Dev Notes 3 – Alternative History as Social Justice

Regardless of genre, role-playing is ultimately an exercise in fantasy. We want to imagine that we are knights, or wizards, or vampires, or space marines. There is a cathartic release that comes from pretending to be something we are not, in a world unlike ours. That world may have drawbacks as well as advantages, but even the drawbacks are things that we enjoy imagining. We are intrigued by how different they are from the challenges of our own daily lives, and we rest in the knowledge that those drawbacks will disappear as soon as we step away from the table (or out of character, in the case of a LARP).

Players are often drawn to historical settings for the same reasons. History can be as much a realm of fantasy as any fictional setting. For this reason, many historical games offer romanticized versions of their particular time periods. They allow players to be fooled into ignoring or minimizing the troubling or complicated aspects of the culture or events being portrayed and focus only on those aspects that serve the image the setting is trying to convey. This selective memory is not unique to games, of course. Vast swaths of popular entertainment – from romance novels to Oscar-winning historical films – are guilty of the same self-deluding practices.

On the other hand, alternative history is usually constructed with the opposite intent. Like hard science fiction, it uses imagined events to examine the real consequences of history. The best alternative history does not ignore any grim detail of a particular time period or of humanity as a whole. Rather it looks closely at the effects of those grim details and considers how they might have played out differently, not in an idealistic way but merely in an alternate but equally grim way.

Righting Wrongs

This does not mean we cannot approach alternative history with some idealism and even with the occasional agenda. In Steamscapes, we thought about some of the worst aspects of American history in the late 1800s and considered how we might provide some retroactive, imaginary justice. The treatment of native tribes, Chinese immigrants, freed slaves, women, and more – these are stains on our nation's conscience. They were all, of course, products of the many prejudices prevalent in society at the time. As such, it is unrealistic for us to imagine a world where they are ignored, eliminated, or easily resolved. But we can provide a world where the oppressed have a little more leeway and opportunity to fight back.

For example, by creating a fledgling nation on the Pacific coast, we are able to avoid the severe anti-immigration measures that the US applied to Asians in the latter part of the 19th century. This allows for the possibility of a large Asian population sooner, including a better balance of women (gradual though that would be). Obviously there would still be some racism in such a society, but we have enabled the Chinese immigrants in San Francisco to hold more economic sway in their country's development and thus to combat the prejudices they faced. It's not easy, but it is possible.

In all of our changes, of course, we want to acknowledge that the history we are replacing includes some tragic events and shameful policies. We have tried to include little hints of real history, and we hope that our readers will enjoy discovering the ways in which our setting differs as well as the surprising ways in which it mirrors real life.

-Fairman Rogers