Viperous Worm: Gaming popular opinion, 1450
Onside report by Nick Luft, from June 2016 Session
I wanted to design a game that reflected how popular opinion was formed. The rival players would promote their cause and the neutral players would provide a commentary and analysis that would create the game’s popular opinion. The neutral players would have their own agendas and would be able to bargain their support for rewards, like offices, grants, wardships etc.
I didn’t want a straight committee game. I wanted a story to be told, and opinions to be voiced, and a consensus of what the popular opinion was.
I was reading about Richard, Duke of York’s abortive attempt to get himself appointed as the heir apparent in 1450. What struck me about the account was the way he tried various ways to influence popular opinion. He tried to get his own supporters to lobby for him, he wrote and spoke to other nobles, and sympathetic clerics delivered supportive sermons. And no doubt there were other tricks he got up to. I speculated that the other power brokers, the neutral lords, were watching and commenting on Richard’s antics. I wanted the players to represent.
Until we sink
My inspiration for this design came from playing “Until We Sink” (UWS) – a new sort of role playing game that blends storytelling in a loose open structure. I wanted to borrow the game mechanic that enabled the players to comment the action (the narrative) and come to a consensus on what the narrative meant.
(The game can be downloaded for free from here: https://norwegianstyle.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/37/)
I would recommend that you read the rules. It is a lot of fun. I will bring it to a future CLWG for anyone interested in having a go.
I created three sets of cards: Historical Events, Player Events and Player Action cards. The Historical Event cards were placed in their own pile, after shuffling. The Event and Player Action cards were handed to the players.
I also had a Popular Opinion Time Tracker chart and a calendar.
All Event Cards
All Event cards had the following categories that needed to be selected:
- Pen / Sword
- Positive / Negative
- Hidden / Open
- Narrative / Description of the Event
All “Historical Event” cards were pre-written by me usually using real life incidents – like a rumour that the beacons being set up between London and the south coast was because England was about to be invaded by the French.
Player Event Cards
These cards represent the unseen events that the players attempt to direct to support their cause. The events will be agents or supporters of the player acting “independently” and “deniably” to further that player’s cause.
The “Player Event” cards were either semi-completed or blank.
A semi-complete Player Event card was given to a named player so that they could adapt or change it. For example I handed Richard, Duke of York, one of these cards, that told him that he controlled Sir William Oldcastle, MP and Speaker of the next parliament, who was willing to stand up and ask for Richard to be made the heir apparent of Henry VI.
The blank Player Event cards could be used by the players to create their own events.
Player Action cards
These cards represent the overt action a player’s character might undertake. It could be something as making a speech or writing an open signed letter or perhaps even leading an armed assault. The player is overt, and attempting to do something publicly.
An Player Action card was a blank card that the player could write down their next action. All Player Action cards are revealed simultaneously.
Popular Opinion Time Track
All previously played cards are moved one column to the left, until they are in the “Past” column. Newly played Event and Player Action cards are placed in the “Present” column.
This track enables players to express their opinion about an event or action and move it to the row they think it should be in. It is meant to facilitate discussion and give an “at a glance” summary of public opinion.
|Popular Support||Past||Near Past||Present||Future|
|Henry VI Very Negative|
|Henry VI Negative|
|Henry VI Positive|
|Henry VI Very Positive|
Each turn represents about a week. This might vary, it is something the players will reach when discussing the played Events and Actions cards.
- Select and play Historical Event Card
- Players discuss and place it on the Time Track
- Players select and play a Player Event or Player Action card.
- All cards are shuffled, and one is randomly selected and placed on the Historical Event card pile. Then the remaining cards are revealed.
- Players discuss the cards and place them on the Time Track
- Player Action cards have the option of going before or after the Played Event card.
- Players check the Time Track and determine which side has the most popular support.
- The player with the most popular support is able to go through the Historical Event deck of unplayed cards and see the top three cards and to reorganise them.
Turn Sequence – detailed discussion
Discussing and placing the cards on the Time Track.
All players were encouraged to voice their opinion about the event and after a while a player will take the card and place it somewhere in the Present (time) column* # , selecting the row to indicate how they thought it influenced popular opinion of the King. All can talk about this until we had a consensus about where the card should be placed.
* other pre-played cards on the track might be influenced or influence the new Event Card.
# some cards might be best played in the Future or Past. For example it could be a card that can only be resolved in the future, like the announcement of an anti-piracy policy, or it could be a historical event that has only been recently discovered.
Deciding Popularity / Unpopularity
The players discuss where popular opinion is. They should use a rule of thumb that cards in the present have a stronger effect.
The protagonist player who has popular opinion on his side gets to select three cards from the top of the Historical Event deck, read them and re-order them and put them back.
End of the week / turn
All played cards are checked to see if they were either time expired, or changed by any new card plays.
Next all the played cards are moved to the next time column – time passing. At this point the players could make an argument to downgrade the card to be nearer to the neutral row. The idea was that as time passed events receded in their influence on popular opinion. When all cards have been moved, the turn ends, and the calendar track is moved on.
The rules written above were mostly cobbled together during the game. I had the idea about the track and the Event cards and player consensus but that was about it.
Writing your own Event Cards
What I discovered was that most players found inventing Event cards difficult. Perhaps it was because I was playing a game about medieval history with three Dutch players, but it did remind me that perhaps I needed to prepare more Event cards each player as writing events is a difficult thing to do.
Reacting to Events
I also need to sort out how Actions are played. Sometimes a card seemed to demand a reaction from a player which I let them write and ad hoc Player Action card for. But then this meant the player got to add more cards to the track. I am not sure how
My original track was much less defined than the one described above. I did find that a future track was required, this was because one of the actions a player took could only come into effect in the future – he prepared ships for anti-piracy operations.
Reading the story
I was very pleased when one player remembered a previous Event, from a few turns before and found it in the past and pointed it out, arguing that this would make the current card in debate stronger!
This is exactly what I wanted to happen. To have the story line in front of us to influence our opinion.
I would like to give this game another outing though using a different scenario that requires popular opinion to be tracked in a game.
Players: Daniel, Marc, Marcel, & Brian
Thanks to all my players for assisting in writing most of the rules during the session.