So you've decided to run a historical roleplaying game. Great! Assuming you're not actually an expert in a given period, where do you find the information you need to run a game with some degree of historical accuracy? You probably don't have all the resources you need at home unless you live in the Library of Congress. That's OK--the system of a reasonably intelligent, skilled person with broadband internet access can find information more quickly than the greatest scholars of previous centuries. You don't have the academic burden of trying to make an original contribution to history, either; your goal is to find just enough data to a) bring out the flavor of a period and b) give your players the best opportunities for adventure.
I'm going to focus this discussion on Restoration England. It's an era I know a bit about, but certainly not enough to run a game. This page will, hopefully, take you through the process of researching an era. First off, let's face it: if you've decided to run a historical RPG, chances are you have some familiarity with the era. Something has to grab you in the first place. For me and Restoration England, it was Neal Stephenson's massive Baroque Cycle. Stephenson is one of our best living novelists, and this massive historical fiction works as both a novel of ideas and a grand adventure, tying the bloody politico-religious struggles left over from the Middle Ages to the uncertain beginnings of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. But how to apply what I remember of the book to gaming?
Well, RPGs almost always contain some element of danger. One of the books' heroines is first introduced as a slave during the Battle of Vienna. You couldn't ask for a better background for a soldier of fortune, nor a better adventure for the military-minded player, than the massive battle between a Polish-Austrian-German army and the besieging forces of the Turkish pasha. This is a prime age for dueling: any gentleman character is expected to defend his character and actions with his sword. Naval struggle would most likely center on the ever-changing alliances of the Low Countries. The late 17th century is arguably the best time in history to set a mercantile game: stock exchanges and commodities markets were born in London and Amsterdam. Players interested in solving mysteries won't have access to fingerprinting or DNA tests, but they also won't have to contend with government detectives or federal agents.
So, I've got a rough picture of the background and some ideas for adventures. Where else to look for information? Today's GMs have a useful tool unimagined just ten years ago: Wikipedia. It's not consistently accurate for research purposes, but it's more than reliable enough for gaming. I decide to read the entries on the most powerful men of the time: Louis XIV and his cousin Charles II. Four items from the Charles entry grab me straight away: the Raid on the Medway, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the growth of the British East India Company. The entry on Louis Quatorze reminds me of the growth of mercantilism, the military work of Marshal Vauban, the construction of Versailles, the flight of Protestants following the Edict of Fontainebleau, and the French army's crucial defeat at the Battle of Blenheim.
Lots of potential there. I decide to at least start the characters in England; it's easier to find primary source material since my French isn't up to historical research, and it's a less stable kingdom than France. Less stable = more chances for the PCs to get up to mischief. The more I think about it, the more I realize what a great starting point the Great Fire is. The action starts in media res, always a good way to get players excited. It's like a big disaster movie, and those always bring together a diverse cast of characters who have to learn to cooperate. Many Londoners suspected foreigners of starting the fire, so a fight can be inserted any time the characters are on the street. After the incompetent mayor delayed creating firebreaks, the king put his brother James, the Duke of York (later King James II), in charge of stopping the fire. James pressed lower-class men into an efficient, impromptu firefighting force. Sounds like a good opportunity to place the characters in danger from something other than armed assailants; always welcome.
For players who like a good mystery, I could come up with a murder committed during the chaos of the fire. There wasn't a formal police force in England at this time; people were actually expected to investigate crimes by themselves and bring them to the attention of the courts. Criminally-minded characters have unparallelled opportunities for looting; mercantilers fear the destruction of the Royal Exchange. If they like political intrigue, I could do a West Wing-style game with courtiers and civil servants trying to keep the government running during the crisis.
All right, this sounds promising. Time to look for additional information. The Wikipedia entry is a little sterile, so I'm glad to find an opinionated page from a British historian. Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, two of Restoration England's most important men of letters, left diary entries about the fire. Amazon.com is always a good stop for finding books in print; I come across a wide-ranging account of the fire by Neil Hanson that emphasizes the apocalyptic thinking that fueled the city's paranoia as well as a book by John Porter that takes a long look at the fire's aftermath (good for a campaign). Porter also did a page for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I'm not fully satisfied with any of the books Amazon carries on the general history of Restoration England; they're all too specific or difficult to come by. I figure I'll just see what my local library carries; that and a rereading of the Baroque Cycle should do me fine.