Thursday, 12 May 2016

Raise a Glass to the Revolution!

Rebellion is the theme of a lot of great fiction, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones. Whether you're looking for a game of simple goals (plucky rebels fighting against an evil, monolithic enemy) or complex political machinations and reversals (and possibly lots of characters dying or having tragic or horrifying fates), the rebellion is a story frame that provides a lot of interesting gaming potential. A dramatic game is probably going to concentrate on the GoT side of the equation, exploring the conflict of powerful opposed personalities and possibly on the ideas they stand for. But I'm here today to write about a particular kind of rebellion narrative that I'm eager to weaponize for the game table.

About this time last year, I saw my Twitter timeline filled with mentions of a new musical called Hamilton. It spread like a virus, with one person and then the next talking about how they started listening to the soundtrack and couldn't stop. Every day, someone else would have it on heavy rotation, and on and on it spread, this odd musical that featured contemporary, rap-influenced music about a very unlikely protagonist. As my friend Rob put it, it's hard to wrap your brain around how you get such a thrilling narrative about the guy who wrote the Federalist Papers, but somehow it works. Eventually, my wife and then myself joined the cult of Hamilton.

And now Hamilton has truly conquered Broadway, with a huge list of Tony nominations and a waiting list for tickets that stretches into years.

So how do you get Hamilton: The Roleplaying Game? (Sidebar: I already had a bit of a conversation about doing a musical at the table, so I won't repeat it here except to say that it's an awesome idea that really must be tried.)

Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and Hamilton raise a glass for freedom.
1. The Story of Tonight

One of the things that makes Hamilton work is that it takes material that a lot of people think is dry and dull and makes it feel contemporary. Historical figures are often patrician figures in the public imagination, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical shows us they were very much human beings who lived lives we can recognize ourselves in -- probably minus the towering achievements. Hamilton starts out as an ambitious young man who joins a group of like-minded friends who believe in revolution. We see some of their early adventures in rhetoric and daring-do, but it's equally important that we have scenes of these great men just being people. They're young, full of beans, broke, and constantly getting into trouble because of politics or romantic entanglements. Pretty much live every young person, ever. (And not for nothin', they sound a lot like most Player Characters.)

Having the campaign grounded in the various personalities of the revolution makes it real and accessible to players, and gives you a context for the political upheavals that are to come.

Eliza, Angelica, and Peggy - the Schuyler Sisters! Work!
2. Helpless

Although the most intense conflicts the Player Characters in a revolutionary game will face will probably be with other PCs who have different ideas about what way the revolution should play out, or the fallout when the dust settles, it's important to have a cast of characters that is larger and more diverse. You have to have the sense of a greater public out there who will have to live with the consequences of the revolution, whether it succeeds or fails. Having friends, family, and lovers around the PCs who react to the events as they unfold, express their support or their fears, and perhaps pull the PCs in different directions for personal reasons - that's good drama.

Hamilton goes to war.
3. The World Turned Upside Down

I'm picturing my own mental revolutionary game being played out using the Company rules written by Greg Stolze for REIGN, his superior fantasy game. The reason for this is that you need to have a concrete way of modelling what effect the PCs' actions are having on the action of the revolution as a whole. Playing through isolated skirmishes is fine for the earliest parts of the game, when the "young punk revolutionaries" are just beginning to mix it up, but eventually your game needs to embrace the larger scope of events. You need to show the effect of recruiting new forces, expensive battles lost, the scarcity of supplies, the importance of getting the citizenry on your side -- concrete mechanics to measure the impact of player actions. This makes building to climactic battles and eventual success feel earned, important, satisfying. The decision to rally behind a great general, or get a particularly flamboyant and daring French naval commander on board --

Let's hear it for everyone's favourite fighting Frenchman - LAFAYETTE!
-- should have mechanical rewards. The Company system does this, as could a Fate-based model on a wider scale (that is, set to show the interactions of large groups like militias and revolutionary units instead of PCs). I'm sure there are other options, but the bottom line is that the players should have a sense of the larger struggle.

Jefferson (I HATE HIM SO MUCH!) and Hamilton in a cabinet rap battle.
4. Cabinet Battle

Something roleplaying games (and fiction/media in general) are bad at is actually having a Third Act. Hamilton could have been a much more rollicking affair if Lin-Manuel Miranda had chosen to concentrate entirely on the action of young Hamilton in the revolution, but that's only half of the play. The second part concentrates on the messy business of actually getting a newly-free country to actually run, and shows that a lot of the Great Men in the American pantheon were deeply divided on what a free America should actually look like.

Doing this at the table requires some buy-in from players, who have to be on-board for the political angling required, but I suspect that you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't know at least a few people who liked that kind of thing. Military factions and their interactions are exchanged for explicitly political groups, who have different agendas and plenty of dirty deals they're prepared to make to get what they want. This is when having a large and diverse cast of characters pays dividends, allowing you to introduce dramatic complications (such as a family who just want a Player Character to come home and settle down, even when things aren't settled yet) that will make all of this much more difficult and meaty material. Having a main cast of characters who are all-too-human, with size twelve clay feet and a history of shenanigans, is essential.

When there's reckoning to be reckoned.
5. The Ten Duel Commandments

Duels aren't essential to the action of a revolutionary game, but they sure are cool. And can provide you with a tasty (and important) side-light to a game that has wandered into political territory, or (as in the musical) as a means of allowing internal tensions inside a revolutionary movement to bubble to the surface. Duels become especially dangerous if they are carried out in a world that, like our own world in the late 1700s, does not have easy access to healing or advanced medicine. A bullet or a serious blow, even if it's not fatal immediately, can kill someone. Engaging in a duel is sheer lunacy, with the stakes so high; so you know that at least one Player Character is going to be dragged into one, with possible game-changing consequences.

6. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Ultimately, the question of legacy underlies Hamilton, and there probably needs to be a moment at the end of a game paying homage to that material where the company shifts to a historical perspective. What does the span of history make of your revolution, your founding PCs? If they live to old age, what do they think of their lives and the things they've done to found a nation? What do they wrestle with when the nights are long? What compromises did they have to make? Who did they lose along the way? And what kind of future did they build?

A montage -- whether it's short or an episode dedicated to it -- could help tell the "big picture" story of the ending of such a campaign. Not every PC will meet an ending as dramatic as Alexander Hamilton, of course, and that demands space for a denouement -- and possibly the opportunity for players to describe the fullness of their characters' lives outside the space of the main narrative. And special attention should be paid to supporting characters who continue their work or tell their stories when they leave the stage, as Eliza does for Hamilton.

So what do you think? Are you going to throw away your shot?

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