Archive for the 'A Day in the War' Category

Societies in Motion

2008 Nov 18

Another one of my crazier ideas.


Addressing Conflicts from Multiple Angles

2008 Mar 21

In all the games that I can think of that are about human conflicts – Carry, Grey Ranks, Steal Away Jordan, Bliss Stage, Night Witches, Sign in Stranger – none of them, with the notable exceptions of Shock and Cold City, are set up to allow you to look at a conflict from multiple competing perspectives, representing different sides of the conflict and understanding better how such a painful knot of opposing interests came into being and sustains itself. Even in Shock and Cold City, that element is not quite as strong as I would like.

Shock is terrific at running games where you play members of competing interests who may not even be directly aware of each other, but that’s not what the game necessarily encourages you to do. Plus, the stated goal of using the game to tell science fiction stories is unfortunately limiting, since Shock, as a system, is terrific for handling all sorts of historical and contemporary settings. But I worry a bit about the potential for the praxis scales to oversimplify complex situations, especially when I think about using Shock to address the Angolan Civil War or the current unrest in Tibet.

Likewise, the setup of Cold City, where you play members of a multinational task force tasked with hunting down Nazi monsters, is a bit too unrealistic to allow for a really intense examination of Cold War issues, in most cases. Additionally, the system doesn’t really have the right emphasis for the kind of educational, explorative play I have in mind. The trust mechanics, adapted from The Mountain Witch, simplify something that I think would be better left to the “fruitful void.” The split between personal and factional goals, though, might be something worth borrowing, to make characters both exemplify their faction, but also be real human beings underneath.

Emily’s A Day in the War, an adaptation of Eero’s Zombies at the Door intended to educate people about post-invasion Iraq, is the closest thing I’ve yet seen to a game that is set up to illustrate how different groups of people with competing interests create or perpetuate humanitarian disasters. Characters are explicitly drawn from multiple competing factions and are not quantified in any way, aside from a general description that doesn’t even need to be written down, necessarily. They are only measured by how far they are to achieving their goal and, in the JiffyCon playtest, these were always personal goals, but influenced by the larger goals of your faction. Additionally, there was an independent marker measuring the general level of chaos and conflict in which the characters operated.

There are a few things about the game that could be adjusted, though it really depends on what the overall purposes is.

Currently, the level of chaos only goes up, not down. While this is good for showing how terrible things can be, it’s not necessarily reflective of how conflicts actually work. Sometimes, the peaceful times between stages of violence can feed the cycle, because people return to their lives or gather resources only to have both stripped away when the violence returns. Also, it seems like people aren’t always unable to achieve their goals because of the level of chaos and violence around them. Sometimes, the situation could be relatively okay, but the competing interests of those around you and one’s own bad luck could prevent success from being achieved. So perhaps this could change a bit?

Conflicts are also a zero-sum gain. If a character wants to get closer to their goal, they have to push another character further away from that character’s goal. I really like many things that this mechanic indicates: that competing goals often mean someone loses out or at least appears to lose out, even if that’s not what anyone intends. And this is really great if we’re mainly interested in educating people about conflicts and not many any statements about, for example, how people can take productive action to make conflicts not zero-sum for the parties involved. That might be the best approach to take, honestly, since suggesting, for instance, that the Israelis and Palestinians can easily solve their conflict by compromising and working together is more than a little presumptuous. Better, I think, to leave potential solutions to post-game conversations than suggest them through the mechanics of the game. So I’ll probably push for this to stay the same.

Education is Activism

2008 Mar 19

Just something I’ve started talking about with Eero Tuovinen and Emily Care Boss, based on games they’ve previously worked on.


If this ever starts rolling, I want to talk to Julia Ellingboe, Gregor Hutton, and Jason Morningstar about it to, among others, as we consider using roleplaying to spread awareness about and better understand important bits of human experience. The Angolan Civil War is near the top of my list, after contemporary Tibet. What’s on yours? What global conflicts and issues could be better understood through game of Shock: or A Day in the Life?

A Day in Tibet

2008 Mar 16

I’ve been thinking about writing up brief guidelines for playing Emily Care Boss’ A Day in the War, but set during the riots currently going on in Tibet and nearby provinces. There are so many horrifying-and-yet-important stories to tell, many of which will not get much airtime in all the focus on the larger “Tibet vs. China” issues. But games can do small-scale, personal stories better than the news media, I think.

You could play a Tibetan monk or nun who was involved in the early peaceful protests, trying to figure out how to react to both the harsh crackdown by Chinese security forces and the violent ethnic nationalism and race riots of your fellow Tibetans, wondering how what was supposed to be a peace movement suddenly became so bloody and dangerous.

You could play a Han security officer from a middle-sized city on the east coast who agreed to move out to Tibet because the pay was better. You’d be surrounded by an environment in which any situation involving Tibetans (and, in Tibet, most situations do) is viewed as inherently dangerous, because almost all male Tibetans carry ceremonial knives. This is a big deal in a country where policemen often go unarmed. Maybe you could even be Buddhist and not be sure how you feel about using riot tactics (tear gas, clubs) against monks.

You could play one of the growing number of Hui (another Chinese minority) Muslims in Lhasa, struck by a chunk of concrete thrown by an angry Tibetan mob, watching, bleeding as your mosque is burned down, even though you have nothing to do with Chinese policies in Tibet and may not like Han people much either.

You could be a poor Han shopowner, recently arrived in Tibet because your family was starving in rural Gansu, but here you could get a loan to open a store selling instant ramen, bottled water, and sunflower seeds to Han tourists in the old Tibetan quarter. Maybe one of your children was burned to death when rioters set fire to your shop and you struggled to get everyone out alive.

And, of course, you could play a rioting Tibetan youth, sick of the Chinese government’s oppressive policies in Tibet, sick of Han immigration into Lhasa, angry at the growing number of Hui Muslims in the central city of Tibetan Buddhism. In one hand, you have a chunk of concrete; in the other, a can of petrol. You left your knife at home, so no one would get hurt, but you do think that it’s time someone scared these invaders a bit…

JiffyCon Recap

2007 Nov 19

Playtested a slightly revised version of Transantiago with Shreyas, Elizabeth, Rachel, Emily, John, and Casey. I didn’t have a character, but participated anyway and moderated a bit. That seemed to work excellently, which was nice to learn. We turned the weirdness up to 11 and, surprisingly, the game could totally handle it. It didn’t even buckle, much less break. In the second to last station (after we’d opened all the others), half the characters converged on it all at once. We had previously determined that it was jam-packed with faceless policemen. Somebody, I think, happened to call it a “sea of policemen,” which led Elizabeth to declare that she was literally swimming through the sea. And then I said the subway car was floating on the sea like an arc. And then Rachel said it was full of singing animals, refugees from two previous stations (one full of music, the other full of animals wearing caps). And then John said the green ooze (from yet another station) was leaking down the tunnel and causing the policemen it touched to disappear, creating a kind of green landmass amidst the ocean of blue uniforms. But the weirdness never got in the way of the kind of abstract problem solving that is at the core of the game. At one point, John basically realized, “Hey, clearly we have to feed the strange little girls with multicolored balloons to the tattooed green slime monster that just emerged out of the wall.” And, he was right. Based on what had been established in the game, that was what needed to happen. So, overall, there are a few things that need to be tweaked or explained better, but it was really solid. I don’t think the game necessarily HAS to be that weird all the time, but it’s good to know that it CAN be that weird and the game can still handle it just fine.

After lunch, I played Emily’s A Day in the War. I’d link to the Knife Fight thread, but it’s already changed a bunch. Basically you play people involved in the ongoing mess in Iraq, split among various factions, and you play out the events that lead up to their death. Originally, Emily had a rule about basing your character on a real person who died, in an effort to remember them, but that continues to feel really uncomfortable for many players (I didn’t end up picking a person) and Emily said that was likely going to get dropped. Despite that issue, the game played really great with the mechanic she borrowed from Eero Tuovinen’s Zombie Game, which has one character move towards their death for every character that moves towards achieving their goals (though you still die even if you achieve your goals). it felt like playing Otherkind or Bliss Stage, where you have a limited number of resources and too many baskets to put them in, such that something is always left wanting. In this game, some character was always left wanting, with their situation growing more grim, no matter how much we wanted to do the right thing and make sure everybody got through this. The characters were a Shiite businessman with two sons in the US, a military contractor for Blackwater, a US officer in charge of a checkpoint, a CNN journalist looking for a big story, and an aid worker trying to perform vaccinations. I really had a great time with the other players, who were from Northampton, but I don’t remember their names, unfortunately. A few of us felt a little uncomfortable, I think, enjoying the game so much, when it was directly inspired by a horrible ongoing conflict (that emotional reaction, I suspect, may be what Em’s looking for), but I definitely think it helped me work through some feelings I had about the war, especially about military contractors, though I found I wanted to play it more, maybe playing multiple sessions (like 3 or so), with different goals each session that I could win or lose, even if I still died at the end of session 3. I’d be interested to see if the game could work in that format. Also, I kept thinking about the Angolan and Chinese civil wars and how the system, which was fairly sparse, could work in any complex, terrible conflict. Definitely a good educational tool for showing the multiplicity of any given situation. Can’t wait to play it again and watch it develop.