|The story behind this painting is hysterical, btw|
What is Model United Nations?
Most people only know about Model UN (MUN) from pop culture, so I'll explain a bit. I'll cover all the basics up front for the curious, but this next part isn't really all that relevant to the D&D comparison I'm going to be making. If you want to skip straight to the "crisis committee" stuff then go for it.
Crisis committees are active, developing simulations with more urgent problems periodically thrown at the delegates. See, in normal MUN you just research the topic in the weeks leading up to the conference and come fully prepared to discuss it. And it's stuff like "how can we enforce environmental standards on governments in their infrastructure developments?" or whatever. But a crisis committee is literally a crisis. One of my first ones ever was a recreation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it got really off the rails. Maybe you're the Qing Dynasty's government trying to respond to the Taiping Rebellion. Maybe you're the World Health Organization responding to a pandemic (this used to be a very popular one, as you can imagine). How about a meeting of dissidents who are going to try to rig an election? Or you're a mafia family currently in a war with other gangs over New York. You're probably assigned to be an individual character rather than a country's representative. The number of delegates is also usually on the low end, with 8-20 being ideal. You can also have joint crisis committees, where two or more committees are sharing a simulation, even though they're debating in separate rooms with separate Chairs and will have separate awards. Civil Wars are often done this way. The Three Kingdoms Period committee I oversaw was actually a three-way joint crisis committee. The biggest (I think) I've ever heard of was a 7-way committee about the Thirty Years' War. Absolute bananas, right? Sometimes they focus on a single crisis in development. Usually they feature many. The UN Security Council is often used as a "catch-all" committee for crisis simulations that have all sorts of shit pop up throughout the conference. Not long ago I oversaw a Cold War joint crisis committee where one room was NATO and the other was the Warsaw Pact, and they had to play out the many, many ridiculous events of the year 1968. Riots in France and a war in Vietnam, nuclear close calls and sabotage in Eastern Europe, etc. The actions taken by delegates in one committee would create problems for the other.
So in crisis committees, the "agenda" topic is being updated every 20 - 60 minutes, and the delegates are writing brief, succinct pieces of legislation called "directives" that give a handful of clear commands.
"Deploy troops to the northern beaches, send an envoy to the rebels on the offshore islands, issue a statement to the world that an invasion has begun but also give the terms of surrender to our enemy, and begin calling on world leaders to approve of this action in their own public statements."
Then, once the directive is passed, it's handed off to the people running the simulation. They read it and decide on the result, and then they enter the debate room and announce how the situation develops in response to the committee's actions. This feeds further into more and more escalating crises, since it's really fun to make the directives have disastrous results. You're probably beginning to see the parallels to D&D.
So the simulation is run by a behind-the-scenes crisis staff of volunteers, led by a "crisis director" who is the main authority and visionary of the simulation. Basically, somewhere else in the building the debate is held in, there's a room where a "team of Dungeon Masters" is operating out of. They are managing events of a much greater scope than most D&D adventures (sometimes covering years and years of events in just a weekend-long simulation) but they have a good amount of time to think about and discuss the results of every "player action." They usually have lots of materials to keep track of this, like timelines and whiteboards with relationship charts and maybe some maps and whatnot. They usually maintain a written record of every directive received and the response they delivered to the committee after that directive. They also have a lot of props and costumes, because crisis simulations are more fun when you add ridiculous theatrics. Why deliver the next crisis update in a boring format when you could instead make it exciting and ridiculous? You could just enter the room and announce "the Pope has been kidnapped by a terrorist group," or instead you could have a crisis staff member enter the room dressed as the Pope, address the delegates in character for a few minutes, get cut off by other crisis staff members rushing into the room in guerilla uniforms and equipped with nerf guns, and enact the entire hostage-taking situation before the delegates' very eyes. That shit is hilarious and awesome.
Here's the twist: there is a second type of directive that gets introduced. It's called a "private directive," and it's something that every delegate in the committee has the unilateral power to issue to the crisis staff. So while everyone is debating about their collective course of action they'll take in the "public directive" they write and vote on together... each individual is also writing private directives of what actions they will be personally taking in the simulation, limited to the power and resources available to their assigned character. In a crisis committee, delegates have a lot more agency. In normal MUN, you're just a representative. You communicate on behalf of your own country, and you don't get to decide policy so much as advocate policy that's already been decided for you. But in a crisis? Now you get to make decisions. Private directives are a serious game changer. These are kept secret from other delegates and are only publicly revealed by the crisis staff if the consequences of the private directive's actions are so impactful that it ends up redirecting the course of the overall crisis. Like if, say, a single delegate is responsible for assassinating a really important NPC, then the rest of the group is probably going to hear that the NPC has been assassinated (even if they don't know who is responsible). Any crisis update they hear is presumed to be a combination of developments concocted by the crisis staff and developments that came from other delegate's private actions. Generally speaking, the greater impact you observe your own private directives have on the public scenario, the better you're doing. It means your actions are making a difference. On the other hand... you can't tell who around you is having the most impact because of the fog of war.
Here is how that actually looks in practice: every delegate has paper and pens and writes out their private directives by hand. Traditionally, they'll use a small sheet (trying not to waste paper), fold it in half, and write their character's name on the outside with "crisis note" below it. Then, when members of the crisis staff periodically enter the room to check in on things or give an update, you pass your crisis note over to them to be sent down the lines. The staff member collects everyone's notes (along with any public directives the delegates have collectively passed by vote) and delivers them to the rest of the staff. The director and their staff reviews everyone's directives and starts deciding on outcomes for all of them. This usually takes at least 20 minutes if you have a committee size of between 8 and 15 delegates. If you have a complicated committee or a lot of members, then many directors will start assigning specific staff members to be the "personal director" of a handful of delegates, authorizing them some unilateral authority to adjudicate outcomes for their own few personal plotlines they're in charge of. But public directives are almost always a conversation between all members of the crisis staff. So, once they've decided on the outcomes, they write down the results for each private directive and return to the debate room to distribute those notes back into the hands of the players. The cycle repeats again and again. When I was using this system, my staff and I started keeping track of every delegate's personal plotlines in ridiculous conspiracy-theorist fashion.
In this example (the top picture was after the first day of the conference, the second picture was by the end of the conference), every delegate is represented by a column. In their column is all of their private directives they've sent in, taped to the wall in chronological order from top to bottom. We would make a small summary on the paper of how we responded in the note we sent back to the delegate. At any time we needed to review a chain of events, we just found the relevant delegate and read down the line to retrace the story so far. I think the leftmost column was the record of public directives. You can see that some delegates are a lot more productive than others when it comes to using their private directives to further their own agendas.
This creates a neat dynamic where the simulation has two layers: 1) the one main plotline that everyone experiences and 2) the many personal plotlines that each delegate is experiencing alone. They all interweave with each other. Delegates assassinate other delegates. They work together to get away with schemes. They sometimes unilaterally solve the problems of the main public crisis using just their private resources and ingenuity. They sometimes cause a public crisis in the main plotline through the actions taken in their personal plotline. And best of all, the crisis team never runs out of material to fuel the simulation's developments. As a crisis director, you can definitely go into a conference with a full crisis arc already plotted out, like a railroading DM (and, indeed, many bad crisis directors do exactly this). But it's a lot easier for you and more fun for the delegates if you use their shenanigans to inspire each successive crisis.
Over the last few years, an alternative setup is being popularized that's called the "two notepad system" (at least in the college circuit. We started using it in the high school conference we hosted but I'm not sure if other high school conferences have tried it much). The two notepad system certainly has its limitations but it's a major innovation in organizing this mess. In this version, every delegate is provided two full legal pads by the conference hosts. Delegates should immediately write their real name and character name on the front covers (I like to draw on the cover. It makes it fun for the crisis staff and also helps your legal pad stand out in the pile). These are the two platforms the delegate has been assigned to correspond with the crisis team through, and (ideally) no page is ever torn out and passed along as a "note." Instead, you write out your directive in Pad A on the most recently used page, and then hand over the entire notepad to the crisis staff member when they come in to collect. Then, the crisis staffers will write the results of your directive directly beneath it on the same page. Then, they return to the room to hand your notepad back to you with the updates inside. You're now free to continue the correspondence by writing a new directive right underneath their response. It goes back and forth like this in a clean fashion, where both halves of the equation (delegate and staffer) can review the full record of that delegate's plotline just by flipping through the pages and reading the conversation. No need for the staffers to tape anything to the wall. The only time they need to review a delegate's plotline is when that delegate's notepad is in their hands waiting for a response anyway. So why two notepads instead of just one? Well, while the delegate is waiting for a response to Pad A that they just handed off, they can start writing more directives in Pad B. Thus, when the staffer enters the room to return Pad A to the delegate, they can simultaneously collect Pad B and start working on that. Everyone is always kept busy.
The limitation is that your personal activities can't really be carried out across the two pads. For example, let's say you want to get into some corruption. In Pad A, you lay out your plan. You say that you're reaching out to some Russian oligarchs and you offer to help pull some strings in your cushy government position if they can, in exchange, start providing you some dark money and cover the tracks as needed. Set up a personal bank account with them under a different name. Awesome! So you hand off Pad A and await an answer. While you now have this time to begin writing in Pad B... you can't really write anything further on this particular ambition until you get the results back in Pad A. The only thing you can do is come up with some other shit to keep yourself busy. "How about I reach out to some Colombians and get into the cocaine trade? Make some money on the side." This is in some ways a strength of the system, because it forces delegates to start multitasking and juggling all kinds of schemes. They'll especially be thankful for it when one ambition hits a dead end, because they have other projects they can fall back on. It's just that, for the entire simulation, everything concerning those Russian ties is only ever going to be written in Pad A, because that's where the responses to your Russian actions will be recorded. Everything concerning those Colombian drugs is going to written in Pad B, which is kind of a weird disconnect to many delegates. Hopefully that makes sense.
The elegance of this system is how perfectly freeform it is. Many people who are new to the sport are kind of confused. "What can my character do in a crisis simulation? What kind of stuff can I use my private directives for?" And it's confusing because the answer is literally "anything you want, as long as you can convince the crisis staffers that you're character is capable of it." People who play a lot of video games or board games usually aren't used to running on nothing but their imaginations like this. Delegates will do the wildest shit with their directives, and staffers will respond in equally bonkers ways. You ever see the Star Wars prequels? You know how Palpatine was orchestrating an entire war from both sides of the conflict? He was the leader of both sides, and subtly pushed and pulled in the right places to conduct a scripted war that everyone believed was real. I once did that in a crisis simulation. Seriously. I pulled a Palpatine. It was a historical simulation of the 2003 provisional government of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein (run by a bunch of Americans and Brits) who were tasked with stabilizing the country and setting up a successor Iraqi government. Shit got so out of hand that it makes the real-life Iraqi civil war look tame. I started as the director of oil policy but maneuvered my way into becoming the CIA Baghdad station chief. I had an account with the Russian oligarchs, an account with the Israeli government, and a Swiss bank account in between those two that all my money would pass through first, so neither the Russians nor the Israelis knew I was working with the other. I super-radicalized a bunch of disenfranchised Baathist party members and passed off their names to Russian arms dealers as a list of clients eagerly waiting to be armed. I made deals with Saudi Arabia to further fund radical Wahhabist schools and propaganda to, well, basically create ISIS just a little bit early. Russia and Saudi Arabia did me favors in exchange for shaping Iraq's oil policy to their interests, as major oil-exporting competitors. With their help, I personally created an insurgent group without anyone realizing it, and then I used the CIA and Mossad to fight battles against them that would turn Iraq into a warzone. I leaked information from one side to the other as needed to shape the outcome of any skirmishes, choosing the winners before the battles even began. I did all of this to create an arc where the Western forces had a convenient enemy to fight, an enemy that the native Iraqis could be rescued from and, thus, be grateful for. I manufactured an enemy that would make the USA look credible to defeat, opening the doors for Iraq to instead by annexed as a US territory rather than its own country.
Is this realistic? Fuck no, this is absurd as hell. The crisis staff definitely let me get away with way too much. But I won first place in this committee and I did it with ridiculous amounts of creativity and adaptability to each crisis development. I went into that conference with no idea of what I would be doing, but I knew how to play the game well enough to basically improvise that nonsense. That's the potential of freeform player-driven "campaign-level play" in practice. This is basically the same thing as Matt Colville's "downtime" system, where the player and the DM negotiate over the story's developments in a more open-ended format. If a player character isn't in a dungeon or some other life-or-death situation, instead enjoying ample time and freedom to do what they want... then start exploring the potential of what they can do.
Reconciling the Structure of MUN with D&D
These have a lot of fundamental differences. The meat and potatoes of MUN is still a public debate in parliamentary procedure, which is very different from D&D. That part is always going on in the foreground while all the private directive stuff is happening in the background. You write down your directives when you get some free time in debate and aren't speaking at the lectern. Another difference is that Dungeon Masters probably won't have a team to rely on, and everyone will be in the same room if you're meeting for a session. Online MUN (more popular now during the pandemic than ever before) has a lot of similarities with play-by-post campaigns. Debate is held over a group video call, public directives are written on a master Google Doc that's shared with every delegate + the Chair + the crisis staff, and private directives are written by delegates as emails sent directly to a master "crisis email" account. In my fourth article, I'll be talking about some things you can do similar to that.
Some people in MUN will go the extra step and write all their private directives in-character. They'll make up their own secretary character and write messages to them in their own voice, or maybe (if they're reaching out to a colleague) they'll write a letter saying hi and making a request. This isn't very common and it's very unnecessary, but a lot of people find it to be the most fun aspect of the whole thing. I think creative writing has a bigger place in RPGs than people give it credit for. After all, your players are meant to be roleplaying as their characters, right? Well then who's to say that must only ever be in the form of acting? Writing as your character can be just as valid and interesting.
You'll notice that the main advantage a crisis director enjoys over a DM, aside from a helping staff, is time. They get at least 20 minutes to think about the results of any player action. When you're playing D&D at the table, you're usually expected to come up with a response to any player's action pretty much immediately. You can sometimes ask for a moment to think about it, but in the interest of maintaining the game's flow it is encouraged that good DMs will learn good improv skills so as to avoid this. But another key to this improv-heavy formula's success is that the sort of actions you're adjudicating tend to have fairly obvious outcomes. Remember, most D&D gameplay happens on a moment-to-moment scale, where players are asking to do stuff like draw their weapons, look around a corner, climb a wall, inspect a statue, and so on. Small actions have small results. But if you're engaging in some macro-layer campaign-level play then the players are asking to do stuff like (I'm stealing from one of my own recent articles here) fighting wars, driving back tribes of orcs and re-claiming lost land, researching ancient rituals, seeking out the secrets of an old god's cult, starting up a trade empire and forming alliances, sailing across the ocean to foreign lands, paying off debts, fleeing from bounty hunters, hiring assassins, charting a frontier, and so on. Determining a fair, sensible, and interesting outcome to actions like those probably requires some time to think. This difference between MUN and D&D is not impossible to overcome, but it is quite informative.
Another weird thing is that MUN is competitive, whereas D&D is collaborative. In MUN, every player is keeping their gameplay secret from everyone else and being generally conniving and dirty. From the crisis director's point of view, it's more like DMing a bunch of separate solo campaigns in a shared setting, all in parallel. In D&D, the party often wants to work together. So how do you implement this freeform system? As I see it, there are two obvious ways. The first is that this is a system used primarily between adventures (or at least in the background) on a 1-on-1 basis where each player only accounts for what their own PC is up to during their downtime (much like what Colville described). It is a solo activity. The second is that players can do this together, having a group conversation with the DM. If two or three party members want to buy a tavern and operate it together like It's Always Sunny then why not? Or maybe the whole party has been brought to serve in the king's royal court, and so everyone will be participating in some noble downtime for at least the next month. Surely their paths will cross. This second option sounds like it has more potential, right? The problem is that, the more players you involve in the conversation, the more it begins to resemble... well, a session of D&D. Like, if you need to get 5 party members together to talk them through their downtime projects all together, then shouldn't you just spend the session itself doing that? Is there something wrong with this level of gameplay being conducted as the main activity of game night? Yes. The time thing. Sometimes you just need to spend the week thinking some things over before you can get back to them with an answer. Aaaauugh. Don't worry, this is another solvable problem. But it is tricky.
An occasional obstacle in MUN that would probably be a lot worse is the fuzziness surrounding information. In MUN, it's just understood that everything is going to be unrealistic and lines will be blurred. A huge thing is the timescale. Obviously time isn't set to a 1-to-1 scale, because the conference is only a few days long and your committee might involve conducting an entire war. But if not 1-to-1, then what? Most crisis committees simply don't settle on a firm answer, instead treating the passage of time as a weird, nebulous thing. Sometimes they'll give a guideline, like "every committee session represents one day/week/month" or "each day of the conference is 1 year" or something. But even within these units of time, things are blurry and weird. It's especially jarring since the foreground layer of gameplay is a public, verbal debate which definitely is happening in real time. Your character is presumably giving all of their speeches at the same speed that you are as you say the words, yet simultaneously all the other characters are writing out directives and receiving answers that imply the passage of months just occurred. Not to mention space. A lot of the ridiculous activities you're up to in your private directives would likely require that your character is moving around a lot and meeting lots of people. Get on a plane, fly to another country, pick up a dead-drop, retreat to a secret bunker to avoid assassins, etc. And yet... there is also the in-fiction context of "who is this group of delegates and how and why are they meeting?" Like, if it's a simulation of the UN Security Council, then presumably everyone is present at the UN headquarters in the SC chambers. If it's a simulation of Game of Thrones, then the Chair may have told everyone "we are meeting in the small council chamber in the castle at King's Landing." So if everyone is in that room debating, how are their characters carrying out their private directives? How can both of these time-and-space contexts be simultaneously true? Well... fuck it. In Model UN, we accept these fiction-breaking elements as just a central conceit of the medium, and it's fun. However, they come at the expense of each player's ability to make informed decisions. I don't think you can settle for that in D&D. In MUN we're happy to play it fast and loose because the stakes aren't high and it'll all be over in a couple days. But trust me, there'll be plenty of times you issue a private directive asking to do an action that turned out to be far outside the scope of what the crisis director was envisioning the simulation would cover, because you didn't have a properly informed conception of the simulation's parameters. MUN is many things, but it's usually not exactly fair.
Related, also on the question of information, is detail. In MUN, you usually aren't expected to provide that much detail in your private directives. The more the better of course, but even a university student can't be expected to know how many troops is appropriate to deploy in an invasion scenario of an X-sized country with Y-level technology. Likewise, you typically ask for "funding," not a specific dollar amount, because we aren't businesspeople or accountants or economists or budgetary experts. Which mode of transportation will be most efficient to reach that location? Jeez, don't sweat it. It's more important that you can account for any means of transportation at all. The crisis staff doesn't want to break out their ruler and start to do travel time calculations on a map to see if you can reach X destination before the NPC does. Play it by ear, right? But again, a D&D player will likely appreciate having access to information at that level, or at least close to it. They want to make more informed decisions, usually. I've actually been in crisis committees where they didn't give us the benefit of the doubt and actually did expect us to provide this level of detail, and they sucked. That is... except for the ones in which we were provided some supplementary material to help inform those decisions. I was in a military simulation where we were each handed a packet of military assets by type, number available, and cost. It empowered us to have a more granular and engaging conversation about how to fight the war than merely saying, "direct our generals and admirals to do better" in each of our public directives. The right level of detail is hard to say, but an important lesson to takeaway is that players are empowered by being handed information to work with.
Technically, if everything is left purely to the imagination, then they can suggest anything. But they won't. They won't have a good idea of what to do. But you put an equipment list in their hands with prices attached to each item, and suddenly they start having ideas about what they can spend their money on. And they'll begin inventing motivations for themselves for why they'd buy some of that stuff. Just the fact that my game's equipment page has a price listed for "assassinations" will put the idea in the players' heads that "this is something we can do!" when they might not otherwise have thought about that being the sort of thing they can spend their treasure on. Or other fun stuff, like portrait commissions or fortune telling or spicy gossip or property. Like, land and buildings. The list isn't exhaustive, but it helps inspire ideas. I've thrown players into an open-world and told them "do whatever you want!" only to watch them flounder, because they aren't informed enough about the world to have motivations within it. "I don't know what to do because I'm not sure what I can do. 'Anything I can imagine' needs to be narrowed down." But let's say they come into a new city and you hand them a list of major NPCs, factions, businesses, and events. The players will start to see things they want to mess with. That's why, in D&D as in Model UN, if you want to encourage players to pursue their own goals and set their own pace of activity, then giving the right kinds of information can help with that. Really good crisis committees will have supplement information displayed, like maps that update in real time and press feeds with news stories in the setting and dossiers of important characters and all kinds of fun stuff.
In Part 3, I'm going to start giving some more tangible resources to use that I think will help tremendously to realize the vision of this form of gameplay. Hopefully this has given you a lot to think about, but I also look forward to being able to discuss some firm solutions to these abstract design problems.