- What is Model United Nations?
- The "mechanics" of how it works
- What to take away from this for TTRPG stuff
- Some fun stories where I gush indulgently
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.
"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.
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."
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?"
- 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.
- Yeah, I know all the citations are from Wookieepedia. Sue me.
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.
- Multiple referees/a team of referees
- Play by post or a creative writing-heavy game
- Politics or large-scale events as the default frame
- PvP and competition
- Secrecy and intrigue and all that
|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.
|Pictured here: our adventuring party. JFK was represented by the Chairman.
|Here I am dressed as a pirate.
|Far more successful than maybe any "pirate campaign" of D&D ever played
|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.
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.
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.