We play role playing games because we want to be something, if only for a few hours in the safety of fantasy, extraordinary. The brave fighters, the canny wizard or hacker, the fighter pilot, the plucky thief, the social diva — whatever…we want something larger than life.

Most games are set in different periods from ours. Maybe it’s the faux medieval fantasy world, Renaissance or Enlightenment pirate settings, Victorian science fiction,  interwar pulp action, or futuristic settings. the draw is the difference from your modern day life. Even espionage games typically do the spy-fi settings where you drive expensive cars, sleep with comely enemy agents, shoot things indiscriminately, and maybe — if you’re lucky — you get to blow up a volcano secret base. The point being: it’s not reality.

However, the need for verisimilitude in a setting is important for audience (your players) buy-in. So how real should you go? The societies of pre-industrial nations aren’t known for their open-minded stance on gender, race, or sexuality. Combine that with class issues and the thought of living pre-1920 should put most people off. Set that reality dial too high and you will exclude certain character types, and by extension, certain demographics of players.

Race relations were not exactly stellar prior to …well, ever. And being a woman before the first sexual revolution of the 1920s was not conducive to a life of high adventure and being treated as an equal. And what if you were poor? Not a lot of crofters had the option to race off and explore the world unless they were wearing army red. How do you handle this?

First off, no matter how real it is for the NPCs, the players are special. There are always exceptions to the rule in history. Boudica was a warrior woman who wasn’t about to take crap from anyone, but lived in a world where women were second-class citizens of the Roman Empire. We’ll get back to her in a moment. Joan d’Arc was a peasant girl and maybe a lunatic, but she was an excellent general. Mary Read was a successful pirate. Jane Digby and Lola Montez were different stripes of female adventurer when is was not acceptable. Tom Molineaux was a successful boxer, despite being black, in the 1830s. The Lafayette Escadrille had a black pilot, and plenty of women and minorities found escape in early aviation.

They are the exceptions, the special ones…the ones the players are playing.

Gender and class come together here very well — the women mentioned are not middle-class. The typical view of the domestic goddess raising kids and doing what her husband told her, while quaint, was typically a middle class thing. Aristocrats like Boudica (a Welsh queen), or Jane Digby (the former Lady Ellenborough), or the spy Lady Hamilton had the freedom to buck convention because they were wealthy or well-connected, and their eccentricities — while decried — often made them popular figures. Conversely, the poor woman could find herself with more options than the middle class woman by sheer virtue of having nothing to lose, and that they were “invisible” to proper society. By the time you get noticed, like Lola Montezz, you’ve used you talent or sexuality to become the lover of the King of Bavaria. Lower-class women pretty made the West — that madam, that landowner whose husband died…they were the ones that made Western society, not the cowboys and prospectors.

Similarly, even during the height of the slavery issue, freed or scaped blacks like Frederick Douglass traveled freely and openly spoke their mind. Jews might find themselves in a sticky situation in Nazi Germany — unless the were much-needed scientists — but with money and connections, you might still slip by. The exceptions should be the exceptions.

That doesn’t mean you should shy away from race or gender or class issues. Giving your players realistic impediments can (and should) be frustrating, but they should be able to outsmart, outfight, or out-politic their foes. They should have detractors who decry their stepping out of place or take steps to ruin the character socially, but there should always be those folks that back them. It’s actually pretty realistic, historically.

Example 1: I often ran Victorian sci-fi games. One of the players chose to play aristocrats almost exclusively. Why? Because of the freedom than money and connection gave her characters to flaunt convention and get away with it. She played almost exclusively characters that were socially adept and attractive — the sort that thrived in the nooks and crannies of the Victorian period.

Example 2: A young Chinese street urchin, female, who was able — because she was young, a girl, and Chinese was the perfect spy and go-between for the Western male characters in 1936 Shanghai. She was always in danger of physical or official abuse, was often hungry and dirty…but her utility allowed her to tag along on adventures.

Example 3: A black woman who had gone into prostitution in our Victorian game, but who managed to seduce the right men, gain some level of financial stability and notoriety, then launched on a series of adventures with the other characters who — being the exceptions to the rule — were at least tolerant of the character.

Example 4: A female Martian in a Space:1889 game got involved with an American cowboy wandering the Red Planet. Despite their string of high-profile adventures and relative acceptance by Martians, human religious types viewed their union as “bestiality.” this caused them troubles, but not insurmountable ones because they are the heroes.