Historical Roleplaying using AD&D

I got to thinking today about what a purely historical gaming setting would look like using the AD&D (or, for that matter, ADD) rules. Since it’s historical, magic and monsters are out. So are most dungeons; it would feel a bit contrived for every game to end up delving into the catacombs of Rome or the sewers of Paris.

Fortunately, there are an ample supply of things that can be used in such a game. Creatures aren’t a problem:

ape, baboon, badger, bat, bear, boar, buffalo, bull, camel, cat (wild), cattle, cheetah, crocodile, dog, dolphin, eagle, falcon, goat, herd animal, hippopotamus, horse, hyena, jackal, jaguar, lamprey, lion, men, narwhale, otter, ram, rat, rat (giant), raven, shark, skunk, snake, squirrel, stag, swan, swordfish, tiger, vulture

For character classes, we find ourselves left with the cavalier, barbarian, fighter, thief, acrobat, assassin, and if one is using the Adventures Dark and Deep rules, the mountebank and jester (minus the magical effects).

These limitations point somewhat in the direction of what adventures in such a setting would look like. No extended dungeon crawls. A lot of adventures aimed at political intrigue, social encounters, and tactical combat. Certainly something set in the Hundred Years War would do nicely. The intrigues of the Greek city states are another natural; the Peloponnesian War, for one thing. Several periods in ancient Rome suggest themselves; the Punic Wars (fighting against Carthaginian spies, perhaps), the dictatorship of Sulla, the rise of Caesar (the television show Rome would be a good guide here), or fighting incursions of Germanic barbarians, trading with them, and getting mixed up in their tribal politics on both sides of the Rhenus. Personally, I’ve never found the idea of gladiators as player characters as particularly credible, historically. They were (admittedly with notable exceptions) as a group slaves and not exactly free to go off on adventures. An entire campaign could be made around a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; fighting off pirates and bandits, dealing with hostile tribal chieftains looking to profit off the arrival of rich pilgrims, kidnappings…

Those old 2nd Edition campaign guides would be a natural benefit to such a setting. However, bear in mind that some of them aren’t strictly historical, in that they make allowances for magic (the Glory of Rome is excellent in this regard, giving options for “charlatan” mages, but others are a bit more liberal in their treatment of magic and such sections would need to be modified). Interesting question– has anyone reading this ever run a purely historical game, with no magic, using one of those books and the 2E rules?

I don’t say I’m going to be running such a game any time soon (for one thing, I’m having too much fun with my Greyhawk campaign). But I do think it would be interesting to do so, if only to point out that the AD&D rules are flexible enough, and fun enough in and of themselves, to accommodate such a campaign.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

4 thoughts on “Historical Roleplaying using AD&D

  1. IMO, best historical roleplaying books are the GURPS books. Generally low on rules, heavy on playable history and day-to-day life, and filled with interesting campaign seeds (and, being GURPS, crossover ideas).

    I also have fond memories of the AD&D history books. Had a blast with the Celtic book.

  2. I have to agree gurps is definitely the way to go. I think gurps tends to fall apart in high magic situations but it nails real world simulations.

  3. Just a quick point re: Gladiators. you mention notable exceptions, and that led me to a thought about making Gladiators a high requirement sub of Fighter. High Strength, Dex, Con and Charisma? A tall order for most folks, and it'd give them something of a mystique as I'm sure most folks would agree they should have in such a setting.

    Nice read though, as always!

  4. Back in its early days, White Dwarf had a series of Articles called Dungeons & Dragoons, giving OD&D write ups for historical troop types such as Hittites, Assyrians, etc. written by Phil Masters as I recall and reprinted in Best of White Dwarf Articles Volume I. Never paid much attention to it at the time but quite entertaining in hindsight.

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