Editor’s Note: Enjoy reading articles about your favorite hobby and engaging with fellow gamers? We do too, but hosting and producing our site isn’t free. Please consider visiting our Patreon page and supporting us at any amount. We put every dollar back into the site and its production, and your help has allowed us to have certain paid article months for our contributors (such as this month). Thank you for your continued readership and your support!
-David, Blog Manager
Since time immemorial, human beings have used art as a vehicle to express philosophies and ideas of all kinds. Taking a closer look at history, you can see that things like allegories stir up conversation, time and time again, about serious issues both new and old. We all agree gaming is an art, right? This begs the question: what keeps you from using this art form as a differently shaped vehicle for things you have been wrestling with? Everybody who’s reading this just had a different reason pop into their mind, if they can conjure any reason not to at all. With that thought, we arrive at our first stage. Before we dive in, I do want to point out that I’ll be exploring this idea in depth on my website, starting with a post about reasoning.
1) Why Go Through The Hassle?
The most important stage is determining that reason for your allegorical campaign’s story arc. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t ask themselves why they do things. There are just as many reasons to go ahead with it as there are not to. To make one fact very clear: I’m not claiming that all games need to be rooted in or inspired by real life events. Funnily enough, stories (especially ones we use for our games) often times find their own way to mirror the real world. Just know that a GM doesn’t have to actively choose that pursuit. It’s no secret that gaming has often been used as a tool to confront difficult problems, fictional and factual, with this post serving as a possible starting point for people who choose to go ahead with this concept. This is a post to get the ball rolling only! There’s a lot of thinking required before deciding your campaign will be an allegory; thinking I highly encourage before you begin your process.
2) Subject and Stance
You have a real-life issue (political, emotional, societal, etc.) that’s all encompassing of your brainpower. It could be the age-old question of, “What are we doing here,” or something more relevant for the time. The actual subject is just as important as where you stand on the matter, both things should be considered equally. Good practice for any person who thinks is to write down the major questions about the subject. Be challenging, ruthless to yourself even. Ponder long and hard in order to define your stance on the subject. Regardless of your findings, your personal stance is not the important part of your allegorical game!
Remember this, recite this to yourself in the mirror every morning while you’re brushing your teeth. The goal of an allegorical game is to pose a loaded question that the players should challenge themselves on, not to pose a question that directly challenges them. Diametrically opposing your friends’ viewpoints is generally a bad idea, even more so when using a non-sensitive medium to open lines of communication on a potentially sensitive subject. The subject and stance together serve as the starting point for you to write your content, a general idea of the problems your characters will face. Coming to your personal stance serves only as a reference point to interpret how you players take it all in later. Always take your players’ personal experiences into consideration when determining your subject. Always, always, always; I can’t stress it enough. If that subject may cause issues, even when hinted at in the most subtle of ways, don’t use it. If you don’t know whether it’ll cause a problem, you have two options: Scrap it, or make a private inquiry. In situations where the latter is not comfortable and/or possible, simply choose the former. Period.
With the subject and stance already determined, it’s time to decide how to deliver the issue. Long story short, your subject should never slap your players in the face. If you outright ask them your big question, or even present your dilemma in a too overtly obvious way, it could do a number of things to your game. Worst case scenario, all your players see it, get angry, and call you on your shit. Then your game night is ruined, everybody is either going to want to argue or debate the topic, and at the very worst, someone leaves the group or it just disbands all together. Pretty high stakes, if you ask me. Of course, that situation assumes that your players have strong views, disagree with you, and don’t want this in their game. This brings us back to a basic piece of advice that every GM has said millions of times: Know your table! That simple phrase sums up the delivery of your allegory nicely. Of course, there’s more though.
Make your delivery digestible, focused on the game and story itself (opposed to your subject), and fun. If any of these elements are missing, your allegory will fail in one way or another. Maybe not immediately, but it will fail. In addition, your overall delivery should have small bits of your own view and opposing views available within the story itself. Not only does it add some reality to the situation, but it masks your stance while still presenting the subject. Be wary of stereotypes, as they will show that you’re hiding behind the curtain. This can be delivered through NPCs most easily. Much of the advice in the NPC field is directly applicable to this kind of game and should be considered seriously. Mannerisms, statements, demeanor, clothing; all of these things should reflect the character’s stance on your subject in a subtle but understandable way. If a detail you give your NPC is pointing too overtly to the subject, add some layers. Putting these bits under layers of seemingly unimportant detail is the best way to set up for a gentle landing of the subject you’re trying to show. Again, you want your players to arrive at the subject on their own. These rules also apply to environments, situations (comfortable or sticky), consequences of actions and all manner of other things that take place within a story. Subtlety is key. Immersion should hide your subject in plain sight, as your stance should only ever be revealed outside of both game and the table. This is a game, fun is the primary purpose.
In addition to the silence of the subject, there should be a climax where your subject comes out from the background, in the most miniscule sense. Turn the volume from four to a solid five-and-a-half. In such a way where it’d be akin to you pointing at someone on their phone a quarter mile away from you, asking your friend, “What do you think they’re reading?” Some friends will say that they don’t see who you’re talking about, some people will be sour that the person is on their phone instead of living the moment, and other friends will happily entertain the infinite possibilities of what media that person is consuming. Problem is, do you know which of your players fall where?
This is the most important part of your allegory! The subject? Sure, can’t have the allegory without it. Your stance? Well, it does define how you present the many facets of the situation, after all. How about delivery? Landed more gently than someone in their bed when they’re not in the mood for sleep. At the end of said delivery, if you’re not receptive to how the players, your friends, are affected by your game, then what was it all for? When this point comes and you’re not receptive to the impact, then all you did was stand up on a soapbox and talk about a problem. If your point was to show people a subject, and even potentially your stance, without consideration of their own resolutions, you’re just being a jerk. Instead of going through the effort of making a whole game centered around your subject, you could’ve just had a one-sided conversation. Don’t make this mistake. Listen to your friends, be open and honest, and most importantly, be considerate. Agree to disagree, if that’s what needs to be done. Stimulate thought, not fiery emotions. When having these conversations, it’s easiest to work through the subject in the context of the campaign, rather than real life itself. Particularly opinionated people may want to specifically talk about it in the context of real life, but it’s up to you to determine if that conversation will be fruitful or not.
To take this back from the dire social situation that could be potentially created, let’s ask, “What happens when your players don’t even see anything at all?” Best case is that your game spurs a constructive conversation, but this situation is the middle of the road. You can’t have an opinion on something you don’t know about, can you? Well, you can, not that it’s worth much, but that’s not my point. When the subject goes over the players’ heads, you still win. If they miss the subject, they feel neither positively or negatively about the allegory itself. What makes it a win is that you still confronted an issue with real people, through staged but usually genuine dialogue, and may or may not have benefitted from this experience. Go, you! When nobody else gets it, you did this for yourself in a way whereby everyone gets something out of it. Even if it was just a fun campaign or a way to hang with some close friends.
Creating an allegorical campaign is a lot of work, carries a lot of risks, and makes your game art within art. Just as everything, choosing to do it this way comes with pros and cons that could be debated until the sun decides Earth is ready for consumption. A solid piece of advice on the matter: Be very, very, very aware and conscious of exactly what, how, and when you’re doing this. No room for negligence or jest when considering this one, folks. Exercise the muscle of reason, and have fun doing it.
But let us not forget what’s most important…
Stay Metal! \m/
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM, a freelance writer and blogger that loves the roleplaying games more than life itself. As a person who’s always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com. Join the conversation.
Picture Reference: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gaming/reviews/nier-automata-review/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.