Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Model United Nations: the Most Popular FKR Game

We don't actually have the numbers of how popular Model UN (MUN) is but we can reasonably guess there's as many as 180,000 people who participate in it just in the United States alone. It's played all around the world by students ranging from middle school up through university and has been around for many decades. And even if it turns out I'm totally wrong and the number of people playing Matrix Games actually outnumbers the people playing Model UN ten to one, the point is that Model UN has a Parks & Rec episode.

And yet I bet you don't know much about it. I bet you didn't know that it's an FKR game. And yes, it really is. Not in like a "you know, if you really think about it, it kinda fits the definition!" way or something cheeky like that. It's very straightforwardly an FKR game, and if more was known about its history (it's a bit murky tbh) then I strongly suspect we could probably trace its lineage back to the original Prussian kriegspiel games.

I have not written much about my experience with FKR games before. I've mentioned them here or there, and at least once have pissed off some of its fans. But I have actually spent many years using the FKR philosophy of play! Just not in the form I think that most people would imagine.

I've written about Model UN before so if you've read that post, you can skip this. But I decided to write all of this again for 2 reasons: 1) I think it needs another pass and I've written it better this time, and 2) I think it deserves a post of its own, independent of the context in which I wrote about it in that series. And I promise that if, after this article, it is clear that no one in the RPG community gives a shit about this then I'll shut up about it forever.

But if Model United Nations is one of those things you've always been vaguely aware of from pop culture or the club fair at your high school but you never really gave it much thought, then let me tell you all about it and how cool it is.

A rough outline of this post (with each of these containing some sub-sections):
  1. What is Model United Nations?
  2. The "mechanics" of how it works
  3. What to take away from this for TTRPG stuff
  4. Some fun stories where I gush indulgently

What is Model United Nations?

I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you already know what Free Kriegspiel Revolution means. Here's a good primer. You can find more with a Google search. Model UN, on the other hand, is something that most people have heard of, but have a lot of misconceptions about. For one thing, as you'll discover in this post, it is often not even related to the United Nations at all. It's simply a format of role-play gaming that can be applied to all sorts of imaginary scenarios.

First I need to explain the basics, which aren't that relevant to the interests of RPG gamers. I mean, yes, technically every component of it is role-play, but once I start explaining the variants, then you'll see the FKR stuff. And in every instance where I might quote or share text from some actual MUN literature, I'll be taking from the materials that I wrote when I was president of my college's MUN club.

At a glance, your standard vanilla high school MUN conference... mostly fits the pop culture image. It's a competitive debate sport that, at its core, involves a loose simulation of a United Nations summit where participants (delegates) roleplay the part of assigned committee members (country representatives) and will have to debate an agenda topic that eventually results in writing and adopting some piece of legislation (a resolution, by default).

A committee can range in size from 5 people to 200, depending on the context. A typical example would be a simulation of the UN General Assembly's Third Committee: SOCHUM ("Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee"), with a room of, like, a hundred delegates sitting at their tables in formal attire, equipped with paper placards and one speaking lectern to share between them. In a big enough committee, the United States, Bolivia, India, Vanuatu, the Ivory Coast, Denmark, Russia, etc. are all in there somewhere.

The presiding moderator and judge is the Chair, who has a gavel and conducts the flow of debate procedure. At some conferences, the agenda is chosen in advance by the hosts. At others, the delegates have to first debate about what they should adopt as their agenda, before then debating about the chosen agenda. Most conferences last anywhere from 1 to 4 days. So in the SOCHUM committee, maybe the hosts have prepared two agenda options: "what to do about Syrian refugees", or "what to do about international drug trafficking". All the participants have thoroughly researched both topics in advance as well as their own assigned country's position on those topics. Or at least, they're supposed to.

And as a roleplaying game, you naturally have to stay in character! You have to advocate for policy positions that you may not personally agree with, and make arguments that you would never make. There's a lot more stuff to the debate parts, and it gets pretty intense over the several days you spend doing it. Because MUN is done competitively, you might be wondering what qualifies you for an award. And believe it or not, it really has nothing to do with whether or not the legislation you're backing ends up passing or not. Rather, awards are given to those delegates who participated the most and roleplayed the most accurately and just generally were good leaders and diplomats.

This Sounds Boring

Well, it's really popular to introduce variations on Model UN. In fact, it's kind of just an expectation at this point. Most MUN conferences in the world will have at least a few committees that simulate something other than the UN itself. Why not a simulation of the EU? Or the Arab League? Or the board of directors for Apple? You can use all the same rules and structure and whatnot but just apply it to a new context. It's cool.

Many conferences have historical committees, where the debate topic roughly follows something real that happened in the past. How about the UN Security Council's meeting on the Korean War? Or maybe the Congress of Vienna that followed the Napoleonic Wars? Maybe a peace summit during the Three Kingdoms Period of ancient China? Moctezuma's court? The senior statesmen of Athens fighting both a plague and the Peloponnesian War? I have personally seen or participated in all of these examples. And of course, they very quickly diverge from the actual course that history followed into total chaos instead.

And here's something fun: many conferences have pop culture committees, where the debate's setting is in some fictional universe. How about a committee about Avatar: the Last AirbenderStar Wars? Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean? Fuck it, why not have a simulation of the United Nations but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? How would their version of the Security Council respond to Ultron or Thanos?

Maybe now you can see how Model UN is a lot more interesting than it first appears. But it gets better. Because the real thing I'm interested in are crisis committees. The crisis committee is by far the most popular variant of MUN, and many conferences will exclusively host crisis committees because of their pure excitement.

Is This When it Gets to Be Like D&D?

Hell yes.

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 members of the Small Council of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros trying to navigate the wars of Game of Thrones.

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. Not to mention one of the most volatile elections in US history. The actions taken by delegates in one committee would create problems for the other. They also each had an updating DEFCON tracker on the wall to let them know when their actions were bringing them closer to nuclear armageddon.

Look at these dweebs. They're having so much fun.

Because the crisis is ever updating, the regular sort of legislation (resolutions) are replaced with short and direct orders that are called directives. So the committee might pass a directive that could look something like this:
"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. It doesn't take long before the crises sprawls into a pretty wide range of challenges, solutions, factions, twists, and other dynamic elements.

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 goofy 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 you could instead 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, but they could be 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.

The "Mechanics" of Running a Crisis Committee

This is run quite differently from a TTRPG for a few reasons: 1) the main activity is still the public debate being conducted, so all FKR stuff has to be happening on the side, 2) it's competitive, and therefore, 3) secrecy must be maintained.

So 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. Don't worry, the delegates will have plenty to discuss in the meantime. And each update you give is going to be pretty huge, so it's worth the time it takes.

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. An alternative to this is the two notepad system, where each delegate is instead maintaining a correspondence with the crisis staff in a couple of notepads that record their back-and-forth.

In this example, my assigned character was basketball player Enes Kanter. Why on Earth was I playing as Enes Kanter, you ask? Because we were a group of Turkish dissidents who wanted to overthrow President Erdoğan, and after the crisis director thought of every notable exiled activist, journalist, former government employee, and Kurdistan Workers' Party leader he could, he got kind of desperate and gave me... an NBA player. That's fine though, because I made the most out of it.

Here you can see me starting things off by establishing some personal security and flexibility in my position, followed by the response of a crisis staffer who granted me some things but not others. Most of my activity in this committee revolved around using social media to my advantage, along with sports diplomacy. I pitched myself to the crisis director as, "Dennis Rodman, but for Turkey instead of North Korea."

Meanwhile, this example is from a different committee entirely. In this one, I was the Director of Oil Policy in Iraq during 2003, after Saddam Hussein was overthrown and there was a transitional Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) running the nation for a time.

This committee was in full swing, so on this page you see three paragraphs written by a crisis staffer responding to some of my previous actions. Underneath it, you see my responses to each of those paragraphs, with helpful arrows to assist in clear communication. You can see towards the bottom of the page that the back-and-forth actually gets pretty messy.

You can imagine that implementing digital tools could make all of this a lot easier. It really wouldn't be all that different from a play-by-post game, and indeed during the pandemic, most MUN conferences moved online and made use of services like Discord to perform all these functions. In fact, Yale has been doing entirely technology-integrated conferences for years now, with each delegate sitting around a table in-person but with a laptop in front of them. They email their private directives to the crisis staff and they write their public directives together on Google docs.

But that's all just logistical stuff. I want to talk about game design. About how challenge and choice are constructed in this kind of game.

The role of public directives and private directives 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.

The method of resolving activity in the simulation is just like that of an FKR game, and when I would train our crisis staffers how to do their job, I gave them much of the same advice. "Say 'yes' by default, but use the results to inspire more things to throw at them." "Reward delegates who show they they've done their research, they're really investing into the world, and they can argue the logic and effectiveness of their directive convincingly." "Don't give them mechanics or rules, give them in-universe tools and assets. Get them involved in the fiction." Correspondingly, all the flaws you typically find in bad RPG referees are also common in MUN, unfortunately. Railroading, favoritism, inconsistency, antagonism, rules lawyering, and so on are all things you run into with shitty crisis directors.

Quoting this directly from one of the lessons I gave when training crisis directors:

The delegates are going to do their own research, so they’ll have some expectations about what is possible within your scenario based on that. Unless they’re mistaken about something, you should opt to validate their expectations rather than undermine them with your own ideas, if you can. That is, they should be surprised, but also say “well that makes sense.” Making a solid crisis narrative isn’t just about knowing the setting, like the country or the universe or whatever it takes place in. You also still have to know how a crisis realistically unfolds, such as a disease epidemic, organized crime spree, rioting, terrorist campaign, revolution, civil war, invasion, refugee influx, food shortage, natural disaster, etc. Whatever you decide to work with, you can use real-world expertise to inform how you should present it and respond to the delegates’ actions. They’re going to be doing similar research to you and using it.

Just as any FKR referee will tell you, you should be "playing the world," not rules. In fact, there aren't really any rules for the resolution of directives. There are lots of rules for the debate half of MUN, but no rules at all for the part that's actually a "game."

Background Guides

So before the conference starts, the hosts will distribute background guides (BG) to all the delegates a few weeks or months in advance. These are written by the chairs/crisis directors and provide the delegates a good starting point on their research. In crisis committees especially, this is the chance to establish the setting. This is honestly not a bad thing for more people in TTRPGs to steal.

For the purposes of illustration, I'm going to embed an example of a full BG here. I wrote this several years ago for my college's high school level conference, MASUN (Mid-Atlantic Simulation of the United Nations), because I was a crisis director that year. Full disclosure, this is the intellectual property of MASUN and requires their permission to use. Yes, even I had to get permission just to use it here. Someone else did the layout and graphic design and all that, by the way.

Go ahead and give it a skim, and I'll point out some things of note.

So this was for a Star Wars-themed committee, specifically a simulation of the movie Rogue One. I'm not a huge fan of that film, but it was topical and I made sure we had a lot of fun with it. The delegates were all members of the Imperial joint chiefs aboard the Death Star during the events of the movie and were responding to the "rebellion crisis." Playing as villains in MUN is always very fun. You'll notice a few things included:
  1. A list of the characters assigned to each delegate. Unlike most TTRPGs, you don't really get to make your own character beyond "filling in the blanks." But reading through not just your own character's description, but those of all your fellow delegates, is valuable for getting ideas about what kind of shenanigans you'll get up to. Some (generally, bad) BGs will tell you what your personality is like or motivations. I once had a committee where I was described as being "quiet and without any firm opinions on anything" which is a fucking awful thing to be asked to roleplay in the context of a sport of competitive debate. I always prefer to arm delegates with practical info, the kind of stuff that answers their questions about, "what can I do, exactly?" before they have to ask.
  2. An outline of the setting! Yes, I know it seems silly to describe the Star Wars universe in such a way since it seems like everyone knows it. But you gotta understand that not everyone knows it, including some of the delegates who signed up for this committee. It was kind of a challenging task to try describing the SW Galaxy to someone who'd never heard of the franchise before, thinking critically about what the most important information would be to know if you were going to play in it. It's also fun to make it written from the point of view of the Empire, since it helps immerse them in the right mindset. And of course, because having other kinds of informational tools is always valuable, I provided them with the most comprehensive SW Galaxy map in existence (with the creator's permission).
  3. A more specific "current events" description to set up the exact scenario at the time when the conference begins. This is a crucial thing that I've seen many crisis directors screw up. It's important to kick off with a crisis. I was once in a committee based on the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the delegates were the members of ExComm assembled by JFK to address the problem. Except when the committee began, our opening statements were interrupted and shut down because we were then told, "ssshhhhhh the missiles haven't been discovered yet. We'll reveal that in a few moments!" Leaving us to ask... "so what should we be talking about until then? Why would we even be assembled here if we didn't have a situation to deal with already going in?"
  4. The guiding questions are another part that I consider very important, because they help the delegates with their future research. That serves as a checklist for them, a list of questions they should have a good-ass answer to and which the crisis director will be looking for once the simulation begins. I know if you gave something like this to a bunch of D&D players, it could appear like railroading what they're "supposed" to be doing in the campaign. But trust me, MUN delegates have plenty of agency to work with. If anything, these guiding questions help combat the problems that come with too much freedom, like lacking a direction.
  5. Yeah, I know all the citations are from Wookieepedia. Sue me.
As you can imagine, writing the BG is also useful for the crisis director. Here's a piece of advice I always gave them:
Here’s a brainstorming technique that helps you and helps your delegates: look at every single delegate position you put in the background guide, every single one you are expecting in the committee (e.g. attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of the interior, secretary of agriculture, etc.) and come up with at least one potential crisis that would be a good match for that delegate’s specific powers. This is not only a good exercise to force you to think creatively (it doesn’t always occur to a lot of Crisis Directors to try something like a famine or a drought when they’re so used to things like terrorist attacks and coup d'etats), but also it will make sure that every single delegate is being offered an opportunity to step up to the plate (because for the same reason, kids who get a position like “secretary of agriculture” often find that they have a lot less power and relevance in the room than the military and surveillance guys). That’s not to say you’re going to force Mr. Agriculture into the spotlight or that you’re favoring them. It’s just an opportunity. It’s up to them if they take advantage of it or not, which is what they’re really being judged for. It’s just a fairer challenge than if they didn’t get many opportunities to shine, personally. And you have a ton of potential crises, now. For the attorney general you have some citizens who want to sue the government. For the secretary of state, you have the country demanded to recognize the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of a new foreign government. For the secretary of the interior, you have a natural catastrophe happen at a national park. And for the secretary of agriculture, you have a famine. See? Doesn’t need to be complicated.

In addition, lots of tools can be used throughout the committee to both immerse delegates in the world as well as empower them as players. I mentioned maps already, which you can integrate very heavily if you can make one that updates live and has tokens on it and stuff. There's that DEFCON tracker I mentioned before. Also in that NATO/Warsaw Pact JCC, the crisis directors prepared an additional handout of character info for each delegate when they arrived: full dossiers in manila folders, with "TOP SECRET" stamps and photographs and all sorts of shit that were just so goddamn cool. Plus, they allowed the crisis team to give each delegate a bunch of secret info to start with that couldn't have been put into the BG.

Here's one I'm really proud of: I once incorporated a live-updating "press feed" visible to the delegates at all times, with short articles and headlines regularly coming through that I had a staffer writing behind the scenes. It was a really convenient means of distributing info to the delegates without disrupting their debate. Theatrics are fun and all, but they can be a bit overwhelming. Having a fictional newspaper was both more practical most of the time and and was cool to the delegates. Knowledge is power, so giving information to the delegates opens up possibilities.

A general rule of thumb in MUN is that you can't expect the players to give super detailed, informed takes on stuff like budgeting or military strategy or other stuff that's unreasonable for them to cover in their research. It's an infamous weasel argument you'll hear sometimes in debate when a delegate is running out of points to make: "well how do you expect to pay for all this?" The correct retort is that, "we don't have to worry about answering that, you dingus." Not only do actual UN resolutions not cover that (once passed, they get sent off to an appropriations committee to figure out funding), but also the delegates doing MUN aren't economists or accountants or budgeting experts! It's more important to account for the fact that you have a source of funding at all. Just like in FKR gaming, we deal a lot more in the qualitative than in the quantitative.

Likewise with military strategy, a lot of your directives will look something like, "direct our generals to invade and conquer" without any more specifics than that. I've been in some really bad committees where the crisis director expected a lot more than that and it wasn't really fair. But I've also been in some really good committees where the director gave us info to work with and then expected us to be more detailed, and it was great! I was in a simulation of the North Korean military and cabinet, and we were distributed a packet of military assets at our disposal that we could use. That empowered us to say more than just, "direct our admirals to... do better." Instead we could say stuff like, "the US is bringing its nuke from a bomber flying over the Pacific? Alright, well let's see... it looks like we have some surface-to-air missile launchers we could deploy along the coast. That would make a lot more sense than sending out a submarine or something, right?" Or something like, "so it looks like they have a big tank army stationed at this port, which is the main entry point to everywhere else we wanna go. How about we attack it from the sea with some naval artillery and clear a path before launching a ground invasion?"

Matt Colville has recommended you try The Handout for all your campaigns and I firmly agree with his advice. But if you have patient players who want to be invested in the world, then sometimes you can ask of them a liiiittle bit more preliminary reading once they've already bought into the pitch. A background guide is a great format to copy for that. Although at one of the conferences I've staffed, another crisis director there created an entire WorldAnvil for the alternate history setting his committee was set in, and made it available to all the delegates a good long while in advance. Remember: knowledge is power.

MUN vs TTRPGs and What We Should Take Away

I mean, there's a lot. All of this would be a valuable learning experience for anyone who might be running a campaign with any of the following:
  1. Multiple referees/a team of referees
  2. Play by post or a creative writing-heavy game
  3. Politics or large-scale events as the default frame
  4. PvP and competition
  5. Secrecy and intrigue and all that
But even within MUN, any of those assumptions can be broken. I've had to act as a crisis director alone before, with no staff to help me. I've done rapid games with no directives really written down, but instead just verbally delivered. Lots of games aren't really about politics or long-term, large-scale stuff. There's no reason you can't run a dungeoncrawl or murder mystery or something in this format. And while delegates are always competing for the awards, that doesn't mean they have to betray each other or be enemies. The most cooperative group of delegates I've ever seen were the ones in that Rogue One committee! I even told them after the simulation was over that I was very concerned how willingly all of them embraced their roles as fascists, rather than, like, a single delegate deciding to help the Rebellion.

But just as MUN can break these assumptions, so too can your TTRPG game try embracing one or more of them. Have you ever tried having multiple referees? There's complications for sure, but it can also add a lot to your game.

As I've already mentioned, it can be fruitful to steal from the MUN elements of background guides, creating good FKR-style challenges and improvised scenarios, and informational resources to empower the players with detail and ideas. But what about something more elaborate?

One thing I recommend is borrowing from the MUN format for a "superstructure" of gameplay taking place in the background of your game. What I mean is, you can still run your weekly game like normal, with a classic party of 3-6 adventurers doing dungeoncrawls and stuff. But in between sessions, you can also engage your players in a play-by-post simulation of broader, campaign-wide events. Either their PCs have downtime activities they're carrying out, or the players each have a separate character they control in the world. Maybe leaders of settlements or kingdoms, or at least people with positions of power within such structures. This is a great idea if you want your campaign to have a backdrop of warfare or intrigue, but don't want your live sessions to actually involve any wargaming or letter-writing. See the part of this post that discusses "PC Ledgers" for some ideas I have about how to do this sort of thing [although I plan to write more on the subject later].

Also, low-key, can we maybe organize a MUN conference for D&D people? It's not typically played outside of schools, but fuckit. Why not? Anyone can start a conference on their own. There's no MUN league or anything, it's an unorganized sport hosted in private events with different rules everywhere you go. Hosting a committee on Discord with a whole bunch of TTRPG folks staffing and debating would be rad as hell.

Yo, Can I Just Tell Some Stories About MUN for a Second?

I did MUN for 6 years and it was a huge part of my life for all that time. And it's just so fucking crazy. Every committee I ever did had something absolutely bananas happen in it. I just want to gush and reminisce for a bit.

My North Korean committee had regular executions of delegates, where traitorous players were forced from their seats, lined up against the wall, and shot with a Nerf gun. One time I personally caught a capitalist spy in our ranks, and I was granted the opportunity from the crisis staff to execute them myself. Later, one of the delegates pulled out their own Nerf gun they brought from home and then fucking shot Kim Jong-Un. He died cradled in my arms. I think that moment alone was the reason I got an award in that committee. And of course the committee ended with us all dying in a nuclear attack.

Picture of a high school me dressed in my improvised hanbok (I think? I don't remember) so I could be the only one in committee not submitting to the evil influence of America by wearing Western business attire. I stole a couple towels from our hotel room, one of which I tore a hole in to fit my head through. The ice box went on my head.

And here's a pic of me with the Supreme Leader himself. I'm sure he wasn't the only Asian man on GW's MUN team, but he sure did own that role.

That Cuban Missile Crisis committee had a "nuclear emergency" where an alarm blared and the lights went out and we were all escorted out of the room into a "bomb shelter." Later, it had a duel between one of the delegates and, I think, Che Guevara. I got assassinated by my own Deputy Secretary of Defense, who then got immediately killed himself by his own allies. There was a part where I organized a "joint private directive" with the CIA and FBI to conduct a black ops mission that no one else in the committee found out about. You can read it here. (Context: "Coche" was the name of a fictional South American dictator/Bond villain with a network of nuclear weapons and a dirty bomb, who turned out to actually be one of the delegates in the room! And when we thought we'd got him, it turned out we just got his body double, "Carro.") Oh, and this committee also ended with us all dying in nuclear war. That is by far my favorite way to resolve crisis committees, as both delegate and director.

Pictured here: our adventuring party. JFK was represented by the Chairman.

I was on the staff of a Pirates of the Caribbean JCC, where one committee was the Pirate Brethren Court and the other committee was the British East India Company. As you can imagine, the pirate delegates had way more fun. we had a delegate say that they wanted to take a slave with them to be sacrificed so they could gain eternal life at the Fountain of Youth. The result was that they got tricked and the delegate was killed instead, with the slave now immortal. We were planning on killing that character anyway, so it was a convenient and funny way for it to play out. Another story from that JCC: we really wanted the committee to end with both sides getting completely defeated. The pirates had been forging documents from the British Empire and sending them to European countries, trying to instigate a war. They ended up starting a war between Britain and France, and we gave the British delegates a chance to end the war. They failed and got conquered. Meanwhile, the pirate delegates had much earlier established a Caribbean cult of the sea goddess Calypso. Look, it was weird. Point is, leadership of that cult ended up changing hands pretty frequently between a handful of pirate delegates. At the end, one of them wanted to use a magic ritual to summon Calypso. I don’t know what his intention was, but we decided that the ritual succeeded and Calypso killed all the pirates in a series of hurricanes and other natural disasters. Oh shit, another awesome moment from that committee was when we arranged a naval battle between the committees. The pirates assembled all their ships together to defend their base from the British, so we put all the delegates in one room together and had them play out a simple naval wargame we devised on a whiteboard. It fucking ruled.

Here I am dressed as a pirate.

Actually, one of my favorite MUN stories of all time came from that committee. They all knew the setting very well, and they were really good at their jobs. But one of them was something else. He was one of the most hilariously outrageous kids I’d ever seen, partly annoying but partly entertaining. He came dressed up in full pirate gear on the second day of the conference. He got really into the roleplaying, but he also very quickly made an enemy out of all of his fellow delegates (probably because he was kind of obnoxious).

So one of the delegates was playing the character of Elizabeth Swan, who is married to Will Turner, the captain of the Flying Dutchman and a prominent NPC. Long story short, she got assassinated by another delegate somehow, but the outrageous kid got framed for it and no one gave a shit about what he had to say in his defense. They halted all other orders of business to hold a trial and get this kid marooned. Meanwhile, they had also been looking for ways to pull in Will Turner as a potential ally against the British. Makes sense, and we like to validate the delegates when they have good ideas. We decided to kill two birds with one stone and have Will Turner try to kill that poor kid as revenge for getting his wife Elizabeth killed (even though he was actually innocent, literally no one believed him). So we send in a representative from the Flying Dutchman into the committee (actually just me dressed in a pirate costume and doing my best sailor impression), who approached the kid and said, “Ahoy everybody, sorry to interrupt. I’m from the Dutchman, speaking on behalf of your good friend Captain Turner. You all remember Captain Turner I’m sure, oh he’d just love to catch up sometime. But let’s not dance around it, we gotta address the salty sailor over here who got just a liiiittle too caught up in things. See, Captain Turner heard about what you did with his wife, and he just wants to repay the favor, so… here’s your receipt.” That’s when I handed the kid a slip of paper with a big black spot on it.

I shit you not this kid stood up, screamed, started spitting at his palms (I can only assume some kind of ridiculous, obscure sailor superstition), and just had a total breakdown. It was fucking hilarious seeing this kid take it so seriously. Of course he immediately recognized the black spot, which the captain of the Flying Dutchman sends to whoever he wants to mark for death, soon to be hunted down by the kraken.

Far more successful than maybe any "pirate campaign" of D&D ever played

Wanna hear about that Star Wars committee? It was a fucking blast. One of the most popular ones my college ever put on. The plot of the original trilogy was completely prevented, but it went much worse for the Empire. While they still had a few victories, including getting to blow up Alderaan, holy fuck did they screw the pooch. It was like they were speedrunning the downfall of the Empire. They ended up having to abandon the Death Star and flee to a "more secure" base. Cue the Rebels flying up to the Death Star, infiltrating it, taking over the controls for themselves, piloting it over to where the delegates were hiding, and blowing up the planet they were on. Princess Leia herself commanded this. One of my other favorite moments from that committee was when the delegates passed a public directive to construct a new droid army so they wouldn't have to rely so much on stormtroopers. That ended up resulting in the droids revolting and a robot uprising happen, turning it into a three-way war. Eventually the delegates defeated the droid army, but they had to destroy a lot of their own traitorous ships to do it (since the onboard AIs were often aligned with the droids).

This is taken from a video I had a couple of my staffers make, depicting a Rebel hostage getting executed by the Empire. I had them make lots of videos to deliver some major crisis updates in a more dramatic fashion.

Let me share a story of one time when I kicked ass myself. 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. And I was pure evil while I did it, too. No, really, what you're about to read is supremely fucked up.

It was that historical simulation of the 2003 provisional government of Iraq, where I was playing as the Director of Oil Policy. Shit got so out of hand that it makes the real-life Iraqi civil war look tame. I started as the oil guy but maneuvered my way into becoming the CIA Baghdad station chief. I had a bank 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. Add in a false flag operation here or there as needed.

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. And ultimately, I succeeded in creating "The Commonwealth of Iraq," the 51st state of the Union. And Bush got reelected even harder in this timeline.

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. The guy who got second place was trying to get Iraq taken over by Saudi Arabia, so I even had a scheming rival I was constantly at odds with.

Here's a very unflattering picture of me with my trophy. I look like I have a receding hairline.

At the final conference I participated in, I was the chief of staff and had to run around a lot making sure each committee was going well. So I don't have any personal stories for each one, but they were all cool. The Plague of Athens committee was especially fun. Each delegate had a shard of clay they used to cast their votes, and they sometimes consulted the Oracle for future crisis developments. There were so many traitorous delegates that they had to devise a list of punishments that could be inflicted on them by popular vote. I remember going to the bathroom and seeing an Athenian delegate sprinting laps around the building because he, I dunno, fucking opened the gates for Sparta or something.

Also, at this conference, I bent over to pick up a box of supplies and I tore my pants right down the middle. Literally like fucking Spongebob.

My roommate had a spare pair in his car so I was fine.

One of the last crisis committees I ever chaired was an "Ad-Hoc" committee, which is when you go into the committee 100% blind and only find out the premise once you arrive. As you can imagine, they're very difficult because you can't do any research. I always advise directors of Ad-Hoc committees to make their scenario something totally original that anybody could just jump right into. If it were an established franchise like Avatar or something, then you'll have the room divided between people who're already really familiar with it and have an unfair advantage versus people who've never heard of it and have way more learning to do early on.

So me and my friend put together a generic hard sci-fi scenario about the crew of a generation ship gearing up to colonize a pretty inhospitable planet. We were mostly inspired by Alien and The Expanse, although in hindsight it had a ton in common with Among Us, despite coming a few years before. Here's the map I made of the ship's floorplan that we used the whole time.

The ship creates artificial gravity by having each circular layer constantly rotating, so that the centrifugal force pushing outwards from the center simulates gravity. So in each of these pictures, the "floor" of any room is the outer circumfrence, and the "ceiling" of each room is the part closest to the elevators.

We had this displayed in the committee room on a big Google Slides screen, and behind the scenes the crisis staffers were moving around little icons that would track the location of each delegate on the ship as they moved around. Some of the delegates removed their tracker or stole another delegate's. Several of them started traveling through the vent system. It was fucking rad.

So I'm sure most of the people reading this wouldn't really have a chance to try MUN at this point in their lives, but I always find that reading other people's play experiences can at least be inspiring in various ways. And if you have kids approaching high school, maybe look into it for them. Plus, there's just so much that I wasn't able to tell. If you have any questions, please ask. While many (possibly most?) of the MUN people I've known in life are also into TTRPGs... I cannot say that I've met many people in the RPG world who've known anything about Model UN. Something I found so admirable about Model UN is how ambitious crisis committees are. I regularly see crisis directors put more prep work into a simulation they'll be running for a single weekend than I see most DMs put into a campaign they expect to run for months or years. The biggest tragedy in MUN is that you could probably keep these simulations going a lot longer if circumstances allowed. So please, take a few notes from this article in order to give your home game some juice.


1 comment:

  1. Model UN is something I think I've only ever seen mentioned in American sitcoms - I wasn't entirely sure it was an actual thing. Sounds like I've been missing out!