Do Like the Romans Do

Taken by H. Silenus of flickr. Thanks! (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This week is actually going to be a short post. I want to talk about a few things that I’m planning to do for the future (kind of a sneak preview), and then give a short talk about the Romans.

I’m planning on doing a few different things over the next few weeks/months. As you may know, I have tried to lean toward the more philosophical side of gaming rather than the practical side; I really appreciate the writers out there who share their world ideas with you, give you awesome tables to use, and stat blocks for monsters, but that just ain’t my bag.

However, I’m going to try and use this space to design a game from scratch over the next few months. It won’t be particularly complex, but I hope that it’s novel and most of all fun. I’ll be accepting design suggestions, and I’ve considered just putting it totally out there to the community to collectively design something. I think I’ll probably start with something more controlled, and then open it up wider after that.

I’m also going to continue with the philosophical musings, covering such diverse topics as LARPing, Alternate Reality Games, Video Games, and Samuel Coleridge. It’s like that freshman English seminar you had to take.

Anyway, onto the Romans…

Lessons From The Eternal City

(By the way, the Eternal City is a great name for something in your game world)

It’s no secret that I’m a student and great admirer of the Romans and the history of Rome, which can be somewhat worrisome, considering that the Romans were haughty, brutal, warmongering slavers, pillagers, and destroyers as frequently if not more frequently than they donned the purple robes of the Senate or wrote poetry or built aqueducts. So, let’s say I admire them for their good qualities while acknowledging that you have to look at the whole package, warts and all.

There’s a lot I could say about the Romans as it pertains to gaming (and I’ve done so before), but I want to talk specifically about the Roman penchant for creation.

Frankly, the Romans were a horribly uncreative people. A lot of their culture was completely co-opted from their Greek forebears, many of their poets, artists, engineers, and architects were in fact not Roman at all, but were provincial or foreign subjects that fell under the mantle of Rome.

The Romans were actually quite bad at creating things. However, they were probably the greatest adopters and borrowers of all time. That is to say, when they saw something they liked, they just used it, in that very rapaciously Roman way.

I’m reminded of the certainly apocryphal story of the raising of the Roman fleet during the Punic Wars. You see, the Romans fought a series of wars against the Carthaginians, their neighbors across the Mediterranean in Northern Africa. The Carthaginians were natural seamen and merchants; the Romans were warriors and builders, confined mostly to solid ground. However, over the course of the building hostility, it became quite clear that Rome was going to need a strong navy to compete with the Carthaginians. As the story goes, Rome had no ability to build or pilot ships, but simply found a shipwrecked Carthaginian vessel, reverse-engineered its design, and built a massive fleet overnight. Such was the way of the Romans.

I think there’s a really high premium in the roleplaying community on being original. I want to avoid the cliche “there are no original ideas”, but as roleplaying as an art form and entertainment medium expands, roleplaying is going to be scaffolded onto so many different things. TV Shows (Firefly), Books (Lord of the Rings), Movies (the Matrix), and Video Games (Dragon Age) have all been made into role-playing games or mods of some sort. Chances are, if there’s a game you want to try, someone has probably come up with a system or world for it. Being original is fine, but being creative is better.

Originality should not be your end-goal when designing games and playing them. I mean, you don’t want to swing to the other end of the spectrum and play cookie-cutter characters in every game (“I’m the Barbarian named Conan”), but you don’t need to always play characters that have never before been explored. I mean, as a society we tend to gravitate toward archetypes; the same kinds of things attract us.

So, like the Romans, you should adopt and borrow. Adopt all over the place. Read, watch, and listen to every piece of information/art/entertainment you can get your hands on, and feel free to incorporate those ideas into your stories and games. But, get creative within your borrowing. Tweak the details a bit to fit your own interpretation, change one big thing to take the idea in a very different direction (Freddy Kreuger is an avatar of Nyaralthotep, for example). Don’t get stuck on coming up with an original detail for every little thing, or throwing out great ideas because they’re not necessarily your own. By using them, you make them your own.


Follow-up to last week: Thanks for all the feedback, public and private from last week’s post. One thing I should mention, of course, is that many times we play one-shot games because, well, we want to, for the same reason that we read short stories or haikus. I think the guidelines I laid out really work for me, and I think they will work for you, too, but I also think that there are many other ways to make it work. The key is to experiment, do some trial and error, and of course, try your one-shots multiple times on different parties to refine them.

As always, send me a message at I’ll talk about anything, really.

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