Unsolved Problems
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!)

0 thoughts on “Unsolved Problems

  1. Very thoughtful. I suspect the problem at the heart of it is that these kind of dynamics are about struggling with the weight of societal roles and demands, which is exactly what roleplaying relieves. It seems to take a concerted, coordinated effort to bring them back in. (I have often wanted to portray the sort of fantasy world where being ‘masterless’ was an insult, but this is similarly an anathema for eacapism.)

  2. I haven’t seen the show so maybe this isn’t exactly on-point, but maybe something like DITV’s conflict system where the different “arenas of conflict” are different areas of social interaction (e.g. personal, political, etc.) rather than different levels of physicality?

  3. I think having strong interpersonal conflict means you need to break down cause and effect of each “exchange”. This is sensical to normal gamers in physical conflict – I attack, I cause harm, I cause enough harm, and I win. What’s the effect of saying “Winston, are you sure your heart can take this?” – it’s non-obvious for social conflict to the players.

    But yeah, DramaSystem might do that. And if you want something closer to what you know, Malandros is a PbtA Dramasystem hybrid that does a good job of covering both games.

  4. Also loved The Crown and have been thinking along similar lines. I think one of the things that is difficult for games to capture is the weight of precedent and “three moves ahead” thinking. The continuity of the past and the future.

    The stakes are so high in that series because everything they do is only one small part of a thousand-year tradition, and one that they all want to see persist into the future. How have previous monarchs handled similar situations? Will the wrong choice today mean that the crown falls and the tradition ends? And knowing all the while that future generations will look back upon your actions for their guidance.

    I particularly loved the climax of the “Act of God” episode about the Great Fog, where Churchill is summoned to the Queen and he knows it’s because she is going to ask for his resignation and he arranges to arrive after the morning papers come out, so that he will be a heroic figure in the people’s eyes at that moment.

    How do you model that with game mechanics? A paltry “my stirring speech gives me a +3 to public opinion” is so empty and trite. How do you model the choice Elizabeth faces of “infringe upon the limits of the Constitution” versus “allow the people to suffer and lose faith in the government”?

    I don’t have an answer, but I do have a game design document that I’ve been throwing all these ideas into for several years. I hope that one day it all ferments into something playable.

  5. Dan Maruschak​ that feels very abstract. It’s probably an Impossible Thing I’m looking for, where the details and the specifics matter, and they’re not just dressing up abstract moves (which is the DoW issue for me, too).

    Another attempt to model non-modern values I thought of was in Circle of Hands, in which if you can’t immediately sell a community on both your utility and your harmlessness, you might literally get preemptively knifed. This was such a hard sell to my players, who were like “but the King in Rolke has our back! We haven’t even done anything yet!” as they were getting the cold shoulder (at best) or fighting off an angry mob (at worst).

  6. I really need to watch this show, don’t I?

    The thing I come back to every time I engage this question (and I engage it a lot) is context and subtext. Scenes like this play, for me, because of what remains unsaid that sits in the common understanding off the characters involved. I’ve seen that most consistently at the table when the players call out the subtext, but most effectively when they don’t have to. Dunno.

  7. These are some interesting thoughts! By interpersonal do you mean player versus player conflict? Winston and Elizabeth both read as PCs to me. I think one way to help this is to purposefully limit the situation. I think setting the premise as such will help bring player’s attention to a focus.

    You ever play “Mars Colony” by Tim Koppang? That might be something to check out.

  8. Kit La Touche Yes! The unspoken subtext that exists in the minds of the participants is the thing.

    And the funny thing is that in RPGs, you see this all the time in fights scenes where the players are familiar with the game. The thief sneaks up behind the monster. Everybody knows she’s going to get her massive pluses to hit and double damage or whatever. No one needs to say it, but the emotional excitement is all there. Everyone pays attention to “can she sneak up?” not because the sneaking itself is particularly exciting, but because of the consequences that everyone knows will follow in its wake.

    How to do that in non-combat arenas is the tricky part.

  9. My experience is that a lot of this is difficult in gaming due to a combination of needs for:

    clarity of intent for mechanical resolution and its tension with many profoundly human moments in life and drama being unclear and contingent

    the ability to make statements indirectly, putting forward a position without being on the nose

    tension in improvisational moments between doing something interesting and clearly dramatic and something subtle and profound

    a general culture of play that values escape via power fantasy, libertarian individualism, and escape from constraints

    A geek need for things to be real and defined of themselves, rather than negotiated meaning (which overlaps with and reinforces my first point).

    Some freeforms deal with these things through situation and character generation and tight constraints, combined with guided narration and directed character choices. But even then, my experience is that success in getting these moments to pop is largely up to player skill and desire. 

    P. S. On phone, can expand on points later, if anyone gives a fuck

  10. Brand Robins of course I give a fuck and would love to see your thinking here expanded. I think we’ve talked about some of these points before in various ways, so you may suspect that I am VIOLENTLY agreeing with you, but of course I want to see you say more.

  11. Paul Beakley In DITV the concreteness comes during play, e.g. Aaron’s example of “Winston, are you sure your heart can take this?” sounds exactly like a Dogs Raise to me (targeting him personally, rather than reputationally or in his official capacity, so he’d be taking personal fallout instead of the other kinds if he Takes the Blow). You could also arrange it so that certain institutions also need to take Fallout in certain arenas, e.g. maybe the Government needs to take Fallout whenever a minister takes Political fallout (e.g. the repercussions of a conflict could result in the fall of the government via a vote of no confidence, or whatever). But I’m just spitballing, and I haven’t seen the show so maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re aiming for.

  12. Dan Maruschak​ that I think gets back to what Brand Robins​​ was saying about being so on the nose. I agree that it sounds like a raise! And you know what would happen next, maybe necessarily? One player or the other or the facilitator would need to pipe in with “that’s a raise, right?” Because resolution demands clarity. And then all the air is let out of the moment.

    I have no idea at all how to build up subtext so that it’s functional useful. Maybe an audience driven system, where players other than the arguers privately decide on what moves are being made.

  13. Oh, Paul Beakley, this gets at something I think is crucial here: yeah, yeah, ambiguity, interpretability, whatever, the way that happens at the table relates to enjoyment as audience. Everyone else at the table, and likely the players themselves, want to express their audience-driven enjoyment by pointing to the subtext, by commenting on it, engaging with it. But maybe that’s not something you can do in the moment as actors. (I’m using audience and actor here not as jargon, just as normal [“normal”] words.)

    You’ve ever had a director who tells you that you need to figure out what a given beat, scene, line, whatever means to your character, and then tells you not to tell them what you decide on, but to show it in your acting? It’s kinda like that.

  14. Paul Beakley usually in DITV the turn structure of a conflict makes it obvious that something is meant to be a Raise, and the way people See tends to make explicit things that would be subtext in more visual media. So I don’t really follow what your objection is. But it’s your thing, it probably doesn’t matter if I don’t understand why it doesn’t work for you.

  15. Michael Miller that’s maybe part of it, yeah.

    The motivation behind “never speak its name” seemed to me more about maintaining focus on the fiction, which in some cases, yeah, probably means disentangling the subtext as well. The GM is free to make all kinds of subtextual moves! Not sure that’s possible on the player side, though, since at some point you need to settle on the moves they have to make, which are very much named.

  16. Although now I’m thinking you could totes build out a set of explicitly subtextual GM moves: imply future badness, rhetorically separate them, hint at an offer and ask or maybe just float a trial balloon etc.

  17. So far, I’ve only been able to make the weight of tradition matter in a game by making the whole game about that. Hopefully in the future we can do that as a single tool, in a game that’s about other things.

  18. Paul Beakley if you haven’t played Ben Robbins’s Kingdom yet, you might find some very good inspiration there. Both for high-stakes interpersonal conflict that is mainly non-violent and for having the characters’ values strongly influence their behaviors.

    I’d even suggest you actually sit down with your group and play The Crown as a Kingdom game – include all the scenes you care about, see how well a job it does in emulating what you want. I’d wager a pretty good one!

    Also, very interesting thoughts, and a topic I care about a lot myself, so also subbing for the discussion.

  19. 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.

    I hope you find a game that does this. I’ve been looking for this for quite some time.

  20. I do think Dogs conflicts allow you to be a little more fluid with some of this than BW’s DoW, and part of that is, as Dan says, the turn structure (and/or the way just pushing dice forward lets you signal “this is a raise” without having to interrupt.) That aspect does break down a bit when you have to bring in traits or relationships, though: that requires more mechanical talk.

    I’ve seen some of those “tradition” elements come out very strong in games where it was something the players brought to the table. I suspect that it’s very difficult to inculcate a whole worldview at a “tool” level: it probably does take a whole game. But if you’re comfortable with the idea that your traditions or values or what-have-you are going to have to be things the players already have some reference for or interest in, it’s possible to build a game which encourages them to come out in play without having to be exclusively about that.

    (Did that make any sense? I’m decidedly not saying “system doesn’t matter,” obvs, maybe more “system can’t do the whole job but I bet we can design systems to give a boost.”)

    I really really care about worldviews besides my own, especially in terms of history. So it’s something I’m going to push whether the rules point me that way or not. But besides Pendragon (which is, approximately, actually pushing a fictional and not even realistically-fictional worldview) and Clay, I’d say Dogs is definitely in this ballpark, it’s just doing more of Kit’s “don’t tell me, but you have to know” thing. There aren’t rules for believing in or silently disputing the tenets of the Faith, but you’re clearly pushed towards those options.

    BW Grief and Greed are maybe related too, on the opposite end: they’re mechanically heavy, and you don’t have to assimilate them in anything approaching a “method” format, but if you don’t do the thing, something happens. Might be worth another look at Blossoms for a more historical-worldview version of that, but it’s been too long for me to say anything strong on that score.

  21. In Shadow Lords all conflicts are resolved in the same way: you create scene traits (things that influence the narration and give you fictional positioning and can be physical things or abstract ideas or whatever) and inflict consequences (things that influence the characters negatively, from wounds to “ASHAMED OF MY DETERIORATING HEALTH”). Usually conflicts are pretty fast in my game but you can focus on such a duel of wits if you tell the players the point is not to defeat the queen but to convince her trough fictional positioning and mental or social consequences. As gm you can also spend your Shadow pool to complicate things if they do something not appropriate such as physically threatening the queen.
    Thus you can model easily that kind of social conflicts without going too mechanical.
    On the other hand through drives (character beliefs and goals) and dark talents you can easily model a strict cigs of values.

    The basic game is geared toward epic mythological action, but is very easy to back to model anything. It’s a complete rpg but also a toolbox 🙂

    this year I will release the free core of the system in a sample one shot adventure. Keep tuned for info on me or http://www.shadowlords.net , there is also a Facebook and Google+ pages

  22. Paul Beakley: You don’t seem to play generic adventurer/genre games, but play MYZ, The One Ring, etc.

    I don’t think either “people are more powerful than the average person and try to enact their will on their world” or “people generally solve their problems with nonviolence and traditions and values and rituals matter” are genres. Kagematsu is filling pretty well the “gender roles and repressed feelings” genre (in this genre, see also: other Kagematsu settings hacks, and Hot Guys Making Out).

    I think what you want is a “longform courtly intrigue” game, no? That game might not exist yet! But the larger category does exist and there are plenty of games. (Ryuutama, Chuubo, Archipelago (and derivatives)) off the top of my head.

  23. I don’t see Ryuutama doing any sort of court intrigue. It looks like standard travel-fantasy to me but maybe you’ve seen something in it I haven’t?

    I’ve been thinking about Chuubo’s as well. The fact she provides physical/literal subtextual props is at least acknowledging and fostering that channel.

    Archipelago…I dunno, man. It’s great but the tools don’t seem like they’re especially supportive of courtly play. I do think the fact it’s freeform (ish, god, let us not qwibble) probably loosens things up.

  24. Huh yeah Johannes Oppermann​ makes a good point. Kingdom and/or Downfall (they’re similar games in spirit) might be able to do The Crown specifically, though not general court intrigue.

  25. OK, I found the word I was looking for: “interpretation”.

    Last night, our NYE celebrations involved sitting around in pajamas (well, I was in my Iron Age Scandinavian clothes, but they’re comfy as pajamas, so I fit right in) and watching a show that I’m currently quite enjoying, Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s a show about a very small world, the hamlet of Lark Rise and the village of Candleford, in Oxfordshire, in the early 1890s. We kept talking over it, because small subtle things would be said that would carry meaning between these characters we knew well, and we wanted to interpret them, together and aloud.

    But that act of interpretation, which is so satisfying and wonderful, is for the audience. And interpreting by talking over is definitely not a viable behavior in an RPG.

    I took a class once on literary translation, in which was said one of those things that sticks with you for a lifetime: it is the translator’s job to translate the ambiguities of the text, so that the reader can experience approximately the same acts of interpretation in the original and in the translation.

    (This all reminds me of how many larps, especially chamber larps, have a debrief wherein you get to exchange your interpretations with each other, and get stories about the parts you weren’t present for, etc. It seems that this is useful not just as a way to emotionally decompress, but also as a way to keep people from engaging in that interpretation in the moment. Huh.)

  26. Kit La Touche this is really interesting, and I feel like it really is at the core of what makes subtextual high stakes social conflicts so rewarding on screen and so very hard to approach at the table (in a way that I’d find rewarding, given the need for clarity and on-the same-page-ness when you have players invested in success and maybe can’t be relied on to be honest brokers).

  27. I feel like this happens sometimes, like in the aforementioned DITV social conflicts because the mechanics can provide the subtext. Like, you can say one thing and then push your dice forward (which say another thing) or declare a trait to roll (which says another thing). Back in the day, there was a time when I was brainstorming a game in which the fiction was banal everyday stuff but the mechanics involved playing meaning-filled Tarot cards, for a similar effect. There might be a scene when you go to have a chat with you boss and then the GM puts down “Death” to set the tone for the encounter and all of sudden everybody’s like “holy shit!” So that kind of thing definitely seems possible.

  28. Also, I feel like this can happen in Microscope or other games where you already know what the ultimate outcome is, because the scene can then play against that outcome in interesting ways, with fate hanging over everything. Like, if we know some general is going to go on to become an awful tyrant, we can have a scene where he talks about the high ideals and democratic values that he plans to enact in the kingdom. And there’s all this subtext because we know that’s not what will happen.

  29. True also in drama, of course: I suspect that people who did learn in school the end result of the Churchill/Elizabeth relationship find the scenes Paul’s describing quite as gripping as he does.

    That resolving-ambiguities thing is very meaty too. Kit’s point about post-LARP debrief is interesting. I’ve seen something similar happen with BW trait votes, too: it doesn’t defer resolution entirely, of course, but it sets it apart. I had one trait vote in BE where it was pretty generally agreed that my Cotar Fomas deserved something for determined political maneuvering. There was some talk of… maybe like “Man of the People?” Something like that? I shake my head slowly. “Oh, no, no… ‘Demagogue.'” Sudden looks of enlightenment. We never discussed it in character, and rarely in play, but it certainly informed understanding of my choices. (In both directions!)

  30. Oh, Paul Beakley, I was unclear, sorry about that!

    I meant: Ryuutama, etc, exist in your larger space of non-violent/traditions matter. I agree that none of them seem quite right for courtly intrigue.

    I wish that game existed! It’d be fun!

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