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In Which the Internet Creates Ways for Museums to Incorporate RPGs

A few days ago, I gave a lecture to at Eastern Illinois Historical Administration Symposium, a day-long conference that brings together museum curators and graduate students preparing to curate. During my talk, I mentioned the idea of using Dungeons & Dragons (or other role-playing games) as an outreach mechanism for museums, which are one of the few organizations set up to encourage and partner with RPG players.

To flesh out the idea of how that might work, I turned to the Internet. I posted this idea (and the blog post I wrote about it) into several Google+ and Reddit communities, and then moderated the discussion.

Throughout the next few days, the ideas for including RPGs and game organizations evolved into an interesting model that included events for hard core gamers and for people less inclined to play. Here are the best ideas:

For the Gamer

Host a Night at the Museum Game Event

The theme everyone kept returning to: A Night at the Museum. The ideas ranged from single night games to regular meetings (either weekly or monthly).

Bookstores normally offer discounts to schools and other organizations. The assumption is that a library will come in and place a bulk order of individual titles that can push sales up significantly for the week. I’m sure that if a museum called up and said I would like to buy the following basic set and the following setting books…

…If they played and want to get people doing that kind of thing at the museum, I know they have conference rooms and the like. Have them run games. Advertise ‘Night at the Museum’ where the players are gaming in whatever the historic setting the museum is going to run. I’m from Oklahoma so museums are very cowboy and Native American centric. Running something like Boot Hill or a D6 system OGL set in the west would be ideal…

…Another direction for a slightly wider audience would be the host a murder mystery type stuff. There are a few party games that might be modified to bring in a ‘respectable crowd’ of pretentious people that just want to be kids again.

See the whole discussion here.

But Give Behind-the-Scenes Tours BEFORE the event

I’d pitched the idea of getting people to create modules that could be played based on current exhibits, but the Internet had a better idea. Invite DMs from various comic stores, book stores, and game clubs, and give them a tour of the museum vaults. Then prepare information on some of the lesser known items, e.g. photos and history, and give them to the DMs.

I think curators could offer behind-the-curtain tours & Q/As on their collections that would have some appeal, especially since museums often have a lot of items not on display at any given time. For example, with Pathfinder’s latest “mummy’s mask” adventure path, what GM or player would turn down a private group tour of a museum’s Egypt exhibits? Get a closer look at the art and artifacts, see items mid-restoration, and have a chance to ask the experts about them? ( Obviously, different museums will have different opportunities based on their collections.)

See the whole thread here.

Then Ask Gamers to Create “Museum Mods”

If you brought the DMs in for regular tours, you could hold monthly competitions to create the best modules. Then the museums could host a monthly “Night at the Museum” game night in which the players were invited to choose the best games. (If the museum was feeling particularly cheeky, they could create a small exhibition based upon the items shown to the DMs so that the players were in the module-specific room.)

…or curators who are sufficiently familiar with role playing games, it might be useful for someone (or a group of collaborators) to come up with some historically-themed adventure modules, then distribute them as a handout at the museum or online (maybe with an ad and a discount coupon for a local game store).

[To which I replied}: I like the idea of creating historically-themed modules. Even better, I like the idea of providing a bunch of historical information, e.g. a Willy Wonka like tour, and the allowing gamers to create mods.

See the whole thread here.

Give back to Comic Book/Game Stores and Buy the Sets for the Players

The idea of partnering with stores and businesses that are already holding their own events is great, but several folks made a good point: it needs to make financial sense for everyone.

One way to ensure that is to build the “Night at the Museum” events around the release of new games or new expansions, and require the players purchase the those, or the museum may charge money for the event with part of that money split with the game stores.

Suggestions on historically-based games and supplements:

  • King Arthur Pendragon, a game based on Arthurian legend.
  • Relics & Rituals: Olympus, a d20 supplement on fantasy games in an ancient Greek milieu
  • Relics & Rituals: Excalibur, another Arthurian pastiche for d20
  • Requiem for Rome, a historical supplement for Vampire: The Requiem. Contains tons of datapoints on Rome, particularly towards its fall.
  • Vampire: The Dark Ages and Werewolf: The Dark Ages, a rulebook and supplement for Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, set in 1197.
  • Dark Ages: Vampire, Dark Ages: Werewolf, Dark Ages: Mage, Dark Ages: Fae, and Dark Ages: Inquisitor, set a little while later, after the fall of Constantinople and during the eclipse of 1230.
  • Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade, a historical supplement for Mage: The Ascension set in the Renaissance, around 1466.
  • Werewolf: The Wild West, a historical supplement for Werewolf: The Apocalypse, featuring the westward expansion of the 1800s.
  • Victorian Age: Vampire, historical supplement for Vampire: The Masquerade between 1880 and 1897
  • Wraith: The Great War, a historical supplement for Wraith: The Oblivion in the aftermath of WWI and the Spanish Influenza.

See the whole conversation (and all the links) here.

And Museums Should Cater to Hardcore RPGs and Initiate New People

I love the idea of working with game clubs/comic book stores, giving the DMs a tour of ALL the archives, asking them to create their best modules, and then setting up a game night.

Another benefit for the game clubs would be the chance to expand their audience by hosting a Saturday morning “Kids Saturday” built around the exhibits. The DMs could create very simple LARP or RPG-like experiences for youngsters, which also gives parents a reason to bring their kids to the museums.

Historically Accurate Games

D20, I have found, is largely driven by magic. The combat alone isn’t much fun. It’s made for the long-haul, so it’s also an XP driven system. It can also afford to be complicated for a number of reasons but the museum cannot.
Taking lots of non-RPers for a night of historically accurate gaming sounds like it calls for ultra-simplicity and a focus on narrative. GM’s knowledge of the ‘setting’ will certainly be more important than system knowledge. My first thought is FATE or anything more simple, something using a basic set of Attributes or Skills (probably not both), and a single roll for each action. Characters should be pre-made ahead of time.

I really like the idea of pitching up at a museum and wandering through the political climate of Rome in the time of Sallust, or going through Goth-fights with proper Goths.

Mythologically Accurate

Mythologically accurate settings would generally require magic. They won’t be accurate but will reflect the beliefs of the time. 300 would make an excellent story here, but can be re-done with all those travelling acrobats, chickens and the rest which were supposed to be with the host of Greeks. Herodotus’ description of gods and his prophecies could be used as plot-hooks within the game. Of course lots of quick downtime of the form ‘3 months later and you’ve go the Spartans in the boat and you’re at sea’ sounds necessary.
This could really require some work. How does Persian magic work? What did the English in 1500 think of black magic? Did they believe in quick spells or only ritual magic? Can witches gain spell-lists or is it all about making social rolls with devils?

I’m imagining a simple system with a lot of different historical settings and details of their magic and gods in a single book. Each setting might have details on clothes and mannerisms of the time.

[To which I replied]: I’d favour splitting this into two types of games – those which deal with being historically accurate and those which deal with being mythologically accurate.

See the whole conversation here.

For the Non-Gamer

Or Create Game-like Modules for People at the Museum

Building on the idea of the “Kids Saturday,” another person suggested creating an on-site encounter book, in which non-rpg games might be led through a series of learning environments.

…let’s say it’s the natural history section…the encounter book might for the T. Rex exhibit…”You walk out of the primordial rain forest on your trek to the lake when suddenly a T text comes around the boulders in the distance…what do you do?

  • A. Pick up the nearest rock and prepare to attack.
  • B. Run for the cave you see In the hill nearby.
  • C. Stay very still and hope that the T Rex doesn’t see you.”

Based on current scientific views you can construct answers with teaching content like A. The attack doesn’t go well because the T. Rex is the most powerful of meat eaters weighing yada yada tons with sharp teeth for tearing meat. B.

Although the T. Rex is a large dinosaur, they are thought to have been able to reach speeds of whatever so they don’t have much trouble overtaking you. C. Good choice! The T. Rex had difficulty pinpointing objects that weren’t in motion. You manage to avoid his attention.

Note that I’m no an expert 🙂 you get the idea. Insert real science, more info where applicable.

See the whole discussion here.

Or Host a Murder-Mystery Type Event for the Less RPG-inclined

Then there is the themed-evening that is popular amongst people who normally aren’t inclined to play games. Museums might work with DMs to modify an existing game experience and turn it into a fundraising or fun night of mystery and mayhem.

One idea that I think would be great for your project: what if the museum wrote an RPG mystery scenario set in the museum, with clues based on items in the museum’s collection? Some sort of scenario where the players would have to do some investigating at the museum to figure out what was going on, look for certain artifacts, etc. I don’t think you’d necessarily have to structure the event as a LARP, but maybe do a special museum tour highlighting some of the museum that’ll be featured in the scenario and then playing a scenario with clues based on what they’ve just learned? Like a dungeon crawl set in the museum? I’d love to see a scenario set in the Met or the Cloisters…

See the whole discussion here.

Late Additions

The great ideas continued to come in, and I didn’t want to leave them out just because the showed up after the original post.

Creating Game Modules for Organizations

You could also have an exhibit like “Heroes of History” showcasing individuals who performed heroic acts and/or were subjected to “monstrous” opposition (Joan of Arc, Galileo, and Gandhi come to mind) with some custom RPG stat blocks / character sheets available as a handout.

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4 comments

  • Vb Wyrde April 14, 2014   Reply →

    This is a fascinating idea. I would be very interested pursuing this concept, or at the least staying in touch with how it is progressing. Is there a central hub around which information regarding this project is coalescing?

    • Brad King April 14, 2014   Reply →

      I have forwarded this on to the folks at the Historical Administration Symposium at Eastern Illinois so they can send this along to the attendees. I’m sure I’ll continue to write about this, and I’ll keep the Reddit thread going.

      The best way to stay in touch: keep our site on your radar because this is where I’ll be writing and talking about it, or keep the Reddit discussion in your feed.

  • 2 Warps to Neptune April 14, 2014   Reply →

    Very interesting. It was fairly common in the early ’80s for museums, libraries, and science centers to host D&D workshops, tournaments, game days, and so forth. I would love to see that kind of activity offered on a large scale today, and I hope young people will be the focus of the outreach. There are so few physical spaces that welcome them these days and offer them intelligent experiences.

    • Brad King April 14, 2014   Reply →

      I would love to see this get some widespread adoption. I don’t know if that will happen, but I know that there is interest to get something like this started so we begin optimistic.

      Like you, I want to create spaces for intelligent expeirences not only for kids, but also for adults.

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