Roleplaying, Negotiation, Death and Nukes

It is a common enough trope in megagames that if nukes are available then someone will either want to get their hands on one, or fire one off. In games where assassination is possible someone always wants to do an assassination. Even when assassination isn’t possible, practical or realistic, someone always wants to conduct an assassination.

And, of course, this is entirely reasonable in many ways. Megagames are games. In being games they naturally encourage playfulness. A game designer offers players a sandbox in which they can act out all sorts of extreme options that perhaps wouldn’t happen in real life, and with no real life consequences – nobody actually dies. Playing in the purest sense.

Those who view the megagame as essentially a realistic simulation of ‘real life’ (or at least containing some semblance of what we think of as real life) sometimes find extreme player behaviours frustrating, annoying even, as they are not ‘playing the game properly’. That is, not constraining their actions to those seen to be within the ‘arc of believability’ around the game.

This is an entirely reasonable expectation. If one were running a megagame set in a historical period, say Napoleon’s campaigns in Germany in 1813, you would expect players to act within the doctrine, attitudes and belief systems of the time. Anachronistic behaviours on the player’s part would spoil what we call the ‘duty to history’ and result in a game that felt nothing like the period piece it was intended to be. But the line is thin. Back in the ’90s, Brian Cameron and I ran a game on this subject and in that game the Austrian Emperor made a separate peace with Napoleon halfway through the game. This was playfulness, because as Emperor he could choose to do pretty much what he liked. Foolish, but not historically unprecedented. But this was a disaster for the other Allies, and for the game, because without a united alliance facing them Napoleon’s armies were unbeatable. The game stopped at 2pm.

Lesson learnt – that not all playfulness can be allowed in a megagame. Players are encouraged to have a free hand, but Control must say ‘no’ not only to the outrageous and the impossible but also to actions destructive to the game and that might reduce or diminish the experience of all the other players.

So this brings me on to the allowability of death and assassination.

From time to time players come to me at games and say “…he is being really annoying and so how can I assassinate him?”.

There are different answers, depending on the game and situation. It might be simple “Just roll a six” or “Do you have an assassination card?”. It might be more complex but still possible, in game – perhaps the player coming up with a complex deployment of special forces, or an elaborate poisoning plan.

Or, the answer might be a flat “you can’t”.

The important point here is not the methods or possibility of assassination but the motivation behind the question. Why is player behaviour – “..being really annoying…” such that the only solution is to assassinate the player character? And this influences whether control should encourage or discourage assassination as an aspect of emerging gameplay.

What is really going on here? I see a number of possibilities. It might be that the player in question is being obnoxious in character, and the assassination is entirely game-relevant (or even part of the game design). In this case, events simply take their course.

It might be that the player in question is being personally obnoxious. This is an issue for game control. Assassination isn’t the answer because the issue is about out of character behaviour. Game Control needs to intervene to explain acceptable standards to the player who is being obnoxious. Dealing with the obnoxious is an entirely separate (and complex) subject.

However, in my experience it is most often the case that the player in question is blocking some action that the would-be assassin wants to happen. This is important because the issue here is about how players negotiate and engage with the game. And many players, particularly those inexperienced in both megagames and negotiation see a ‘kinetic negotiation’ as the simplest way forward. This might not be an assassination. It might be launching nukes, or starting a war.

This is understandable, but in resorting to simplistic violent actions the players are missing out on a very rich and satisfying seam of megagame gameplay, namely, successful negotiation.

So what can a player do when another player is standing in their way and refusing to cooperate?

Here are some hints:

  • Never take refusal at face value. They may only be refusing as a starting position.

  • Find out what they do want. Most players or teams have their own objectives. In a well designed megagame these will be multi-layered. You might be able to get them to to do some of what you want in return for your support with something else. Rarely are megagame objectives binary or zero-sum. There is nearly always some lever, and the competent player will seek to understand what these are and use them.

  • Bring pressure to bear via other teams. They might block you alone, but if more players or teams keep pushing they may have to change their position. Forming temporary coalitions to achieve something. Or another team might have what they want, and you can work through a third party.

  • Be prepared to give something without return. Be prepared to be generous. Sometimes other teams intransigence is a mirror of your own intransigence. It is surprising how making the first step creates a more open atmosphere in negotiations. If you block and ‘play hard-ball’ do not be surprised to find everyone else treats you the same way. Just saying ‘give me what I want’ repeatedly is not a negotiation tactic.

  • Be nice. Yes, really. Smile, make a joke, be cheerful. I know it sounds cheesy but this is a tried and tested way of getting people on your side, even if they don’t agree or can’t (or won’t) help you. And this is just a game – belittling people or being an arse isn’t fun.

  • Openness and honesty works too. There is a school of thought that says you should always keep all your cards close to your chest, reveal nothing about your objectives or intentions. And there is some wisdom in that. But there are times when at least some openness really helps in finding where two sides can arrive at a win-win position. And win-win is mostly what megagames are about.

Or, of course, you can skip all of that an just assassinate the other team’s Prime Minister.

Washington Conference

Except that, of course, in a megagame it nearly always achieves nothing. Except possibly causing out of character bad feeling and resentment. Your negotiation position hasn’t been improved. The other team are less inclined to help you and nothing has been unblocked.

The same goes with arresting, kidnapping or abducting inconvenient players. It might seem like a good idea to remove an obstacle, but generally it merely backfires and in doing so removes an entire layer of fruitful negotiation and gameplay.

And what does death even mean in a megagame?

I get the distinct impression that some players seem to think that the player they have assassinated is going to just disappear from the game, perhaps hoping that Control will send them home or lock them in a cupboard or something.

A megagame player is a paying guest in a social event. They will always be re-inserted into the game in one form or another. Usually back on the same team they came from (perhaps in a different role, but usually in the same team because people like to take part in games as part of a group of friends).

In some cases ‘dead’ players are re-roled into spare roles that the game designer has set aside for just such an eventuality. So, in game terms, it is often the case that in-game assassination achieves little or nothing. Much the same can be said of the real world – few assassinations in history have made much difference (apart from perhaps uniquely the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914).

On the same tack I also have players asking to kidnap, imprison or abduct other players. A moments thought would tell them that the megagame organisers are not going to accept the idea that a player is left for hours twiddling their thumbs in a corner as a ‘prisoner’ – especially if the primary the motivation for the arrest is to remove that player’s ability to take part in the game. Arresting / kidnapping someone is not a solution to your negotiation / roleplaying challenges.

Everybody Dies

If you find yourself considering arrest / abduction / assassination as serious in-game options (especially when this is not an explicit part of the game system) then consider also whether you are missing something important. If this is all you can think of because its become a bit difficult then you probably have missed something. Some lever, some avenue of influence, some aspect of their objectives or aims that you’ve not yet found out about. Think about this – it will really make a difference to your megagame experience.

3 thoughts on “Roleplaying, Negotiation, Death and Nukes

  1. On assassination, a useful paper I found last year analysed the last 150 years or so of assassination attempts on national leaders. While around one in four assassination attempts were successful, only one in 20 lead to long-term policy change by the target faction. I tend to favour rotating players between team positions to reflect the disruption.


    1. Thanks – interesting (any chance of a link to the paper?). Rotating players is my ‘go to’ response also. Though in games like Everybody Dies, and Andrew Hadley’s dark ages games, re-roling in new roles is a key a part of the game design. In some historical games, re-roling as the Heir (if the is one) is also used.


  2. since assassinatin was a real possibility in Palestine in 1947, it was possible if difficult for two of the teams. I had prepared a number of ‘fallback’ briefs for re-integrating players into the game. Thankfully I did not have to use any of them.
    On Jim’s comment about only Sarajevo having been really significant in having a real effect, I think I would add the assassinations of Sadat and Rabin int eh Middle East – ironically in both cases by extremists of their own country.

    Liked by 1 person

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