I’ve been eager to play Diadem (Max Hervieux) since Max told me about it at last year’s Go Play NW, and this year I just decided to run it myself.
It’s a game with a very specific historical focus: the Crisis of the Third Century, which is a big significant thing but also quite easy to totally overlook if you’re merely moderately informed about the Roman Empire. (I confess I hadn’t heard the name prior to encountering this game, and I feel like I am way more of a history nerd than most storygamers).
It’s one of a well-stocked subgenre of games about succession struggles: the Emperor is dead and the Senate have crowned a useless successor. You play one of five pre-rolled characters in the military capital of Sirmium. The game is about the process of choosing a pretender, the support of the army being a lot more important in imperial Rome than that of the supposed ruling class. Each of you is someone with power and influence, but personally ineligible to be Emperor – so you’re going to be creating and developing NPCs. You all have different priorities, but the Empire steadily goes to shit with every delay, and you need to reach a four-fifths majority.
This means that there’s a lot of tactical voting that goes on, and like real-world tactical voting, you can kind of screw yourself. Early on, I aimed to torpedo a candidate I didn’t like by inviting another player to spread a scandalous rumour about him. “He fucks goats,” she said. “Basically a goatfucker.” The goatfucker had been a strong candidate up to that point, but in the next round of voting he didn’t earn a single vote and was eliminated. There probably weren’t that many people who personally cared a whole lot about the goat rumours, but people assumed that it would ultimately make him unelectable and didn’t want to waste a vote.
Similarly, we ended the game a lot faster than anticipated because other candidates managed to express opinions with the aroma of radicalism about them. Christianity vs. traditional paganism was obviously going to be a wedge issue; we ended up settling on a respectable soldier with a pragmatic attitude about religion, a boring unity candidate, after just two rounds of real play. And then we had endgame. So play time is kind of volatile – helpful for if you want to wrap up a session in time, but we were a little taken by surprise by how quickly it concluded.
Diadem is a tricky game to find players for. Well, OK, let me rephrase: I know a good number of people who would be delighted to play it, but they’re people selected for their enthusiasm for both narrative RPGs and abtruse history/Classics shit. Getting five of them in a room together for a few hours is a tall order.
There’s a small but persistent divide in storygames between people who are very enthusiastic about specific historical settings (sometimes even if they don’t know them all that well) and a larger set of people who are really intimidated by them. You can offer a lot of assurances to about how historical accuracy doesn’t really matter, but ultimately they’ll know you’re promising something you can’t provide. They know that everyone else is going to have a bunch of ideas, inspiration seeds, trope familiarities available to them which they don’t have access to.
I don’t want to make it sound like this is a division between People Who Are Scared of History and Wiser Gamers; unfamiliar ground is difficult for everyone. There’s definitely this particular feeling of extra friction that manifests with consciousness of a specific historical setting, particularly one which isn’t commonly depicted in popular media. Here’s what I said about Night Witches:
When you’re playing a historical scenario, people tend to feel more pressure to get things right. Players came up with a number of questions which I didn’t have answers for. “Where’s the fuel tank on a Po-2? Fuselage, yes, but where?” “Do Stukas have machine-guns, or cannons? What exactly is the difference?” Normally in a storygame the answer would be “make something up and stick with it,” but in a scenario that’s so historically specific, and for which a ton of research has plainly been done, people are less likely to feel comfortable with that.
Genre’s useful in storygames because it’s ready-to-hand, a set of well-known conventions that you can draw from and play around with – the better-known, the easier. You’re spending brain cycles on ‘what’s available?’ rather than ‘what can I do with the things available to me?’ Which means that the thing which makes neglected periods of history compelling is the same thing that makes them difficult. This is particularly challenging in oneshot games – if you’re playing a full Night Witches campaign you have plenty of time to settle into the world and get familiar with it, but in a oneshot you need those tools now.
Various games I’ve seen work on providing information in the play materials – Night Witches does a really thorough job of this, and Diadem manages a decent summary for a game published as a 2-page PDF. But this relies on all the players actually reading the materials. Which will never happen. And the players who do read the materials are probably the same people who enjoy reading about history in the first place, so this doesn’t improve the situation.
Diadem is loosely based on Ben Lehman’s Amidst Endless Quiet, a trolley-problem kind of game in which a damaged spaceship AI can only save one of its cryosleeping passengers. As a former philosophy student, trolley problems make me weary; as an IF person, ‘escape the damaged spaceship’ is the hoariest chestnut; and ‘who should be entrusted with this extremely critical job’ is a lot more compelling. But Quiet is a much more readily grasped game; the advantage of SFF settings is that they give a lot more implicit permission for the “nothing is true until we explicitly say it is” principle.
Going with an explicitly fantasy version – ‘this is a fantasy kingdom strongly influenced by China in the Warring States period’ – helps a little. The game I’ve seen that comes closest to making everyone comfortable with History is Temporally Excellent Adventures, a time-travel game which actively encourages getting history horribly, goofily wrong. I’d like to try reskinning Diadem for some more familiar genres, because I like the central mechanic enough to want to fool around with it in other contexts. But at the same time, it feels like a mechanic designed around a very specific historical situation, and I like that, and I wish I could figure out how to make that work for everyone.