Tuesday, September 12, 2006

[Stalin's Story] Rethinking the basics

Stalin's Story is a game I wrote for the Ronnies a while back, using the words "dragon" and "Soviet". Basically, it has two components: one component is an intricate, card-based storytelling game using Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian fairy tales; the other is a social component allowing the players to explore the power relations of totalitarianism.

The result of grouping these two components together is something that is too complex. From now on, Stalin's Story will refer to the second, social component, without the intricate Proppian mechanics. How should this leaner Stalin's Story work?

First, it is of the essence that Stalin is chosen by chance, not by consent. When you start playing, everyone has the hope to be Stalin, but only one will be him. (Yes, this may remind the political philosophers among us of Rawls' Veil of Ignorance.) The person who is appointed Stalin, by dice or cards, should be obeyed by everyone; this text should definitely appear in the final version in some way:

Now, you may need to rearrange the furniture a bit. Stalin and his courtiers should be able to sit, while the actors need room to act out the fairy tale. Rearrangements of the furniture are made under the supervision of Stalin, but the other players do all the work. When the rearrangements have been made to Stalin’s satisfaction, he chooses a place to sit – preferably the most comfortable chair or couch – and tells the courtiers where they are to sit. (Which could as easily be on the floor as on an actual chair.)

Perhaps Stalin wants some other preparations to be taken, and it is expected that he orders the other players around and they do what he asks. Making tea, giving vodka to Stalin and the courtiers – or to Stalin alone –, turning off the music, turning on the music (I suggest Shostakovich), changing the illumination, are all good tasks. When Stalin is quite satisfied and all the courtiers have taken their designated seats, the game begins.

Then, the players actually have to do something. I don't know what, yet, but it should allow them to please or displease Stalin and each other.

Also, in order to heighten the possibility of power abuse, Stalin should be insecure. I am thinking of designating one of the players (in secret) as the Traitor, who has a gun hidden on his body, and - from some point in the game onwards - can try to shoot Stalin. Stalin's aim should be to prevent this from happening; all the other player's should aim at becoming either Stalin's right hand man, or the new dictator. The way in which this power struggle should be formalised needs some thinking over.

But the central idea must be this: during most of the game, Stalin has all the power, and this power is real: he can order players to be killed (that is, leave the game), and if he only knew who are for and who are against him, he could easily secure his own survival. But he does not know, and therefore remains, though powerful, insecure and a potential victim of paranoia.

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