Period fiction is enjoying a pop culture moment, whether fans are hanging on the intrigue among the queen’s le bon ton in Bridgerton or clamoring on social media for a second season of Our Flag Means Death. Our appetite for stories set in Regency England, the Golden Age of Piracy, or any other point of dominant historical culture is as old as written fiction. The difference now is we can approach these stories on the table, as well as between the pages of a book.
Portrayal of tabletop RPGs often tie them to swords and sorcery, ignoring a rich vein of titles whose purview stretches the breadth of human history. These games take alternative rule sets, such as Vincent and Meguey Baker’s Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands and Alex Robert’s For the Queen, and channel through them passionate explorations of the more buttoned-up cultures of times past — largely so players can subvert those norms in interesting and “scandalous” ways.
Much like the popular television shows mentioned above, period-themed tabletop RPGs allow players to intentionally reframe history. They don’t ignore the ugly bigotry shot through our past, but instead create a space to tell stories with more racially inclusive and queer casts, using a period’s aesthetics and stylistic markers. This can be liberating, as well as enjoyable, and below are several tabletop RPGs tailored for just such an occasion.
Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG
Storybrewers’ game of romance, rivals, and social intrigue has been the gold standard of Regency role-play since its release in 2018. As the name implies, it draws heavily on Austen’s novels. Like Austen protagonists, players must navigate English gentry’s thorny gardens while searching — or staunchly avoiding — love.
Player characters in Good Society trade both rumors with their social betters and wistful glances with their heart’s desires. Powerful resolve and monologue tokens allow players to take control of the narrative in pivotal moments, skewering a rival’s reputation or creating the perfect hidden rendezvous. This collaborative RPG animates Austen’s plot with enough confidence and verve to last several sessions.
Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG is available on Storybrewers’ website.
Virtues & Scandals
Those wishing to spend a brief night of their own among the ton can use Virtues & Scandals, which condenses all the machinations of the queen’s social court into a single page of rules. This is a hack of John Harper’s (Blades in the Dark) Lasers & Feelings, which means characters only have two stats: virtue and scandal. Players roll with the former when relying on their poise and upbringing, while the latter powers seduction and deceit. The person running the game only needs to ad-lib a scenario and then fill the ton with juicy gossip, courtesy of The Rag, before setting the group loose in a playground of high society and low morals.
Virtues & Scandals is available on Itch.io.
The high seas are anathema to courts and royalty, but it still holds plenty of potential for relationship drama. Ocean Tides lets three players explore the fraught connections between naval officers, pirates, and mermaids using the role-play minigame structure from Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands. Rather than a traditional narrative, these minigames provide windows into important (and intimate) moments that create an emotional arc when strung together. Short but intense, this game lends itself to a group eager to jump directly into the deep end.
Ocean Tides is explicitly romantic, but ends in tragedy. All three character types find themselves far from any social authority that might correct their impulses, leaving them vulnerable to desires they might not even admit to themselves.
Ocean Tides is available on Itch.io.
Dueling Fops of Vindamere
If you spent the entire runtime of Bridgerton wishing someone would pull out a dueling saber and lob a challenge at the foot of some upstart, Dueling Fops of Vindamere might be the perfect game. A decidedly tongue-in-cheek take on the social season, it provides a stage for fencing instructors to court their beloved and prepare for an end-of-year tournament built from a table of prompts and dice-based challenges. In the city of Vindamere, love is won and lost at the tip of a blade.
Bro, Is It Gay to Dock?
Sometimes, a pirate RPG needs to be loudly, openly queer and Bro, Is It Gay To Dock? dutifully fulfills that need. How else would you describe a group of swabbies who lust after the legendary buccaneer who saved them all from certain death? It’s that episode of Our Flag Means Death where the crew of The Revenge fall over themselves to assist Blackbeard and earn his favor, but your weekly group gets to do the lusting.
It’s the perfect example of how tabletop games can excel simply by offering a framework and rules to live out very specific fantasies. The fan response to David Jenkins’ nautical romcom — including a bevy of fan art of Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby’s characters — revealed an audience clamoring for more salty, smoldering romance.
Bro, Is It Gay to Dock? is available on Itch.io.
All Hands on Deck
A subgenre of tabletop RPGs skip the 200-page book in favor of prompt-based games that let players reveal an emergent setting by collaboratively answering questions. All Hands on Deck follows that principle, using a deck of cards to power a narrative about a ship, its crew and the ties that bind them together.
All Hands on Deck sessions can steer in any direction, following the whims and interests of its players. By the end, the group will have a web of connections between sailors as well as the history and intention of the vessel they crew. What results could become the foundation for an entire campaign in a new setting, or it might remain a collection of coulds and maybes for another day.
All Hands on Deck is available on Itch.io.
This steampunk-flavored adventure game, another John Harper joint, is a bit of an outlier on this list. Broader and crunchier, where the rest rely on freeform role-play and distinct settings, Lady Blackbird deserves to be included if only to be an on-ramp for the curious-but-hesitant.
It wouldn’t be a list of indie tabletop RPGs without a call to step outside the systems that dominate this hobby, and the story of Lady Blackbird’s flight from an arranged marriage towards her lover, the pirate king Uriah Flint, deserves a chance to woo your table with swashbuckling and style.
Lady Blackbird is available for free on its official website.
Together We Write Private Cathedrals
The strongest thread of Our Flag Means Death’s ardent fan community is the celebration of the gay romance that blossomed between Edward Teach and Stede Bonnett over the course of the first season. This queering of a real historical figure is the exact subject of Together We Write Private Cathedrals, an epistolary game played by writing letters between two players in the role of lovers whose affections are condemned by society.
Depending on the roll of a die, the contents of a letter might be masked in euphemism or else outright censored, destroyed or hidden by the hands of your forebears. Playing this game is a reminder that our history is written by hegemonic forces; and a vigil for the love stories blotted out under their pens.
Together We Write Private Cathedrals is available on Itch.io