Saturday 27 June 2015

Worlds of Imagination and History

I have finally found my Flashing Blades rules and, more to the point, perhaps, reunited them with the scenario books and some very old character sheets. Part of the interest of this, of course, is to marvel at the time we all had to play role playing games twenty odd years ago. Another part, however, is the interest of what, exactly, is going on in the game.

As you probably know by now, Flashing Blades is set in seventeenth century France, where the musketeers battle it out with the Cardinal’s Guards, duels are fought and desperate deeds of daring do are attempted, and sometimes succeed. The rules and scenarios actually often follow more closely the novels of Alexander Dumas than real history. And this is where things get a little bit interesting for my purposes here.

In the introduction to the rule set, the author, Mark Pettigrew, note that the players might prefer to view the game as one set in the ‘France that might have been’ rather than the ‘France that was’. Flashing Blades, he says, requires a creative imagination like all other role playing games. Given that the date on the rule book is 1984, this suggests that the comparisons are with the likes of Dungeons and Dragons and Runequest.

Reading the rules and one or two of the scenarios, I am struck that, in fact, the rules are very much a work of imagination. While some maps are correct (for example, maps of Paris and London seem to be reasonably authentic), others are, to all intents and purposes, made up. They have to be. I am not aware of a detailed seventeenth century map of, say, Bologna. We have to make it up.

The politics of the day are also simplified. While player characters can be students of theology, even members of the clergy, the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, both within and outwith France, is seen in terms of the Huguenot and Roman worlds. The English are Protestant and thus the enemy. The Pope is catholic, and therefore a rather dubious ally. And so on. As a broad brush stroke, this is accurate enough, but there were, to say the least, historical nuances.

This is not to say, of course, that the game is not a huge amount of fun, but it does indicate, perhaps more directly (or even, perhaps, honestly) what is happening in any sort of historical wargame. It seems to me, at least, likely that any wargame set in a specific period, is in fact set in a world of our imagination, which only slightly has connections with the real historical world.

I think, actually, that what might be true of wargaming is possibly true of history, or rather, historiography, itself. I have noted before that history is necessarily partial. We cannot know fully what was going on. We have to select even from that information we do have in order to make a coherent, intelligible narrative, something from which we can start to understand. Thus, for example, Dumas might have taken his cue from his understanding of seventeenth century France, but what he created was something slightly different. Perhaps we could classify this as a nineteenth century understanding of the original, dressed up as a novel’s background.

Historiography, of course, changes. Our view of seventeenth century France is, probably, no longer that of Dumas. The rule of Louis XIV and XV may well no longer be portrayed as a golden age of culture, elegance and, of course, world power. Perhaps today we have a stronger sense of poverty and injustice, of waste and corruption than earlier historians and novelists. Does this, then, make our perception of seventeenth century France more accurate than theirs?

I suppose that the answer to that (slightly rhetorical) question has to be ‘no’. Our view, our construction of the original historical object, is no more valid in principle than theirs. At least, if it is more valid, that is only because there are more archives available, more documents about events known that there were when Dumas wrote. But more to the point, our world, the world from which we interrogate the past, is different.

This relates back, somewhat, to some things that were noted here about books. A wargames rule author was noted as having eight hundred books on the subject, and access to a research library and a major city library. That is fair enough, but what is important is what those books are and what the author does with them. Historiography changes, as I have noted. The view of seventeenth century warfare is different now than it was in, say, the 1960’s, and distinctly so from that of the 1920’s or 1900’s, when Oman and Delbruck were writing. Yet these are, often, the authors upon which wargamers rely to create their worlds.

The second issue is what the author does with the works available. We can just read a paper, put it away and ignore it. We can read it, mark it and inwardly digest it. But we have to be able to tell the difference between those which should be laid aside and those worth engaging with. Simply having a range of material available is not sufficient. We need to read critically.

The aim of all this is, hopefully, to obtain a rather more accurate picture of the world we are trying to recreate. We can, of course, simply try to read the battle reports and books of tactics, and I suspect that is what most wargamers, anyway, do. We are less interested in, say, the social and intellectual history of the period than we are with the military and political. But here, too, we have to be careful, as all of these interacted, inevitable. For example, it is possible that we would not have Vauban forts without the revival of interest in geometry and mathematics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course, the shape of the fort was dictated to some extent by the arrival of effective artillery which could demolish castle walls, but would the shape of the star fort have been as it is without the historical contingence of geometry and Cartesian mathematics. I doubt it, somehow, although, of course, things would have been different.


  1. It's an interesting point - though I think it might be a matter of degree. One of things that always impressed me about Oman, an Edwardian writer describing Napoleonic events, was that emotionally he seemed to be closer to people he was writing about - compared to a 21st century author.

    As for history being partial, I think we judge previous historians rather too harshly in someways, an element of partisanship is always going to be present and there is something most honest about being partisan and acknowledging that fact, rather than pretending to an objectivity that one does not possess. The argument could be made that it seems unlikely that anyone who was truly disinterested in a period would be able to summon up enough passion to apply themselves to the writing of a book about it. Some of my favourites, Macaulay and Wedgewood for example, both have their favoured sons and are quite clear about it. I think they are the better for it.

    As for Flashing Blades, you are certainly right about it being France via Dumas rather than France per se (particularly the Ambassadors Tales campaign - which is worth a look) - but I know which I'd prefer for a Tuesday night game. I'd be interested in any further observations you might have on the game.

    1. Of course, I suppose someone with a similar mindset would write a form of history we might regard as being more authentic, in some senses. But we all have our partialities - I think Mr Foy remarked on the contemporary view of the hero Wellington.

      As for FB, I rather enjoyed rereading the book and the campaigns. It can be really rather silly and great fun, and it has inspired me to attempt to paint some of my stock of 25 mm ECW figures.

  2. Recently received a nice present from my Mum - Sir Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon Buonaparte.
    For my sins, I am a fan of Scott's novels - yes, I know, but I like his style, and he maintains it even in non-fiction. Not had chance to read much of it so far, but it is instructive in that obviously Scott was a contemporary of Napoleon. There is plenty of detail in it, but unlike a modern biography where Boney is the Hero, this is flavoured with the contemporary British view - grudging respect for his abilities perhaps but intense suspicion of his motives. It is a cracking read, and I suspect it tells us as much about the British audience that it was written for than the subject.

    1. Ah, enter the Corsican Ogre. I think the British never understood Boney, nor what he was about. And of course Napoleon himself didn't help.

      Still, the world view which is constructed is interesting. I suspect I tend to view mine as the right one, and the universal one, and everyone who doesn't accept it is slightly misguided. Biographers have a bit of a tendency to over-admire their subject (obviously, Sir WS was immune to that) and there is still a lot of great man sutff around. still, every once in a while we should go and read 'The Rise and Fall of the great Powers' and comfort ourselves that Napoleon was doomed from the start.