History is Our Playground – On Playing with People’s Lives

History is Our Playground – On Playing with People’s Lives


The first time I larped, sometime around 2001, I played a governess in a Jane Austen inspired regency romance. A lot of that game – such as the name of the game or my character – have been lost to me, but I do remember the feeling of being lost and bored. My character’s status required her to be present at the party of the gentry, but was too low for any hope of a romance plot. She couldn’t sneak into the kitchen either – and she was sternly turned away when she tried – because her status was too high for the servants to risk her finding out about the drama going on downstairs.

To be clear, this game was a genre romance based on fiction, not meant to be a look into the social history and real lives of the people in regency Britain, and I as a player did not consider the real lives and social status of actual governesses of the era. When we roleplay, we often see history as our playground, and the stories of people of bygone eras as inspiration for our characters. In many cases, we find the stories that most pique our interest on the edges and in the margins: it’s often much more fun to play drama and hardship than ordinary day-to-day life. 

This paper explores questions of ethics when playing with the lives of real, sometimes marginalized, historical people. How can we treat the lives of people who lived and died centuries ago with respect? How much context should we expect the players to study in order to respectfully portray lives of people in the past? In what detail should we communicate the changes we make for artistic or playability purposes?

A personal interest

The question of how we treat people of bygone times recently became relevant to me, as I joined the research project Tieteen ja taikuuden rajamailla (abbreviated TiTaRa, the name translates to Between Science and Magic), funded by the Kone Foundation from 2023 to 2025. In the project, the three people working as researchers have a background in English historical linguistics. My own merits as a researcher come from looking further back in history: I majored in New Testament Exegetics, and have studied people in vulnerable and marginalized positions in the Biblical World – prostitutes and slaves (Nyberg 2000). More recently, I worked in the field of local cultural heritage for nearly a decade. 

My role in the project is one of a designer. I will be writing a roleplaying game – a tabletop game tentatively titled Tähtiin kirjoitettu (forthcoming 2025, Eng. Written in the Stars) – based on the research that my peers in the project publish. This means that the sources for my game will be examples of real people and their lives in medieval and early modern England. The research project concentrates on the vocabulary used of witches, astrologers and alchemists – and by them, of themselves – in that time period. These people were all set apart from regular society in some way, and at least in the case of witches also feared and sometimes persecuted. 

As the game I am designing will be published as part of a research project, and as the aim is to make the information accessible to a wider audience, I am concerned by both historical accuracy and playability. This paper was prompted by considerations of portraying the lives of the medieval subjects in a way that does not diminish their experiences, but that allows for enough common ground for the modern players to be able to identify with their characters.

A history of stereotypes

In role-playing games studies, there has been some discussion about misery tourism during the past few years. Many games draw inspiration from current or recent historical experiences, often those of marginalized people. Some of these games have been designed in co-operation with groups affected by the real-world issues they depict, such as Halat hisar (Finland 2013, Eng. State of Siege). Others, such as the Polish 4th of July (Poland 2022) larp about trashy trailer park living in Ohio have been mostly inspired by media and there has not been contact with any actual poor trailer park residents in the design process. 

In recent years, the roleplaying community has also started to acknowledge large problems pertaining to depictions of race especially in the D&D derived tabletop tradition (Loponen 2019) but also in larp . Roleplaying games have a long history of orientalism, in portraying Asian or Middle Eastern inspired roleplaying cultures as other, exotic, naïve and mystical (Trammell 2016). Roleplayers of color have made it clear that appearing in blackface or in exoticized dress or gear to portray someone who is Black, or of Arab, indigenous, or Asian descent is not a homage, but a continuation of a long legacy of racism. (Kemper 2018, Eddy 2020) 

The discussions concerning misery tourism, or different racist stereotypes in roleplaying games, are far from finished, as these themes are important in making the roleplaying hobby in all its forms more welcoming and accessible for people of different backgrounds. What seems to be missing, though, is a discussion on games using history that goes beyond the 20th century. There has been discussion about historical and historically inspired games, but these discussions usually revolve more around how accurately history and historical events are represented, and what alterations have been made to make for better playability (Salomonsen 2003). 

Quite a few roleplaying games, starting from the earliest D&D, are set in pseudo-medieval worlds. This makes the concept of medievalism relevant. For the purposes of this paper, medievalism refers to idealized or stereotypical views of the medieval world. In the roleplaying game context, it’s usually more important to build a setting for adventures, not portray the world in a historically accurate way. In the process, these games more often than not end up quite Eurocentric, even when creating fantasy worlds, and colored by a romanticized view of medieval times (Konzack and Dall 2008). This idealized, romanticized medievalism is also something that can attract the interest of conservative nationalist groups – with ideals directly opposed to the ideals of openness and accessibility mentioned above (Mochocki 2022).

Outside the roleplaying community

The discussions on racist and colonialist stereotypes, as well as treating the heritage of people with respect, have not arisen a vacuum in roleplaying game studies. The same discussions are ongoing in both other fields of study and in broader public discussions. For the purposes of this paper, I will only cite a couple of cases that are pertinent for the issues of history, heritage and respect. 

In July 2023, as I was working on this paper, the Dutch king Willem Alexander gave a speech in apology for the part that the Netherlands played in the history of slavery (Willem Alexander 2023). At the same time, artefacts that were taken from Sri Lanka and Indonesia during the Dutch colonization are now being returned home (Bubalo 2023). 

Museums that work with cultural heritage and store historical artefacts also participate in the discussion. In Finland, the National Museum repatriated Sámi artefacts from their collections to the Sámi community and the Sámi Museum Siida in 2021. I myself visited the powerful exhibit Mäccmõš, maccâm, máhccan – The Homecoming, which according to the National Museum “showcases the significance of cultural heritage to people and identity and encourages us to think about the control and ownership of cultural heritage”. In the exhibition Egypt of Glory – The Last Great Dynasties in 2020 to 2021, in the museum Amos Rex, located in central Helsinki, questions of respect and of displaying the bodies of the dead, who had been mummified and buried according to their religious customs, were included in the exhibition texts for the public to read. The part of the exhibition where the human mummies were displayed was somber. The acoustics were created to shield the area from crowd noises, and the visitors were asked to be respectfully quiet. Both exhibitions mentioned above made the exhibition materials available in the relevant languages, in the case of the first in Sámi languages, and in the second in Arabic. 

These cases are but a few examples of the discussion about history, heritage, and respect, in the context of which we operate both as scholars and as creators of roleplaying games and larps.

Voices of larp writers

For a closer look into the subject at hand, I talked with the writers of two Finnish historical larps from the 2010s: Completorium from 2012 and Jotta vahva ei sortaisi heikkoa (Eng. So That the Strong Should Not Harm the Weak) from 2018. I had a personal discussion with Minna Heimola, one of the authors of Completorium, and interviewed Aino Haavisto and Ada-Maria Hyvärinen about Jotta vahva ei sortaisi heikkoa  by email. In these talks, I asked these larp writers the same questions that I posed in the Introduction of this paper: How can we treat the lives of people who lived and died centuries ago with respect? How much context should we expect the players to study in order to respectfully portray lives of people in the past? In what detail should we communicate the changes we make for artistic or playability purposes?

Both these games hail from the Finnish historical larp tradition, which has been greatly influenced by the reenactment and larp association Harmaasudet (The Greywolves). This game style is characterized by an ambition for authenticity, and a lot of discussion and research into historical sources goes into the writing of these games. There is also an educational undertone, and players are expected to read background material put together by the organizers (Sahramaa 2010). Before historical games, there are often possibilities to join in crafting sessions for sewing costumes or making other gear. For my first larp, the game mentioned in the Introduction, a game in either the Harmaasudet or Alter Ego tradition, I participated in several dance rehearsals to learn recreations of historical dances of the era – and I also learned to play whist, a card game that was popular in the regency era. 

In addition to Harmaasudet, several prolific Finnish writers of historical larp are alumni of Alter Ego, the University of Helsinki roleplaying association. This means many have degrees in subjects such as cultural heritage studies or folkloristics, and have gone on to careers in, for example, some of the most well-known museums in Finland. Some have also completed doctorates – an achievement that translates into ever-more professional background research.

Completorium (Finland 2012) was a game set in a medieval Cistercian monastery. The authors have already published texts about the game, from the point of view of considering gender in historical larps (Heimola and Heimola 2016) and also from the point of view of reenacting history (Heimola 2012). In the case of this particular game, the main organizers had recently completed or were just about to complete their doctoral studies in theology and in comparative religion – and during my discussion with Minna Heimola I was shown a respectable pile of books that represented just some of the background research done for Completorium

In our discussion, Heimola reiterated that the organizers wanted to respond to a dual issue: one of the most common complaints about Finnish historical larp in the 2000s was that female characters often ended up as being boring and feeling like side characters, but at the same time – and this is something that still persists in Finnish larp – most of the people signing up for the games were non-male, and wished to play non-male characters. Hence, the main consideration of the organizers was not a respectful treatment of any historical subjects. Rather, they wanted to portray a historical setting that fit their mostly-female player demographic, in a way that allowed for meaningful play and character agency within that setting. 

Heimola mentioned that they also dived into historical sources for what the characters were supposed to do during the game: the day-to-day cycle of monastic life with both services and daily labor, scenes of religious visions, as well as more action-oriented plots such as attempts to steal relics for another church. 

Jotta vahva ei sortaisi heikkoa (Finland 2018) was a larp set in ancient Mesopotamia, in the context of a judge’s visit to a fictional small town. Also in this case, the authors have written about the game and their thinking around the themes and of making history playable (Haavisto and Hyvärinen 2020). Again, the historical background of the game was well-researched: Haavisto has a degree in languages and Asian studies, with a minor in Assyriology. 

In my interview, the authors told me that they had a clear division of labor, with Haavisto being in charge of the actual historical background, and Hyvärinen taking more responsibility of changing things around to create a better and more playable story. From the start they agreed that playability comes before historical accuracy. Initially, the plan had been that every character would have had some connection to actual historical materials: tablets on court cases of the era, letters and the like. This did not quite come to pass, and the final result was that around a third of the characters had these direct connections to the ancient material. As an example, the authors described using actual ancient court cases that pertained to one or two people and then filled in details such as family members – so those family member characters did not have a direct link to historical materials. No characters were directly and fully based on actual historical persons, though one character did impersonate Ea-Nāṣir, the copper merchant of the clay tablet UET V, 81 (Figulla and Martin 1953).

The authors said that in their experience the Finnish larpculture surrounding historical larp expects the players to read all materials in order to understand the genre and the vision of the game at hand, and to act accordingly when playing. As such, they were not concerned about their players being disrespectful of the material presented – and also, as they point out, the events of the game were set so far back in history that any information we have is based on archeology rather than any living cultural heritage. With a 3000+ year gap in time between the time represented in the game and the people of today, we cannot really call the ancient Mesopotamians close cultural ancestors of anyone alive now. 

This does not mean that history was taken lightly. In the background information section of the game homepage, details for which there were no sources in research, or which were changed for better playability, were clearly marked in cursive. The authors told me they felt it was important that the players, when preparing for the game, would be able to see right away what was based on historical research, and what was not. It was also communicated to the players from the start that they were engaging in a decidedly feminist take on history. On the point of contextualization, the authors also said that many of the plotlines for the characters were age-old, and deeply rooted in being human and not representing a particular era: fairly sharing inheritance, being involved in a love triangle, or the balance between fulfilling parental wishes versus taking your own liberties.

In all, the organizers of both Completorium and Jotta vahva ei sortaisi heikkoa agreed on that players needed enough onboarding and contextualization to grasp the setting and game vision. The Finnish style of historical larp expects players to be prepared to put in some work into understanding the era the given game is set in, and to dress and act the part. In both cases, if historical accuracy and playability were in conflict, playability was prioritized. 

Of course, even though styles of play have evolved during the years, Finnish larp has a long history of prioritizing immersion into character, and acting as you believe your character would do in any given situation or social setting. Even though it’s been over two decades since the debated Manifesto of the Turku School  (Pohjola 2003), the ideals of strong character immersion being central to the larp experience still linger. 

The authors I interviewed felt that taking into account the style of play in historical games that has evolved in the Finnish tradition, they had every reason to believe that their players would treat their characters respectfully, and would do their best to represent the lives of the characters in an as authentic fashion as they could, based on the background material they were given

As I myself have experienced this tradition and style of play firsthand, I understand the position of these authors. The question is: How much do the players actually know about history, and how much do they think they know? There are pitfalls in trusting the historical knowledge of your players. 

History, heritage, and roleplaying

The authors of Jotta vahva ei sortaisi heikkoa mentioned heritage, and the fact that the very ancient history their game was set in isn’t directly lived and experienced heritage for anyone today. When considering this, I ended up looking into questions of heritage. I found the vocabulary of heritage studies very helpful when considering the issues of using the lives, experiences and accounts of real people as material for games. 

According to Rodney Harrison (2013), history is about the past, whereas heritage is concerned with the present and future. This means that we make sense of past events concerning our social or ethnic group, about our nation or about a minority we belong to by giving meaning to things that our predecessors have done or experienced. It’s a process of social meaning-making. 

In his book Role-play as a Heritage Practice Michał Mochocki (2021) combines heritage studies with historical game studies and roleplaying game studies, and discusses authenticity and historical accuracy in the context of games, as well as immersion and experiencing. He notes that the discussion in the field of historical game studies often distinguishes between accuracy-based authenticity, and behavioral and psychological authenticity, which leads to a dualism of accuracy-of-facts versus authenticity-of-feeling. 

As someone who has played both tabletop RPGs and larped in historical settings, I recognize the thought of authenticity-of-feeling from my own experience. I would not expect historical accuracy, or accuracy-of-facts, in every detail of a game. Instead, when going to a historical larp, I want to experience something of the era the game is about. If the game had an educational goal – such as highlighting the experiences of marginalized groups in the era and setting – I would expect proper contextualization through workshops, talks, or written information provided. 

Above, in A history of stereotypes, I noted that we tend to shift from questions of ethics and respect to more general questions of accuracy and authenticity when we go further back in history. The viewpoint of heritage studies sheds some light on why that is. When there is a direct link of living heritage between the era or events we portray, and people alive today, we need to take this into account. This is where the questions of respectful treatment of the past and the people and events we portray are important. When we go into history, the link is often broader – such as the Dzikie Pola (Poland 1997) portrayal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which describes the history of whole nations rather than any marginalized groups (Mochocki 2022). 

The pitfall of history is that we often think we know what it was all about, but what we are taught at school is in the end quite superficial. If we play striving to be “authentic”, it is easy to erase marginalized identities, or repeat our prejudices time and again. Having studied historical times and people myself (Nyberg 2000, 2006), I know from experience that we very often just cannot know for certain how people – especially people who were not in politically significant positions – really lived, as the further back we go, the more we rely on what kind of materials have been preserved. If we have a collection of Roman laws, for example, we do not know for sure how strongly they were enforced, unless the information is extensively backed by other sources such as court rulings and contemporary written accounts. Defending discriminatory design choices by saying “this is historically accurate” is very often not a sustainable argument. 

When we move from themes of heritage to themes of history, it is well justified to use the principle “the players are more important than the game”. We are not disrespecting the people of bygone eras by considering the safety and well-being of our players today. If we design for what we imagine was historically accurate rather than for playability, we will very likely be placing roadblocks for people from marginalized backgrounds joining the game (Jones, Holkar and Kemper 2019).


The questions of respectful treatment of historical subjects have not been raised very much in roleplaying game studies. We visit the past and play with people’s lives not only to experience their struggles or marginalization, but to find the human connection between them and us. Even separated by nearly four millennia, we can sympathize with the client who complained about the quality of copper provided by one Ea-Nāṣir – or, as we do not know if the complaint had merit, the poor salesman. What we need to remember is that when we create a game set in history, we always create our own interpretation of it. It is not necessary to repeat every oppression and injustice – and not considering these in the design but just including them by default damages playability. 

The farther back in history we go, the less information we have on what the everyday lives of people were really like, or what the thoughts and feelings of the average person were. What we do have, however, is an ongoing discussion about the respectful treatment of people’s heritage. Living heritage makes sense of events of the past and how they pertain to the events of the present and the future. 

The current discussion on the history of racism, the legacy of colonialism, and the respectful treatment of cultural heritage is ongoing not only in the context of roleplaying games, but in society at large. This article is only a quick dip into these issues as they are relevant for roleplaying in historical settings, and I hope to be able to expand on this and go deeper into the questions of history, accuracy and authenticity, and respect, at a later date.


Aaron Trammell (2016): How Dungeons & Dragons Appropriated the Orient. In Analog Game Studies Volume III, issue I. https://analoggamestudies.org/2016/01/how-dungeons-dragons-appropriated-the-orient/ 

Aino Haavisto and Ada-Maria Hyvärinen (2020): Monimuotoinen muinaishistoria taipuu nykyaikaiseksi larpiksi. In Nörttitytöt. Nov 9, 2020. https://geekgirls.fi/wp/blog/2020/11/09/monimuotoinen-muinaishistoria-taipuu-nykyaikaiseksi-larpiksi/, ref. July 13, 2023.

EunJung Chang (2006): Interactive Experiences and Contextual Learning in Museums. In Studies in Art Education, Vol 47, No. 2 (Winter, 2006), 170-186.

H.H. Figulla and W.J. Martin (eds.) (1953): Letters and Business Documents of the Old Babylonian Period. In Ur Excavations Texts V: Letters of and Documents of the Old-Babylonian Period. British Museum Publications.

Jenni Sahramaa (2010): Antikristuksen yö. Steel and Holy Spirit in Medieval Bohemia. In Nordic Larp, edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola. Fëa Livia.

Jonaya Kemper (2018): A Seat at the Feasting Table – A Call for Inclusivity in International Larp. In Shuffling the Deck: The Knutpunkt 2018 Color Printed Companion, edited by Annika Waern and Johannes Axner. ETC Press.

Kat Jones, Mo Holkar and Jonaya Kemper (2019): Designing for Intersectional Identities. In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences, edited by Johanna Koljonen, Jaakko Stenros, Anne Serup Grove, Aina D. Skjønsfjell and Elin Nilsen. Landsforeningen Bifrost.

Kristel Nyberg (2000): Prostituutio Uuden testamentin maailmassa. University of Helsinki, unpublished master’s thesis.

Kristel Nyberg (2006): Prostituutio ja naisihanne Uuden testamentin maailmassa. In Taivaallista seksiä: Kristinusko ja seksuaalisuus, edited by Minna Ahola, Marjo-Riitta Antikainen and Päivi Salmesvuori. Tammi.

Lars Konzack and Ian Dall (2008): Fantasy and Medievalism in Role-Playing Games. In Playground Worlds. Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros. Ropecon ry.

Mattea Bubalo (2023): Netherlands to return treasures to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66125072, ref. July 13, 2023.

Michał Mochocki (2021): Role-play as a Heritage Practice. Historical Larp, Tabletop RPG and Reenactment. Routledge.

Michał Mochocki (2022): Heritage of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in Polish Role-playing and Reenactment. Transformative Play Initiative Seminar 2022. Youtube, October 20, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCKgsPb25L4, ref. July 13, 2023.

Mika Loponen (2019): The Semiospheres of Prejudice in Fantastic Arts: The Inherited Racism of Irrealia and Their Translation. Doctoral dissertation. University of Helsinki.

Mike Pohjola (2003): The Manifesto of the Turku School. In As Larp Grows Up. Theory and Methods in Larp, edited by Morten Gade, Line Thorup, and Mikkel Sander. Projektgruppen KP03.

Mikko Heimola (2012): Completorium – keskiaikaisen luostariyhteisön elävöittämistä näytelmäroolipelin keinoin. In Glossæ III/2012. 

Minna Heimola and Mikko Heimola (2016): Gender and Historical Larps: Two Case Studies of Women’s Roles in Historical Settings. In Larp Politics. Systems, Theory, and Gender in Action, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Mika Loponen, and Jukka Särkijärvi. Ropecon ry.

Rodney Harrison (2013): Heritage: Critical Approaches. Routledge.

Willem Alexander, king of the Netherlands (2023): Speech by King Willem-Alexander at the commemoration of the role of the Netherlands in the history of slavery, Oosterpark, Amsterdam. https://www.royal-house.nl/documents/speeches/2023/07/01/speech-by-king-willem-alexander-at-the-commemoration-of-the-role-of-the-netherlands-in-the-history-of-slavery, ref. July 13, 2023.

Xenia Salomonsen (2003): The Use of History in Larp. In As Larp Grows Up. Theory and Methods in Larp, edited by Morten Gade, Line Thorup, and Mikkel Sander. Projektgruppen KP03.

Zoë Antoinette Eddy (2020): Playing at the Margins: Colonizing Fictions in New England Larp. In Humanities 9(4), 143. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0787/9/4/143


4th of July (2022): Poland. Bartosz Bruski, Paweł Jasiński & Ewa Żygadło.

Completorium (2012): Finland. Mikko Heimola & Minna Heimola.

Dungeons & Dragons (1974): TSR, USA. Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson. 

Dzikie Pola (1997): Wydawnictwo MAG, Poland. Jacek Komuda, Maciej Jurewicz & Marcin Baryłka.

Halat hisar (2013): Finland. Fatima AbdulKarim, Faris Arouri, Kaisa Kangas, Riad Mustafa, Juhana Pettersson, Maria Pettersson & Mohamad Rabah.

Jotta vahva ei sortaisi heikkoa (2018): Finland. Ada-Maria Hyvärinen & Aino Haavisto.

Tähtiin kirjoitettu / Written in the Stars (upcoming 2025): Finland. Kristel Nyberg

Museum exhibitions

Egypt of Glory – The Last Great Dynasties (2020-2021): Amos Rex.

Mäccmõš, maccâm, máhccan – The Homecoming (2021-2022): The National Museum of Finland.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Solmukohta 2024 book. Please cite as:

Nyberg, Kristel. 2024. “History is Our Playground – On Playing with People’s Lives.” In Liminal Encounters: Evolving Discourse in Nordic and Nordic Inspired Larp, edited by Kaisa Kangas, Jonne Arjoranta, and Ruska Kevätkoski. Helsinki, Finland: Ropecon ry.

Cover photo: Image by Rosie Kliskey from Pixabay.

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Kristel Nyberg is a Finnish author and RPG designer. Her academic background is in New Testament exegetics, but she has recently taken an interest in role-playing games studies, and was among the first to complete the Certificate Track in Transformative Game Design at Uppsala University in 2022–23. Her upcoming projects include a supplement on religions to the Finnish tabletop RPG Praedor, and designing a roleplaying game for the University of Turku research project Between Science and Magic.