note, if you’re after an RPG about wars and battles, you won’t find it here. I chose these based on setting appeal, historical accuracy, and the fact that they’re about more than fighting.
By Jason Morningstar
What: A high-flying story of bad-ass Soviet airwomen.
When: Operation Barbarossa, 1942 – 1945: German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Okay, look. Night Witches may tell the story of members of the 588th Soviet all-women bomber squadron during World War II, but it has little to do with war and a lot to do with relationships.
You’ll live, love and die beside the other airwomen in your squadron: ladies, hooligans, and natural-born Soviets all. The system encourages queer sexuality, but lets you remove the Soviet state’s hostility towards it, which is nice.
By day, you’ll struggle to navigate equipment shortages, misogynist superiors, and the grind of life on the base. At night, you’ll struggle to navigate because it’s dark, and because the Motherland didn’t see fit to give you a working plane.
Nothing comes easy in Night Witches, but the uphill struggle is incredibly rewarding.
By Robin D. Laws
What: Story focused dramas throughout history.
When: Various settings (Iron Age, 1914 Hollywood, 17th-century Caribbean, and many more).
While some games are story-focused, Hillfolk is really All About the Story. You pick a setting (the default is tribes in the Iron Age, but there are tons), whip up some characters, and get going.
At its core, Hillfolk tries to replicate television dramas. Players take turns setting scenes and act as petitioners (who are after something) or granters (who have something). These “somethings” can be literally anything from “a bucket of water” to “respect”, and players have flexibility in choosing how to participate in each scene.
It’s weird, but it’s a pretty unique way to manage the flow of drama. Plus, no matter what bit of history interests you, there’s a setting for everyone (I like the wheeling and dealing of Hollywoodland).
Good Society: a Jane Austen RPG
By Storybrewers Roleplaying
What: Collaborative regency storytelling – from comedy to drama.
When: Regency-era England, 1811 – 1820.
Like Jane Austen? Good Society lets you take on the role of people of leisure: heirs to rich estates, feckless layabouts, and socialites of every stripe. You’ll wine and dine your way through romance, rumours, and probably more romance (if my sessions are anything to go by).
Good Society lets you tune your historical accuracy – anything from by-the-book adherence to a very loose interpretation of aristocratic England can be chosen, depending on the table.
Best of all, this game has my favourite thing: the epistolary phase, where you get to dictate letters written to other characters.
Sagas of the Icelanders
By Gregor Vuga
What: Vikings finding community in a cold land.
When: First Norse landing in Iceland, circa 900AD.
These days, anything about Iceland conjures up images of Vikings with funny helmets and axes. Sagas of the Icelanders ignores that, and instead explores the challenges of tight-knit families trying to survive in a new land.
Similar to other titles on this list, Sagas is about the bonds that we share, and how those bonds are tested and grow in the face of adversary. Sagas looks at how individuals fit into a community, splitting characters along gendered roles and giving them their own exclusive gendered moves.
Gender dynamics and norms are often assumed by settings (why yes, women are inferior in my medieval world, why do you ask?), so it’s great to see a system that looks at them critically.
By John Harper and Sean Nittner
What: Choose your own adventure on mythical Greek islands.
When: The age of Homeric myth, circa 1200BC.
AGON isn’t technically based on real-world history – but it is very true to the Greek myths of Homer, which have a strong historical flavour to them. In it, you play heroes undertaking their own Odyssey, visiting a series of islands along the way.
Each island is home to conflicts with many branches – players follow a “choose-your-own-adventure” style path through each island, facing various heroic struggles. Each island ends with a climactic final trial.
If you’re a fan of classic “hero’s journey” narratives, AGON gives you the opportunity without turning it into a power fantasy. Plus, the lovely set dressing of Ancient Greek myths and legends makes it much more appealing to me than other games with a similar formula.