One Last 2016 IGRC Thought!
I’ve been obsessing over Netflix’s The Crown for a couple weeks now. It is this beautifully produced and brilliantly acted recounting of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with flashbacks to her father’s reign.
I can’t stop thinking about episode 7, “Scientia Potentia Est.” Mostly I keep thinking about how the episode beautifully captures a storytelling cycle that’s just so very hard to produce at an RPG table.
The premise of the episode, my take at least, is that it’s about two of the show’s major characters — Elizabeth and Winston — coming to grips with their shortcomings. Elizabeth has received a very peculiar education: there’s practically nobody more steeped in the rules of the Constitution and the history of her people, but otherwise she is literally uneducated. She doesn’t understand science, she doesn’t understand geopolitics. Arguably, under her nation’s structure of two pillars — the efficient and the dignified, explained early in the show — she knows all she needs to in order to be dignified. And to remain a powerless figurehead, constantly on her back foot as the efficient men of government report what they’re doing to the Queen but never really need or want her input.
Meanwhile, Winston is an old, old man. They’ve been hitting that theme pretty hard all show. But in this episode, he’s struggling to keep the UK (and by extension, himself) relevant in the face of the US and USSR taking up talks about nuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. His foreign minister has fallen ill, and Churchill experiences a stroke — and all his cronies and mandarins conspire to hide all this from Elizabeth.
So what I’ve been thinking about is a few things: the leadup to the final confrontation between Elizabeth and Winston, specifically, but also the confrontation itself. It is an amazing hour of television, filled with personal and interpersonal conflict but of course not one fist is thrown, not one moment of violence takes place.
Broken down as bullet points:
* I have yet to see a tabletop game that is predominantly filled with nonviolent, but high-stakes, interpersonal conflict.
* I have yet to see a game (in any format) where codes of conduct — society rules, traditions, whatever — meaningfully shape and constrain the acts of the characters.
I mean, probably freeform/larp games can get pretty close to this…but they all typically rely on the cooperation of the players to agree to outcomes. Now, I don’t really know the postwar history of the Elizabeth/Winston era that well, so when the Queen calls her Prime Minister in for a dressing-down, the tension is palpable. Some of that of course is just good acting and direction, and I think that’s not really something that translates well to tabletop. I never get the sense in the scene that either character is agreeing in advance as to how things will proceed: Elizabeth wants to expand her power beyond figurehead; Winston wants to keep his relevance and enjoy his role as WWII hero of the people.
Burning Wheel’s duel of wits system would probably do an okay job, it really is the best in class, but the tools available in resolution don’t lend themselves to quiet maneuvering. It’s all grand speeches and violent denouncements. I’ve played through many, many duels and heck if I can really remember the details of the conversation afterward. It’s very outcome-oriented.
The other unsolved roleplaying thing, the thing that continues to haunt and intrigue me, is constraining the players with the values of their characters. The Elizabeth-Churchill face-off doesn’t work at all unless she can leverage the PM’s underlying respect for the Crown. Churchill has nothing to fight with unless he understands the strengths and shortcomings of his queen.
Dunno…it’s something that is endless intriguing to me. King Arthur Pendragon gets close to modeling chivalrous behavior in terms of the carrots and sticks that incent the players to act with chivalry. I suspect The Clay That Woke will do a good job of messing with the minotaurs’ “Silence” ideology.
That’s…kind of all I can think of. There are probably pretty good implementations in PbtA games in terms of narrowly shaped moves, but heck if I can think of any of them right now. Possibly the transactional nature of sex in Apocalypse World itself is in that zip code. Oh…the man/woman moves and the constant presence of honor in Sagas of the Icelanders of course. Maybe the best there is.
Looking forward to next year, Coriolis has this whole mythology that the characters “believe,” but beyond a mechanic where you can reroll some dice when you pray to an Icon (god), I don’t see anything that, you know, really gets the players to be superstitious, or religious, or really anything other than modern, rational, materialistic people. The other games on my to-play list don’t really have ideologies or superstitions or constrained rules of social conduct that I can think of.
Well, I’m kind of buzzing on prednisone right now so maybe this is all just rambling. But it’s something that’s been on my mind and I’m looking forward to exploring ways to play this stuff in 2017.
(Might mean more freeforms! Eek!)