Midwest GameFest, Pt. 8 (Protocol)

This game was the biggest surprise of the convention for me. It’s one of those titles that I kept hearing about and my friends kept saying “You need to play Protocol.” I signed up for it as my last session of the con and a friend of mine who has backed the Kickstarters brought her collection to choose from.

Each scenario is packaged as a separate “game”, sharing common rules and materials. Character creation is very free-form, with some suggested roles in the module to get you started. You draw from a deck of cards to establish motivation and relationships to other characters (and for the scenario we ran, our relationship to the primary NPC). Once you’ve settled some setting assumptions, you’re ready to play. Setup takes 15 to 20 minutes, which is great for a zero-prep improv thing.

Gameplay is resolved through scenes. Each player act as the director for a scene and the director role passes on after the scene ends. At the start of each scene, the director draws two cards: one for the tone and type of scene, and one for the location and situation. The scene types are defined by suit and are ensemble scenes where all players are present, interludes where two players get a scene together, interrogations where on player asks five questions of another (via their PC, an NPC, or as the voice of the director), and vignettes where you describe a scene or montage with no dialog among players. The tones are all thematic to your module, like “The Serpent Underneath” or “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” Location is defined by suit on the second card and situation is by number, so the Two of Hearts could be “A Cell, Servants at the Ready.” The director sets the scene, names the players involved, and lets the action unspool from there. They don’t have to have their PC involved if they don’t want. Each player directs four scenes and then the finale resolution is defined by the scenario.

Our scenario was The Doomed King, which has a bit of a King Lear vibe. We played various courtiers in the orbit of a monarch whose health (and possibly sanity) were on a rapid decline. Each player has to determine, based on their motivations and relationships, how they will try to save the kingdom or take the throne for themselves or just weather the storm ahead. We decided to set it in the modern day, in the fictional European country of West Corrum that still functions without a prime minister or massive Parliament, so we still have a lot of power consolidated in the King’s hands. Our PCs consisted of the Reeve (now assumed to hold a press secretary role in the modern world), the Chamberlain who runs the day to day castle affairs, the Heir Apparent, the Queen (who we determined to be a somewhat younger second wife and stepmother to the prince), and the Marshal of West Corrum’s military forces, who is having an affair with the Queen. Relationships to each other and the king were determined via card draw and recorded on our sheets and we got underway.

What followed was one of the most political, intensely dramatic sessions of my gaming career. It was West Wing meets Downton Abby with a lot of interpersonal intrigue and everyone publicly supporting the King while privately angling for whatever agenda we were supporting. Each scene built on the previous one, with glimpses of shifting alliances and evolving positions regarding the throne and the king’s decline.

Two scenes were particularly notable to me. One was a private conversation between my Marshal and the Queen, where we took a break from being “on” and could relax in the company of an intimate partner. The conversation was tender and vulnerable and faded to black before things got physical, but it was the first such conversation I can think of in 25 years of gaming. We play violent warriors and reserved sages, but I’ve never been in love at the table. It’s always such an abstract and it’s one of the biggest motivators in our actual lives. In games it always seems to be this distant chivalric ideal or reduced to hooking up with NPCs as some sort of jokey fantasy. Playing it as a real connection between PCs was so foreign and very powerful.

The other uses a mechanic in the game called drama points, a reward mechanic that puts chips or tokens in the hands of players who aren’t in many scenes. By playing a drama point you can break a rule: add yourself to a scene, ask an extra question, redraw a card, alter the setup of a scene, etc. We had a player tag in and suggest an interrogation between the prince and I be held over a swordfight instead of just another conversation, so we got to play out the fencing and talking fantasy trope (like Gurney and Paul in Dune) and have this tense conversation about whether his plan to start a war to secure his throne was going to work. Tense, dramatic, revealing, and changed the whole third act of the game because someone had the great idea to physicalize the competition between these two ambitious men.

We got to wrestle with generational angst and living up to impossible standards and betrayal and love and losing a parent and the costs of ambition and the debt we owe the next generation in the course of four hours. Nobody rolled any dice. And we all got to tell the ending of our story, with the pregnant Queen fleeing the country to escape the war brewing in her borders, the prince rising to the throne after a false flag attack on his own people to blame the East Corrum contingent in the midst of their own coup (and eventually becoming the despot his grandfather was), the reeve surviving in obscurity reduced to interviewing livestock, and the marshal dying in the war he helped start. And next to the throne, right where he’d always been, was the chamberlain presiding over a bountiful banquet table empty save the prince and in stark contrast to the squalor of a unified Corrum under the new King. It echoed a conversation we had in one of the first scenes of the game when the chamberlain pressed me on my loyalty to the prince and I answered, “The throne may change but we are still the kingdom.”

I recommend looking up the many, many scenarios of Protocol and picking a few that will work for you. I have some players hungry for a more dramatic improv game that I think will take to Protocol right away. If you’re looking for a player-as-author system, with drama you can sink your teeth into, this might be your thing. I’m already looking forward to my next chance at it.

This concludes the Midwest GameFest 2018 session reviews! Thanks for sticking around through all these and special thanks to my friends, old and new, who shared their fun, quirky, frightening, painful moments with me at the various tables this weekend. I experienced a lot of new games, found some new favorites, and had a hell of a time making some stories with you all. Come check out the next one on our new Events page and see where we might pop up next!

2 thoughts on “Midwest GameFest, Pt. 8 (Protocol)

  1. jim pinto

    Maybe the best review and understanding of Protocol I’ve seen on the web. Glad you had a good time. And I love that you placed it in the modern day. I need to try that next time.

    1. J Lindemann

      Thank you! Our facilitator, Andria, is a passionate Protocol-er and shared her enthusiasm (and extensive collection) with us. Having someone help us sort through the possibilities was great, as well as guide us through the generation portion.

      Your system does some really cool stuff for organically creating stories, and there’s just enough structure that it isn’t “Let’s just talk about failing monarchies.” I have a few thoughts that might make sense going in this direction; I’d love to discuss them with you.

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