A few weeks back I posted an excerpt from the Nicaea rulebook, as well as some of the flavor text on the cards. Cards like these:
(Incidentally, Dr. Liz Davidson was kind enough to point out that “the church told them to cut it out” is a much better punchline than “knock it off”, so I’ll be using that one.)
As anticipated, the reactions were mixed. Plenty of folks seemed to click with the game’s irreverent, snarky tone, while others were much less enthused. They found the anachronisms and the casual, conversational vibe grating, and speculated that it wouldn’t feel immersive. It lacked the proper gravitas for a game on a historical subject. It would alienate people who might otherwise engage with the game’s argument.
That last part, about folks who would otherwise engage, I’m not so sure about. The folks who are gonna clutch their pearls because I’m blowing a raspberry at the proceedings are gonna clutch their pearls at “religious doctrine is man-made and driven by temporal concerns” anyway, even if I couched it in the most neutral (read: boring) language possible.
And for what it’s worth, I think alienating the audience is a very useful tool! I will gladly cop to the fact that an alienating or abrasive work is of necessity less immersive. Immersion depends on identification, on a sort of role-playing, on letting you suspend disbelief and get “caught up” in the thing on an emotional level.
Identification and immersion can engender empathy, and as humans are creatures that respond deeply to narratives and protagonists, it’s a natural way to communicate something about history. It also has its pitfalls; sometimes the empathy that is created is not deserved, and imaginatively inhabiting the mindset of someone abhorrent is not something I think is useful. It was that pitfall in particular that I had in mind working on This Guilty Land, as I very much wanted to avoid any identification with the hand-wringing and self-delusion of white supremacists.
Alienation on the other hand keeps the audience at a remove, and from that remove they have space with which to engage with the game and its argument, and for personal reflection. Continuing the example of TGL, one of the game’s central arguments is how compromise and neutrality tacitly supports the status quo. I want players to observe the game’s model of the role of compromise, and then have space, if they wish, to ask questions about their own compromises and their own neutrality – questions with deeply personal answers. Questions they probably wouldn’t be asking if they were identifying with human actors and their motives. Hence the game’s didactic abstractions (players assume the roles of Justice and Oppression) and the de-emphasis of victory incentives (players can “win” the game in game terms, but that win is ultimately futile, as neither side’s “goal” can ever be accomplished during the game), both ways in which I tried to prevent identification and put players at a remove from the action.
Another tool that creates this kind of useful distance is humor, as it can create a much more “palatable” alienation effect. This is one I didn’t make use of in This Guilty Land. Given the seriousness of the topic, and the seriousness of my argument, it would be grossly inappropriate to be cracking wise. This actually left me at a disadvantage of sorts. Often I pepper my rulebooks with dumb jokes and irreverent asides, or we use some silly humor when discussing the games in interviews, newsletters, and videos. That was obviously never an option there (nor would I have wanted it to be).
So, why is it an option for Nicaea? Partially, it’s because the topic is less immediate; we don’t necessarily feel the ripple effects of esoteric doctrinal squabbles some seventeen hundred years ago as acutely. And partially it’s because the argument itself – that it didn’t really matter what the council decided so long as it decided something – and the way the argument is presented – essentially as a sort of a shared incentive stock game – lends itself to that kind of irreverence. The argument itself is a sort of a raspberry, so it makes sense to me to lean into that with the flavor text and the rulebook.