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The Setting Less Traveled: The American Civil War

Written by Nicholas - Published on February 24, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Civil War dude
Picture by Uberphot

If you read any RPG book the odds are very high you will be presented with one of three settings: a magical world in a medieval tech level, a modern urban environment with some surprisingly technology and/or secret powers, or a futuristic sci-fi world. All that is well and good, I have had my share of fun in those settings but unfortunately tabletop games turn a blind eye to huge chunks of time and place. In doing so they miss the potential for some rich, emotional story telling. In this ongoing series I take a look at what game makers and players too often forget. Last time I tackled gaming in Arabia.

Among the overlooked portions of history is a tale that all Americans are familiar with but also one that should be fertile with story telling material no matter where you are from. I speak of the American Civil War. Young men signed up in droves for both sides, each of them thinking that they were doing the right thing and protecting their homeland. It is easy to look back now and mark out heroes and villains, right and wrong. However at the time it was just innocent and perhaps naive young men who believed in the cause, six hundred and twenty thousand of them died for that cause. The passions of that war run so deep that even 144 years later you can still sometimes see the confederate flag flying in America. You can bring the passion and tragedy of that war to your gaming table.

Inspiration: I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t immediately refer you to the PBS documentary series “The Civil War” by Ken Burns. The series provides both an informative historical overview and an emotional view of the effects of the war. It is a must see for anyone who wants to run a Civil War game and a fabulous piece of entertainment for anyone else. Going beyond that there is countless letters and first hand accounts published for anyone who cares to look. Particularly moving are the accounts of slaves and former slaves at the time. They witnessed first hand the institution of slavery crumbling around them, some running away to join the northern army and work for the freedom of their brothers and sisters. For those seeking a more supernatural bent there are many ghost stories that find their origins in the Civil War.

Props: The Civil War had the good manners to take place right around the popularization of photography. Less fortunately the nature of photography at the time made it impossible to get photographs of the battles themselves. However there is still a treasure trove of images of landscapes, groups of soldiers, important figures of the time and the aftermath of tragic battles. Handing copies of these images out to your players can invoke some powerful feelings and help provide a visual context to the story.

Hazards: War is a dangerous business. That statement was even more true in the time of the Civil War than it is today. In any time period a good shot with a bullet will largely incapacitate a human being, regardless of what you see in action movies. However with out modern medical technology that incapacitation is a very survivable inconvenience. Using the crude medical technology of the Civil War a bullet often won’t kill you but still does serious damage. The only way to halt the spread of infection from a bullet wound at the time was to amputate the limb. One shot might not finish you off but it can finish your career in fighting.

The was also had many social hazards to watch out for. Tensions run high between former friends and neighbors now separated by all out war. Freed slaves move from outright ownership to a “free” society where they still must be constantly careful to mind their still bottom rung status. Enemy is hard to distinguish from friend and both sides of the war have spies to monitor the other.

Ever played a Civil War game? Know a good system for running one? I want to hear about it, leave a comment!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



16 Responses to “The Setting Less Traveled: The American Civil War”
  1. ZedZed77 says:

    As a kid, I enjoyed going with my family to civil war re-enactments. Basically one of the earliest forms of LARPing, these events featured hundreds of soldiers on both sides. There were camps, cannon demonstrations, and of course a mock battle.

    Having said all that, I can honestly say an RPG set in the civil war never occured to me. Doh!

  2. Dave says:

    Any war setting gives you plenty of opportunity and excuses for putting PCs into combat. However, what the Civil War offers that is more unique is that because the two sides are so intertwined, you can very easily have espionage missions into enemy territory, you can have PCs with divided loyalty. And for the ultimate in inner conflict you can even have the player end up opposite of their sibling or long time childhood friend in a battlefield. Can you somehow settle this diplomatically? can you even make yourself attack? if your party member kills him how can you ever work with your party member again?

  3. Sandrinnad says:

    Deadlands (Weird West)

    fun, fun game. set in 1876 (original version) or 1877 (reloaded version), North & South are still split because of backstory (the Reckoning). Not totally true-to-life :) but much fun – gunslingers, sword wielders, magic flingers (of several sorts), mad scientists, and the walking dead.

  4. Yax says:

    @Dave: Good points and good ideas Dave. Man I’ll have to run 5 campaigns to use all the ideas thrown around in the blogosphere!

  5. Jared says:

    Running a game set in the Civil War is a neat idea, but it is also overlooking a large swath of history. The Civil War divided America into what is arguably one of the most bitter civil wars in history (enough so that our civil war is the only one capitalized as a proper noun). This is the era when Europe’s Little Ice age is considered over, the invention of the bessemer process for mass producing steel, the end of Japan’s isolationist era and the begining of the Meiji, and wars and uprisings across the British empire.

    I do find a curious comment, and perhaps I am being a bit picky:

    It is easy to look back now and mark out heroes and villains, right and wrong.

    This statement rubs me wrong, as looking back on my education and upbringing, there weren’t any men villainized in the Civil War. There is of course the anvil-drop of slavery, but villainy was rather on the thin side. It was rather an equally heroic and tragic struggle. The closest that comes to being a villain was Sherman in his march to the sea and the burning of Atlanta, but even that is downplayed.

  6. Labareda says:

    I get a bit stuck using other peoples civil wars. So please forgive me for expressing a tangential opinion.

    Everywhere has had at least one civil war and the all civil wars share the divided loyalties of countrymen fighting against countrymen. Inevitably it is the young who swell the ranks of one, both, or all sides.

    I would look to whatever locality you happen to inhabit and find your civil war. For many this will be the American Civil War and it therefore taps into something of your local history and character. For others it could be the French Revolution, The Gunpowder Plot, The Chinese Civil War…

    Without looking that far back you can find a civil war, there have been plenty of civil wars since 1945.

    Using your local civil war as the basis for a campaign is a fantastic idea!

  7. Nicholas says:

    @Jared: I apologize if my remark came across the wrong way. What I meant was that it would be wrong to turn one side into the villain. Even though the men of the south were fighting on the side of slavery they were not even men, the great majority of them had honorable intentions. It is good that your education was balanced, unfortunately the balance is sometimes thrown out the window particularly when the war is dramatized.

  8. gull2112 says:

    Those that have read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” can imagine the effort of running slaves north can be a whole campaign. Also for background “My Bondage and my Freedom” by Frederick Douglas. Starting out as a group of slaves and trying to get your plan together while at the plantation and trying to get North, a land more fable than real to most slaves. I could see a character who was abducted as a free negro in Boston and sold south, who would have some connections and info. The list goes on.

  9. Chrissy says:

    I recently read a good one about the Civil War ! I thoroughly enjoyed this book! “Two Brothers: One North, One South” is a dramatic and original story by David H. Jones, meticulously researched for maximum believability. If the characters seem real, it’s because they were actual persons immersed in the tragedy of the American Civil War.

  10. The_Gun_Nut says:

    One thing to remember if you are going for any kind of accuracy for the civil war period is that almost no one thought about fighting to free the slaves (except the slaves themselves) until after Lincoln’s famous “Emancipation Proclimation”. At the beginning the north fought to keep the union together, and the south fought to keep the states ability to decide the important laws of each state. After the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote the proclimation for several reasons: to politically separate the south from any possible support from Europe (who was heavily anti-slavery at this point) and also to begin to remove the “curious institiution” that had existed since the USA had been born, to name a pair of the more important ones.

    All this adds up to some very complex politics and feelings on both sides of the Mason Dixon line. There were many reasons to fight, and this period is perfect for those looking for either big conflict or big politics.

  11. The_Gun_Nut says:

    And of course, I misspelled “proclamation”. That will teach me to post at 4am.

  12. DaScho says:

    @The_Gun_Nut, I really appreciate the fact that someone mentioned this incredibly important point, that the war was never originally over slavery, it was a political battle, first and foremost. The south wanted to make their own laws, print their own currency (because the union was pushing to stop the south’s rapidly inflating dollar to stabilize the country’s economy as a whole, and the south knew they didn’t have enough in their stores to cover all the paper they wanted to print) and because the south was largely farming and agriculture, whereas the north was more industrial. How many yanks accuse the southerners of being hicks or not well mannered or poorly groomed or illiterate? How many southerners call yanks stuck up or prissy? These aren’t new insults. These people were from differing cultures. And also, the north didn’t develop all their goods themselves. The south grew cotton, the north made sweaters, is kinda how it went. The south wanted to cut the north out as middlemen for their economic goods sent overseas and keep more money themselves, and the north was dependent on the south for lots of their raw materials and farmed goods. They needed the south to stay united with them, the south wanted to split for their own interests. Slavery only became the blame card when Lincoln realized france was leaning toward supporting the south, and england even offered to provide them some ships, and the north needed to keep the war centralized, and they also knew that if they told all the southerners’ slaves they were free, but the south would keep them slaves for the rest of their lives, lots would try to escape to fight their masters, and that’s exactly what happened. Slavery was a trump card saved for the last few rounds of the game, it was never a starting issue for the war

  13. The_Gun_Nut says:

    Also, for anyone who might be interested, the proclamation didn’t free slaves in the north (there weren’t many, but there were some). It only freed the slaves in states that were in open secession from the Union. While the north eventually did free all of their slaves, many northern generals kept theirs for up to four years after the civil war ended.

    Back to topic, a civil war game can lead nicely into the Reconstructio era that the old west movies made famous. Thus, you can have a cool backstory already played out for your WWW (Wild Wild West) hero.

  14. ScottM says:

    Aces and Eights alters the civil war, but leaves the continent divided into several powers– CSA, Texas, the US, and more. Many westerns do a good job of drawing the civil war in tangentially, but their emphasis is (appropriately) elsewhere. Lots of characters have the civil war in their backstory… and a good GM will bring up conflicts based on it.

  15. Nicholas says:

    @ScottM: I picked up Aces and Eights really cheap on clearance but never actually looked at it beyond the neat targeting system. Is it worth checking it out?

  16. Ian Winterbottom says:

    I own, but have never played, Deadlands, I would love to try it out. Have played a lot of skirmish, semi-rpg, Westerns too, my own character was a diehard Confederate ex-cavalryman and one of my buddies was an ex-Kansas Guerilla, Josey Wales with the serial filed off. We had a gambler-gunman, Bat Dolphin, a “Deadly Dentist”, “Doc” Crashley etc., all in fact played by real people! People really took to the idea. There is also a lot of material on the subject and everyone has their favourite character type. I’d love sometime to do a Supernatural campaign based on Westerns and/or the Civil War, perhaps using CoC if not Deadlands; the idea of Werewolves and masked men with silver bullets appeals! The Civil War also leaves many opportunities for motives and rivalry, whichever side you espouse.
    Another good set of books about it are Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels, about a Northerner fighting on the southern side, starting IIRC with “Rebel”. What is Aces and Eights like? It sounds good?
    Talking of Civil Wars, of course, we Brits had one too, well before you Americans, and it was just as partisan and bitterly fought, many scores were settled and the fighting was localised yet widespread as each small community took one side or the other. My own little town of Westhoughton was Parliamentary, Roundhead, as was the neighbouring larger town of Bolton, which was beseiged and sacked by the Royalists or Cavaliers. Earlier than that you could very much do the same thing with the Wars of the Roses? The idea of doing a “local” game like that very much interests me.

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